Monday, July 28, 2008

Shark Makes a Splash

The newest hero of the Friendly Confines hadn't even thrown his first pitch as a Chicago Cub Friday afternoon before earning a standing ovation. Then, after finally throwing a strike, he got another. Then another when he struck out the first batter he faced. Not even a classic Rick Vaughn hurl on a pitchout (it was juuuuuusssst a bit outside) could damper the enthusiasm. Although he wound up allowing the tying run to score in a Cubs' loss, Jeff Samardzija couldn't have walked away happier in his major league debut. Well, maybe a little happier:
"I was pretty happy with how I felt on the mound, but I made two dumb pitches and it really sticks a thorn in your side after the way [ Ryan] Dempster was pitching," he said.

Samardzija, the All-America wide receiver from Notre Dame who received a five-year contract worth $10 million to give up football in 2006, admitted to a case of rookie jitters in Friday's seventh inning when he gave up a run on a single, a stolen base on which he threw a pitchout to the backstop and Jorge Cantu's double.

He had a 1-2-3 inning in the eighth before leaving for a pinch-hitter.

"The first inning I was kind of here and there," he said. "It was unacceptable on that pitchout. If we throw him out [stealing], it's a different inning."
Showcasing a high-powered fastball to go with a changeup and splitter than had the Marlins guessing more often than not, The Shark pitched four innings over the weekend, setting down all six batters he faced on Sunday for his first save and earning plaudits from manager Lou Piniella along with the easily-impressed denizens of Wrigley (anybody who knows where my fan allegiances are knows that I'm not mocking Jeff here; these are people who rise to their feet in wild excitement for pop-ups that barely clear the infield).

Alas, it wasn't a hero's welcome for all Domers this week, as Samardzija's former head coach Charlie Weis appeared for the fourth year in a row to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the 7th-inning stretch, a "tradition" that Harry Caray started while with the White Sox before it got shamelessly exploited by WGN after Harry moved to the Cubs. Anyway, Weis had a rough go of it not only with the song but also the fans, who often boo the celebrity conductor on principle, particularly if they're bad, which Weis fully admits he was. At least he won't join the ranks of Jeff Gordon ("Wrigley Stadium"?) or Ozzy "I Have No Clue Where I Am" Osbourne. In addition, Weis's son Charlie Jr. got to throw out the first pitch on his 15th birthday.

Congrats to the Shark on making it this far. With many of his teammates locked in training camp battles for jobs/roster spots, and knowing that MLB is just as, if not more, cutthroat than pro football, he's climbed the ladder remarkably fast and already flashed pieces of what the Cubs deemed $10 million talent. Most of us here at Section 29 will be cheering him on - personally, and I know I speak for Paul here as well, it is not in my DNA to ever cheer for the Cubs under any circumstances.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Zach's the 13th

Spots in Notre Dame's 2009 recruiting class are starting to acquire the feel of baseball stadium hot dogs (or, perhaps, tickets to see The Dark Knight): supplies are limited, get 'em while they're hot.

The latest addition came Sunday afternoon, when Indianapolis, IN offensive tackle Zach Martin chose to forsake some planned unofficial visits, plus offers from UCLA, Virginia, Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky and Stanford with a pledge to become the 13th commitment and third offensive lineman. Ranked as a four-star prospect by Rivals and three-star by Scout, the 6'5", 240 lbs. Martin helps hit a big target on the recruiting board for the Irish coaches.
"I go after people," said Martin who, in addition to playing offensive line at Chatard, also plays defensive end. "I'm a vicious player."
There's a wonderful joke to be made here about a certain team in the Pacific Northwest with a certain coach that would prefer to be known as a vicious animal, but I'm gonna just let that one lay. Martin is a classic "high-ceiling" prospect coming into what will be a position of need. The projected 2008 starters at tackle have just one extra year of eligibility between them (Sam Young is a junior, Paul Duncan a senior) and there are no obvious heirs apparent on the two-deep beyond Trevor Robinson, while Matt Romine is rebounding from injury. After missing out on earlier tackle prospects such as Eric Shrive, the Irish now have one solid athlete who rates as the #1 prospect in Indiana to go with the #1 prospect in Illinois whom they just landed at guard. Not a bad little haul shaping up on the o-line, with a couple of big targets still on the board.

Taking a far-away view as recruiting gets set to step aside and make way for actual football (hooray!), the questions of whom Irish will take and at what position is developing into a numbers game. That seems odd to say when the buzz not too long ago was centering around, "Where are all the commitments?", but here we are on July 22 just as Rob Ianello promised - with plenty to talk about. Eight weeks ago it was paranoia that the Irish were sinking with the weight of that 3-9 albatross; now it's beginning to look like they'll have to start turning people away. With 13 players in the fold, the Irish figure to have the Class of '09 capped at 20, give or take - a number that's subject to change based on not only how many of those current players eligible for a fifth year will return, but also on if any of the current members of the recruiting class opt for January enrollment, in which case they count against the previous season's scholarship total. So far the only one who has confirmed his intention to enroll early has been defensive tackle Tyler Stockton, who joins recruits from previous years such as Jimmy Clausen, James Aldridge, Armando Allen, & Sean Cwynar. The fifth-year question will remain unsettled until after the end of the '08 season (though we know at least one eligible player, DJ Hord, has moved on).

As things currently stand, the Irish would like to add at least one more tackle, a wide receiver (perhaps two), plus two defensive lineman (Stockton is the lone commitment there) and another defensive back. Those numbers and positional preferences remain subject to change even now, as Stockton's plan plus the opening of a spot due to Hord's departure could see this class grow as large as 22 or 23 players, although 18 to 19 sounds more realistic. Slice it any way you want, but props to Charlie Weis and his staff for once again getting the heavy lifting out of the way before the season even starts, allowing them to go full-out in pursuit of the last few key prospects rather than scramble to line up whomever is left following the season.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Swarbrick Comes Home

As first reported Monday evening, Notre Dame filled the vacated Director of Athletics post today with Indianapolis attorney Jack Swarbrick, Class of '76 (the same year as current University president Father John Jenkins).

Though he has no collegiate athletics department stops on his resume, he has, as one of the senior partners at Indianapolis law firm Baker Daniels, been a key player in a number of high-profile amateur and professional sports enterprises while a member of the Indiana Sports Corporation (he served as chairman from 1992-2001). While at the ISC he led successful efforts to secure and host the 1987 Pan-Am Games, the 1991 World Gymnastics Championships, three successive US Olympic Trials in swimming, several Final Fours as well as the Big 10 Tournament in college basketball, and the move of the NCAA's corporate headquarters to Indy in 1999. When the NCAA presidency came open in 2003, he was one of the three finalists alongside current NCAA chief Myles Brand. His most recent achievement was helping Indianapolis land the 2012 Super Bowl. Whatever somebody who can get the NFL Championship to southern Indiana in February is selling, I'm buying.

At today's introductory press conference, the exceedingly confident Swarbrick was asked about his views on the lighting fast-evolution of collegiate athletics and Notre Dame's role in it, particularly in relation to football:
I think it's essential we play that role. And that's not being hubristic. It's the importance of schools that have Notre Dame's values leading that change. I don't mean to suggest by that that we would lead it alone. But I hope we will lead it with other institutions that share our values, share a view of how intercollegiate athletics ought to be fully integrated into the academic mission of a university.

I'll stay away from the specifics of the crystal ball, other than to say I would suggest to you they're a convergence of forces. It's hard to imagine them playing out without change, significant change, happening. Part of that's what's going on in the world of broadcast and media, the grand experiment that is in the NCAA Network and the incredible significance I think that has for college sports down the road.

To paraphrase another "attention-grabbing" quote in his opening remarks, Swarbrick noted that "Notre Dame cannot be dictated to" when the changing and evolving power structures of collegiate sports continue to shake out in the 21st century.

I think it's safe to say right now, a total of one day into his career as Notre Dame Athletic Director, that Swarbrick was what many fans had in mind for Kevin White's replacement. An alumnus with razor-sharp intellect and almost thirty years of experience in "the art of the deal", he seems far more aware of what he represents than his predecessor. I like the hire and more importantly I like Swarbrick's approach to the job.

Having said that, we now have to wait and see what precisely that will be. There was a long and dubious chain of evidence suggesting that Dr. White had been the front man for the power behind the throne, with his hands tied regarding "big picture" decisions like long-term football scheduling philosophy and hiring/firing powers within the football program; some of the reports suggesting popular candidate (and fellow alumnus) Steve Orsini's reluctance to accept a "less-than-total" stewardship of the gridiron as the reason for his staying at SMU only heightened that suspicion. Having seen Day One of the Swarbrick regime though, I don't think Orsini's "announcement" was anything other than a grand gesture towards SMU following up on the news that Notre Dame landed their number one choice. And as to the question of where precisely the buck stopped inside Fortress Irish, it wasn't just "crazed" posters on NDNation with concerns. Apparently the candidate had some questions too:

Swarbrick's curiosity was piqued in the aftermath of Tyrone Willingham's 2004 firing, Charlie Weis' hiring and the recent decision by athletic director Kevin White to leave Notre Dame for Duke.

Was the athletic director in charge, or was Notre Dame's Board of Trustees calling the important shots?

"Those were all my first questions...I read the same things you read or wrote, and I wanted to understand it better. I wanted to talk to (Chairman of the Board of Trustees) Dick Notebaert and Father Jenkins about how they viewed the role of the athletic director.

"I came away absolutely convinced that I have all the authority I need and have to have to do this job right."

Jenkins said Swarbrick "has total authority."

"I would not have hired him if I did not have confidence in him to do the work of the athletic department," Jenkins said.

Swarbrick insists he wouldn't have taken the job otherwise.

"(When it comes to) the coaches in several of the key sports, the athletic director has to be the person who administers that process, establishes the criteria that you want to have and then comes forward with the recommendation for who he or she wants to hire," Swarbrick said. "I don't think that decision should ever be made without the involvement or approval of the president."

It may be way too early to state it, but I think the hiring of Swarbrick represents the completion of the regime change that began with the long goodbye of Monk Malloy four years ago, then continued with the Willingham firing, Weis' hiring, and the gradual fade of Kevin White. It is now unquestionably a team built entirely in Father Jenkins' image. Time will now have to tell if Notre Dame, and its many fans and alumni, gain from that.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

That Old Feeling

When you come to the last page, close the book.
-- Chinese proverb

As an unapologetic Packer fan having spent most of my life in the heart of Chicago Bear territory, I find myself very conflicted about how to feel right now. Obviously, Brett Favre has earned the right to decide whether or not he is retired. But is it fair to expect the Green Bay Packers to junk an entire offseason of planning and preparation because Favre is once again "getting the itch"?

Favre would do well to remember that sport is a funny, fickle, and ultimately cruel mistress. We tolerate its many whims, devastations, upheavals, and trials because we know, once every so often, all the cosmic tumblers click into place and convince us for one brief moment that we will routinely be able to do what we quite clearly cannot. That all those shanked drives, wounded ducks, hanging breaking balls, and blowout defeats are merely a down payment for the nirvana that comes when we just stick with it. If you watched the NBA Finals last month and Kevin Garnett's made-for-Adidas moment in the aftermath of Game 6 ("Anything's POSSSSSIIIIIIBBBBLLLLLEE!!!!!!") you know the feeling I'm getting at.

That's what Favre is feeling right now, with his body fully healed and a healthy amount of distance between him and that dismally cold January evening when he threw a back-breaking interception in overtime of the NFC Championship game. His decision to retire was formed in that moment and the searing pain it took on a 38-year old. In 1995, Brett played poorly in an NFC Championship loss to the Dallas Cowboys; still young and foolish enough not to know better, he'd forgotten about it the next day, reasoning that he'd get plenty more opportunities (he did, winning the NFC the following two seasons along with Super Bowl XXXI). But in 2008, at 38, the moment swallowed him whole. It was painfully clear to him that he'd just thrown away his last and best chance to return to the Super Bowl.

In the immediate aftermath, he clearly did not want to pour another 12 months into football with the possibility of either a) a season nowhere near as satisfying, or b), even worse, a season that produced an identical ending. He knew he was no longer the 25-year old, "million dollar arm, ten cent head version" of Brett Favre. He now had grey hair, a daughter in college, a locker room full of players half his age, and a decade and a half of reminders on how hard it is to stay on top in the NFL.

This Brett Favre was doing extra film study for the first time in his career, forsaking his days off, pulling together every ounce left to lead a team that had no business being as good as it was all the way to the brink - and then even when it seemed everything had aligned in his favor, "sport" pulled the rug out from under him the same way it has on countless others, be they legends or one-hit wonders. I suppose one day soon Favre may reveal the exact reason for why he committed the "crime" of retiring early, but in my view it was real simple - he was, for the first time, no longer blissfully ignorant of just how much work went into being Brett Favre, NFL Icon. He realized that no matter how much you love the game, the game doesn't always love you back. He was no longer young and dumb enough to shrug that off and think about how he'd always have another chance.

On those grounds, retirement was the right choice for Favre. Would I like to have found out what would've happened had things broke right and the Pack made it to Super Bowl XLII? Sure. But they didn't. And even with all the right supporting players around him young, injury-free, and under contract, Favre knew all too well the "no guarantees" world of sport. Keep in mind the Packers pulled off five wins by a touchdown or less last year, all of them featuring the kind of "Favre theatrics" which have built his legend over the years - the OT-win in Denver, the 4th-quarter drives against Kansas City & San Diego, the last-second field goal to beat Philadelphia. The margin for error was razor thin and so easily could've swung in the opposite direction - if you doubt that, journey back a whopping two seasons to when the Packers lost eight games by a touchdown or less, often with what would also be called "Favre theatrics" at the center of the reason for losing. If Favre was thinking, There wasn't much separating 2007 from 2005, so why take the risk?, he wasn't alone.

That's why Ted Thompson, Green Bay GM, tried to get Favre off the fence earlier this offseason. For several years the Packers had relentlessly been tweaked as an organization with no exit strategy for Life A.F. (After Favre), most notably when an indecisive Favre joked in April 2006, "What're they gonna do, cut me?" And now in the grandest of ironies, he's expecting the Packers to do just that. Forget about those tears in March, or that near-comeback he apparently was all set to make just a few weeks afterwards (he reneged at the last moment, with Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy literally about to get on a plane to Mississippi to make it official).

Now he's "sure" he wants to play. It makes sense. Now it's summertime; the arm feels refereshed, the body rested (no doubt aided a tad by having no offseason workouts or mini-camps to attend). Now Favre is going to a local Mississippi high school, breaking the fingers of prep wideouts with laser beams and getting back to the feeling of, "Yeah, I can still play." Of course he can still play. But he's the one who got on the podium and said it was over. For him to claim he felt pressure to make up his mind earlier strikes like him asking people to ignore his role in his own decision-making. Whether Thompson was itching to move on and hand the keys to Aaron Rodgers (which, clearly, he is) wasn't relevant. Favre had a choice and he made it, and now he finds that he's not prepared to live with it. This puts everybody, Brett included, into an incredibly awkward situation where there will be absoultely no winners. If the Packers relent (highly unlikely) and give Brett his starting job back, they're likely to alienate Rodgers, tell one of two well-regarded quarterbacks they took in the draft to take a hike, and bet that 39-year old Brett will be every bit as good as 38-year old Brett, even with the entire history of the NFL telling them that's a gamble of long odds. Favre, on the other hand, will bring a circus atmosphere to whatever new team he's on with Messiah-type expectations that'll be absolutely impossible to live up to.

It was a brilliant 17-year career for Favre. But back in March he seemed acutely aware of the fact that it had to end, at some point. We need that Brett Favre to do the thinking right now, not the one who's forever convinced he can continue flipping back a chapter as the last page approaches.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Let the rumors fly...

Recent reports indicate that Jack Swarbrick will be named as Kevin White's successor in the Notre Dame Athletic Department.

Irish Land a Jewel with Watt

A watt, as we all remember from high school physics class, is one joule of energy per second. Notre Dame will looking for guard Chris Watt (Glen Ellyn, IL - Glenbard West HS) to provide plenty of power on its offensive line beginning next fall. The No. 2 player nationally at his position according to both Scout and Rivals, Watt had been a high-priority target with the Irish coaching staff for months on end. He was at Junior Day, multiple spring practices, the Blue-Gold game, and took several unofficial visits this summer. While it was no secret where the Irish coaching staff had him on their list, in choosing between finalists Notre Dame and Ohio State, Watt was looking for a comfort zone stretching far outside the coaches' room:
The makings of that decision arrived only a couple of weeks back, after the Glenbard West star visited campus and erased the last flicker of doubt in his mind.

"It was mostly just to spend time with the players," Watt said. "That's what really sealed the deal. I would say I liked it [before the visit], but I wasn't sure how I'd fit in."
There's been a ton said and written about how close the Class of 2008 became during the recruiting process, with Dayne Crist and Braxston Cave often singled out as the ringleaders of a group that developed an intense brotherhood long before Signing Day. It was that chemistry which convinced guys like Trevor Robinson to join the Irish late in the last cycle, and it sure looks like it's gonna continue to pay dividends in the future.

Watt will team with Alex Bullard to provide reinforcements along the interior of the line next fall; the Irish are now likely done with guard/center recruiting and will turn the rest of their o-line efforts towards bringing in at least two tackle candidates, a position that's likely to remain unsettled for some time, since top target Xavier Nixon won't be making any decisions until winter.

Assessing the latest member of the Class of '09 from a pure football persepctive, the universal consensus is that Watt, at 6'4" 280 lbs., can flat-out block. Both ESPN and Scout praise his penchant to reach the second level (i.e. not only knock his lineman off the ball, but continue charging downfield into the linebacking corps, a trait that ought to come in handy on screens and draws). Aside from being tabbed the #1 prospect in Illinois by leading recruiting services (in addition to a five-star rating from Scout, four from Rivals), Watt has drawn raves for his aggressive run blocking skills and is a classicly-sculpted interior lineman who goes all out on every play. The comparative "weak-spot" in the eyes recruiting evaluators has been his pass protection skills, but that's a skill that should develop with time for a player who possesses "great foot speed and agility". It's also always a nice bonus when "Nasty Streak" shows up in the positives column of the scouting report.

Speaking of streaks, Watt continues a strong one in the recruiting world of the Irish with regards to luring the top talent of greater Chicago to South Bend. While a repeat of last year's clean sweep through Cook County talent - when the Irish got Darius Fleming, Steve Filer, & Sean Cwynar - isn't in the offing, Watt's commitment demonstrates once again how serious Charlie Weis and his staff have been about getting what are essentially "local" kids to buy into the the ND program. There have been some painful misses (Martez Wilson comes to mind), and one elite-level Chicagoan unfortunately departed on acrimonious terms (Demetrius Jones) while another has since transferred in a bid for playing time elsewhere (Aaron Nagel), but it sure doesn't seem like there's been any drop-off in how hard Weis has gone after an area Notre Dame always thought of as home.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Irish Secondary Hits a Wall(s)

Charlie Weis announced today that Darrin Walls will not enroll for the fall semester, citing personal reasons. WNDU reports that Walls will return home at the end of the summer term.

Walls showed that he was a legitimate talent at cornerback last year. His touchdown return during the Penn State game was one of the few things that got me out of my seat during a game last season. On a positive note, the Irish have some depth in the secondary with Gary Gray, Raeshon McNeil, and Terrail Lambert. These guys will have to stay healthy for this defensive unit to be a strength for the Irish next season.

Weis also announced that wide receiver DJ Hord will be transferring. Hord's career at Notre Dame was decimated by a torn Achilles. A highly rated recruit coming out of Missouri, Irish fans hoped Hord would provide the deep threat the irish receiving corps had been missing. The injury limited him to only 2 receptions in his 3 years.

We here at Section 29 wish these two all the best. Hopefully, we will see Walls back at Notre Dame in the future.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Pollard's Switch-a-roo and Tyler Too

There would've been a post commemorating the back-to-back announcements from the recruiting trail at least a day ago, but in this day and age of insta-blogging you've got to stand out with a clever headline. After a day and a half of thinking, this was the best I could do.

So rather than strain my credulity to the last, I think it's best to let the most recent members of the class of 2012 speak for themselves. First up, Cajon, CA cornerback Marlon Pollard:
I got the vibe from everyone - from the players, coaches, students. It's a perfect blend of academics and athletics. When I was there, it just felt right. I can't really explain exactly what made it right, but it was.
The aura of Notre Dame strikes once more.

With Pollard on board, Tuesday morning brings us Fort Wayne, IN tight end/athlete Tyler Eifert:
It’s about how great the school is and the football tradition they have there,” he said. “It’s just an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Definitely with John going there and Fort Wayne being such a big Notre Dame town, it definitely influenced me.
The John he's referring would be John Goodman, recently enrolled freshman wide receiver, making it two commitments from Indiana powerhouse Bishop Dwenger in the past 12 months, yet another welcome pipeline into the ND family.

Pollard, measuring at 6'1", 160 lbs. with "everything needed to be an outstanding cornerback", according to Tom Lemming, had been a UCLA commit since July of last year - when the Bruins were coached by Karl Dorrell. Even with the arrival of Rick Neuheisel and the retention of DeWayne Walker (the defensive coordinator who'd primarily recruited him), Pollard had long been pegged into the "soft" verbal category, and it was a one-day side trip to South Bend after attending a football camp in Chicago that made all the difference for him. As you may recall, the Irish landed a similar big-time commitment after an "on-the-whim" summer visit in the last recruiting cycle. Unlike that situation though, all indications are that Pollard will stick with his word; when asked about if this decision should be considered final, he replied:
I'm done. I'm a hundred percent (committed).
Eifert had a similar reaction over a much shorter time frame. Offered last Wednesday, the 6'6", 220-lbs. athlete phoned in his decision Tuesday morning after receiving the blessing from his father Greg, an active Purdue booster and former basketball player under The Greatest Hair in All of Coaching, Gene Keady. Dad was supportive but wanted to let everybody know that family allegiance will shift with the passing sport seasons:
What is for sure is that the Eifert place on Lake Gage has taken down the Purdue flag and raised a new one straight from the Notre Dame bookstore.

“Hey, it’s my son,” Greg Eifert said.

“During basketball season, the Purdue one will be flying. Trust me.”

Eifert showed enough athleticism to go both ways full-time last season for Dwenger, earning All-State honors as a wide receiver while also playing safety. This fall he'll work primarily as a tight end. Where do the Irish project him?

Their tight ends have gone to the pros over the last couple of years, but I don’t know if I’ll play tight end there...I might play defense or I might play (wide) receiver, they’re not sure.

Eifert's measurables put him at a 4.62 in the 40-yd dash, which might be a little big and a little slow for a defensive back but place him right on par with a well-built, freakishly athletic player like John Carlson or 2008 freshman Kyle Rudolph. The tight end position may well be stacked for years to come at Notre Dame, but don't be stunned if Eifert is right there in the mix.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The Final Vote

Kev, you're probably torn. Do you vote for The Legend, or Pat the Bat?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

A Phone Call Away

When Jeff Samardzija walked away from the potential to make millions in the NFL for the long-shot world of pro baseball, a lot of people lost sight of the fact that he was equipped with quite the golden parachute - $10 million guaranteed from the Chicago Cubs. And despite the comforting obscurity which minor league ball provides, football notoriety is something that still follows The Shark around. Witness the display when he arrived at the Cubs Triple-A affiliate Iowa last week:
The I-Cubs hung a makeshift No. 83 jersey in Samardzija's locker, hazing the new guy the only way they knew how. Though Samardzija had long traded in the navy and gold of Notre Dame football for blue pinstripes, even he had to laugh.

Samardzija knows that until he proves otherwise, he'll always be that floppy-haired wide receiver who chose baseball over the NFL.

"They saw me playing every Saturday, but they didn't see me playing every Friday, Saturday and Sunday in baseball. Obviously nowadays, you believe what you see, believe what you read in the paper or what you see on TV," said Samardzija. "I don't blame them for it. My job is to go out and show them that I can play baseball, too."

Though Samardzija is now just one step from Wrigley Field, most folks still think of him as a football player. That's a testament to his career at Notre Dame, the Irish's national profile and the anonymity of the path Samardzija chose.

Samardzija's professional numbers have been up and down - despite showing enough progress to earn promotions from Single-A Daytona to Double-A Tennessee last season and now onto Iowa, one step from The Show, he has gone 10-17 with an ERA in the 4.60 range since the start of 2007. The Cubs still love his raw potential though, which they should considering that unlike a normal 23-year old who would've given five or six years to non-stop baseball training by this point in their career, Notre Dame's all-time touchdown receptions leader has only been at it for a year and a half:
The scouting report on Samardzija, according to Iowa pitching coach Mike Mason, is that he's a "sinker, slider" guy with a complementary changeup and splitter. The athleticism that served Samardzija so well on the gridiron -- just ask former Michigan State coach John L. Smith about that -- also works to his benefit on the mound. So does a sinking fastball he can blow by hitters.

But Iowa wants to see Samardzija master the art of throwing quality off-speed pitches in hitter's counts. Do that, Mason said, and Samardzija could become a major league starter.

"He's just got good stuff, and the game kind of teaches you what goes where," Mason said. "Is he ever going to look pretty picture perfect? No, because he doesn't have to. He's a good enough athlete to, when he's finds a happy medium mechanically, he'll be able to repeat it. And that's all that matters."
What Jeff will need to cut down on in order to find a home with the parent club is his tendency to walk batters - in his first two starts at Iowa he issued 8 free passes, and for the season has 50 walks against 53 strikeouts. But the Cubs are looking for answers to the back end of their starting rotation, particularly with uncertainty surrounding Carlos Zambrano and unreliability the hallmark of guys like Rich Hill, Sean Gallagher, and Sean Marshall. Don't be surprised to see Jeff on the move once more in 2008, either as the centerpiece of a trade for a veteran pitcher like CC Sabathia or Rich Harden, or getting a September call-up as a chance to audition for 2009.