Monday, August 11, 2008

The Show That Never Ends

Welcome back, my friends.

Notre Dame kicked off the 2008 football season with a weekend designed to give everybody a peek behind the curtain for what will (God willing) be an improved Irish football team this season. A breakdown of how each day came and went:

Friday - Meet the Press

Weis, the coaching staff, and selected Irish players took turns in front of the firing squad Friday morning before hitting their shiny new FieldTurf practice facilities for the afternoon's first full workout. As has become customary, UND.com had it covered from every angle, but here are a few selected quotes I particularly enjoyed:

Bernie Parmalee on the competition at tight end:
The competition is going to be great, those guys know what they are in for and they will go out there and work hard. They know that every play is being evaluated; we just want the best out there to help us win ballgames. We have seven guys who will be working hard and they determine the depth chart because it's all about performance. It is a good group of guys looking forward to the challenge.
John Latina on offseason development of the O-Line:
We, as a staff, felt like we needed to get bigger. We needed to get stronger. Not necessarily heavier because a lot of times that naturally comes with getting bigger, and we felt like we had to improve those areas. They look bigger and better than I've ever seen them, so that's a real positive.
Corwin Brown on which defensive players could step up and make an impact:
All of them that go out on that field. Literally, all of them. That's what we want from all of our guys.
Charlie Weis on the desired team psychology:
In Jersey, Memorial Day opens up the Jersey shore. It might be 90 degrees, but the water's about 50, and no one wants to go in the water.

So there are two types of people that would go to the beach that weekend. One group of people would go up there, put their toe in the water and say, 'Oh, I just don't know if I can do that'. And they'd walk in a little bit, and walk in a little bit, and most of them would then return to their suntan oil or lotion and go lay back down on the beach.

Then you'd have those loony tunes that would just throw their stuff down and just go running into the water and just "Dive Right In".

Basically, the whole thought methodology with our team is we're looking for players that want to "Dive Right In". I'm not looking for 'toe-in-the-water' type of players.

I'm looking for players that aren't waiting to see how things go. They're going to be part of making things go. That's been our whole thought methodology from the beginning of 2008 right to this time.

Naturally, you have to avoid trying to go too far between the lines when consuming practice reports and massive amounts of coach-speak and spoon-fed cliches that come from the players in these settings. Everybody looks fine in practice, everybody's "just a little bit of confidence" away from having a big year. Even with that fully justified caveat, the "Dive Right In" philosophy is exactly where the Irish should be heading right now. No looking back, just charging straight forward. If nothing else, it beats the "throw it on the wall and see what sticks" style from a year ago.

Saturday: Fan Apprecitation Day

Average fans got their first peek at the squad with a workout in Notre Dame Stadium. Though (for obvious reasons) a very vanilla practice meant to give nothing away, there were a lot of positive notices handed out to Jimmy Clausen's improved arm strength, the promise shown by corners Raeshon McNeil and Gary Gray as they prepare to compensate for the loss of Darrin Walls, and the glints of promise shown by rookies like Mike Floyd and Kyle Rudolph.

Of course, that's all they are. Just glints. Fleeting moments of, "Hey, something might be happening here" on a practice field with no pads, little contact, and 4000 people watching instead of 80,000. The point I think that needs remembering here is that once the first whistle blows on September 6th, things will change - in a hurry. How a young team adjusts to that is the measure of progress, moreso than raves about how so-and-so looks like a different player.

Saturday Part II: Banks, EJ Banks

While there have been some players they were particularly high on who've already gone elsewhere, the Irish coaching staff is indeed having recruting unfold according to plan. Saturday brough the news that Pennsylvania cornerback E.J. Banks chose the Irish over Ohio State. Banks joins Marlon Pollard as the second true cornerback recruit, yet another solid CB duo for future Irish teams to build around:

"Every program has its ups and downs, and some could say that Notre Dame has been down," [Banks] said. "But, if you look at the people the program has coming in, they are going to be back on top, very soon. A big part of me going there is that I wanted to be there for when Notre Dame is back on top, and I think that will happen in my time there."
Obviously I don't sit in the meetings; I'm not there when Weis and his assistants do home visits, or when prospects finally pull the trigger. But it sure looks to my laymen's eyes that even in the face of a 3-9 season, the Irish coaching staff has not yielded an inch. There are a lot of kids out there who just simply want to be a part of what's building in South Bend. To dip into the cliche, they "get it".

To be sure we've already seen some players, particualrly from that first big recruiting class Weis landed, appear and sound totally sold on Notre Dame only to determine they needed to move on (sometimes not long after they arrived). To a certain degree that's expected - a lot of colleges look great on video and in brochures, and every year ordinary students discover that one school that seemed so perfect turn out to be a very different animal. When it happened in a cluster around the football during the fall of 2007, encapsulated in a disastrous on-field effort, there was a real concern that recruiting would follow suit. There was indeed one high-profile, some might say nefarious, defection, but the rock-solid commitment shone through for every other member of the class. For 2008, the trend has undoubtedly continued.

Sunday/Monday: Wrapped Up With Professor Appreciation Day

ND faculty and their families were invited to practice on Monday, the fourth Irish workout and the last which must occur without pads by NCAA rule. Still more practice reports from the usual suspects like Irish Eyes, Blue/Gold Illustrated, and Irish Illustrated to whet the appetite of those who subscribe. Still more superlatives about how big freshman like Hafis Williams and Brandon Newman look. Still more hypotheticals about how the linebacking corps will shuffle out with safety Harrison Smith taking a lot of reps while one of last year's pleasant surprises, Brian Smith, shifts to the second middle linebacker spot. Still more hope that things are gonna quickly go back to the way things are supposed to be.

Notre Dame lives under a microscope. Numerous other programs, some of them powers and some of them paupers, are trying to put a forgettable 2007 behind them. They're out there, holding competitions for open starting slots, sizing up their new recruits, trying to find that right mix while sizing up their schedule. What's going in South Bend is no bigger or smaller than anything going on in Miami, Seattle, State College, Los Angeles, or any other college town in America. It just feels a lot bigger, which is maybe as it should be. There's still 24 days to go before a meaningful snap is played, so let's not spend all our foolish optimism at once.

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