Thursday, June 18, 2009

Return Engagements

We've been negligent. We have failed in our obligations as ardent watchdogs against complacency and ineptitude. We have...

Sorry, for a moment this post was kicking off as if it were President Obama's annoucement on creating a new consumer credit agency. We're far too shallow and football-obsessed to raise our game to that level.

But we are coming back, starting today - you may not have noticed that we were away for awhile, but that's fine. In all honesty, we didn't notice either. But having made the bold choice to resume blogger coverage, we couldn't have the first post back be about just any old thing. What topic could prove worthy of our renewed attention?
  • Recruiting developments, such as the verbal pledges of Cincinnati's Alex Welch, New Jersey's Bennett Jackson, or South Bend's very own Daniel Smith? Eh, old news. Besides, the current "shockwave" in Irish recruiting circles is...
  • The commitment the Irish didn't get, from Nick Montana? The youngest of ND legend Joe's four kids, the four-star QB from Oaks Christian Academy (Jimmy Clasuen's alma mater) chose to become the signature recruit in new Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian's first class, giving Sark a ratio of 1 marquee recruit to zero games coached at UW. This puts him comfortably ahead of his predecessor, the Molder of Men, who clocked in at a robust 0.5:48 in that department (half credit for Jake Locker, which gets bumped to a full credit if/when he manages to stay healthy for a full year). And spare me the smart-aleck "You just can't let Tyrone go, can you" replies, which leads to the next story...
  • ...the answer to the age-old question of "Who got paid more by the University of Notre Dame in 2008, Charlie Weis or Ty Willingham?" Apparently Tyrone landed on his feet just fine. Nothing I say is gonna cause him to lose any sleep. If anything I'm keeping the man modest (not like he needs help on that score). But we still don't have a worthy blog post yet.
  • Wait, how about the potential scheduling news, like Army at Yankee Stadium, or rumored discussions/pinings for a series with Wisconsin, Miami, or Texas? Eh, some smoke there, but too little fire.
  • The insanely early pre-season rankings beginning to leak out there, such as ESPN (Notre Dame's #17) or Phil Steele (who put the Irish at 7 and rated Golden Tate a first-team All-American. I will have what he's having)? It's...June. Too early. Just too early.
  • Joe Paterno finally ascending to Bo Schembechler's throne as the grouchy old man of the Big Ten by implying Notre Dame might need the Conference That Can't Count, but they want no part of Notre Dame? I'm gonna stick this one in my back pocket for later.
  • Coach Weis' venture into that strange vortex of time-wasting terror known as the "Twitter-verse"? I'm ashamed to admit I do an almost daily check-in for his posts. Which begs the question Obi-Wan once posed: "Who's the more foolish, the fool or the fool who follows him?"
  • The controversy over President Obama's appearance at Notre Dame's commencement exercises and the predictably lame wisecrack he made about the football team afterwards? What did I say at the top about not having the class to get all polticial around here?
So we've chucked aside pretty much everything Notre Dame related that happened in the past three months, which when you look at in sum doesn't add up to much. I just want to hit fast forward to Sept. 6th already. That's no way to end a blog post though. We need to offer up our own original spin on something, so we arrive at Monday's "I shall return" two-fer in the two marquee sports.

Granted, one was official and the other conditional, and the players involved are returning to very different circumstances, but each one addresses a vital need for their respective programs. First we have former Big East Player of the Year in basketball, Luke Harangody, who went through a "ho-hum" junior season where he was the only player in the country to rank in the top 10 in scoring and rebounding. Yes, you read that right. Not Blake Griffin, not Hasheem Thabeet, not even God himself, Tyler Hansbrough. There was one player who was Top 10 in points and boards, and he plays for Notre Dame. Unfortunately a seven-game losing streak in late January knocked the Irish to the far corner of the NCAA Tournament discussion and the season fizzled with an NIT berth (the Irish lost to Penn State in the semifinals).

The news of Harangody's return, proudly broken on Mike Brey's entry into the Twitter-verse, comes as a perfect jolt in the arm for a program that might not be on the down-side of the NCAA bubble for long. The Irish have a good mix of talent returning (or entering) the fold next year, depending on how willing you are to consider transfers Scott Martin and Ben Hansbrough - yes, he's related - as "returning" starters. Include Tory Jackson and what figures to be a more developed rotation with Jonathon Peoples, Tyrone Nash, potentially Carleton Scott & redshirt sophomore Tim Abromaitis, along with incoming freshman Joey Brooks & Jack Cooley, the Irish might not suffer such a steep drop-off in depth as everybody expected (though it turned out they weren't as deep as many believed in 2008-09, a critical reason for the mid-season collapse).

All things being equal, though, the story "behind" the story for Notre Dame basketball is that they should manage to stay about where they were while the Big East heavyweights come back to Earth around them. Again, that's a "supposed" view point. The Irish and Georgetown were supposed to be right in the thick of a juggernaut Big East last year and...well, you know how that turned out. Let's take the glass-is-half-full approach though, and put it this way: between a conference that suffered massive losses of star power via graduations and early NBA departures, a softer non-conference schedule, and now having the only returning member of last year's all-conference team, the Irish ought to once again shoot back up the Big East rankings. At the very least, they will not see a repeat of the eight-game death march where they played, in order: @ Louisville, @ Syracuse, UConn, Marquette, @ Pittsburgh, @ Cincinnati, @UCLA, Louisville. For those scoring at home, all 8 of those teams finished with winning records, 7 of them made the NCAAs, and three of them earned #1 seeds. Not even featured in that meat grinder were West Virgnia and Villanova, a #3 seed which went to the Final Four. So yeah, the conference should get easier while Notre Dame figures to at least stay where they are, if not improve given the return of a star player on a mission. Just before Brey broke out the Twitter, Harangody used that oh-so-2006 tool of text messaging to offer his coach a modest proposal: "Let's go win the Big East."

Right about the time Harangody and Brey were exchanging 140-character high-fives, Eric Hansen on the South Bend Tribune was reporting - also via the Twitter-verse! - that another surprise return could be in the offing at the Notre Dame football offices. In this case the player in question wasn't a returning All-American, but his taking of a fifth year could go a long way towards assuaging Irish anxiety. We speak here of Evan Sharpley, journeyman quarterback who figured to have played his last snaps during garbage time of the 2008 Hawai'i Bowl.

Having completed the football season, all signs pointed toward the end of a gridiron career as Sharpley skipped spring workouts to focus on baseball, where it sure seemed like a corner had been turned during his junior year (.324 with 13 HR and 40 RBI). A great follow-up never materialized unfortunately, and Evan's final go-round on the diamond ended with a mere .223 batting average and 5 homers. His raw power was still enough to get noticed by somebody though, as the Seattle Mariners took him in the 50th and final round of Major League Baseball's draft last week (Sharpley's teammate, centerfielder AJ Pollock, became the highest-ever selection out of Notre Dame in the same draft, picked 17th overall by the Diamondbacks). Considering how often corner infielders ascend to a big league roster as 50th-round picks, it was a smart move for Sharpley (at Weis's suggestion) to quietly go through the application process for a fifth year after the spring semester ended.

There were two competing schools of thought on this one: a) that it was a positive for Sharpley to return and provide some needed depth at the QB position while also bettering himself with a year of post-graduate work for life after football, all while getting a summer to prove himself in pro baseball (the Mariners agreed to let Sharpley return at the start of fall training camp, similar to the deal Jeff Samardzija cut with the Cubs before his senior season in 2006). Then there was b) Weis is so desperate for a quarterback he's reaching to the scrap pile after whiffing on Jake Heaps, Blake Bell, Nick Montana, Austin Hinder, and every other good quarterback in the universe...or something like that.

Look, it's true that if either Demetrius Jones or Zach Frazer were still at Notre Dame, Sharpley likely would've played his last season in '08. Ditto if Weis already had a quarterback in the fold either as an incoming freshman or a rising high school junior. But even if that were the case, that the Irish had a commitment from a Montana or some such, that wouldn't exactly do much to plug one of the holes in the current rosts, which is the kind that seems insignificant (who ever really thinks about the thrid string anyway?) until the moment you need it, at which point it gets exposed for the gigantic sieve that it is. Phrased differently: as the roster currently stands, the Irish are one snap away from untested redshirt freshman Dayne Crist having to take over the offense. And if that came to pass, the Irish would then be one snap away from probable disaster with either walk-on Nate Montana or emergency QB John Goodman at the reins. So the question becomes do you want flashbacks to the Pat Dillingham era if an injury crisis erupts in 2009, or at least some tested veteran presence in the 'last resort' spot? At quarterback, it's a good idea to go three-deep.

Safe to assume that both of these players are welcomed back with open arms, with the caveat of course that there are no guarantees in this life, particularly in the case of Harangody. Now that they're back, so are we. Buckle up, Irish fans - it's going to be a very interesting year.

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