Sunday, December 23, 2007

As The Recruiting World Turns

Every year, almost without fail, it happens. Not always exposed in the harsh light of day, not always at every program, but it happens. A highly touted recruit tells one coach, "I'm coming." Days, weeks, sometimes months pass, all the while opposing coaches still press the kid to reconsider, look at all his options, slow the process down. You don't want to rush things, they'll say. And then right at the end, just when Coach A has prepared to shower the prospect at his Signing Day press conference, having kept his word not to overrecruit the position, having let the kid know "You're the guy we need", he gets the phone call. Prospect tells him, "Listen, it's not you, it's me..."

Breakups get messy in life. In the bare-knuckle world of college football recruiting, they tend to be even messier because the significant others now do the dirty business in front of scores of recruiting analysts who draw up complicated flow-charts designed to show how one indecisive 18-year old's whim causes a shockwave the likes of which deal football programs a punishing blow the likes of which they can't recover from. Or some bulls&*t like that. One of the key believers in this convoluted interpretation of chaos theory is Florida's Urban Meyer. He would know all about it I guess: last season, his consensus Top 3 recruiting class featured 7 players who'd originally committed elsewhere, as he and Greg Mattison used the momentum from thrashing Ohio State to handpick prospects from the verbal pledges of Texas, USC, Notre Dame, Indiana, & Florida State. Meyer would naturally tell you that turnabout is merely another step of fair play, since committed prospects from Florida's class blew him off for FSU, Miami, & LSU.

It's not like it's anything revolutionary to see a player flip his commitment, but Meyer's seemingly golden touch when it comes to telling a recruit, "Hey, I know you thought [insert name] was the place for you, but trust me..." leaves many coaches feeling uneasy right up until the moment the letter comes through the fax in February. Another thing that's not revolutionary is Meyer's well-documented and, like, totally rational opposition to an early-signing period in college football:
"I'm not comfortable signing kids you don't know,'' Meyer said. "I'd rather move later. I want to quit making mistakes. A mistake in recruiting just devastates a program. The only way to minimize the mistake-factor is to get to know someone.

"I think they should all come to camp. I think we should know their families. I think they should meet my family. That's when you usually get a good deal going. If you have an early signing period, that's not going to happen.''
How selfless. While I agree in theory with Urban that every recruit in the country should be afforded the luxury of a beautiful late-January tour of Gainesville and the chance to sample a catered home-cooked meal by Shelly, his claims sound a bit hollow when you factor in how adept he's become at turning kids over to his school at the expense of other coaches.

Which now brings us to the case of Omar Hunter. Hunter, a 6-1, 300+ defensive tackle with the ability to stop most running backs by stare alone judging from the above photo, hails from Buford, GA and the same high school as Darius Walker. Long thought to have been leaning towards Michigan, he surprised some with his public pledge and has been considered part of the Irish since June. The prototype of a defensive tackle in the 3-4 scheme, Hunter would be a perfect complement to the emerging Ian Williams and round out a great defensive line haul for the Irish when coupled with Brandon Newman & Hafis Williams along the interior and Ethan Johnson at end.

Apparently though, Hunter's earlier mistake with Notre Dame can be corrected once he gets to know Urban Meyer. According to his high school coach Jess Simpson, whom Hunter credited with helping him pick a school in the first place:
"I think he's just starting to reconsider where he's going to school and how far away it is and the weather and the climate, and how easy it is for his family to come see him."
Call me a member of the lunatic fringe, but this is (hysterically enough) what Urban Meyer is referring to when he speaks of letting kids "get to know" him late in the recruiting game. He wants the natural advantage of getting a kid to visit Gainesville with its postcard weather in January and casually mention, "It's 11 degrees with a foot of snow on the ground in South Bend. You sure you don't want to think things over?" Because those foolish 18-year olds with their priorities all screwed up, they don't really understand what commitment and planning for the next four years is all about during April-December. But Florida in January - that's what provides sweet, precious clarity.

Assessing things as they stand at this moment (like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did earlier this week when saying Simpson stated "shortly after 1 PM" Tuesday that Hunter had not de-committed, as if the news was likely to hit the wire at any moment) Hunter has remains a publicly committed prospect to Notre Dame, but all signs point to him visiting Florida once recruiting starts up after the bowls, and possibly USC - though his apparent emphasis on family accessibility would seem to disqualify the Trojans even more swiftly than the Irish.

The bigger question is not how Hunter chooses to go about his business, but rather how Charlie Weis and the Irish go about theirs. South Bend Tribune columnist Jeff Carroll seems to think that for Weis to maintain his word as bond, he must revoke Hunter's scholarship in the wake of his decision to re-open his recruitment, just like Weis promised he would last year when announcing he would be redefining the word commitment. Which would be in keeping with everything Weis said...except that's not what Weis said or promised to do it all.

The "blustering" Carroll was referring to was a simple truth: 'College coaches shouldn't have to be held hostage by potential recruits', Weis was arguing. 'We're taking back a little bit of control concerning our program. We're not gonna hold a gun to anybody, threaten to remove a scholarship if they take a phone call or contemplate a visit - but once they've indicated their willing to look around, it's not right nor fair to us to be left holding the bag if they move elsewhere'. Having been burned by Justin Trattou and Arrellious Benn a year ago, Weis made a simple statement: if you're willing to commit to us, fine. If you're not willing to commit, that's fine too. It's not like we don't want you - but don't expect us to save you a spot if we find another kid who is.

That, in a nutshell, is where Hunter stands right now. It's far less about Weis trying to establish some principal than it is upholding one he already laid down: 'We want kids to consider their options if that's how they feel. But that non-exclusivity gives us the right to consider our options too'. It's why in the middle of a score of internet rumors, Notre Dame earnestly reopened their pursuit along the defensive line, something they didn't do until after Justin Trattou switched his pledge to Florida and left the Irish with just one true d-lineman last season. Even finalizing that commitment, Williams, required a last minute push from the Irish staff to stave off Urban Meyer, who really had no reason to offer Williams since he already had two of the country's best nose tackles. Maybe he just enjoyed the experience of stealing a commitment from Notre Dame so much he went back for seconds.

No matter - Ian chose to honor his word and came on strong at the end of the season: despite being 12th on the defense in minutes played and making only two starts, Williams finished sixth in tackles with 45. In a very promising stat (or very damning depending on your point of view), he gained more stops than outside linebacker John Ryan despite being on the field for 130 fewer minutes and despite being at the position least counted on for tackles in the 3-4 scheme while Ryan plays the position looked to as the lead tackler.

The good news for the Irish is that even the worst-case scenario, Hunter choosing to decommit and sign with Florida, doesn't leave them short-changed at a crucial position like past late defections have. Aside from the still very-much committed Newman and Williams, the re-purposed pursuit of defensive linemen has brought the Irish in close proximity to Datone Jones, a UCLA commit opening things back up in the wake of Karl Dorrell's firing and DeWayne Walker's likely exit, plus Mike Martin, a Michigan commit who may be considering more visits, though that's a pretty big "may" since he was also considering a visit to West Virginia, former home of new UM coach Rich Rodriguez. There's also Kapron Lewis-Moore (himself reconsidering in the wake of a Texas A&M coaching change), and a host of other factors and prospects that could shift over and over again all before the dust finally settles on National Signing Day (February 6th). A year ago Brian Smith was a non-entity until the final 10 days of recruiting.

Maybe Urban has a point - after all, we don't want anybody out there making mistakes.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Spanning the Nation: Now That's What I Call Detroit Lions Football Edition

The Detroit Lions were up to their old tricks Sunday afternoon in San Diego, ripped apart by The Other LT (original LT = Paul Jacobs) and the Chargers 51-14. At left you can see some pics from those of us lucky, or perhaps unlucky, enough to be in attendance. As a corollary to this Sunday afternoon jaunt down to San Diego, there was a Saturday night of much drinking, rejoicing, foose-ball and beer die. I remember most of it, but not what I'm sure must've been a hilarious/embarassing ending. Apparently it featured at least two phone calls/hilarious voicemails to Mike Devitt. Consult him for all the messy details. Now, on with the roundup...

Angelo Suozzi - Hometown: Pittsford, NY

When the updates began flowing in from Cleveland, I was indeed certain that my prediction concerning this football game meaning the final judgment for one of the two perennially-losing cities was going to come true. There were the Bills and Browns, slip-sliding their way through a forgettable 8-0 game that ended when Trent Edwards figured a short screen pass would convert a fourth-down attempt from the 10 yard line. The 7-7 Bills are now eliminated from playoff contention and wound up having to take buses back to Buffalo when their chartered plane couldn't get out of the muck in Cleveland. The Sabres, meanwhile, continue to surge up the charts in the Eastern Conference despite being in last place in the Northeast division. They beat Buffalo native and hotshot rookie Patrick Kane & the Blackhawks Saturday by a score of 3-1, having already beaten the Islanders and Capitals earlier in the week.

Thomas McCall - Hometown: Lake Charles, LA

The conspiracy theorists can finally rest, with Les Miles not only back in the fold at LSU but Michigan having found itself an honest-to-God footbawl coach in West Virginia's Rich Rodriguez. In what I'm sure comes as a surprise to absolutely no one, Nick Saban's representatives have contacted WVU to express an interest in the vacancy. Life in the bayou remains stressful for the Saints, who continue to flirt with disaster yet got a super impressive performance yesterday from Drew Brees in beating the Matt Leinart-less Arizona Cardinals 31-24. Brees was 26 of 30 for 315 yards and two touchdowns, including one to Marques F*(kin' Colston, who has now scored three times since my fantasy football team was eliminated from playoff contention. You're dead to me, Marques.

Pat Girouard/Joe Long - Hometown: Cretin Derham Hall, MN

Original Recipe Adrian Peterson is preparing to bust loose on the Bears once again tonight as the Minnesota Vikings mount their second improbable late-season playoff charge in three seasons. 2005...not quite able to get over the hump. Will things turn with Brad Childress, O.R.A.P., and Tarvaris Jackson calling the shots? Tune in to ESPN and find out. The Twins are still talking with anybody who will listen about Johan Santana, but unless somebody can guarantee the Twinkies the entire Triple-A All-Star team, I say hold on the lefty. Wisconsin eagerly awaits the Outback Bowl, but I think Long could tell you all of Madison has turned its attention to the Badgers b-ball team, which has without question some of the greatest names in NCAA hoops at the moment. Whether it's fantastic comic book style alliteration (Brian Butch), the sidekick of the next James Bond villain (Tanner Bronson), a name that just sounds badass (Morris Cain), or the star of the upcoming Hoosiers sequel (Joe Krabbenhoft), these Badgers are stone-cold locks to make this year's edition of the All-Name Team. The Wild had a solid week on the ice, bouncing back from a loss to San Jose with easy wins over Anaheim and Los Angeles.

Brian Fallon - Hometown: Grand Rapids, MI

With the Lions' collapse now complete and the Tigers in offseason sleep mode, Brian is free to put all his passion back into Detroit Red Wings hockey. The Wings need dedicated fans like Fallon, since they recently got stripped of their designation as the team of "Hockeytown" - despite questionable attendance, the Wings are as unbeatable as ever on the ice, recently reeling off a 10-0-1 streak that hopes to continue tonight against the worst team in the NHL, the Washington Capitals.

Kevin Braun - Hometown: Lancaster, PA

Victory never tasted so sweet for the Eagles, who spoiled Tony Romo's latest audition for a buxom blond with a 10-6 victory in front of Jessica Simpson and the hometown Dallas fans. It's the second straight year Terrell Owens has been left playing the part of the Grinch during a Christmas-season matchup against Philadelphia, and it was welcomed early present from Andy Reid, Donovan McNabb, and the Eagles organization to the great city of Philadelphia.

George Heidkamp - Hometown: Hinsdale, IL

Brett Favre is still slinging it at age 38, to the joy of Packers fans everywhere. On Sunday he claimed yet another milestone record from Dan Marino, this time for career passing yardage in the middle of a strong 33-14 victory over the Rams which bumped the Pack to 12-2 (and, with the assist from Kev's Eagles, revived hopes of earning the NFC's top playoff seed). The media blackout continues for Kenny Williams and the White Sox, while Reinsdorf's Bulls continue to wallow through the Eastern Conference at a weak 8-13. The Blackhawks road back to respectability has also hit a snag, seeing as they've lost six of the previous seven games.

Paul Jacobs - Hometown: St. Louis, MO

Well, the Cardinals did trade one of their aging, underperforming former All-Stars...just not the one who wanted to be traded. Jim Edmonds was shipped back to Southern California, where he grew up and became a star for the Anaheim Angels, in exchange for a minor-leaguer and cash. Paul's reaction upon hearing the news Friday night after six grueling weeks of Air Force training was sadness and shock, but hopeful that young phenoms Brian Barton and Colby Rasmus can fill Big Jim's shoes one day soon.

Mike Devitt - Hometown: Marion, IN

Blow out the Ravens, hang tough with the Patriots, rally the troops versus Oakland...that Peyton Manning can do it all. You know, if you like 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterbacks...laser...rocket arm. The Colts improved to 12-2 and clinched a first-round bye in the playoffs, but I think Mike would be the first to tell you that they need to get healthy over the next month to be a threat to repeat.

Meanwhile, Back at Headquarters...

Irish basketball took the week off for final exams, with the cagers back on the floor Dec. 22nd versus the University of San Francisco, proud alma mater of Bill Russell. Unless the Celtic legend has been reincarnated, it shouldn't be a very close contest. Even though all was quiet inside the Joyce Center, Mike Brey could be close to claiming a significant victory in the re-recruitment game. Current freshman point guard Alex Legion announced he was transferring from Kentucky last week, and reports are now emerging that Legion will end up in South Bend. He would be eligible to play for the Irish starting in January '08. Legion was an All-America selection last year at Detroit Country Day and is a former AAU teammate of current Irish floor general Tory Jackson. It doesn't seem like playing time was an issue, as Legion averaged 18 minutes per game in his first six contests with the Wildcats, but he struggled to find a comfortable fit after signing with Michigan during the initial recruiting process before seeking out a new school when Tommy Amaker got fired. Notre Dame recruited him hard throughout high school, so maybe this will end up being the best overall fit for him. Brey has had some successes with players who transferred (Ryan Humphrey, though he initially came to ND to play for Matt Doherty, and Danny Miller), so time will tell if Legion a) ends up coming to Notre Dame and b) ends up helping the Irish program succeed.

And a Child (or 22) Shall Lead Them...

With each successive loss on the football field this season, the condition of being a Notre Dame fan turned more and more dire. More hand wringing, more message board rampaging, more scrutiny heaped on Charlie Weis and the entire Irish team at every turn, every missed assignment, every nausea-inducing defeat.

And when Irish fans were done with all that, they began worrying about recruiting.

The popular theory for any program goes that a season acts like a long bellwether - good years punctuated by signature wins indicate more success to come because more people will seek to join in the prosperity. Bad years, on the flip side, naturally and without fail chase people away, presaging even more doom and despair to come. Couple this with the fact that Notre Dame lost three prized verbal commitments in the last weeks before Signing Day last season (defensive end Justin Trattou, who switched to Florida; wideout Greg & offensive lineman Chris Little (no relation) who both flipped at the last possible moment to North Carolina & Georgia, respectively) and also seemed to lose momentum in the aftermath of the USC and LSU blowouts to end the season, as a number of potential impact players who'd all been seen as quite high on the Irish (Chris Donald, Ben Martin, Arrelious Benn, Martez Wilson, Major Wright, Joseph Barksdale) chose to go elsewhere, and anxiety naturally runs high after a 3-9 season.

The fade at the finish left many an Irish fan smarting, but perhaps the most telling post-signing analysis came from Weis himself:
I think when we sent offer letters, when you send them early, like now for a junior, we've added one of our key words on that offer letter, "commitment." I think what we're going to do is we're going to spend a lot more time making sure that if a guy wants to commit to us, verbally commit to us, everyone is under a clear understanding of what that means. No soft verbals, no silent verbals, no quiet verbals, okay? Either you're committed or you're not committed.
At the time, some took it as a sour-grapes moment from a coach stung by the loss of one significant 'silent verbal' (Benn) who was trying to establish some vice-like grip on the minds of impressionable young men. Somebody probably wise-cracked that it wasn't a great selling strategy to basically threaten 18-year olds when recruiting them to come to your school.

Flash-forward almost 10 months. It sure seems like the joker was right - it hasn't been a great strategy, it's been a fantastic strategy. Including offensive lineman Trevor Robinson, who committed to the Irish after an in-home visit by Weis Thursday evening, the Irish have 22 verbal pledges, heading towards what could be the nation's top-ranked recruiting class even without the likely addition of a few choice prospects still on the Irish radar. What's noteworthy about this class, though, is how evident the Weis doctrine concerning the meaning of a commitment has trickled through - and the feeling from current high schoolers that commitment represents a two-way street.

When Weis sought to give the most heralded word in recruiting a re-definition, the intent was to let whomever was "all in" understand that they weren't only committing to Notre Dame. Notre Dame was committing to them. As a result, stellar high school players who could choose to go anywhere have turned away the inevitable attempts by rival coaches to get them to reconsider. The Chicago Tribune recently caught up with a number of the most coveted Irish commits, starting with QB Dayne Crist of Sherman Oaks, CA:
The breadth and depth of the Irish's miseries this season spared few from collateral damage, and indeed Notre Dame's ballyhooed recruiting class endured more than a few caustic barbs.

Despite the slings and arrows that accompanied Notre Dame's outrageous misfortune, though, that class so far is undeterred. Not a single component of what is widely considered the nation's top talent haul has wavered publicly after the implosion of 2007.

Of course, some fallout zones were more toxic than others.

"It was just non-stop, people in my ear 'Oh my God, you're an idiot, why would you do that?'" Crist said. "'You better get on the phone with [USC] coach [Pete] Carroll, I can't believe you made a decision like this, you're going to be terrible for the next four years.' I heard it all."
The hits will keep on coming, of course, until the ink finally dries on February 6th. But to hear the Irish recruits talk about it, the resurrection has already begun in earnest, not only amongst themselves but from the interaction they have with their future teammates and the Irish coaching staff. Crist and Steve Filer explain:
The Irish's plan to match the recruits' commitment apparently was a successful ploy. Notre Dame didn't fax over game plans, but the staff apparently offered just enough of a taste, to where Crist felt "as if we were sitting in a meeting with the rest of the guys."

"In some instances, they asked me to evaluate the game, they asked me what I think I can add to the program," Filer said.
Keeping with the theme that Weis has had since he arrived at Notre Dame - namely, that there's no reason Notre Dame can't recruit with the big boys on account of academic standards, its tepid social scene, or the fact that national championship drought is about to reach 20 seasons - the class is not just stocked with talent but with 'high-character' kids who grasp the bigger picture. The fear about bad seasons breaking up recruiting efforts grows because of the assumption that high-school kids want to have a good time in college while preparing for the next level. The messy details of having to go to class, or compete for a starting job, or play their way through adversity are things everyone assumes an elite college football player would like to avoid. Not so fast:
"We know what Notre Dame is all about," said Chicago (St. Rita) linebacker Darius Fleming, who committed to the Irish in April. "We know that everyone has a bad year every now and then. Lately, Notre Dame hasn't had that bad year. Unfortunately, this year was it. But we're not going to let that continue."
Tight end Kyle Rudolph out of Cincinnati, the consensus #1 prospect at his position, noted the strange amount of compassion opposing coaches would come at him with:
Coaches called Rudolph with the same refrain: It's a big decision. We don't want you to rush into it. We want you to check out all your options.

"They try to play that card," Rudolph said. "Then they'll be like, 'Are you sure that's what you want to get into?' They always pull that. I tell them, I'm solid with my commitment and I'm happy with my decision."
Finally, according to wide receiver commitment John Goodman, when all else fails, recruiters from other schools tend to get chippy:
After Notre Dame dropped to 0-4, Goodman received a call from a Penn State assistant whose negative approach did little toward that end.

“They definitely tried all the negatives,” Goodman said of the coach whose name he couldn’t recall. “They talked about coach Weis, how he’s a bad coach, he’s a bad recruiter and about how Notre Dame’s doing terribly right now and all that, their stadium’s better. They never really said anything good about themselves, and I was just listening and I was like, ‘Whoa, this guy’s an idiot.’”
What's encouraging is how quickly the bond has formed between those players already committed, a bond that was quite evident when 11 of them - Crist, Filer, Fleming, Goodman, offensive linemen Braxston Cave & Mike Golic, Jr., defensive linemen Brandon Newman, Hafis Williams & Sean Cwynar, safety Dan McCarthy, and linebacker Anthony McDonald - visited Notre Dame on the weekend of December 7th, taking in the season-ending football banquet and planning among themselves which number they'd like to wear. That must have left an impression on Robinson, who was also visiting and then committed one week later.

The Irish have room for potentially five more commitments in this class - two players, Cwynar & Robinson, will enroll in January and thus count against last year's smaller haul of 18 players, meaning up to 27 prospects could end up signing and still keep the Irish inside the limit of 25 scholarships per academic year. The remaining targets on the Irish board aren't exactly fill-ins either: offensive lineman Kenneth Page, wide receivers Gerrell Robinson and Deion Walker, running backs Cyrus Gray & Milton Knox, and defensive ends Datone Jones & Kapron Lewis-Moore are all landing in the Top 100 player lists and filling up the rosters at high school All-American games.

The top ranking is nice, and certainly Notre Dame needs all the help it can get between the white lines in 2008. But the real impact of this class and how it came together will be gauged in two or three years time, when this class and the current freshman/sophomores form the backbone of a talented, experienced depth chart (as opposed to this season, in which more than 20 players made their first career starts). Just as importantly, the players still with the team and this incoming freshman class don't just refuse to shy away from the challenge of leading Notre Dame out of the wilderness - they're hell-bent on doing it as fast as possible.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Awards Season

When the season goes the way Notre Dame's did in 2007, you'll take any reason to celebrate. The Irish did last weekend, hosting a smaller, more intimate crowd for the year-end banquet in which highlights were few and far between in recapping the road to 3-9. But there were indeed some noteworthy accomplishments to salute:

Trevor Laws was the runaway, if not unanimous, winner of the Notre Dame Monogram Club Most Valuable Player Award. With most of the All-America team selections out and virtually all of them ignoring Laws' stellar effort, this is probably as good as it gets for the fifth-year from Burnsville, MN. Laws posted 112 tackles (second-best ever by an Irish defensive lineman), 8 tackles for loss (4 sacks), blocked three kicks (career blocks total: six, unheard of for a D-lineman), and recovered a pair of fumbles. He also received the Rockne Student-Athlete Award from the Notre Dame Club of St. Joe Valley, posting a cumulative 3.22 GPA during his undergraduate years and currently holding a 3.667 GPA in graduate studies. In a season full of lost ideals, Trevor was one of the lone constants, and it's a little disappointing that national recognition for his play eludes him, as if he alone deserves to be punished for the 3-9 record.

Joining Laws as a double award winner Friday night was John Carlson, who received the Westwood One/State Farm Student-Athlete of the Year Award (repeating in this category, as a matter of fact) and also won the Nick Pietrosante Award, given to "the student-athlete who best exemplified the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and pride of the late Irish All-America fullback." Carlson's level of play on the field frustrated some, since it was expected for him to have a big role in settling down whichever young quarterback took the reins on offense. The type of season Fred Davis had at USC (55 catches, 794 yards, 8 TDs) was the hope for Carlson this year. Instead, the returning Mackey Award finalist was held back in blocking situations a lot more and disappeared for long stretches of the game, but still paced the Irish in receptions (40) and yardage (372) while snagging three touchdowns.

Carlson was also equally committed to classroom excellence as Laws, recognized not just at the Notre Dame banquet but three days earlier in New York by the National Football Foundation (pictured, above right). On the same night former Irish great Chris Zorich was officially inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and Rocky Bleir received the NFF's Distinguished American Award, Carlson became the 15th Notre Dame player (and first since Tim Ruddy in 1993) recognized as a National Scholar-Athlete. Both Laws and Carlson were named second-team Academic All-Americans as well.

Other awards given out Friday to Notre Dame players:
  • Guardian of the Year Award (top offensive lineman): John Sullivan
  • Moose Krause Lineman of the Year: Pat Kuntz
  • Westwood One Student-Athlete Honorees (weekly award during the season): Carlson, Barry Gallup, Leonard Gordon, Raeshon McNeil, Robby Parris, Munir Prince, John Ryan, Evan Sharpley, Chris Stewart, and Ambrose Wooden.
Of course, in the words of Coach Weis, "let's not kid ourselves". It was still a 3-9 stinker of a season, so the bold few who came out to salute the team Friday probably wanted first and foremost some straw of positivity to grasp at for next season. That came from a very heartfelt speech by All-American guard Aaron Taylor. Though he originally promised to post excerpts of his speech at his recently established website, Legends of South Bend, Taylor ultimately chose to fly blind, unscripted, and spoke from the heart. The result was a lot of sentimentality and sobering analysis of why a place like Notre Dame can still thrive in the wake of a 3-9 season:
I think especially in light of the way the season's gone and all those things, the tendency is to focus on the negative.

But at Notre Dame the reality is it's so much bigger and so much more than a 3-9 season or what a football team did for one year. ... I can't wait to have kids to send them here, to be able to experience the things I got to experience. I learned how to learn. I learned how to be tough. I learned how to be accountable. I learned how to have integrity. I learned how to make myself part of the greater whole and that together we could accomplish tremendous and wonderful things. Notre Dame is a place of opportunity.
Powerful, optimistic words, Aaron. We here at Section 29 wholeheartedly agree, and that's why we would feel remiss not to put our own finishing touch on the season with an awards panel of our own. The nominees and envelopes, if you please...

Team MVP

Brian Fallon - It's Trev Laws, son.
Kevin Braun - Corwin Brown.
Mike Devitt - Trevor Laws.
Pat Girouard - Trevor Laws.
George Heidkamp - When all is said & done...Trevor Laws.
Broadway Joe Long - TLAWS.
Paul Jacobs - Yeah, yeah, of course it's Laws.
Thomas McCall - Have to throw the broken record on's Laws for sure.

Winner: For his tireless pursuit of tacklers while his linebackers were being blocked, for never backing down in the face of the other 10 men on the defense being rolled over, for being the only lineman in the entire country to finish in the Top 100 total tacklers, and for embodying the true spirit of Notre Dame, there was only one logical choice: Trevor Laws.

Team MVP Not Named Trevor Laws

BF - Jimmy Clausen, circa November 10, 2007. After being benched for a few games, he came back and took control of the offense, showing us that he, not Evan Sharpley, is going to be the leader of the Notre Dame offense. Good things to come. Also receiving votes: David Bruton (for the whole season).
KB - David Bruton.
MD - uh...Trevor Laws?
PG - Darrin Walls.
GH - Darrin Walls.
BJL - T. Laws.
PJ - Walls, for the mere fact that he's the first corner I've seen in recent Notre Dame history that actually looks like he knows what he's doing in the secondary. In his young career, he's already changing offenses so they throw away from his side.
TMac - Student trainer Tony Schiazza, who tied with Charlie Jr. for total TV appearances on NBC.

Winner: I'm not sure which I should be - impressed that Mike & Joe found Laws so valuable this season they voted him the winner of an award he was expressly ineligible to win, or depressed that they saw no other worthy candidates. By popular vote, the most MVP-ish of the other 84 scholarship players is cornerback Darrin Walls, who did in fact have a strong season in leading Notre Dame to an overall ranking of #3 in national pass defense (excuse me if my enthusiasm gets tempered by the fact that the Irish were 95th against the run).

The Julius Jones Award - Breakout Irish Offensive Player

BF - Robert Hughes; should've seen even more carries based on his ownership of opposing defenses every time he carried the ball. Also receiving votes: Duval Kamara
KB - Duval Kamara
MD - Hughes
PG - Kamara
GH - Hughes; while most of the attention has been placed on how indecision at quarterback hurt the team, equally damaging was the non-commital stance at running back. If Hughes or Aldridge had been pegged as "the guy" like Darius Walker was the past two seasons, the Irish running attack may not have suffered so badly in the first 8 games.
BJL - Jimmy Clausen/Kamara
PJ - Hughes, the kid just has a motor that won't stop.
TMac - Kamara

Winner: In a close vote, the honors go to the 6'5" wideout from Jersey, Duval Kamara. While I voted for Hughes I can't dispute this choice. Many fans have openly wondered what type of career Maurice Stovall would've had playing exclusively for Charlie Weis - I think Kamara's development will provide the answer there.

The Wes O'Neill Award - Breakout Irish Defensive Player

BF - Wes O'Neill, but in the event that he is not eligible for this prestigious award, my vote goes to Darrin Walls. It's not so much me as it's Walls. He's good. He started to stand out last year in a weak secondary but this year quarterbacks all but avoided his side of the field all together. Also receiving votes: David Bruton.
KB - T. Laws/Kerry Neal
MD - Walls
PG - Laws
GH - Bruton; runner-up: Brian Smith.
BJL - Laws
PJ - Walls once again.
TMac - Tie between Kevin Braun, Leprechaun Emeritus and...T Laws.

Winner: Again, proving his worth in all areas of the team, Trevor Laws walks away with another piece of hardware, this one just as deserved as all the other ones. With 112 stops, Laws had as many tackles in his senior season as he had in the first three years combined. For a guy playing a new position in a new scheme, this certainly fits the definition of a breakout year.

The Chris Thomas Award

This award invokes the memory of Irish PG Chris Thomas, who came to Notre Dame as the most hyped basketball recruit in a decade, the winner of Indiana's coveted Mr. Basketball Award in high school. Despite a solid start to his career than included back-to-back NCAA berths and a Sweet 16 trip his sophomore year, the heavy burden of expectations that went unmet the longer he played soured some overall memories of his 4 years in blue & gold.

BF - Tom Zbikowski. Great with the ball in his hands, horrible at keeping it out of those of opposing receivers. Also receiving votes: Ambrose Wooden & Travis Thomas (not sure about their hype), Johns Sullivan and Carlson (only based on their senior season flop).
KB - Zibby!!!! I cannot stand watching road games because every new crew feels the need to uber-praise him disgustingly.
MD - Am"bros before hoes" Wooden (I really just wanted to use his nickname).
PG - Dwight Stephenson, Jr (or Tom Zbikwoski...wait, was Ambrose Wooden hyped???)
GH - Fair or unfair, the award goes to Tom Zbikowski.
BJL - Zibby (or Matt Carufel).
PJ - Zibby just wasn't the same this year. This is even sadder considering the memorable punt return against USC our junior year that will be burned into my memory for the rest of my life.
TMac - Zibby (or Mike Brey himself).

Winner: As expected, Tom Zbikowski gets saddled with the sin of falling short of lofty hype and expectations when assessing the total sum of his four-year career. While this might be construed as damning Zibby with faint praise, I rather think of him as the Aaron Rowand of Notre Dame football - a gamer to the very end with a run-through-the-wall mentality that appeals to the blue-collar core of Notre Dame football fans, but in the end he's garnered a reputation that outstrips the reality of his performance. Even so, he tallied 7 touchdown returns in his career (2 fumbles, 3 punts, 2 interceptions), and also had three others wiped out by penalties. But his tendency to bite on run-fakes and overall ineffective pass coverage belies his reputation as a game-breaking safety. Also, a check of the archives seems to confirm that Ambrose Wooden was hyped, being ranked as a SuperPrep All-American, one of the Top 100 players according to ESPN, and a four-star prospect by both Rivals and

The Sean Calloway Award

Given to that individual who produces maximum results despite limited vertical and physical attributes, proving most definitely that great things can come in small packages.

BF - I wish I could vote for Armando Allen, but that might yet be a year in the future. I also wish I could vote for 'Golden is thy Tate' but I think he saw the field and made as many catches in his one breakout game against Purdue than he did the entire rest of the season. In lieu of those two let-downs, Mike Anello.
KB - Anello, although I'm not sure about wearing #45.
MD - Anello.
PG - Trevor Laws (he's undersized by most defensive lineman standards).
GH - Anello.
BJL - Golden Tate.
TMac - Paul R. Jacobs.
PJ - Although I appreciate TMac's vote of confidence, I have to agree with those that stated before that Anello is the winner here. The simple fact that I would feel tall around this kid makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Winner: Tough luck if you were already sick of hearing about him on NBC telecasts (hey, at least they were devoting time to Irish players who were doing something right!), but he deserves one more hearty round of applause: Mike Anello. Notre Dame's kamikaze punt gunner managed to stuff some of the nation's best return men in their tracks once he cracked the punt coverage team before the Michigan game. While his walk-on status and wearing of the number 45 insures that the Rudy comparisons will be beaten to death in his senior year (particularly if the scholarship lineup lays another dud), Anello went all-out on every play, creating most of the rare special teams highlights for 2007.

The Memorial Trophy

Given to the play or moment at which, officially, hope died in 2007.

BF - The first drive against Michigan which contained, out of three plays, two botched shotgun snaps. Oh, and Clausen getting sacked by the entire Michigan defensive line in unison was also heart-wrenchingly impressive. Also receiving votes: the quarterback carousel of the Georgia Tech game.
KB - Evan Sharpley entering the game against MSU down 31-14, making that the FIFTH starting quarterback change in four games, as well as making more QB controversy down the road.
MD - This.
PG - When Jimmy Clausen got sacked by 4/11th of the Michigan defense on one play.
GH - First snap of the Michigan game, as fifth-year senior leader John Sullivan's snap sails roughly 12 feet over the head of Armando Allen.
BJL - Tashard Choice's first carry of the Georgia Tech game.
PJ - I have to say when we lost to Michigan. Whoever won the game had the potential to recover from a slow start and could make something of the year. The team that lost, well we know how that turned out.
TMac - Taking this sentence literally, I'd have to say after the second lock-in at Welworth.

Might as well have cued up Don McLean with, "Bye, Bye Mr. All-American Guy..."

The MoStovall Senior Year of Vengeance Award

Given to the returning junior/senior with the most to prove in 2008 following a lackluster career thus far.

BF - Asaph Schwapp. However, that means that he would need to see the field in order to act out said vengeance and that's a deal I'm not quite ready to commit to. Also receiving votes: O-line, particularly Duncan and Turkovich.
KB - Sam Young.
MD - DJ Hord. I know he's been hurt, but I expected him to be a major contributor at wideout.
PG - Anthony Vernaglia (if he doesn't come back you can award him the Chris Thomas Award).
GH - Terrail Lambert. I thought he'd turned the corner after getting burned so badly last season against Michigan, but save for the Stanton interception that fell straight into his lap the following week, he's not been a good coverage back or a good open-field tackler.
BJL - The 5th-years - they are all disappointing, but also Schwapp. I mean, he did coin the term "Schwap'd away the game" with his late fumble during Charlie's first season.
PJ - Any of the returning O-line.
TMac - Schwapp. He's got something to prove.

Winner: Obviously when assessing a team so lacking in both talent & numbers along the final two classes, you can't go wrong with anybody here. But fullback Asaph Schwapp remains an enigma, talented enough to step in for Rashon Powers-Neal as a freshman yet never rising close to being the goal-line or short-yardage option that RPN was. Furthermore, here he is in his third year still battling fumble-itis. Next year's depth chart (for the moment) features just two true fullbacks, Schwapp and Luke Schmidt. The senior from Hartford, CT needs to realize that it's now or never.

Play of the Year

BF - The one that will stick with me personally will be David Grimes' diving no-catch against Stanford. Turned out to be meaningless but that could've been the most egregious display of replay viewing ineptitude I have ever seen that negated an unbelievable play. Please advise if you disagree.
KB - 15-yd penalty for excessive celebration after a pick-6 makes the BC game 20-14. (Editor's note: We're not entirely sure Kev understood the nature of the question).
MD - David Grimes' catch at Stanford. It was a catch.
PG - Play that counted: Golden Tate's amazing touchdown catch against Purdue. Play that didn't count: lateral-filled interception return at Stanford.
GH - Darrin Walls' pick-six at Penn State. Sentimental runner-up: Robert Hughes' touchdown versus Navy.
BJL - Golden Tate, from Sharpley.
PJ - All good plays have been erased from my mind due to the overwhelming negatives. I plead the fifth.
TMac - It's definitely Grimes' "catch" from the Stanford game.

Winner: Again, a 3-9 season can leave the pickings in this category mighty slim. So much so that the overall winner is a play that didn't even count...


In honor of ESPN The Magazine, which Irish player is a household name next year? (For the right reasons, let's assume.)

BF - The trendy choice here would be Clausen. But I'm going to say our linebackers. Brockington is finally gone, Neal and Smith have a year under their belts and Crum is back in the middle. I think they'll hold down the fort pretty well. Also receiving votes: Clausen, Kamara, Walls, Hughes.
KB - Armando Allen.
MD - Hughes.
PG - Luke Harangody (oh, wait...Hughes).
GH - Ian Williams. Runner-up: Harrison Smith, who will be hailed as The Second Coming of Zibby, given his status as a semi-fast white safety.
BJL - Mike Floyd.
PJ - I think Golden Tate is not only going to finally become comfortable with the offense and running routes, I think Charlie is going to feel comfortable letting Jimmy lob the ball down field to him. I expect to finally see some real breakaway speed.
TMac - If he actually shows up to training camp, I agree with Dick and will say Floyd. If he gets within a couple of feet of the ball, we could be seeing some magic next year (assuming the ball gets to him).

Winner: By majority of mentions...Robert Hughes, you got next.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Spanning the Nation: Shut Up, Anthony Smith Edition

Part of me never really bought in to the "Boy Scout" image the New England Patriots have been cultivating throughout the media. Yes, they don't have anybody who pre-plans touchdown celebrations designed to elicit fines. They don't openly challenge the officiating or mope about replay. They present an impossibly bland, even-keeled image to the media. And yes, the coach basically jams humble pie into his impressive collection of talent, instilling the rigid "ONE...GAME...AT...A...TIME" mentality.

But if you watched them this season, specifically against the Pittsburgh Steelers, you know that's just a public face. Behind closed doors, the Patriots want blood. Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniel's directive couldn't have been more obvious: "Bring me the head of Anthony Smith". Part of me cringes at what Belichick has in mind for the Tattler, Eric Mangini, who was already persona-non-grata in New England before Video-Gate. These Patriots talk trash on the field. They get in people's faces. And they're six wins from perfection that would be miles ahead of the 17-0 benchmark set by the Dolphins in 1972.

So how'd the week go elsewhere? Glad you asked...

Angelo Suozzi - Hometown: Pittsford, NY

The Sabres' West Coast swing was one they'd like to forget, dropping games in Anaheim (4-1) and Los Angeles (8-2...for the record, the Kings are the worst team in the West and just two points ahead of Washington for the title of worst in the NHL). Some pride was salvaged with another road beatdown, this time with a 7-1 victory over the Sharks. How can Ryan Miller be bad enough to give up 8 goals to the worst team in the Western Conference and then hold San Jose and Joe Thornton to just 1? It boggles the mind. Also boggling the mind: the Buffalo Bills and their very real chance at making the playoffs. This Sunday's showdown versus 8-5 Cleveland will likely decide the sixth and final playoff spot in the AFC. Before we can properly hype this matchup though, we have to figure out if it's even possible to have a showdown between Buffalo & Cleveland without one of these historically futile cities finally collapsing into the black vortex of doom upon losing. I don't think it is. So when the Bills and Browns square off, they won't just be fighting for the chance to eventually be eliminated by New England in the most lopsided NFL playoff game ever.  They'll be fighting to preserve their city from reaching "Final Destination" and terminating itself permanently. God speed, Buffalo.

Thomas McCall - Hometown: Lake Charles, LA

The Saints are still holding on to the dream of coming back to January football with a victory tonight over the Atlanta Falcons, keeping them one run above "dead to rights" in the NFC playoff chase at 6-7. But they'll need help, and it won't be coming by way of Reginald Bush, who's done for the season with a knee injury. This might explain why Reggie just hasn't seemed like the same player this season, although Mike D was making such observations after Reggie & the 'Aints face-planted during the Thursday night opener back in September. Reggie's coach, Sean Payton, isn't afraid to stick to his Riverboat Gambler attitude even when trying to call a game-icing drive. If anybody can appreciate that you'd think it would be the fine people of New Orleans; not so, at least in the eyes of one Times-Picayune cartoonist. Over in Baton Rouge, it's championship month for LSU and their newly-minted $3 million dollar man, Les Miles. Apparently, Ohio State has already won the first key battle by having a better graduation rate than the Tigers - and it apparently occurred to nobody that trumpeting a 53% graduation over 51% is the definition of splitting hairs. If it's any boost to the Buckeye ego, Notre Dame played two schools with graduation rates better than it's 93% (Boston College & Navy) and lost to both of them.

Pat Girouard/Joe Long - Hometown: Cretin Derham Hall, MN

The question has vexed us all for the past few weeks, and now things have finally come to a head: Just who in the hell does these Minnesota Vikings think they are? Conjuring up memories of the high-flying heady days of Randall Cunningham, Randy Moss, and Gary Anderson with their offensive explosions paced by Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor, the Vikes have surged into the NFC playoff picture at 7-6, leading Brad Childress to declare his team will now be "the hunted" over the final three weeks after "going hunting" the previous month. If anybody appreciated a good hunting metaphor, it's bound to be the Minnesotans. Across town at the XCel Energy Center, news was good off the ice, less than stellar on it. Off the ice: St. Paul received a tremendous ego & tourist boost when Sports Illustrated, citing fledgling attendance figures, stripped Detroit of its title as "Hockeytown, USA" and, after laying out a case for Philadelphia and Buffalo, anointed St. Paul-Minneapolis as America's new "Hockeytown". The numbers make a compelling argument - since the Wild restored Minnesota as NHL territory in 2000, the franchise has sold every ticket to every game that's ever been played at the XCel. Contrasted with Detroit's inability to sell-out playoff games last May, and even the staunchest defenders of the Detroit legacy (Brian Fallon) might have a tough time making an argument. Bill Smith has yet to find a dance partner in his trade maneuvering, so the Twins might just have to settle for another boring 20-win campaign & Cy Young from Johan Santana. How horrible.

Brian Fallon - Hometown: Grand Rapids, MI

I have to admit it, the last five weeks have solidified my appreciation for Detroit Lions fans. Like a punch-drunk fighter who just doesn't know when to quit, or a race horse who's never won yet mystically continues to post himself, fans of the "Lie-Downs" keep getting hit and yet keep coming back for more. To be a Lions fan requires a psychological affection for pain and suffering I don't have. Not even Angelo's experience as a Bills fans or the annual screw-job the Eagles foist onto K-Braun compares. Those teams at least offer up a taste of success, of longevity; they've been competitive, made it to multiple Super Bowls. The maddening factor comes from being so close and yet never being able to go the final step. The Lions, on the other hand, in the past 40 years have just three division titles (none since 1993) and 1 playoff game. Think about that - a total of one playoff win in 40 years of football. Fallon should turn his focus to the other "vicious animal" team in Detroit, the Tigers, who will feature an absolutely ridiculous lineup with the addition of Miguel Cabrera, and this plucky youngster named Dontrelle Willis whom Florida insisted on including in the deal. And while plenty of good seats are apparently still available for the Red Wings game, the Wings don't care who's watching - they just win. At 22-6-2 in early December, I have to call it now and say I think Detroit can put a real run on their own record for wins (62, set in 1996). And to think - 50% of Detroit's losses are to the Blackhawks!

Kevin Braun - Hometown: Lancaster, PA

Fifth loss this season for the Eagles by four points or less. Is Mike Brey coaching the team or something? Donovan McNabb returned to the Philly lineup, but couldn't get any help from the officials or David Akers when it counted as Philly dropped it's third straight heartbreaker, 16-13 to Eli Manning and the New York Giants. It must really wear on an NFL defense to think about all the time and energy they spend on four days of relentless practice leading up to gameday, only to see a player who hasn't practice once in the entire damn seasons school them in every big moment (Plaxico Burress). Kevin, what would you like Phanta Claus to bring you for Christmas this season? Tadahito Iguchi as your third baseman, probably.

George Heidkamp - Hometown: Hinsdale, IL

Blackhawks: slumping. Bulls: building a Lake Shore Drive mansion with all the bricks they're tossing. White Sox: courageously failing to land any impact player in the trade/free agent markets. Da Bears: turning to Kyle Orton as their savior...hahaha. Essentially, all is as it should be in Chicago sports. The Packers show no signs of slowing down or dwelling on that frustrating loss to the Cowboys, as future Hall of Famer Ryan Grant paces the Packer rushing game into the playoffs at 11-2 with three easy games to close out the year - the 3-10 Rams, flailing Bears, and desperate Lions. I just wish the Patriots weren't doing what they were doing, because then I could at least cling to the fantasy notion that it's possible to send Favre out with the ultimate exclamation point by winning Super Bowl XLII.

Paul Jacobs - Hometown: St. Louis, MO

It could just be me, but the Cardinals and Scott Rolen come across like a domestic abuse case involving a bitchy wife and a drunk husband. Rolen goes out his way to make everybody in the organization miserable, then the 'man of the house' retaliates by basically promising to lock him up and throw away the key. You know we love you Scott, that's why we hit you. It got so bad that Phil Rogers declared one of the major casualties of the Winter Meetings to be the Cardinal's dignity. Ouch.

Mike Devitt - Hometown: Marion, IN

23-0. In the first 13 minutes of the game. That's all you need to know about the thorough dismantling Peyton Manning and his Big Band committed on the Artists Formerly Known as the Baltimore Ravens. And Manning did this without Marvin Harrison, with Dallas Clark neutralized, his offensive line hobbled, and his defense missing Dwight Freeney. It was so humiliating that Ravens fans headed to exits en masse before the first quarter ended, and the ones who stuck around did so mainly to boo the Colts on principal for deserting the city 24 years ago. 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith was called upon to lead the Raven's garbage time offense, and he scored a touchdown to make the final tally 44-20, which I guess isn't too bad until you factor in Manning left the game early in the third quarter. 

Meanwhile, Back at Headquarters...

This dispatch from Paul accurately sums up Tuesday night's victory over Kansas State in Madison Square Garden: "Harangody is a beast! They don't want to touch him! They don't want to have anything to do with him!" Mike Valenti would agree. The burly, barrel-chested 6'8" sophomore went toe-to-toe with consensus NBA lottery pick Michael Beasley on Tuesday night and came out on the other end with 19 points and 14 rebounds. Kyle McAlarney finished with a flourish in his New York homecoming, dropping a key late three-pointer (he finished with 18) in the 68-59 victory. Now, everybody root for K-State to go on a tear in Big 12 play, because they represent the only chance to have a quality non-conference win on the tournament resume. The Irish cleaned up the business of setting a new record for consecutive JACC wins quickly on Saturday, pasting Northern Illinois 108-62. Harangody, McAlarney, Rob Kurz, and Ryan Ayers all finished in double figures, while the entire Irish bench played significant minutes save for walk-ons Tim Andree and Tom Kopko. Tyrone Nash turned a few heads among freshman players, going perfect from the field (3-for-3) and collecting 5 rebounds. On the other hand, he wears Chris Thomas' number. While looking good in mop-up time against 2-7 NIU, don't expect to see Nash or fellow youngsters Tim Abromaitis or Tyrone Profitt to have too many long appearances, barring another marijuana arrest or catastrophic injury.