Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Soon-to-Be Super Irish?

The Blue-Gray Sky has a meticulous recap of the performance laid down by the three Notre Dame graduates who participated in last week's Senior Bowl activities, which wrapped up with the actual game Saturday night. Trevor Laws impressed scouts all week with his motor along the defensive line, and collected a sack of Colt Brennan to go with a nice, acrobatic fumble recovery which conjured memories of his pick against J.D. Booty versus USC in 2006, and six tackles.

Tom Zbikowski was close behind, totaling five tackles, a fumble recovery of his own, and many plaudits for his punt returning. The Chicago Tribune shadowed Zibby for the week, and most of the same questions Notre Dame fans once pondered came up in his first meetings with NFL reps:
While others around him are bombarded with questions about college fights they shouldn't have engaged in, Zbikowski gets quizzed about confrontations he might have in the future.

"They all want to know about boxing," he says of his other passion. "They want to make sure I'm giving it up; if I was offered $20 million for football or boxing, which one I would chose. That's an understandable concern.

"I'm down here at the Senior Bowl to compete, not box."

Another subject that arises is special teams and Zbikowski's willingness to return punts. He receives good feedback, but one of the conversations delves into a stereotype of how a bulky white guy couldn't possibly have success returning punts. The conversation didn't make Zbikowski cringe. It enlightened him.

"I like that he said a special teams player is special, that you can't really look and say what a prototype returner is -- that it's just someone who has a knack for doing it," Zbikowski says. "That's me in a nutshell."
That teams would want rock-solid assurances that they won't need to compete with boxing promoters for Zbikowski's undivided attention is hardly surprising. Nor is the fact that many of them see a stocky safety who doesn't reach six feet in platforms as a bit of reach pick, particularly when the skill he's most likely to contribute defies conventional thinking. But anybody who knows Zibby knows he doesn't back down from a challenge.

The third and final member of the ND delegation (John Carlson was locked in a nasty bout with the flu and elected to skip Mobile) was center John Sullivan, who may not have turned heads but certainly didn't do anything to harm his stock in advance of the NFL Combine which takes place starting three weeks from tomorrow in Indianapolis. Sullivan (along with Zbikowski) was at one time the best senior at his position according to draft guru Mel Kiper, but a year full of botched shotgun snaps and membership in an offensive line that surrendered more than 50 sacks causes a lot of people reexamine their thinking.

These four - Laws, Zbikowski, Sullivan, & Carlson - are all certain to get a chance at some NFL team's training camp, and potentially all four of them could be first day picks. It's far more likely that only one or two of them - likely Carlson, perhaps Laws too - will go on the first day as they battle the perceptions that come with being part of a 3-9 Notre Dame team. A lot will depend on how they "test out" during the Combine.

Meanwhile, as Super Bowl XLII inches closer (complete with today's Theater of the Absurd....oops, "Media" Day), there will be two more players with Irish connections strutting their stuff. But it'll be during the real entertaining portion of Sunday's game, namely the commercials. Zibby and his pal/ex-receiver/current Cubs prospect Jeff Samardzija will be among the 27 athletes putting the new UnderArmour footwear on display for 60 seconds of airtime. Everybody gives Brady Quinn a hard time about cashing in for commercial glory before making it in the pros - hell, these two didn't even get drafted before making it onto the big stage!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Super Irish

Cry not for the national media. Though they were deprived of two layup Super Bowl XLII storylines (Patriots-Cowboys, also known as Battle of the Diva Girlfriend Network Stars, and Patriots-Packers, also known as the Shrine to Brett Favre's Childlike Love of the Game), they moved right along to the next big thing when putting out copy for Patriots-Giants.

Yes, there's that whole perfect season thing with the Patriots. And Tom Brady's mysterious trend-setting in the world of footwear. But the early clubhouse leader for "story which is nice but will slowly drive us all insane by the time kickoff comes Sunday" is the heart-warming tale of Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas and Giants defensive lineman Justin Tuck (Notre Dame class of '05). The two hail from a dusty briar patch of a county in the middle of Alabama, Coosa County, a place with few stoplights, no street names, and more branches on the Tuck & Thomas family tree than can be counted. The pair are officially cousins and stay in touch regularly during the season, but neither is exactly certain what their relation is (insert gratuitous side-joke about intertwining Southern lineages here). But no matter what, Coosa County goes home a winner from Glendale with two of their favorite sons playing a big role for the big game. USA Today and the NY Times have full cover stories on the criss-crossing path each followed to the ultimate junction point.

Tuck isn't the only Irish alum who'll stalk the Big Blue sidelines on Sunday. His classmate, tight end Jerome Collins, is back in the Super Bowl for a second straight time in his three-year career. A reserve with the Colts last season who mimicked opposing players during practices (he was also active for two games), Collins fulfills the same duties in New York and is one of only two Giants with past Super Bowl experience. It's a long-shot at best for him to see any game action, but it's nice to see a little ink for one of those players who does nothing but toil to get the big stars ready for the show.

A fourth Domer, cornerback Mike Richardson (Class of '06), remains with the Patriots on injured reserve after making a strong showing during training camp and three preseason appearances. If that weren't enough...
Richardson, a cornerback on injured reserve, is a graduate of Notre Dame, and hasn't he already suffered enough from Dana Jacobson's diatribes? I mean, the man hasn't stopped crying for a minute.
Permit me a sarcastic, "Ha-ha". I would interject with my own thoughts about Ms. Jacobsen's recent behavior at a painfully unfunny Atlantic City "roast" honoring ESPN Radio Hosts Mike (Greenberg) & Mike (Golic), but let us harken back to the words of Mark Twain and draw a curtain of charity over the rest of that scene.

Returning to the business at hand: even without the possibility of Super Bowl ring, Tuck had plenty to be proud of in his third NFL season, registering a career-high 10 sacks without the benefit of starting, since he split time at end with Michael Strahan & Osi Umenyiora aside from moonlighting at tackle. The Giants recently locked him up with a contract that could ultimately be worth $30 million - $16 million guaranteed, an astronomically high figure for a player who's technically not starting. Tuck's super season had us in a reflective mood about the NFL Irish - in a year where so little went right for the boys in the gold helmets, how did those who came before do at the next level?

Chinedum Ndukwe, FS Bengals -- Those intimately familiar with Ndukwe's Notre Dame career can't decipher if his success for Cincinnati reflected an undervalued player who elevated his game and work ethic in the face of stiff odds, or simply an indication that Cincy's defense is so bad that Ndukwe wound up being one of their star players. 'Nedu' racked up 45 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 interceptions, and had a fumble return for a touchdown - not too shabby for any rookie, let alone one who was a tail-end draft selection given nothing better than a long-shot chance at making the roster. He's also, without question, benefiting from his upbringing and the environment at Notre Dame in contrast with most of the Bengal locker room, which deteriorated so fast this season Marvin Lewis reamed his players within earshot of the press after a Week 4 blowout loss to the Patriots. Shortly afterwards, Lewis summed up his team thus:
"My job is to get the junior college guys to act like they've gone to Notre Dame and Michigan," Lewis said. "As we go, we'll continue to get more of those stable guys. But unfortunately, that's what we're dealing with — a bunch of junior college guys."
That not-so-subtle dig at showboaters like Chad Johnson reflected Lewis' desire to bring in more players with a solid grip on life on and off the football field, the kind of guys who have had their act together at top-level universities. At least there's one member of the Cincinnati secondary who won't need to act the part.

Arnaz Battle, WR 49ers -- After a week one victory in which Battle took a reverse in for the winning touchdown with 22 seconds to play, it seemed like the fifth-year pro could be heading for a breakout season. A little stability at the quarterback position would've gone a long way, because Battle and the rest of the Niner offense stayed in neutral most of the year. For the season Arnaz essentially matched his 2006 output, pulling in 50 catches for 600 yards & 5 TDs (on par with 59/686/3 from a year ago). It'll be interesting to see how (and if) Battle fits into the plans of new 49er offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

Anthony Fasano, TE Cowboys -- The second-year Cowboy put up a near-identical season to his first one, catching 14 passes for 143 yards to go along with his first career touchdown, scored during Dallas' showdown against Green Bay. The pickings are pretty slim for a third-stringer behind Jason Witten in the Cowboy offense, but Fasano could emerge as attractive second option and earn a chance to shine in his own right when he hits the free agent market after 2009.

Allen Rossum, CB/KR Steelers -- Most figured Rossum, at 32, was ready to be put out to pasture after five seasons in Atlanta & nine overall. But the Steelers liked what they saw in the special teams department, and Rossum rewarded them with a solid display highlighted by a 98-yard kickoff return TD against the 49ers. For the year Rossum averaged 23 yards per return; Pittsburgh returned to the playoffs.

Maurice Stovall, WR Buccaneers -- Stovall matched Fasano with his first TD catch in his second season, but he was (somewhat mystifyingly) unable to crack the regular rotation at receiver for Jon Gruden's Bucs. Just 10 catches for 86 yards in an almost exclusively late-game capacity. He did, however, perform like gangbusters on special teams, earning the nickname "Gunner Stovall" from Gruden. His season ended prematurely with a broken forearm suffered in Week 16; the Bucs followed quietly two weeks later versus the Giants in the Wild Card playoff round.

Bryant Young, DE 49ers -- The elder statesmen of NFL Irish, the 36-year old Young came back for one final go-round with the only team he's ever played for and acquitted himself well, collecting 34 tackles and 7 sacks in his last campaign. Disappointed that the promise shown by a young team in 2006 failed to translate to better results (San Fran was a disappointing 5-11), Young decided to hang up his cleats after concluding his body could no longer stand up to the punishment of life in the trenches. Winner of the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 1994 as part of the the Niners most recent Super Bowl team, the former All-American retires a four-time Pro Bowler, four-time All-Pro selection, and the winner 1999's Comeback Player of the Year. He finished his career third in 49er team history with 89.5 sacks and clearly #1 in the hearts of many fans and members of the organization, who carried him off the field after a victory in his final home game.

Ryan Grant, RB Packers -- OK, raise your hand if you saw this coming. Ryan Grant, who split time with Julius Jones and then Darius Walker in his final two seasons under the Dome. Ryan Grant, who seemed lead-footed next to the refocused Jones in 2003 and unsure of which way was forward in 2004. Ryan Grant, an undrafted free agent who missed out on a chance to make an NFL roster because of a freak accident that gashed an artery and left him fighting for his life. Yes, that very same Ryan Grant led the NFL in rushing over the final 10 weeks and the playoffs. After a breakout sophomore year in 2002, Grant seemed like a monument to unrealized potential when his four years were finally up in South Bend. When the desperate Packers traded for him to be their fourth-string running back just before the season started, nobody thought much of it. Then DeShawn Wynn, Brandon Jackson, and Vernand Morency all struggled/went down with injuries, and in stepped Grant to start a Week 8 Monday Night contest against Denver. He reeled off 104 yards. Two weeks later, 119 against Minnesota, the best rushing defense in the league. Performances of 101, 94, and 156 followed in successive weeks, highlighted by a 62-yard gash through all 11 members of the Cowboy defense in Week 12. Then came his masterpiece, born from the depths of despair - after fumbling twice in his first three carries, Grant ripped off a Packers playoff record 201 yards to go with three touchdowns in a 42-20 divisonal round win against the Seahawks. Nobody except LaDanian Tomlinson rushed for more yards in the final 10 weeks of the season. Nobody, period, rushed for more from Week 8 onward when you count the playoffs. Congratulations Mr. Grant - you've arrived.

Julius Jones, RB Cowboys -- At the same time the player he once supplanted is surging, Jones finds himself on the short end of a replay of his 2003 senior season (minus the 38-0 losses to Michigan). Though secure in his position as the starting running back, JJ found himself increasingly upstaged by Marion Barber III, culminating in a changing of the guard for Dallas' first playoff game - which they lost to the Giants, though one could hardly fault Barber's productivity. It'll be interesting to see where Jones lands in free agency, but he probably won't get the kind of money a back who started every regular season game for a 13-3 team should expect, since he had his weakest pro season. But for teams in desperate need of a real running back, he could be the answer.

Darius Walker, RB Texans -- DWalk's decision to pounce on his solid performance in an otherwise forgettable 2007 Sugar Bowl and pass up his senior season for the NFL looked like a disaster when he went undrafted, then cut by the Texans in training camp before being re-signed and exiled to the practice squad. Through November, his most notable achievement was using his considerable charm as the host of a weekly web video segment on TexansTV, "Wednesdays with Walker". It was enough to make Notre Dame fans wonder, "Aren't there better things Darius could be doing? Like maybe helping the Irish avoid being the worst running offense in Division I football?" His former team managed to climb out of that pit on its own (barely), and Walker bided his time in Houston before getting the call in Week 14. Over the season's final four games he was used as an effective change-of-pace back next to Ron Dayne and rushed for 264 yards plus a touchdown as Texans set a franchise record for wins (only 8, yeah, but you gotta start somewhere). With Houston's backfield crowded but not star-studded - Dayne, Samkon Gado, an aging Ahman Green, & Adimchinobi Echemandu - he might have an opportunity to earn a bigger role in 2008.

Brady Quinn, QB Browns -- Upon the conclusion of 2007, Brady is most likely the only player in the NFL who currently has more commercial appearances than live downs played in his career. The matinee-idol looks netted TV advertising deals with Subway, Gilette, & EAS for the 22nd pick in the draft, and it sure looked like the Browns were heading for the meltdown which would essentially force Romeo Crennel into playing Quinn early when, among other embarrassments, they got flagged for four different penalties on one play early in the season-opening blowout loss to Pittsburgh. But surprise QB of the season Derek Anderson righted the ship and led the Browns to 10 victories, though his inconsistent play down the stretch was a prime factor in Cleveland missing the playoffs. For the year, Quinn led just one drive, an end-of-the-first-half field goal march in Cleveland's finale versus San Francisco as Anderson injured his hand; he went 3 of 8 for 45 yards. By offering Anderson a maximum contract, Cleveland GM Phil Savage is following the San Diego "Brees vs. Rivers" playbook, electing to keep the restricted free agent in a Browns uni (and, by extension, keep Quinn on the bench). But like Rivers before him, Quinn will be a starting quarterback , somewhere, before long in the NFL - it'll be a question of what he does with that opportunity once it comes.

Other Irish NFL alums of note in 2007...
  • Sean Mahan, C Steelers - Natural guard spent all season out of position at center for the playoff-bound Steelers.
  • Derek Landri, DT Jaguars - Rookie tackle found playing time sparse behind John Henderson and Marcus Stroud, but he came up huge when it counted by subbing for Henderson in Jacksonville's Wild Card playoff win over Pittsburgh. How huge? He netted the rare defensive lineman hat trick with a sack, fumble recovery, and an interception.
  • Jeff Faine, C Saints - Struggled with injuries this season but again displayed his toughness by not missing a start (he has started every game since being a first-round choice in 2003). A Pro Bowl alternate last season as part of the Saints' feel-good rebound, he's an unrestricted free agent.
  • Rocky Boiman, LB Colts - Not many non-special teams players last six seasons in the NFL despite having less than a handful of starts. Boiman's not like many other NFL players. In his second season in Indianapolis, Boiman set a career-high in tackles (54) and nabbed 2 interceptions.
  • Mike Gandy, OT Cardinals - You might not know it, but Gandy has racked up 80 starts in the NFL since leaving Notre Dame after the 2000 Fiesta Bowl season. He's firmly established as the Cardinals #1 protector on the blind side.
  • Bert Berry, DE Cardinals - 10th year veteran had only 2.5 sacks before being sidelined for the year with a torn triceps after 9 games. Slated to make $4 million in 2008, the final year of his deal with Arizona, Berry's likely to be cut but says he's not thinking retirement.
  • Corey Mays, LB Bengals - Mays started as a special teams player with the Patriots in 2006 and made one appearance for New England this season before being released, then was claimed by Cincinnati off waivers when their whole linebacking corps got injured. For the year he notched 15 tackles.
  • Deke Cooper, FS Panthers - Sixth-year player had arguably his best pro year in returning to Carolina, recording 59 tackles and 3 interceptions. Carolina had a respectable defense but putrid offense (29th in yards and passing, 26th in points) did them in.
  • Glenn Earl, FS Texans - The fourth-year player fractured his foot (technically a Lisfranc sprain) during the preseason against Chicago and was done for the year. Look for him to be back with a vengeance and build from his solid 2006, when he had 74 tackles and 2 sacks while starting every game.
  • Victor Abiamiri, DE Eagles - Second-round choice saw action in six games and had three tackles, but could be poised to make a move considering three of Philly's top four ends (Darren Howard, Jevon Kearse & Juqua Thomas) are pushing 30 and beyond.
  • Jordan Black, OT Texans - After starting all 16 games for the Chiefs in 2006, Black spurned a richer offer from the Raiders for the chance to play in his home state, where he appeared in 8 games as an offensive line reserve.
  • Anthony Weaver, DE Texans - Weaver continued to be a fine role-player for the Texans D, but recording a career high in tackles was offset by failing to notch a sack - Houston was 25th in the NFL defending the pass.
  • Renaldo Wynn, DE Saints - 11th-year veteran moved to New Orleans after five seasons each with Jacksonville & Washington. He was a regular in the defensive rotation for the Saints in the second half of the year, backing up Will Smith & Charles Grant in passing situations. Finished with 13 tackles & 3.5 sacks.
  • Hunter Smith, P Colts - "The Most Accurate Holder in Football History" had a decent year for the Colts, but his numbers for punting average & net punting were the lowest of his nine-year career.
  • John Carney, K Chiefs - The 44-year old Carney was still booting it during 2007, first for Jacksonville and then Kansas City. For the season he was 12/14 on field goals and 27/28 on extra point attempts. Unknown if he'll return for a 20th NFL season.
Tomorrow - A look at how potential NFL Irish are faring in the drive towards the 2008 NFL Draft...

Sunday, January 27, 2008


Paulie & myself in attendance. I predict Bron-Bron drops 60.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

D-Line Depth Trying to Avoid Getting Deep-Sixed

The first loss was a hypothetical one, as Notre Dame had to move past the decision of high school senior Omar Hunter to remove himself from the list of Irish pledges before finally, to the absolute shock of everyone, picking Florida.

The second was a complete stunner, when last week it was announced that starting nose tackle Pat Kuntz (seen here sacking UCLA's walk-on quarterback) was not enrolled for the spring semester. Neither Kuntz nor ND officials would elaborate, except to confirm that the senior-to-be was studying in Indianapolis, at Ivy Tech, for "personal reasons". If the football thing doesn't pan out, Kuntz may at least have a calling to play Douglas MacArthur in a future biopic about the famous general, defiantly stating 'I shall return' when contacted by the AP:
No matter what I'm going to be back there. I'm going to have one more year to play and I'm going to graduate from Notre Dame.
The early rite of football fan spring known as DCE (depth chart engineering) speculated that Kuntz would move to defensive end given the emergence of Williams and the loss of Trevor Laws to graduation. So his absence, while regrettable, has now opened up a chance for little-used second and third year players like Derrell Hand, Kallen Wade, & Paddy Mullen to establish themselves opposite the freshman All-American and returning fifth-year end Justin Brown. Only now it looks like the Irish won't have Hand's services either, this time for medical reasons:
Hand’s football career is likely over because of a hereditary disease in his spinal cord, Hand’s former high school coach, Brian Fulk, explained.

“He’s going to get a second opinion about it,” Fulk said. “But at this point, it doesn’t look real good for him to play football ever again.”

A Notre Dame spokesman declined specific comment on Hand’s status, citing confidentiality laws.
Assuming Hand can no longer play, that leaves Notre Dame with just six healthy defensive lineman during spring drills - Brown, Williams, Wade, Mullen, rising freshman Emeka Nwankwo & early-enrollee frosh Sean Cwynar. As pronounced a problem as that may seem, just imagine if the Irish were still running with four down-lineman as part of their regular defense.

So how do the Irish resupply themselves along the defensive line? One interesting possibility is offering an offensive lineman a crack at the depth chart across the line of scrimmage. The Irish tried this a year ago with Chris Stewart, but that pretty much was over before it began and Stewart came thisclose to transferring in the fall before starting to assert himself in the rotation at right tackle. Andrew Nuss was recruited as an offensive lineman, told he'd be switched to defense as recruiting came to a close last season (an announcement that came on the heels of some high-profile misses in the high schooler sweepstakes, most notably Martez Wilson), and is still officially listed as a defensive end, although Coach Weis included him when discussing the prospects of Matt Romine & Taylor Dever along the o-line depth chart.

And speaking of depth in that area, several reports floating through the blogosphere indicate that Bartley Webb could be finished with football as the result of a lingering shoulder injury.

The most likely option in both instances will be to solve the depth problem with the ever-popular "wait for the cavalry" plan. Barring any really last-minute changes of heart, the Irish will sign  four top defensive lineman in 11 days (Cwynar, Hafis Williams, Brandon Newman, and Ethan Johnson - though Johnson will be in recovery mode from a broken leg that wiped out his senior season). Out on the trail, the Irish were high on the list of Kapron Lewis-Moore (who came away raving about his official visit last weekend), but a few plot twists ended with Moore decommitting from Texas A&M, A&M subsequently revoking his scholarship offer, and finally Moore's announcement today that he's sticking with the Aggies. Another potential late switcher on defense, tackle Mike Martin, seems pretty solid in his Michigan commitment now and cancelled a planned visit to South Bend, so if the Irish are gonna make a late steal of their own it'll be with a late push for another Georgian, defensive end Keith Wells of Gainesville.

The other side of the trench sees fresh recruits Braxston Cave, Lane Clelland, Mike Golic, & Cwynar's fellow early enrollee Trevor Robinson, while the final big target, South Carolina's Kenneth Page, will announce tomorrow morning. 

The concern, naturally, comes when assessing the possibility that 2008 could wind up an eerie refrain of 2007, in which numerous spots along both lines are manned by players who've never taken a meaningful snap in a college game. While potentially losing Kuntz on top of the graduation of Laws leaves a lot unsettled for the Irish d-line, a great writer once said, “We are all faced with a series of great opportunities brilliantly disguised as impossible situations.”

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Spanning the Nation: Life is Cruel Edition

All the pieces were in place - Lambeau Field. A chill in the air. The Super Bowl on the line. And Brett Favre with the football, needing merely one drive to secure a third NFC Championship. Destiny was aligning once again in the corner of Favre and the Packers.

Except somebody forgot to tell the New York Giants. In deference to my own sanity, I'll skip recapping the game any further. Congratulations to the Big Blue and here's hoping for an equally taut contest two weeks from now in the slightly warmer temperatures of Glendale, AZ versus the Patriots.

So, what else is new?

Angelo Suozzi - Hometown: Pittsford, NY

I'm sure Angelo would agree on this one - when Buffalo snaps a streak, they REALLY snap a streak. Gives one hope that whenever the Bills make it back to the Super Bowl, they'll be the ones laying a 52-17 whipping on some unsuspecting chump from the other conference. Well, on second thought...nah. But the Sabres broke their horrendous losing skid in a big way, netting not one but two hat tricks over the course of a 10-1 victory over the Atlanta Thrashers. The orgy of goals snapped a 10-game winless streak, but the momentum didn't last. Lindy Ruff and the gang dropped the next two contests and are still looking at an uphill climb to the playoffs heading into the second half of the season. To cap things off with a positive however, the Sabres are no longer the worst team in their division, having successfully forged a tie with Toronto for that dubious honor.

Thomas McCall - Hometown: Lake Charles, LA

Les Miles would be the first to tell you, with our very own T-Mac close behind him: "There will be no questions! The LSU Tigers are national champions!" For a second straight season, the SEC took Ohio State out behind the woodshed, this time with the Bayou Bengals doing the dirty work down in the French Quarter by a score of 38-24. It wasn't even that close. No doubt this will keep all those Cajuns warm at night when they're left to think about how much of a colossal blunder the Saints season was. Right Thomas?

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

The Wild have broken out to the lead in the Northwest Division and would be the West's #3 seed in the playoffs started today, but there's no time to rest on the laurels. Three teams remain in hot pursuit within the division - Colorado, Vancouver, Calgary, with the four times separated by just two points. Girouard could not be reached for comment, though it's safe to assume he approves. Broadway Joe continues to cheer on the All-Name Team, aka the #11 Wisconsin Badgers, who are steamrolling behind leading scorers Trevon Hughes & Brian Butch towards the showdown with #8 Indiana next Thursday. Come early, be loud, stay late, as they say in Mad-Town.

Brian Fallon - Hometown: Grand Rapids, MI

Brian summed up the 2008 start for the Red Wings thusly:
Currently the Wings are in the midst of a 3 game losing skid: to Minnesota (24-17-2; giving up a tying goal in the final minute and losing in a shootout in which neither Datsyuk nor Zetterberg score? Did this game really happen?), Ottawa (29-10-4; a battle of the league's best, unfortunate outcome), Atlanta (23-22-2; a pedestrian team whose star player in Marian Hossa decided to show up). We'll have to pick it up tonight against a Vancouver team who has something to play for: they're a game behind the Wild in the Northwest Division and, after dropping 3 of their last 4 to mediocre competition, are also trying to right the ship. I might have to find a bar.
No word on if Brian found a bar, but the Wings triumphed over the Canucks in a shootout and followed it up with a convincing victory over San Jose. The boys from the Joe are 35-10-4 with a comfortable 22-point lead on the next closest Central Division foe. Funny how a major slump for the Red Wings is a hot streak for just about any other franchise.

Kevin Braun - Hometown: Lancaster, PA

Now comes the long, cold winter for Philadelphia - no Eagles, sinking Flyers, putrid Sixers, and still a month until pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater, FL to begin spring training. What's Kev going to do with himself? Coach Texas youth basketball, that's what. Stay tuned for further self-evaluations on the Mike Brey Coaching Scale as the season moves forward.

George Heidkamp - Hometown: Hinsdale, IL

Sox signed Octavio Dotel. Big whoop. Bulls won a game. Then lost, then won. La-dee-freakin'-dah. Sports lost all meaning until sometime in April as of the events of overtime this past Sunday night.

Paul Jacobs - Hometown: St. Louis, MO

The long nightmare of St. Louis is over - Scott Rolen has been traded. Ozzie Smith, be praised. The Redbirds also re-upped with Yadier Molina, while Albert Pujols emerged from his winter vacation locked and loaded for the Mitchell Committee, since early "leaks" of the steroids report falsely included him and dozens of other marquee players as being "named". Albert forgives, but he doesn't forget. Just ask the Cubs.

Mike Devitt - Hometown: Marion, IN

Well, you can't win them all. Peyton Manning knew that already (I mean, he really knew it) but that didn't make losing to a Chargers team which had most of its key offensive players either hobbled or missing any less shocking. And to think it was not only a banged-up Charger team, it was banged-up Charger team coached by Norv Turner, who just one week later would demonstrate his stunning lack of coaching mojo by punting rather than go for it with under 10 minutes left in a game where his team needed two scores. Tony Dungy will return though, and early reports indicate Mike has already started talking trash in advance of next year's retribution tour.

Meanwhile, Back at Headquarters...

Maybe there can be some sort of arrangement made in which Notre Dame basketball agrees to forfeit their remaining road games in exchange for each one counting as only half of a loss. Trying to swing that can't be any harder than actually trying to execute on the road, where the Irish have been thumped consecutively by Marquette (92-66) and Georgetown (84-65). Underscoring how tough of a league the Big East is - and how home court advantage is king - the Irish have impressive home wins over Connecticut (who bitch-slapped Marquette in Storrs), Cincinnati (which has home victories over ranked teams Villanova and Pittsburgh), and West Virginia (who also thumped Marquette playing at home in Morgantown). So winning on the road is gonna be considered kind of a big deal in the 2008 Big East, which is why it would behoove the Irish to nail down a quality road win or two, not to mention maintain that home-court winning streak, which sits at 31 but is due for stiff challenges in February when DePaul, Marquette, Pittsburgh, & Syracuse visit South Bend. The Irish have their next chance at a road victory this Saturday in Philly against Villanova before a home contest versus Providence on January 31. 

Monday, January 14, 2008

In Through the Out Door

Another week, another series of comings and goings in the Irish program.

In the upperclassmen ranks, the Irish football office released the names of the seniors who are eligible and will ask for a fifth-year of studies in which to play football: to the surprise of almost no one, the three were linebacker Maurice Crum, Jr., defensive end Justin Brown, and cornerback Terrail Lambert. Each brings starting experience back into the fold, putting the number of returning starters on defense at 8 (18 starters return in all, as the Irish lose the Johns on offense, Sullivan and Carlson, plus Trevor Laws, Tom Zbikowski, and Joe Brockington.

Lining up in the departures category was sophomore cornerback Munir Prince, he of the (I guess we'll now have to describe it as infamous) 'whoosh' comments by Charlie Weis during the opening week of fall camp 2006. Although, as somebody who attended that batch of open workouts on McGlinn Fields, I have to say Weis' praise was not totally without merit. In any case, the blazing speed never materialized into great in-game opportunities for Prince, who spent freshman year stuck behind Darius Walker before a position switch. That left him stuck behind Darrin Walls, Lambert, Raeshon McNeil and Ambrose Wooden, and while he did start to see the field, ultimately collecting 21 minutes of playing time and 45 special teams appearances, his three tackles and one pass deflection wouldn't leave him a prime candidate to move up the depth chart considering the top three corners return to go along with Gary Gray being at full health, not to mention incoming recruits Robert Blanton and Jamoris Slaughter. Instead, Prince will return home and play for Missouri, leaving the number of early departures from that 2006 recruiting haul at five. Rumor has it there were others contemplating a transfer, but for the moment all is quiet along the roster front.

Oh, and not that we would condone stealing premium content or anything like that, but there was a very cordial and appreciative note passed on to the subscribers at the Rivals Notre Dame site, Irish Illustrated, from Prince's parents. They expressed their gratitude for Notre Dame's fan support in the midst of a trying season, enthusiastically declared that they will always be ND fans, noting, "when its NDs turn other universities need to remember payback is a b****". They also wanted to emphasize that their son's departure wasn't motivated by being in "the dog house" of Weis or any other coach. It was just the simple fact that there are more great athletes than there are starting spots in South Bend right now.

Elsewhere, at least one news outlet reported that linebacker Anthony Vernaglia was offered the option to return for a fifth year but declined, choosing to take his Notre Dame degree in May and enroll at a Division I-AA school for his final year of football - other recent Domers who've chosen this path include Ronnie Rodamer and Nate Schiccatano. Vernagila leaves as a classic example of an athlete without a position - he was recruited as a safety with an eye towards maybe becoming a factor at tight end (during his recruiting visit he said of a then-freshmen quarterback named Brady Quinn, "I can't wait to catch passes from that guy") but drifted between safety and linebacker throughout his career. When Weis was hired and Rick Minter brought in his "Apache" position, Vernaglia and Chinedum Ndukwe figured to be the prime contenders for the spot before being usurped by Crum, and 'AV' was never able to lock down a spot on the field. He was a starter at outside linebacker in Corwin Brown's new scheme, but steadily ceded ground to first Kerry Neal and then Brian Smith as the year went on. Best of luck, Anthony.

Wrapping things up, today's Recruiting Moment of Zen, courtesy of Steve Filer, who's fast rising up in the rankings of "Most Likely to Be a Quote Machine" for this year's recruiting class. Here's Steve on why his faith in Notre Dame (& Charlie Weis) isn't shaken:
I know he's a good coach. I've been around him. I see how he interacts with the players. I just know he's going to be there for the players. That's why a lot of us stay with him - because we know that. And on the defense, we know Corwin Brown is a good coach.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

"We're Ready"

Yesterday's U.S. Army All-American Bowl showcased the best and brightest of America's high school football seniors, most of whom came to the game already committed. No team was better represented than the Irish with 15 players picked for the game, one of whom (defensive end Ethan Johnson) sat out with an injury. This collection of prospects either a) validates your previously held opinion that Tom Lemming automatically bumps a recruit up two stars whenever he commits to Notre Dame or b) suggests that while Notre Dame has had previous impressive recruiting hauls, this one could be the best in 20 years.

Whatever your opinion of their individual talents is, however you view the 3-9 program which they'll enter into this summer, two things stand out when assessing not just the 14 who spent the week in San Antonio, but the overall 22-man class: they do not lack confidence, and they do not lack that all-important intangible known as team chemistry. Witness Chicago (Mt. Carmel) linebacker Steve Filer, who picked the Irish over Ohio State even after being (in his own words) "an inch away" from choosing the Buckeyes during a summer trip to Columbus:
The 3-9 record did not turn me off...Actually, I talked to a lot of players and (3-9) turned them on. We knew who we had coming, and nobody wanted to change their mind because we saw who we had.
And of the New Year's gathering in San Antonio:
It's nice to get to know them before we get to school and things like that. I've heard a lot about them. It's nice to see who I'll be working with, see who I'll be playing with, see who I'll win a national championship with.
So, no, they're not lacking confidence. One of the interesting unknowns in recruiting is how quick a class comes together - are they buying in to the idea of school and program above all, or are they merely picking a football team that happens to be attached to a school which is merely a stop-gap until they're eligible to play on Sundays? This Notre Dame class happily falls into the former category, which is important when you consider how the previous season just went - it wasn't just a question of talent but also attitude and psyche.

Amid the deteriorating conditions, as Filer suggested, certain things about Notre Dame earned an even bigger appeal, particularly for one of the linchpin recruits, WR Michael Floyd. Speaking of his decision to commit the day after the most embarrassing loss for Notre Dame in the history of their rivalry with USC:
Sitting there and looking at stuff, I just got the feeling that this is the place for me. I didn't get a feeling like that from anywhere else as much as Notre Dame. 'This is the spot for me. This is a place I can have a career and keep going.' It was just a good school for me to go to.
Not surprisingly, Floyd had at least one discussion with Matt Carufel, his former high school teammate at Cretin-Derham Hall who'd departed the Irish just a week before the USC game. And, also not surprisingly, Carufel didn't paint a rosy picture. Floyd didn't care:
He told me I should change my options and stuff like that, but I mean, I told him, 'Notre Dame is the spot for me and I know it's a spot for me.' I also know not everybody has a good experience everywhere. I don't think I'm going to have a bad experience, like he did. It's just some people have bad experiences where they are and some people don't, so that's how it is.
The Irish gained another valuable talent on Saturday as they finished off a meteoric rise up the list of Deion Walker, wide receiver from Christchurch, VA. He picked Notre Dame over Penn State, USC, NC State, & Texas Tech. Furthering the spirit of candor among this class, Walker admitted South Bend wasn't the greatest campus environment of his five finalists - and that when recruiting began, he never saw Notre Dame as his ultimate destination. What tipped the scales?
The value of Notre Dame's academics is excellent, and I have developed a strong relationship with Charlie Weis...He is just a cool guy and really put in a lot of effort, calling and recruiting me personally.
And that 3-9 record, Deion?
They have a great tradition of winning, that's all that matters. I did not think too much about their disappointing season. We will turn it around.
This is surprising, since anybody who picked up a sports page, listened to a sports talk program, or logged on to a major sports website read or heard at least one editorial ran this fall about how detached Charlie Weis is from the modern college athlete, how his pro background leaves him poorly equipped to teach and motivate young men, how he's the most heartless, ignorant bastard to ever roam a collegiate sideline, etc, etc. Those things could all be true for all I know, but most of the players and recruits who've dealt with him paint a different picture.

The overarching theme of how this class came together, in reality, shows a lot of evolution on Weis' behalf too. Earlier in his career, particularly with his first full recruiting class in the spring of 2006, there were a handful of great prospects who also struck as the type of player Notre Dame had not been pursuing, much less getting. Nearly twenty-four months later, four members of that class have transferred while another (Chris Stewart) left the team for a weekend to think about his future. Rumors continue to circle that others might be on their way out as well.

Pausing for a moment of pure speculation, I would think the four high-profile defections from that touted 28-man class (QBs Zach Frazer & Demetrius Jones, plus TE Konrad Reuland and Carufel) involved partly playing time and partly a desire to reverse a decision out of high school that was based more on 'taking a flyer' on the "new" Notre Dame. How many times did you hear that Weis was luring in "the type of players Notre Dame normally can't get." Maybe there was a reason certain players hadn't been coming, and it also plays into how Weis has gotten more discerning, telling recruits 'This is not just about picking a place to play football.' Some of what you heard in the wake of the transfer rush - particularly in Reuland's case - was how Notre Dame just wasn't what so-and-so had pictured coming out of high school; that they weren't happy. There could be 1,001 reasons for that - Weis, the eye-candy (or lack thereof), the weather, the food in South Dining Hall, the playbook, who sits where in the locker room, parietals, not getting along with teammates, missing your hometown girlfriend, take your pick. There are reasons why Notre Dame doesn't work for every player - but every player in this class seems pretty clear that Notre Dame will work for them, on and off the field.

Of course, in the spirit of beating a dead horse, no update on Irish recruiting would be considered complete without the obligatory analysis of what went down in Georgia. Notre Dame's idea of "a commitment is commitment, no exceptions", got its first real test with relation to Buford, GA defensive tackle Omar Hunter. Hunter, who had pledged to Notre Dame in June, flirted with the idea of taking a visit to Florida, and finally made his intention to seek a new school public knowledge on January 1st, which must prove that just because ND went 3-9 doesn't mean they can't still lose on New Year's Day. Losing Hunter stings, partly because he seemed like the natural specimen for Corwin Brown's 3-4 defensive scheme and partly because he genuinely seemed to be on the same page with players like Floyd, Filer, QB Dayne Crist, and WR John Goodman - he was part of that group that really 'got it' with relation to Notre Dame.

That's what makes some of his statements explaining his reversal so troubling:
Just watching Notre Dame, their style and how they played, it doesn't really fit with the way I play. I am not really sure about the coaching staff there.
Hunter went on to say he thought Notre Dame's coaches were "great guys, and I love them." Then two days later he told the Chicago Tribune that Brown and Bill Lewis were "the best recruiters I met this year."

OK, so the coaches were outstanding and he really liked them, but somehow he 'wasn't sure about them.' Given how much he loves Brown & Lewis, and how he told the Tribune that the 3-9 record factored "not at all", and how at 6-1, 300 pounds Hunter has the perfect frame to develop into another brilliant run-stuffing tackle within the 3-4 scheme (think Vince Wilfork, Sam Adams, Casey Hampton, Jamal Williams), it leaves you wondering what exactly he's not sure about. It evidently all came down to a self-evaluation:
Apparently the 6-foot-1, 295-pounder has scouted himself as more of a 4-3 tackle than a 3-4 nose guard.

"Playing in a 3-4, I'd be a nose guard, I'd get doubled a lot," Hunter said. "In a 4-3, I'd be playing on a guard, getting a couple free rushes. I can move a little bit more."
Don't be surprised if this is starting to sound familiar, because it's almost exactly what happened a year ago. Last January, when Notre Dame made the switch into a '3-4 personnel' defensive grouping under Brown, the University of Florida and Urban "Just Because You're A Senior Doesn't Mean You Have Value" Meyer, went hard after New Jersey defensive end Justin Trattou (who'd been committed to Notre Dame since June) on the premise that the 3-4 defense would handcuff Justin's natural ability. Trattou switched his commitment less than a week before Signing Day, explaining himself as follows: "To see what those defensive ends can do and how they play at Florida is more of my style of play." One year later, Trattou wound up exactly where Meyer had told him he wouldn't want to be - as an interior lineman.

Not that Trattou had a bad year for Florida - he had 20 tackles and interception while ranking third on the Gators with 3.5 sacks. And not that he'll wind up having a bad career - he'll be an excellent player regardless of position. The question basically is "What does it say about Meyer when he convinces a kid to go back on his word under the pretense of 'that other school is going to put you at the wrong position' and then puts the player at that same position less than 12 months later?"

Given that precedent as well as the fact that Hunter, despite being completely sold on Notre Dame's coaches (at least in the 'people' sense), facilities, campus, and fans, turned his back because it suddenly dawned on him that he wants to play in the 4-3 and not the 3-4, it's tough not to pivot back to Meyer's mudslinging against the 3-4 (and by extension Notre Dame, one would suspect) as the primary reason behind the switch.

While losing Hunter takes a small bit of luster off the Irish recruiting class, it is past time to worry about who's not coming and stay focused and appreciative of who is. Crist, who's emerged as the ringleader and emotional center of the class, was the go-to quote during this week in San Antonio. He didn't disappoint:
Coach Weis wanted forward-thinking, smart guys who want to win a title sooner rather than later. This week has been about getting to know each other. We're ready.
As if to make that point clear the following day:

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Spanning the Nation: Happy New Year Edition

Well boys, 2007 was good to us (kind of), but it's time to move on and embrace the new challenges of 2008. Where to begin...

Angelo Suozzi - Hometown: Pittsford, NY

Outside the snow was falling and tailgaiters were calling "WOO HOO!!", and it was lovely weather for a sleigh ride together with 71,000 of your closest friends or so. So naturally Buffalo hosted a hockey game in freezing temperatures, howling winds, and lake-effect snow. In a shocking development, this NYD telecast on NBC attracted a substantial audience - the highest-rated NHL regular season game in a decade. Before we trumpet hockey's return, let us pause and recognize that this highpoint is a paltry 2.6 rating. Pair that in contrast with the 7.9 rating for the stinker of a Sugar Bowl between Hawai'i and Georgia, and one could form the opinion that people would rather feed the nationwide, irrational obsession with football instead of enjoy a tightly-contested, exciting hockey game wrapped up in the memories of frozen-pond hockey from long ago. Reinforcing that in Buffalo everything but the final result matters, the Sabres lost 2-1 in a shootout decided by Sidney Crosby. Meanwhile, the Bills extended the franchise-record playoff drought to eight seasons, prompting Marv Levy to concede that, at 82 years, perhaps the game has passed him by. Angelo Suozzi is on the shortlist of potential replacements.

Thomas McCall - Hometown: Lake Charles, LA

Like Snow White's prince, someday the Saints will come. Just not this season, extending their championship drought to an impressive 40 full seasons and re-establishing their membership in the exclusive "Club of teams that have never made a Super Bowl". By the time SuperDome cleanup crews were done polishing off the field from the Sugar Bowl, the Louisiana natives were preparing to descend on the French Quarter for a week of debauchery that surely will culminate with another SEC de-pantsing committed against Ohio State. As any Michigan man could tell you, it couldn't happen to a nicer group of guys. Other McCall news of note: elder McCall statesman Bill is currently grappling with the idea of staying home to watch the National Championship game on TV, or attending in person. Any advice you may have on this subject can be passed along to the Coach courtesy of T-Mac himself.

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

"The Vikings are the Bills of the NFC." Harsh words straight from the mouth of Pat Girouard. But the real question is who should be more depressed - Girouard or the Bills? It's another long winter of discontent in the North Star state, as the Vikes spectacularly flameout with a crushing loss on national TV when they had a simple "Win and In" scenario, then mounting an inspiring comeback against 6-9 Denver before falling in overtime. Tough times for Brad Childress. Luckily for America's newest 'HockeyTown', the Wild are there to ease the pain. The icers hit a rough spot around Christmas with consecutive embarrassments versus Detroit and Dallas, but won 2 of three to close out 2007 as they continue to duel with Vancouver for the Northwest division lead.

Brian Fallon - Hometown: Grand Rapids, MI

Another dominating two weeks for the Red Wings, as they nailed four straight holiday wins by a comibined score of 17-5. Even with a streak-busing loss to the Blues on New Year's Eve, the Wings still sit comfortably atop the NHL points standings with 61. Over at Ford Field, the Lions managed to go home feeling good about themselves with a "Millen-High" 8 wins this year, the first non-losing season since the Great One took control over the team. Makes you wonder though - in an NFL climate where it took the Miami Dolphins one season to dump Randy Mueller (and likely Cam Cameron in the coming days), it took the 49ers three years and a 16-32 record to take GM duties away from Mike Nolan, how can Mille appear to be more bullet-proof than ever? In summation, I have to agree with this Packer fan on behalf of all fellow NFC teams:

Kevin Braun - Hometown: Lancaster, PA

The Eagles were one of several teams that left their fans wondering what might've been, finishing 8-8 but on an upbeat note with a heroic performance in defeat against the Patriots, then a healthy Donovan McNabb chewing up the Cowboys, Saints, & Bills - which Kev would've known had he cleverly hinted to his parents that he desired Sirius Satellite Radio with its NFL package, and not XM. But without XM, how could he be prepared to keep up with the inevitable collapse of the 2008 Phillies? Here's hoping that merger between the two satellite giants pulls through, that way all Philadelphia fans across the country will be to torment themselves at will.

George Heidkamp - Hometown: Hinsdale, IL

Who needs to be America's Team as long as you've got America's Quarterback? With apologies to Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, the nation remains transfixed by Brett Favre's late-career masterpiece - at 38, Favre had his best passer rating since 1996 while leading the revived Packers to a 13-3 record, also the best since 1996. And now the Pack is in the playoffs looking for their first world championship since (you guessed it) 1996. While nobody can be foolish enough to predict a Super Bowl victory or even a win against the Patriots (save perhaps the always-confident Anthony Smith and Mike Devitt), this 2007 season ought to serve as a special going-away present for all Favre fans, of which there are many. Meanwhile, the Bulls sacked Scott Skiles in the face of mounting evidence that he was well past his expiration date, got flattened by the Spurs, ripped a new one by Scottie Pippen, then promptly won 3 of 4; fellow United Center residents the Blackhawks went through similar fits and starts, winning three in a row before ringing in the new year with a flat 9-2 loss to the NHL bottom-feeding LA Kings.

Paul Jacobs - Hometown: St. Louis, MO

The Cardinals have now bid a somber but perhaps necessary farewell to David Eckstein & So Taguchi (departed for Toronto & Philadelphia, respectively) in addition to Jim Edmonds, Troy Percival, Kip Wells, Preston Wilson, and Aaron Miles. Yet the one player who can't stand the thought of being a Redbird remains stuck in his place - Scott Rolen. Kev, I think your insight is needed on this front - is there any way to please this man? And if so, please forward that method of conflict resolution to the St. Louis front-office with all appropriate haste.

Mike Devitt - Hometown: Marion, IN

Missing Dwight Freeney hurts. The Colts are so hard-up for defensive stars that they just made Bob Sanders and his listed 5'8" frame the richest safeties in NFL histor (in Bob's defense, his diminutive frame doesn't prevent him from unleashing hits with the force of a dump truck). Marvin Harrison = hobbled. The offensive line = shaky. The defensive front-seven = sans Freeney, uninspiring. Yet despite all of this, the Colts still have #18, Dallas Clark, Reggie Wayne, & Joseph Addai, and went 14-2. If not for a frantic Patriot rally and a brief, inexplicable appearance by Scott Norwood instead of Adam Vinatieri versus the Chargers, it would be a 16-0 Indianapolis that everybody's talking about right now.

Meanwhile, Back at Headquarters...

First things first - Alex Legion picked Illinois, debunking the blogs of Kentucky beat writers everywhere but also depriving ND marketing of some slam-dunk T-shirt ideas as it pertains to the Leprechaun Legion. Oh well. The Irish rattled off three more victories during the holiday break, two with less than sterling performances. First was an 84-76 win over San Francisco which prompted the Dons' coach to remove himself for Eddie Sutton. The Irish were less forgiving a week later, dumping Brown by a 108-62 margin. On New Year's Eve, the team focused seemed to be on hitting up the wild South Bend revelry scene a bit early, as the Irish sleep-walked through a sloppy 77-58 victory. At 10-2 against a mediocre (to be kind) non-conference slate, the Irish figured to need at least 10 Big East wins to merit consideration for the NCAA Tournament. Conference play begins tomorrow with a home date against West 'By Gosh' Virginia - seriously, anybody watching that Fiesta Bowl tonight care to explain that one? - and then a primetime date with UConn on Saturday. The Irish get two shots at current #10 Marquette, but only chance versus the other ranked conference foes Villanova, Georgetown, and Pittsburgh; only the Pitt game of those three is at home. Considering who and where they'll play, 10 conference wins ought to clinch an NCAA berth for this squad, but nothing is certain when dealing with Mike Brey.