Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A Real Kick

Page Kevin White. Another "instant, euphoric verbal" is on the line.

This time, though, no speculation on the identity of the elated party is necessary. It's Dallas-area kicker Nick Tausch, who accepted the moment Charlie Weis called Tuesday afternoon with a scholarship offer. The top Irish target in the placekicking sweepstakes had been a fellow Texan, Dustin Hopkins out of Houston, who could only offer up a "maybe" when pressed for a decision by the Irish staff. Tausch had no such qualms about immediately hopping on board:
"It was kind of stressful because it was up to [Hopkins] to decide," Tausch said. "I really wanted to go to Notre Dame."

The Dallas Jesuit program's history played a part in that. Rangers' head coach Bob Wunderlik is a Notre Dame fan and produced former Irish wide receiver Omar Jenkins (2000-03). Tausch said he's never met Jenkins, but that the former prep star's reputation is well known.

That familiarity made it easier for Tausch, whose father played on the offensive line at Texas and in the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers, to pull the trigger on a program he's never seen. Of course that oversight should be corrected in short order as Tausch plans to visit South Bend in the next two weeks.
While Notre Dame was the first program to extend an offer, they weren't the only one with interest. LSU, Oregon, Oklahoma, Baylor, & Utah were among the schools who'd been in contact with Tausch, who joins Jake Golic & Ben Turk as 2009 Irish commitments with NFL bloodlines - his father was an offensive lineman for San Francisco and Minnesota after playing for the Longhorns. Like several others in the growing class, he hails from a prep program with strong Irish ties of recent and long-past eras. Jesuit is the alma mater not only of Jenkins but also vintage Irish names like Robin Weber and kicker Joe Unis, who put home the extra point which ensured that the other guy named Joe's "Chicken Soup Game" wouldn't end in a tie.

Dipping back into the rankings of Chris Sailer, Tausch is the #2 kicker for the Class of '09 (Hopkins, as you might suspect, is in the top-spot). If the Irish can put themselves in a position to pick and choose among the top two players at every position, this whole recruiting thing should be easy this year! Kidding aside, Tausch ought to formally close the book on special teams recruiting for the year, joining with Turk for a pair of "Top 5" commits at punter and kicker. Rankings in general can't be counted on (yet we worship them anyway), and ranking special teams guys is probably a blinder science than most. But it's better than being forced to raid the soccer team for a position that can decide many a close ball-game.

A final thought, not meant to critique any involved parties but interesting because of how a situation has repeated itself: here's hoping the "deadline" approach on kicking commitments works out for Weis and staff this time; back in '06 they went a similar route in the recruitment of Sherman Oaks, CA product Kai Forbath, who liked the Irish but wasn't quite ready to pull the trigger. Ryan Burkhart was and committed on the spot, but didn't make much of splash as a freshman that season, leading the staff to fortify the kicking weak spot a year later with late commit Brandon Walker. Forbath, meanwhile, redshirted at UCLA and then made the Freshman All-America team in 2007, going 25/30 while booting five field goals of 50 yards or more, although he did miss a 28-yarder that would've won the Bruins' bowl game. Notre Dame, on the other hand, went a combined 6/13 between Walker and Nate Whitaker, with Burkhart an afterthought.

To close on an encouraging note: Tausch notched 16 touchbacks on kickoffs (granted high school kickers get the benefit of not kicking from the 35), which might prove useful for an Irish unit that didn't get one 'TB' all last season and rarely backed up return men inside the five.

Monday, June 16, 2008

And the 3 Spot Goes to...

Way back in spring practice discussions, I posed the question:
A year ago Demetrius Jones declared, "Last time I checked, no busters wore #3". We're going to pull a Mark McGwire and simply say that we're not here to talk about the past, so...who should get the hallowed Irish trois now?
Opinions varied. Today, after their arrival at campus, the updated roster with number assignments hit the newswire. And suiting up in #3 for the Irish is...

Michael Floyd. Who, as you may or may not know, went to Cretin-Derham Hall. I think Broadway and Pat already were aware. Moving down the roster...
#9 - Kyle Rudolph (TE) & Ethan Johnson (DE) -- Note: NCAA rules allow two players to share a number provided they are split between offense and defense.
#10 - Dayne Crist (QB)
#12 - Robert Blanton (DB)
#15 - Dan McCarthy (DB)
#17 - Deion Walker (WR)
#25 - Jonas Gray (RB)
#26 - Jamoris Slaughter (DB)
#36 - David Posluszny (LB)
#45 - Darius Fleming (LB)
#48 - Steve Filer (LB)
#52 - Braxston Cave (C)
#54 - Anthony McDonald (LB)
#57 - Mike Golic Jr. (C)
#73 - Lane Clelland (OL)
#78 - Trevor Robinson (OL)
#79 - Hafis Williams (DT)
#81 - John Goodman (WR)
#87 - Joseph Fauria (TE)
#89 - Kapron Lewis-Moore (DL)
#98 - Sean Cwynar (DT)
#99 - Brandon Newman (DT)
The initial reaction: here's hoping Dan McCarthy can finally lift the stigma of Clifford Jefferson which hangs over #15. That, and if Deion Walker has a fine career, a lot of people who bought Hunter Smith, Joey Hildbold, and Geoff Price jerseys will finally be able to pull them out on gameday.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

News from the Trail

June brings us into a full-out dead period of college athletics, unless you happen to be one of the final 8 competing at the College World Series in Omaha. While there's a definite point of interest at Notre Dame right now concerning the availability of a high-profile position in athletics administration, attention should also be paid to more fine work along the recruiting trail by the Irish football staff. To wit...

Bullard in an Irish Shop

Offensive guard Alex Bullard of Brentwood, TN (Brentwood Academy) pulled the trigger on his commitment last Friday at a school news conference. Bullard is the third top-tier prospect from the Volunteer state to join the Irish in the last 18 months, after current freshmen Harrison Smith (Knoxville) and Golden Tate (Hendersonville). All three were high priorities for Phil Fulmer and the rest of the SEC, further underscoring the great inroads Weis and his staff have made into areas that the pundits declared unreachable not too far back.

Measuring up at 6'3", 275 pounds, Bullard rated 4-stars from both the Rivals and Scout recruiting services, bringing in some quality depth to an offensive line that will begin the slow process of turning over by the time he enrolls - the projected starters at guard for this coming fall, Eric Olson & Mike Turkovich, along with "sixth man" Chris Stewart", will respectively be senior, graduated, & senior when Bullard arrives in August 2009. Add to that the career-ending injury of Bartley Webb & the transfer of Matt Carufel, plus the fact the Irish landed just one true guard in the last recruiting class (late-switcher Trevor Robinson), and Bullard could pop up on the depth chart fairly quickly. For his part though, like most recruits heading to South Bend these days, the decision stretched beyond football:
Bullard, who was recruited by Irish offensive assistants Mike Haywood and John Latina, picked Notre Dame over Tennessee and Michigan.

Bullard visited Notre Dame the weekend of the April 19 Blue-Gold Game, and then came back last weekend for another unofficial visit. After getting a feel for academics and class sizes, he realized his recruitment was nearing an end, turning to his father as they left campus a week ago.

"I told him I really liked it and this was the place I wanted to be," Bullard said.
Landing Bullard helps fill out the two-deep at guard, and with incoming recruits Mike Golic Jr. and Braxston Cave projected at center, the Irish staff will probably turn their attention to filling out the tackle spots, where they took only one last February in Lane Clelland.

"He's Known as the Turk..."

Of all the position coaching performances (from the head man on down to the video assistant) that have been dissected during Weis's first three seasons, none has come under more scrutiny than special teams. In year one under Weis there was marked improvement, particular in the return games and punt coverage as David Bruton emerged as a reliable gunner and Tom Zbikowski one of top returners in the country. Year two there seemed to be less emphasis on the potential game-changing impact of "the third phase", underscored by a lack of stability at the kicking spot which only encouraged Weis to go for it more often on fourth down. Last season, when Weis declared that no one coach was in charge of special teams, the unit seemed to feed off its by-committee leadership and looked sloppy, disorganized, and wholly unreliable.

Ben Turk (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) hopes he can lead the charge to change that. Not only did he become Notre Dame's 8th commitment of the 2009 recruiting class on Wednesday, he shared the vision of special teams assistant Bernie Parmalee when discussing his choice:
Turk said he wasn't promised early playing time, but he's headed to South Bend with the goal of earning the starting job.

"(Parmalee) said at a young year I could impact the team," Turk said. "I'd love to start as a freshman."
While Eric Maust is set to take over punting duties full-time for 2008, his future beyond next year is uncertain (as is a decision on if he'll continue to split his time between two sports åla Jeff Samardzija). So the chance, or perhaps even the need, to play early is certainly a possibility for Turk. The Florida native also had an early offer from Cincinnati after garnering a 4.5 (out of 5) rating from Chris Sailer, who I'm told is the Tom Lemming of prep kicking evaluators. That made him the Punt Guru's top rated prospect in the nation.

The one spot at which Weis had not recruited a scholarship player up until now was punter, probably the least glamorous of all positions and yet able to change the game dramatically on just a few plays. The last scholarship handed out was in 2003 for the now-graduated Geoff Price. Maust, who came into his own as a pitcher for Notre Dame baseball this season, handled duties after Price went down with an injury and averaged a healthy 42.1 yards on 21 attempts, with 9 landing inside the 20 yard line and 1 touchback. Turk averaged 41 yards per boot in his junior season.

I'd love to really geek myself up over the prospect of signing a punter, but (and I mean no disrespect to Turk) I just can't find enough information to have any opinion other than the following: people like Sailer and Lemming, who spend untold hours researching things like this, say he's good, but I can't really back it up or say anything to the contrary. So let's just assume he's coming in and stabilizing at least one position in the potluck known as Irish special teams. It can't hurt that he has a close family friend to turn to for advice - uncle Matt Turk, a 13-year veteran of the position in the NFL currently with the Houston Texans. In another nice touch, he continues an open pipeline with a top national Catholic prep program, St. Thomas Aquinas. No word on what role Bob Kuechenberg played in his decision.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

The Fantastic Mr. Fox

There are simple maxims that every sports coach adheres to: run what you know. Play to your strengths. Follow the plan. In the case of Notre Dame football, that means recruiting well from traditional Catholic high school powerhouses.

Following in the footsteps of current juniors John Ryan and Robby Parris, linebacker/safety Dan Fox (Rocky River, OH) became the latest star from Cleveland-area titan St. Ignatius to join the Fighitng Irish football program. Like several others in the growing class of 2009, Fox has an extra colorful backstory: 70 years ago, a young Irishman named Richard Power had just arrived in Chicago from his homeland. At the height of the Depression, acting on a tip that one could find work at a small Catholic university in northwest Indiana, Power journeyed to South Bend and worked as a janitor on the Notre Dame campus from 1932-34. The money and contacts made by that job eventually led him back home to Ireland, where he married before returning to the United States for good in 1953.

One of Power's seven daughters now has a son heading back to South Bend, this time to join a deep corps of hard-hitting Irish linebackers. Talk about coming full circle. (If this story isn't used for at least one ESPN College Gameday feature, I'll be very disappointed.) For those who subscribe, both Irish Illustrated and Irish Eyes have write-ups on the generational connection. 

Measuring at 6'4, 215 pounds, Fox has a body frame that's yet to really hit the weight room - he doesn't have much time to spare in the offseason, as he is the classic three-sport star in football, basketball, and track. He looks similar to redshirt freshman Harrison Smith, a safety who figures to see the field at the linebacker position come fall (but he's NOT switching positions!). Fox figures to be an actual outside linebacker in the Irish scheme, smiling as he recalled how John Tentua pledged to blitz him off the edge...a lot.

Fox is Notre Dame's sixth public commitment and second linebacker in the 2009 cycle, which could be gaining more steam as summer gets into full swing. Another ND target who narrowed his choice to the Irish or Michigan, offensive guard Alex Bullard (Brentwood, TN), will announce his decision tomorrow.

To wrap things up, a mix of both offensive (Fox spends time at both wide receiver and a goalline fullback) and defensive highlights from the newest member of the Irish pledge class: