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.


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