Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Your Regularly Scheduled Programming

When news rains on the recruiting front, it pours. Perhaps it's because of all the ominous signs of the noose around Charlie Weis' neck, or maybe because of it, that recruiting has taken on a more aching, desperate tone this offseason. With each day passing by without a big name highlight reel to chew over, Irish fans resorted more and more to chewing off their own fingernails.

Well, rest easy and chew on this. In the last 7 days the Irish secured four verbal pledges, each one addressing a key need in the construction of a class that, like the one preceding it which just entered summer school, needs to bring in solid reinforcements rather than ready-to-go standouts at every position (though certainly some positions have a more urgent need than others during this recruiting calendar). But we can do some amateur depth chart engineering at a later. Here are the fab four in no particular order:
  • Andrew Hendrix, QB, Cincinnati, OH (Moeller High School). You all remember Moeller as the school which gave Notre Dame Gerry Faust - and boy, was that the gift that kept on giving. Moeller's far from the De La Salle-type juggernaut it was during Faust's heyday of the late-'70s, when the Crusaders went unbeaten five tims in six years and were four times picked as the mythical national champions of prep football. Faust then was plucked from Ohio to lead the most storied college football program in the country...and perhaps it is fair to say neither school has been the same since. The word that seems to define Hendrix at this point is "raw", which I guess could be seen as either unproven, or simplyuntapped - obviously a lot of programs saw potential that could be built on with his junior years numbers: 1,700 yards, 11 TDs, and 7 INTs. A far cry from 50+ touchdown throws for recent signal-calling studs, but nonetheless Hendrix fielded offers from the in-state Buckeyes, Purdue, Stanford, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Miami, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Maryland. He certainly isn't a finished product from a physical standpoint and isn't the best athlete Weis has recruited at the position - that honor goes to Dayne Crist...yes, even ahead of Demetrius Jones. There's been plenty of positive buzz around Hendrix that ought to only grow with his commitment to the Irish. ESPN's recruit index raved about his arm strength and the possibility of him being "the biggest sleeper of this class", by which they meant nationwide, not strictly Notre Dame.
  • Blake Lueders, DT, Zionsville, IN (Zionsville HS). An imposing 6'5", Lueders picked Notre Dame over a host of ACC and Big 10 schools. Ranked as a four-star prospect and the #14 player in the nation for his position by Rivals, the story of his commitment phone call fired up a round of chatty internet message board posts about the net gain of having new defensive line coach Randy Hart out on the recruiting trail - Lueders specifically mentioned taking another unofficial visit to South Bend just so his parent could meet Hart and hear his vision for the Irish defense:
“You know the energy he has,” Lueders said. “He exploded with enthusiasm, and started going crazy. He said I made his night and went on and on.”
  • Lo Wood, CB, Apopka, FL (Apopka HS). It's slightly unfortunate that yes, his name is "Lo" and he hails from "FloRida", prompting what hopefully will be many choruses of "Shawty got low, low, low, low..." from the slightly inebriated students during his upcoming career. The cost of doing business in the era of never-ending one-hit wonders. But I digress. Wood, a 5'10" corner with speed, talent, and plenty of opinions on both, drew almost instant comparisons with RJ Blanton, the locquacious freshman who stepped into the #2 corner spot by season's end and figures to be a starter when the '09 campaign opens. Wood also conducted probably the most theatrical commitment since Jimmy Clausen, calling and then cancelling a press conference at his high school before revealing he was actually at Notre Dame on a second unofficial visit with his father. Notre Dame made the final cut over Michigan, Georgia Tech, and Ole Miss, and another new addition to Weis's staff received special praise as Wood broke down the decision, singling out his primary recruiter Tony Alford in addition to his future position coach Corwin Brown. What the Irish staff may be lacking in big-stars early on in this campaign they at least make up for with the kind of high-energy recruiting you need to compete in today's college landscape.
  • Chris Badger, FS, Provo, UT (Timpview HS). If there's one school that knows the perils that come with a committed prospect agreeing to go on a visit to other schools, it's Notre Dame. Some awfully big fish got away like this: Justin Trattou, Omar Hunter, Marlon Pollard, etc. When all the recruitnik headlines the following Monday lead with a variation on "He was blown away", it's even worse news. So it was with Badger, a bruiser in the middle from Utah who had previously committed to Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh. That's where Randy Hart enters the picture once again, giving Badger the hard sell to get him to visit, then selling him harder on the beauty and tradition of the Irish program that had Badger's dad (an alum of The Farm and a "big skeptic" on Notre Dame, to use the prospect's own words) wearing a shirt from the Bookstore before the visit ended. Interesting footnote: as one might have guessed given his Utah residency, Badger is Mormon and made a point of spending time on campus with Manti Te'o, who was wrapping up the first week of summer school:
"We went to church together on Sunday for a little while," Badger said. "We both think it's great being out here and representing our church and doing our best to represent our church and being great people and great football players."
All told, a great start to the stretch run of summertime. As tomorrow marks the turn into July, it's hard to believe that the season is just 66 days away. Yet paradoxically it's driving me crazy having to wait 66 more days.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Another One Bites the ResLife...

I went back and forth on what headline to choose. Suffice to say a ton of stuff has happened in the last 72 hours, all of it in one way shape or form set to have a big impact on the future of the Notre Dame football program. There was addition, subtraction, probably even a little long division. Some friends became enemies, some enemies became friends, and all of those various news items deserves its own separate entry. So, in other words, more to come.

Today though, brought another head-scratching roster alteration that can be laid at the feet of the Office of Residence Life. Earlier in the week, as the full roster of Notre Dame players arrived for summer school and unofficial training camp - including incoming freshman such as Cierre Wood and Manti Te'o - it was announced that tight end Joseph Fauria, who had shown major improvements in spring ball and secured the No. 2 tight end position behind Kyle Rudolph, would be missing the fall semester for the never-promising "personal reasons":
The university says that Fauria has not enrolled for personal reasons and will not be enrolled in the fall semester either.

Charlie Weis will be losing a valuable asset at tight end, and hopes to have him back.

"Joseph won't be with us this fall but I hope to have him return for the spring semester," Weis said in a statement.
Fauria confirmed as much - his plan to return after a semester, similar to the path of Darrin Walls & Gary Gray - to the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday. Well, you know what they say: men plan, ResLife laughs.

By Friday, Fauria had announced his intention to transfer, stating that he'd asked for (and received) his release and would look to remain close to home on the west coast, possibly at a Pac-10 school. The news (so far) has been reported only by Mike Frank's very reliable Irish Sports Daily. Mike runs a premium news site so I hope I'm not jailbreaking some exclusive news, but the official statements from Fauria are here and haven't been restricted by any password info, so judge for yourself. The especially relevant words:
Fauria again said that he was disappointed because he felt that he was doing the right things on the field and in the classroom.

“The truth is I had a really good spring. I pushed for my number two spot on the depth chart and that’s where I was. I had a 3.0 GPA,” he said.

He also said that his transfer had nothing to do with the Irish football program.

“I’m not leaving because of the coaching staff. I love all of the coaches. My tight ends coach Bernie Parmalee was amazing, my recruiting coordinator Brian Polian, I was really close to him, he was great,” said Fauria. “I loved being coached by Coach Weis. It was great, he knew what he was doing. I’m proud to say that I was coached by him and that I was able to play for him. The reason why this took me so long is because of my friends on the team and my friends at the school.”

Fauria said that the way the University staff handled a situation caused him to make his decision.

“ I’ve always been a fan of Notre Dame, but I was mistreated by the Office of Residence Life,” he said. “They mistreated me very much. Something happened at school and I don’t think the punishment fit the crime. They didn’t handle the situation how it should have been handled. I guess they were trying to make an example out of me and I was not the person to do it to.”

Fauria did not go into detail about exactly what happened.

“I wasn’t being handcuffed or anything, but I’m not going to go into detail with that,” he said. “I’ll leave it open for interpretation."
Now as a former employee of the Office of Residence Life, I want to put forward the one caveat of my experience, which I myself am fully guilty of: when you're 18, 19 years old, it's pretty much a guarantee that you'll feel the punsihment didn't fit the crime.

Having said that...I'm with Fauria on this one. I also don't need to leave my statement open to interpretation (even as I speak without all the facts)

This is yet another case of ResLife drawing a line in the sand and deciding that, heaven forbid we acknowledge still-maturing young men and women can make mistakes, we have a standard here and if you fall below that standard, you are taken out with rest of the trash where you belong. And again, having been on the inside, I can say that's it not a simple case of Notre Dame being unduly harsh on athletes - this crap happens to kids who never got closer to the football field than the 47th row of the stadium. There are indeed some kids who simply had it coming, but I personally figure that it wouldn't be so horrible to at least adhere to a three-strikes policy.

If Bill Kirk were a movie character, he'd be George Banks from Mary Poppins: "Madam, kindly do not attempt to cloud the issue with facts." Not to mention common sense.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Return Engagements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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