Monday, February 11, 2008

Irish Recruiting Recap: Running Back

Last year, the Irish landed 2 what I would consider elite RBs in Robert Hughes and Armando Allen. Therefore, we all knew it was going to be a challenge landing another elite guy at the position this year. As much as we would love to be in the recruiting position of USC where we can simply stockpile 5 star guys at the position year after year, the reality is ND is not there yet. Nevertheless, the Irish landed a solid RB prospect in Jonas Gray.

Let me preface my comments by saying that I do not believe this was a great year for RBs. Aside from Darrell Scott and 1 or 2 other guys, I think everyone else I watched was solid, but not spectacular. Jonas Gray falls into that solid group. I think Jonas is an excellent get for the Irish for a couple of reasons. First, the 2 RBs the Irish landed last year are very different from one another. Robert is a power guy with some quick feet and good hands and Armando is a gamebreaker speed back. When I watch Jonas on film, he seems like a nice combination of Robert and Armando. He does not have the size or power of Robert nor does he have the football speed and quickness of Armando, but he runs low and hard and has enough speed to get the job done. Second, I really like the way Jonas initiates and takes on contact. He protects the ball well, keeps his pad level low, and is not afraid to initiate contact rather than waiting for the pursuer to hit him. Third, the kid is a leader and you can't have enough guys like that on your roster. Fourth, from watching his film, Jonas did a lot of his running from an I formation in high school, which the Irish use frequently. One of the main issues Armando had last season making the adjustment to the college game was that he spent most of his high school career as the feature back in a 1 back set. It is very different learning to read blocks from the I and following your fullback, etc.

Like every other prospect in the country, Jonas has things he will need to improve. I know he ran a 4.3 at one of the football camps, but I didn't see that blazing speed translate onto the field. His film showed good speed, but not 4.3 speed. Jonas will also need to work on his foot quickness, making his cuts quicker and more decisively. Several times on film, he decided to lower his shoulder and take on contact, when a cutback or move could have resulted in a much larger gain. That will come with experience and learning more about the position.

I normally try to think about who a player reminds me of when I am watching them. I had a hard time doing that with Jonas. Anyone have any thoughts there? I was thinking perhaps a guy like Deshaun Foster.

The Irish almost pulled off an improbable coup this recruiting season and almost landed Milton Knox of California in addition to Jonas. I am very very very high on Milton and you can mark it down -- he is going to be a big-time RB. For a guy his size, he just runs with a power you don't normally see. He reminds me a lot of a guy like Maurice Jones Drew and would have been a great back to compete with Jonas in this class.

Jonas Gray is a tremendous addition to an already talented RB corps the Irish will feature next season. While I strongly expect Robert, Armando, and James Aldridge to carry the load next season, Jonas will make his mark before he is through at ND. I am very pleased with the Irish future at RB.

Next Up: Wide Receiver

Friday, February 8, 2008

Thoughts on February 8 Press Conference

I will be returning to my recruiting recap articles shortly, but today I wanted to comment on the press conference from today and the announcements that Coach Weis made regarding the program:

1. Coach Weis giving up the playcalling and total control of the offense.

I am going to be completely honest here -- this shocked me. I did not see this coming at all. I didn't get to watch the press conference live, so when I first read the bullet point that Charlie was giving up the playcalling, I had mixed emotions. As Charlie said today and has said numerous times in the past, he feels his greatest strength is his playcalling ability. My initial reaction was concern about whether he should really be subtracting his greatest strength from the program at this time. Also, I never had a problem with his playcalling and did not believe playcalling was one of the major issues on offense last season. However, after listening to the explanation he gave at the press conference, I see why he made the move and I think it could be a really good move for the Irish. Once again, Charlie has shown that he is not afraid to make bold and dramatic changes to help the program. A move like this can have the effect of energizing your entire offensive coaching staff. Those guys work extremely hard in their positions, but when you are not one of the main guys directing the ship, it can be very frustrating, especially when things are not going well. A move like this gives those offensive coaches more of a sense of ownership over the offense and its performance. Coaches can't think after a poor practice or poor game "My RBs ran the ball well" or "My WRs caught the ball when the QB was able to throw it to them." It is about production from the offense, not production from your specific position group. I think what Charlie realized this offseason is that the offense had become stagnant. He wasn't receiving creative solutions from the offensive coaches because they didn't feel empowered enough to tell the head coach they thought he was making a mistake. A key part of the presser today was when Charlie said that he personally performed his best when he had someone to lean on. I really don't know if Charlie has had that or has done that the past 3 years. Mike Haywood was a first time Offensive Coordinator when he was hired. Rob Ianello was a career position coach. As head coach and in control of the offense, I just didn't see a whole lot of collaboration during games between Charlie and the other members of the offensive staff. Now, with Coach Haywood running the offense, the other assistants involved, and Charlie interjecting, he is forcing himself to collaborate with and lean on others. I do think this is going to be incredibly difficult for Charlie to stick with. You saw that in his demeanor at the press conference. I think one of the major themes I took away from the press conference is that Charlie wants to become more approachable -- more approachable to his coaches and more approachable to his players. I think one of the things he found from his self-reflection at the end of the year is that he spent so much time on Xs and Os and trying to plug leaks last season that he really didn't know his football team well enough. When things went bad, he didn't know his team well enough to know which buttons to push with them as individuals or collectively. Today was a bold and decisive step by Charlie to become this program's head coach, not just its master offensive strategist. I am interested and excited to see how it translates onto the field.

2. Brian Polian Named Special Teams Coach with Charlie as his "Assistant."

This move has been expected since the hiring of Jon Tenuta to coach the LBs. Look, Charlie realizes the special teams has been a disaster the past several years. Therefore, he is taking a coach in Polian who has experience coaching special teams and he is saying to that guy, "Forget about the LBs, forget about the defense, you are the guy who is going to focus solely and exhaustively on fixing special teams. Scheme, personnel, etc. is all on the table. To give us the tools we need, we are going to visit the football staf that does it best. Fix it. And to let every member of this team know how important I think this is, I am going to officially go out on a limb and call myself your assistant." I like it.

Your thoughts??????

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Irish Recruiting Recap: Quarterback

Dayne Crist is one of my favorite recruits in this class. Let me get that bias out in the open right off the bat. To commit to Notre Dame early in the process knowing that the Irish signed the most heralded QB recruit in the last decade just 1 year prior, and then stay true to that commitment despite an awful season and an onslaught of attention from other schools speaks volumes not only about Dayne the player, but also Dayne the person. This is a kid who was undeterred by the presence of Jimmy Clausen and was actually attracted by the opportunity to compete with Jimmy. He was also one of our biggest recruiters, singled out by Charlie in his signing day press conference.

Lost in the multitude of recruiting stories this year is the fact that Jimmy Clausen actually played a huge role in Dayne committing to the Irish. These two have known each other since childhood and have remained friends. Jimmy hosted Dayne on his visit and recruited him as hard as the staff did. It would have been very easy for Jimmy to feel threatened by the Irish recruiting another top QB but he really wanted Dayne at ND. And Dayne wanted to compete with Jimmy as teammates. I think that is a key dynamic in this signing. QBs are different animals. In the college game, the importance of having a top QB is absolutely essential. Some QBs can be fragile guys though -- guys with huge egos and guys who have to be "the man." Make no mistake about it, if Jimmy was one of those guys, this signing would be a recipe for disaster. Thankfully, he is not. There is a big difference between "competing with" and "competing against" a guy. Jimmy and Dayne want to "compete with" each other. They want to push each other, drive each other, and make each other better. They both have that goal.

So what are the Irish getting in Dayne Crist? They are getting a tremendous leader first and foremost. By all accounts, this is a kid that others just gravitate to. We all know people like that. We can't quantify exactly what it is about these people, but we know they just have something in their makeup and personality that just makes others want to follow them and want to be around them. This is an invaluable characteristic for a QB to have. Most of the great ones do. Think about it -- Montana, Brady, Marino, Elway, Simms -- not a whole lot of shrinking violets or guys others have trouble getting along with in that group. There is a reason a guy like Jeff George never realized his potential and bounced to seemingly every team in the league.

In addition to his mental makeup, The Irish are also getting a guy with all the physical tools to become a top QB. There is not a throw on the field that Dayne does not have the ability to make. His arm strength is plus rating level and he has tremendous size. He is also more mobile than I think a lot of people realize. On film, he makes a number of plays rolling out on the run or sliding left or right.

From a technique standpoint, Dayne is raw right now, which to me is a positive. He is just scratching the surface of his potential. Everyone wants to compare Dayne to Jimmy. Right now, there isn't a comparison. Jimmy came to ND as much more of a polished QB than Dayne is right now. He was much farther along in his footwork and ability to read defenses in particular. Having 2 full springs and a season on Dayne pushes him that much farther ahead in his development. This is a GOOD thing!!!!! I hear way too many Irish fans saying Dayne could beat out Jimmy this year. Folks, we all want the Irish to get to the top of the mountain and win a championship. You don't do that with freshmen QBs. What is best for the Irish is for Dayne to have the opportunity to sit, learn, and develop that Jimmy didn't have. Jimmy Clausen is going to be the Irish QB and is going to explode. Dayne is going to learn and develop and when he gets his chance, hopefully when Jimmy graduates, he will step in and excel.

To me, the big challenge for Charlie is going to be learning to develop 2 QBs at once. When Brady Quinn was at ND, Charlie admitted that Brady took just about every practice rep. You can do that in the pros because if you have a top QB like Tom Brady, you know he will be with the franchise for your entire tenure. And you can get a veteran backup that doesn't need much technical development. In college, kids graduate and you better have another guy ready to go. I think one of the mistakes Charlie made in years 1 and 2 was not developing a guy like Evan Sharpley to the point where he could maximize his ability and be a serviceable starter until a guy like Jimmy was ready to take over. Charlie cannot make that mistake again, especially with Dayne. Dayne needs reps and he needs coaching. Plus, with Jimmy having had arm problems in his past, there is no reason for him to monopolize the snaps in practice.

I am extremely excited about this signing. With Charlie at ND, the Irish will always be attractive to top QBs. This signing goes a long way towards stabilizing and stocking this position for the present and future. I could not draw up a QB that has the skills and mental makeup that are better for the Irish offense and team than what Dayne Crist possesses. As Charlie would say, the arrow is pointing straight up!!!!

Next Up: Irish Recruiting Recap: Running Back

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Irish Add 23

Signing day is here and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have closed out by all accounts a hugely successful recruiting campaign. As of this writing, the Irish signed 23 players, with Milton Knox the only remaining undecided. In the coming days, be sure to check back on this blog as I will be breaking down the recruits individually position by position, much like I did following the season with my post-season analysis articles.

From an overall perspective, this class is hugely important to the future of ND football. Coming off a disastrous season on the field, the Irish program would have been in serious trouble if recruiting had gone in the tank. Immense credit goes to Charlie Weis, Corwin Brown, Rob Ianello, and the rest of the Irish staff for holding this class together. When I look at the top classes in the nation, I don't see too many 3-9 programs putting together classes like this.

Everyone always obsesses today over who has the #1 class in the country. This matters little to me, but I recognize it is important to a large segment of fans. I am not sure the Irish have the top class in the country, but I feel very confident that this is a top 5 class. There is balance between skill position guys and bruisers, between offense and defense, and there is star power. The best part of this class, to me, however, is the chemistry they have developed with one another. It has been absolutely remarkable to see this group come together and gel like this before they have even enrolled. For a team that had obvious chemistry issues this past season, the cameraderie these guys share with one another is infectious and much needed.

In the coming days/weeks, I hope you will check back as I share my thoughts on these signees by position. Below, I have listed the names of the young men that are the future of the Irish football program. Enjoy this day, as it is a great day to be an Irish football fan.....

Blanton, Robert
Cave, Braxston
Clelland, Lane
Crist, Dayne
Cwynar, Sean
Fauria, Joseph
Filer, Steve
Fleming, Darius
Floyd, Michael
Golic Jr., Mike
Goodman, John
Gray, Jonas
Johnson, Ethan
Lewis-Moore, Kapron
McCarthy, Dan
McDonald, Anthony
Newman, Brandon
Posluszny, David
Robinson, Trevor
Rudolph, Kyle
Slaughter, Jamoris
Walker, Deion
Williams, Hafis

Friday, February 1, 2008

Thoughts on Irish Coaching Change

Wow. That is the first word that comes to mind when I think about the coaching change announced yesterday, where Bill Lewis retired and John Tenuta was hired to replace him. Tenuta will hold the same title of Assistant Head Coach for Defense that Bill Lewis held. His specific positional responsibility has not been officially announced yet. I first heard about this rumored change last weekend, and my reaction was shock and disbelief that Tenuta would come to ND for anything less than a DC role.

Before I talk about the Tenuta hire, let me first say that I am saddened to lose Bill Lewis from this coaching staff. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I think Bill Lewis is one of the finest people, coaches, and most importantly teachers around. I don't think people realize just how good a coach this guy is. He has 40+ years of coaching experience, has been in the NFL, been a head coach in college, and is still a fantastic recruiter. The players love Lewis and his coaching style and his unit improved year after year. I know everyone is excited about Tenuta coming and the blitzing, etc., but the Irish are also losing one heck of a coach from their staff. I am thrilled that Lewis will be staying on in the athletic department. He is a phenomenal ambassador for ND and he has a ton of recruiting contacts with coaches in the southeast that Charlie, Corwin, and the rest of the staff will be able to tap into.

Now, on to John Tenuta... There is a TON to LOVE about this hire. First, the guy can flat out coach. You don't need to listen to pundits or read his bio to know that. Just think of the teams he has been associated with and the defenses he has put together. He is a vocal, intense, aggressive coach and will bring that style to ND. Second, Tenuta is a guy with a lot of experience. Losing Bill Lewis, you are losing a guy with a ton of coaching experience. With Corwin being fairly inexperienced as a DC, it would have been a mistake to replace Lewis with an inexperienced coach. Corwin leaned on Lewis a lot last year and now he will have another experienced coach to work with on defense. Third, hiring Tenuta proves yet again that the supposedly arrogant and egomaniacial Charlie is willing to hire the best coaches available. This past season, I read way too many articles about how Charlie doesn't let his coaches coach and how he wants "yes men" on his staff. Let me assure you first that is not the case, and second, Tenuta is not a "yes man" by any means.

While I strongly believe this is a great hire, there are some potential concerns that others have raised with the hiring of Tenuta. First, he is rumored to be a poor/disinterested recruiter. I think it is fair to say that Tenuta would much rather be coaching talent than recruiting it. Bill Lewis was a fantastic recruiter, so someone will have to pick up the slack. Tenuta will recruit for ND I am sure, but other coaches will have to pick up some slack there. I do think there will be some guys who are interested in ND just because they know of Tenuta's reputation. Second, some folks wonder if Tenuta will be 1 year and out at ND. I have no idea if that will happen or not, but I am sure it was discussed between Charlie, Corwin, and Tenuta. While I am always a fan of continuity on a staff, there is something to be said for bringing in a guy who is at the top of the profession, having him tutor your young guys, instill an aggressive mindset in them, and allowing your coaches to learn from him. I think Corwin, Jappy, and Polian will be better coaches for having worked with Tenuta, even if it is for only 1 season. Third, there is a concern about how this move affects Corwin. The answer is that it doesn't. This is in no way a reflection on Corwin's performance, ability, or potential. This move is about filling a vacancy with the best candidate out there. If Corwin was left out of the loop in the search and interviews, I would say that is a definite red flag. However, Charlie made perfectly clear that Corwin was part of the interviews and had multiple discussions with Tenuta about how they would work together. I fully expect Charlie to give Corwin a strong vote of praise on Feb. 8 when he discusses the move.

In sum, I am extremely sorry to see Bill Lewis retire, and wish him the best in his recovery from upcoming surgery. I am equally excited for the arrival of John Tenuta and can't wait to see him help this defense develop and mature. Signing day is around the corner!!!!!! GO IRISH!!!!!!!!