Football is a brutal, punishing game. It’s primal, from the first gunner hurtling 60-yards downfield for the reward of one spectacular head-on collision, to the final game-defining goal-line stand in the last desperate seconds of battle.
But it comes with a price.
Charlie Weis and his new "less-talk, more action" physical approach to August practice rings of the brutality the sports preparation demands. Evidence lies in the recent news of a banged up Outland Trophy finalist, a limping No. 1 linebacker recruit, a hamstring issue for the best cover corner, and the promise of days off for starters as the physicality continues throughout Irish camp.
“Bull in the ring” exhibitions, one-on-ones, and full contact have become the new face of preseason camp in South Bend. Bruises, bang-ups, and season-threatening injuries will follow.
And don’t you dare complain about it.
There was a time when it was said that the only team that could beat Notre Dame on Saturday was the scout team that faced them from Monday to Friday. There was a time when the competitive level of a Notre Dame camp pushed young men to achieve great accolades.
There was also a time when the Charlie Weis NFL “run-throughs” left the Irish soft, ill-prepared, and defeated long before the Saturday kickoff.
If our eyes are not deceiving us, those days are gone. A new era has begun and it starts with one all-important word: competition.
It took me many years to consider myself a recruitnik. I thought recruiting was over-hyped and over-valued and that intense media focus could seriously damage the personal and athletic development of young athletes. I don’t think I was too far off base, but it’s become overwhelmingly obvious that recruiting is the key ingredient to the construction of a successful top tier program.
The reality is simple: no athletes, no success. No five-star recruits, no 10-win seasons. No practice field full of All-Americans banging heads and making plays every afternoon at 3:30, no national championship.
Enter Pete Carroll.
The first year I paid attention to the recruiting process was when the Irish were chasing a young running back out of San Diego named Reggie Bush. His highlight film was youtube gold before youtube made gold. The stories and legends about him made Grantland Rice come back down from on high to write another profile.
We all know the ending. Bush went to Carroll and USC in 2003, a program with the 13th ranked recruiting class in '02 and devoid of a Rivals five-star player. Bush, Sam Baker, Steve Smith, and Sedrick Ellis made USC the third rated class in '03 and helped usher in a period during which Southern Cal was rated in the top three of the Rivals rankings for five straight years.
There was one more player in the 2003 Trojan class that brings us back to our focus on Notre Dame in 2009. His name was Lendale White and he was a stud. White and Bush pushed each other, and the Trojan program, to 37 wins in three seasons and two national championships.
Competition among the nations finest recruits at every position on the field day after day, game after game, drove USC to the pantheon of college football greatness.
Notre Dame now dreams of the same success. Subway alums, former players, the Notre Dame administration, and every fan and fanatic from sunny L.A. to small town New England who cares about the Irish must see the value of hard-hitting practices stoked in the competitive fires of everyday battle.
The press gets twenty minutes a day, if they are lucky. Internet watchers get a six-minute video and all the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette reports they can read. All of this is controlled by how Coach Weis schedules his practices. We see what he wants us to see and we’ve seen some good things in the last seven days.
Steve Filer got tossed by newcomer Bobby Burger and failed to make the tackle in Saturday’s one-on-one drill. Good, maybe the big-time recruit from Chicago with Tuck-like talent can find the passion of Brandon Hoyte and step up in 2009.
Cierre Wood reads and picks and darts his way through holes and arm tackles like a muscled up version of Darius Walker. Good, maybe that will inspire Armando Allen to break a few runs longer than twenty yards and entrench himself as a legit big-play back.
Chris Stewart laid pavement over Sean Cwyner as the ballcarrier sprinted by untouched. Cwyner was visibly incensed. Stewart was visibly unaffected. Good, maybe Stewart and his line-mates will open up enough holes to get the Irish a few 200-yard days.
If these limited images, selected sound bites, and carefully constructed idols are the reality of ND football in 2009, the Irish faithful have a lot to be excited about.
Notre Dame does not have the depth of those great USC teams yet. ND does not have Bush v. White, Cushing v. Maualuga, or Smith v. Jarrett.
But the recruiting under Coach Weis has been excellent and the talent is on the field. Manti is a beast, Sam Young is out to prove he's an All-American, and Dayne Crist wants to make sure everybody in blue and gold knows that Jimmy Clausen is not a man on an island.
This competitive environment will ensure that Notre Dame more effectively prepared for the battles of 2009. It should protect against a Syracuse redo or another three quarters of excruciating ineptitude when USC comes calling.
2009 is full of promise for Notre Dame. According to what we see and hear, South Bend practice fields are full of game-breaking five-star talents, hard-charging four-star athletes, and hungry three-star underdogs all waging battle to make the Irish a national contender again.
Let the bull lose in the ring. I’m sure they’ll be a few takers if an Irish starting job is on the line.
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