The Times They Are A'Changin': Notre Dame Football Offseason In-Review

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The Times They Are A'Changin': Notre Dame Football Offseason In-Review

It doesn't seem like too long ago that Notre Dame fans were frequently checking their favorite websites and media outlets to find out the fate of Charlie Weis, or whether the Irish would accept a bowl bid after a disappointing 6-6 season.

In one of the most tumultuous offseasons in football history, the aftermath in the wake of Notre Dame’s loss to Stanford to end the 2009 season now feels like ages ago.

There has been such an abundance of reports and so many different stories this offseason that you could write a compelling book about the past seven months.
In fact, I bet someone ends up writing a book titled “Why the 2010 Offseason Changed the College Football World Forever,” or something along those lines.

Let’s hope the hiring of Brian Kelly and a subsequent national title or two for the Irish is a big part of that yet to be written book.

So with this chaotic spring and summer coming to a close and fall camp just around the corner, I thought I’d take a look back at some of the things I covered over the past few months and touch on some other things that I did not.

 

First, we had my notes from the spring’s Blue-Gold game. Here’s a look back at some of the things I noticed and what I think about it now one week away from fall camp.

 

ActionCam

The live feed of the Blue-Gold game, via Notre Dame’s official website, offered the new ActionCam that NBC is testing in hopes of using it during the 2010 season for Irish home games. It would be a welcome addition to the broadcast, especially with the spread offense now being employed by Notre Dame.

No word yet if this new camera will be put on the list of “things that are not part of tradition and should not be used,” or whether NBC will be unable to juggle the responsibility of installing this inside the stadium while trying to find a new color commentator (and hopefully play-by-play man as well).

 

Cierre Wood & Jonas Gray

Are you still having dreams about the speed and agility these two displayed in the spring game?

Yeah, me too.

Honestly, out of all the things Notre Dame has the potential to do on offense this year, nothing excites me more than waiting to see what the trio of Allen-Wood-Gray can do.

 

Crist to Rudolph (Get Used to It)

It took about three and a half seconds of watching the passing game to realize that Crist likes to target Kyle Rudolph, and that many a football will be thrown the big tight end’s way.

Whatever the NCAA records are for a tight end in the passing game, Rudolph has the potential to get close to that rarefied air. He certainly seems like a good bet to break Ken MacAfee and Anthony Fasano’s school records if he can stay healthy.

 

Shaq Evans, Deion Walker and T.J. Jones

Notre Dame will have the best receiving unit in the country if these three players are each catching three or four balls a game.

Freshman T.J. Jones surprised a lot of people with his tremendous spring practices, and he is holding down a starting spot in the slot heading into fall practice. Needless to say, I think this kid will be a very reliable threat right from the get-go and may even challenge Michael Floyd’s freshman receiving records if he’s able to stay healthy and remain atop five receiver on the depth chart.

Shaq Evans has displayed very brief moments of brilliance on the field, and he did it again during the Blue-Gold game. Although only a true sophomore, Evans has all the tools to become the heir-apparent to Michael Floyd at the No. 1 receiving spot.

I expect he will be lining up across the field in the No. 2 spot at some point this season. He may not have some of the intangibles like Golden Tate, but Evans (along with Floyd) is probably the most talented receiver to come to Notre Dame in a long time.

Deion Walker is another big time prospect that has done next to nothing since arriving in South Bend. But his future still looks promising, especially with a coaching change and anew system.

Even though he’s a junior already, Walker still has three years of eligibility left and has the talent to become an excellent No. 2 receiver or possibly a future top target for the Irish.

Out of these three receivers I’m the least bullish on Walker, but he’s ready to start making an impact in 2010.

 

Thoughts on the Offensive Line

I thought the offensive line moved really well in the running game, and that is a great sign for the upcoming season. I’m still adamant that the O-line will be a very reliable unit this fall.

Even though there will likely be three new starters, the improved strength and conditioning, the coaching change, and a focus on one specific system are all major positives for the unit.

A lack of endurance, poor coaching, and a mish-mash of styles and philosophies have all been removed, and this should bring about immediate improvement.  

When those things are coupled with a move away from the slow developing NFL-style drop back game and a reliance on quick decision making from the quarterback position, I think this may be the best offensive line since 2005.

 

Tyler Stockton

The spring game gave us a sneak peek of the disruption Tyler Stockton can cause on the football field, and I am expecting him to be a very capable back-up at nose tackle this fall.

Just watch, in a couple of years Notre Dame fans will be shaking their heads in disbelief with the talent at defensive tackle led by Stockton and Louis Nix III.

 

Manti Te’o and Steve Filer

After watching these two put on an absolutely brilliant display at linebacker during the spring game, you have to be excited about the future of the defense. Both players looked like they could start and shine on any program in the country.

We all know about Te’o and his potential, but this is all the more exciting for someone like Filer who has a boatload of physical tools and is ready to break out this year. Add these two players to the duo of Darius Fleming and Brian Smith and Notre Dame may have its best linebacker corps in well over a decade.

When was the last time the Irish had four legitimate NFL prospects at linebacker, with three players (and possibly all four) possessing early round talent?

 

The Secondary is Weak

I just can’t get this negativite thought out of my mind, and nothing in the spring game showed me that things will be vastly improved. Perhaps we can expect slight improvement from the passing defense, but with memories of wide open receivers, lost battles with jump balls, and numerous quarterbacks turning into John Elway against the Irish, I still think this is the team’s Achilles' heel.

With a solid and experienced defensive line and talented linebackers, I think Notre Dame will become very strong in the run defense. But I’m not convinced that the linebackers are that great in pass coverage, and the corners and safety’s simply have not played up to their talent level in this regard as well.

It’s definitely the biggest thing to be concerned about. There’s the suggestion that since Diaco’s 2009 defense at Cincinnati was so good at pressuring the quarterback and getting sacks, the same will happen for the Irish in the fall—thus leading to an improved passing defense.

It’s a comforting thought—if only we didn’t hear the same exact thing last year with John Tenuta’s aggressive defense. However, much like the offensive line, let’s hope a focused system, better coaching and fundamentals will bring about genuine improvement for the secondary.

 

Kicking & Punting

I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but Notre Dame has one heck of a talented kicker in sophomore Nick Tausch, and even sophomore Ben Turk showed during the spring and late last year that he can unload bombs in the punting game.

Irish fans have been scarred in recent years with poor to pathetic special teams play, but Tausch and Turk bring a lot of optimism to their respective positions. If the coaching staff can iron out the inconsistencies from the past—especially with Turk—special teams could actually turn into a strong aspect of Notre Dame’s team.

 

New Uniforms

It appears Notre Dame’s uniforms will be returning to the look worn from 1987 until 1991, when Lou Holtz was coach. The biggest change will be the replacement of the TV numbers on the arms with the interlocking “ND” logo, last seen before Weis took over the program five years ago.

However, there will be no gold trim, word mark, or front logo like we saw used in various forms from 1992 until 2004. Fans can take some comfort in the fact that these new uniforms will make the team look like the 1988 National Champion Fighting Irish squad, except for that irritating Adidas logo that is now front and center at the jerseys neckline.

 

The Matt James Tragedy

I chose to forgo writing about the death of Notre Dame offensive lineman recruit Matt James for a couple of reasons.

The first is that I knew there would be plenty of coverage and attention paid to the tragedy by writers from all over the country. And also, it was very hard to come up with something to say that wouldn’t have already been mentioned by so many others.

So I chose to keep a respectful distance from the tragedy. Nevertheless, it was a terrible loss for James’ family, friends and the Xavier community. I’d expect a very touching moment of silence before Notre Dame’s season opening contest against Purdue.

 

Natural Grass

My attempt to end the debate on Notre Dame’s natural grass playing surface did the exact opposite, but that was to be expected.

It appears that a strong majority still prefer the natural grass, although I found this quote from Brian Kelly interesting when he was asked about the resources of the university and if they are adequate for recruiting:

“Infrastructure, no. But as you know, there are some unique things about Notre Dame. And one is that we have no Jumbotron. We have no advertising in the stadium. We play on grass. It’s not the head coach saying that those are negatives. They are unique and we sometimes have to address those in recruiting.

“We like the tradition, we like those things. But there clearly are things that are used against us in recruiting. As far as practice fields, training table, weight room, locker room—we have everything we need at Notre Dame from that standpoint. And that has been the case for five or six years.”

Hmmm.

And that led NBC’s Keith Arnold to reply:

“While the Jumbotron might have raised an eyebrow, I’m curious to see if Notre Dame might finally cave and replace the grass inside the stadium with some type of artificial surface. The Irish already practice on artificial surface and even with continual efforts to improve the turf, the grass in the stadium has been pretty mediocre for the past few seasons, with large chunks of sod coming up in nearly every home game.”

Now I’m not saying that Kelly doesn’t like the natural grass or that he definitely prefers playing on artificial surfaces. But clearly he is stating that the natural grass (and its utter failure over the past few seasons) is used against Notre Dame on the recruiting trail.

I know I’d prefer that players didn’t slip as much as they do inside Notre Dame Stadium, and I am confident that some form of artificial surface would be a boost to our team speed. I also wish that this wasn’t something that “had to be addressed,” as Kelly puts it.

Not having a Jumbotron or using advertising inside the stadium just cannot be on the same level as a potential recruit worrying about slipping, being slow, or being injured on a bad playing surface. What’s more, a Jumbotron and stadium advertisements would be an immediate and instantly noticeable stain to over 100 years of tradition at Notre Dame.

An artificial playing surface?

Not so much.

I’m sticking to my guns and saying that we’ll eventually see a hybrid surface installed sometime during the Kelly administration. It will most likely be very similar to what the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos use, which is a natural grass base with a small percentage of artificial fibers woven throughout.

 

Barnstorming

My piece on the top barnstorming games was a fun little offseason project to pass the time until the season begins.

It was great news to hear that Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick was able to finalize the rumored three game series with Miami. That means 2012 is setting up to be the runaway most difficult schedule in the nation, with the likes of Oklahoma and Miami added to the regulars of USC and Michigan.

The only bad news is how far off the second game with Miami is. We still have to play six more seasons before the teams meet up again in South Bend. Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate will be around 30 years old and battle tested NFL veterans when the second game finally comes!

At least the tilt at Soldier Field should be fantastic.

It would seem that Swarbrick will have to keep adding high-profile series like this once every two or three years, while also featuring as many quality opponents as possible on a year-to-year basis.

So far, Swarbrick has done an excellent job of beefing up future schedules and a likely move to a 6-5-1 model will only make his job easier.

 

2,000 Yards Rushing

Now that I’ve had to sit back and reflect on the state of the Irish ground attack, I may back off my prediction that the team will pound out 2,000 rushing yards this fall.

Not that I explicitly predicted that it would happen, but I do think the talent is such that it might not be as unbelievable as it has been over the past eight or nine years.

Plus, it all depends on how much Brian Kelly ends up using the stable of runners at his disposal. Some are preparing themselves for an aerial attack more intense than under Charlie Weis, while others believe Kelly will utilize the running game early and often to protect quarterback Dayne Crist.

We just don’t know what will pan out. But given enough carries, I think Allen, Wood and Gray could top the 2,000 yard mark, with a very respectable yards-per-carry average to boot.

At the very least, I guarantee we head into the 2010 off-season knowing the Irish can run the ball a lot better than in the past.

 

USC Sanctions

I didn’t really write much about the USC sanctions because , quite frankly, I am torn about what has happened in the land of Troy.

It just wouldn’t be as rewarding beating a downtrodden USC team as opposed to a powerful Trojan program, regardless if they deserve the punishment or not.

Anyway, I think USC is going to have a really strong year and those who think the sanctions are going to impact this year’s team may be quite shocked when the weather turns cold and the Trojans are carrying an impressive record late in the season.

Lane Kiffin though…well he’s a different story.

 

Off-field Issues

It was a bit of a tricky first half of the calendar year for Brian Kelly as he settled into his new digs in South Bend. First there was the scuffle Michael Floyd was involved in back in Minnesota, s followed by the death of top recruit Matt James.

Then, tight end Mike Ragone was busted for marijuana possession and that was followed up by the Navy SEALS Indiana Excise Police’s arrest of multiple football players and other Notre Dame students and athletes for underage drinking.

For Notre Dame, three somewhat borderline dicey issues are rare in one offseason, but I think I speak for the majority when I say that these were pretty forgettable offenses by the football team.

 

Conference Expansion

The conference expansion talk and rumors came into the offseason as a fairly major story but then took over the entire college landscape like Alexander the Great storming through the Persian Empire.

At times, the amount of coverage and endless (and often baseless) gossip made the Brett Favre and LeBron James stories from the past look like Peabody Award programs.

Even though it was fun to think about all the different scenarios that could happen and which schools were going to move and where, the whole situation got out of hand rather quickly.

For Irish fans, it was a very anxious couple of months as it seemed more and more likely that Notre Dame would be leaving behind over a hundred years of independence.

Thanks to a bevy of factors—most notably Texas’ decision to stick with the diminished Big 12—Notre Dame was able to stay independent…for now.

It is likely that this topic will not go away, and you can bet there will be just as strong of a media storm after the 2010 season with eyes waiting to see what the Big Ten, Pac-Ten and Texas decide to do.

 

Notre Dame Network

Amidst all of the talk of conference expansion, the growth and success of the Big Ten Network and the likely creation of the Texas Longhorns Network, I speculated that maybe Notre Dame would create its own sports network.

However, the issues involved in such an endeavor are numerous and extremely complicated. In other words, we may be years away from anything of the sort taking place.

The main thing to watch for over the next couple seasons will be how Comcast’s majority ownership in NBC Universal affects the broadcast of Notre Dame football on NBC.

A lot of the future depends on the amount of winning the Irish can achieve under Kelly, but also keep an eye out for any announcements or changes in the way Notre Dame is marketed by the Comcast/Universal partnership.

Will we see increased coverage?

Will additional programming spill over onto other channels?

Will we see a transformation of the Saturday football broadcasts?

Which leads me to the next topic…

 

NBC Broadcast Team

Now that former color-commentator Pat Haden has taken the job at his Alma mater as Southern California’s new athletic director, there is a hole in the two-man broadcast booth for Notre Dame’s home games on NBC.

There have been a lot of things said about Haden over the years, with some if it fair and some of if it clearly not.

Was he the best color commentator in the world? No, he was not. But, he wasn’t the worst either, and you can easily blame his counterpart in play-by-play man Tom Hammond for dragging Haden’s reputation down.

The thing is, Haden was technically proficient. He knows the game, he knows a lot of the players, and as a former college and pro quarterback he could point out a lot of important details that other more entertaining color men would simply gloss over.

However, the problem with Haden (and the booth as a whole) is that there always felt like a tight reign was placed over him in regards to what he could and could not say. It’s not like he actively cheered opponents and didn’t give Notre Dame credit when it was due, but it just felt contrived and empty at times.

It always felt like the opponents got just a little more love in comparison to Notre Dame.

For example, if both teams ran identical plays with identical outcomes, the opponents’ play would get a comment at about an eight out of ten in the “excitability/impressed/let’s talk about this play” level, when they really deserved a six.

In contrast, it seemed like Notre Dame always got that six out of ten. So, Haden was calling it like he saw it, which most people respect, but it just never jived the right way with Irish fans that Notre Dame didn’t get an extra boost the way their opponents sometimes did.

Now, Tom Hammond is an entirely different story.

I believe play-by-play individuals should have three strong suits.

First, be technically proficient. This means getting the players and coach’s names right, calling the plays as they happen correctly (is it a counter, reverse, fade, etc.), and generally guiding a smooth and interesting broadcast.

Second, bring a certain level of excitement and passion to the broadcast. This can’t be measured exactly and is more of a feeling and sense that viewers will ultimately experience from an announcer.

And third, interact amicably and interestingly with your partner in the booth.

On the first issue, Hammond fails miserably.

He makes what seems like a player name error nearly every drive, and what makes it all the more irritating is that he often confuses the Notre Dame players more often than the opponents. It also doesn’t take a broadcast major to know that Hammond doesn’t know a ton about football and struggles often to call plays in a concise manner.

And no one will ever mistake him for running a smooth and interesting broadcast; it is rigid and painfully boring. Just about the only thing he does well is announce the gain on each play, which makes sense because it is probably spoken to him by a producer through his ear piece, furthering the notion that Hammond may indeed be a robot.

On the second, issue Hammond fails yet again, and this one is a biggie in my opinion.

I can deal with someone messing up and not running a generally smooth broadcast (even though that is pretty amateur), but you’d better bring the excitement and energy into the booth as well.

Hammond does neither.

The two greatest things he gets to say every Saturday are “Here come the Irish” when they storm out of the tunnel before the game, and “Touchdown Irish” when there’s an obvious crossing of the goal line with the football.

Both are announced like NBC grabbed some apathetic sixth grade science teacher off the street who could care less about football and who is told to read the catchphrase off an index card with the words “with mild enthusiasm” written in parentheses on the bottom.

Even in the rare opportunity that Hammond does get loud and excited (which takes a truly special turn of events), it always seems very uncomfortable and awkward, like having a family member who is very quiet and reserved suddenly burst out in a shout, leaving you astonished and slightly amused.

And lastly, even though Hammond and Haden seemed like a perfect fit, with both being a bit uptight and stale, the chemistry between the two was generally unpleasant.

There were far too many interruptions of each other and also a feeling that maybe they didn’t really like each other at all that much. One could certainly see how the partnership was forced and how Haden, being the former player and intellectual, could have been just as frustrated as the fans with Hammond’s ineptness.

Whatever happens in the coming future with the broadcast team, the fact remains that the worst of the duo still has the job as the voice of Notre Dame football on NBC.

And yes, that makes me want to vomit.

It has just recently been announced that NFL network college football and draft analyst Mike Maycock will be joining Tom Hammond in the booth for Notre Dame telecasts on NBC.

I don’t know much about Mr. Maycock, but given NBC’s past and current hires, I am quite skeptical about any improvements to the broadcasts.

 

Tim Brown

Former Notre Dame wide receiver and all-around talent Tim Brown was recently inducted into the college football Hall of Fame.

I’ve found Tim Brown to be such a fascinating player and person within the Irish community, if only because I get the sense that he’s always been underappreciated and overlooked at times.

Maybe it’s because he graduated right before I started watching Notre Dame as a little kid, but I believe it is mostly because of bad timing really, since he graduated the year before Notre Dame’s last National Championship.

And even though he’s the last Irish player to win the Heisman, he had the misfortune of watching a handful of other players fill the void that he left and becoming just as popular as him: Rocket Ismail, Ricky Watters, and Jerome Bettis being three perfect examples.

I bet that if you polled fans on whom their favorite players from the past 25 years were,  Brown would be third or fourth on a lot of lists, behind the likes of the players mentioned above and with Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, and Golden Tate in the mix as well.

But I think this may be a good thing, because it shows what a great person of character Tim Brown was and continues to be. He was never one to hog the spotlight, create a controversy, or put himself above the goals of the team.

So even though he is not as popular as some would expect the school’s last Heisman winner to be, I think we can all appreciate what he has done for Notre Dame and just how special of a player and teammate he was.

Congratulations Timmy Touchdown.

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From the FanTake blog: One Foot Down

Follow on Twitter: @OneFootDown

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