Sunday, February 27, 2011

In the On Deck Circle

Things are a bit slow this time of year when it comes to Irish Football. We're in the lull between Signing Day and the start of spring practice. Let's be honest: it's too early to dive into next year's recruiting cycle (it's like taking on a pair of Chipotle burritos immediately following Thanksgiving Dinner...let me enjoy my food/recruiting coma for a few months) while the arguments and debates over field turf and jumbtrons have been bludgeoned to death (far less entertaining than discussing the merits of Miller Lite, though the conversations are typically on the same intellectual plane).

I tried to come up with something that could occupy some time and provide some entertainment for readers over the next few weeks. The result of this brainstorm? An Irish Fantasy Draft.

Let me lay out the concept:

* Get a handful of guys from the Irish blogosphere to partake in a draft consisting of all the players who suited up for the Irish since the 1990 regular season.
* Each "owner" will have to assemble a team with starters on each side of the ball, specialists, and a handful of subs. We've settled on 28 players so that each owner has the flexibility to have a couple extra wide receivers, tight ends, running backs, whatever based upon their chosen strategy.
* The format for the drafting is the classic fantasy football snake format (the order of picking reverses for each round).
* Upon completion have the readers vote on the best team.

Throughout the entire draft I plan on posting round-by-round results with each owner's brief instant analysis of their selection as well as a more in-depth breakdown of my pick. Upon completion every owner will essentially give their take on how their team turned out, why they assembled it in the way they did, and why their squad is clearly a juggernaut that would destroy the other teams in this project.

Six websites have signed up to participate in the draft. They are:

1. WeNeverGraduate...Oh, YOU DIDN'T KNOW???
2. Subway Domer...The creator and leader of the IBG is ready to rumble.
3. Domer Law...Wacko's a lawyer and ready to press charges on anyone who doesn't think his team's the best.
4. UHND...Frank's been running his site since Nagano. He's a seasoned vet who may use Ifky's basement as his war room.
5. Irish Illustrated...Pete Sampson is ready to remind everyone why he gets PAID and we don't.
6. Her Loyal Sons...domer_mq's taking a break from judging the cue card contest to get involved.

We're still hammering out minor details (Domer_mq says he could have a ticker for picks that would be placed on the participating sites so people could follow throughout the week...Do you hear that? A TICKER!), but my hope is that we'll be up and running over the next week.

Stay Tuned. To hold you over, let's enjoy some of the most entertaining moments in the history of the televised NFL Draft. I'll give you a hint: they all come right after the commissioner utters the words, "The Jets are on the clock."

Friday, February 25, 2011 hot right now...Hansbrough

Saw this posted in The Pit on ND Nation and thought it was worth throwing up on the site. Thanks to Final_Flanner for sharing.

Big East Player of the Year? Certainly deserves to be in the discussion.

So hot right now. Hansbrough.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Revisiting "Breaking Down Mike Brey"

A year ago last week I posted a column titled “Breaking Down Mike Brey.” The Irish were fresh off a trio of heartbreaking losses at the hands of Seton Hall, St. John’s, and Louisville and seemed to be spiraling to another NIT berth. The point of the article was to articulate frustrations with the program and suggest that perhaps the time had come to go in a new direction.

How did Brey and his boys respond over the past year? They unveiled the Burn Offense and promptly reeled off a six-game win streak to go from miles outside the bubble to a #6 seed in last year’s tournament. They’ve been riding that wave of momentum to the tune of a 20-5 record this season, meaning they’ve won 27 of their last 34—including 7 out of 10 against ranked opponents.

Brey has outcoached the likes of Jim Calhoun, Rick Pitino, Bo Ryan, and Jamie Dixon (actually, to say he outcoached Dixon is an understatement—he’s made Jamie his whipping boy three times in ten months). Here we are on the doorstep of March Madness and Brey finds his squad planted firmly in the top ten in both polls.

Accompanying this abrupt turnaround is a slew of questions. Has Mike Brey changed his philosophy since that piece was written? Was the article just flat-out wrong? Did something click with Coach Brey and the result is this new, improved Notre Dame basketball program ready to make “the leap” to the next level? Or is the recent success just a fluke and the Irish will inevitably slip back to flirting with the bubble throughout the season?

I think a good way to try to figure that out would be to dissect last year’s article piece by piece. Last year’s article will be in bold, this year’s reactions will be in normal font and within parentheses. Grab your scalpels and buckle up.

Over the past month the Irish’s somewhat promising season has come undone thanks to crushing defeats at the hands of Rutgers, Seton Hall, St. John’s, and Louisville. The latest trio of losses has led the masses to grab their pitchforks and call for the head of head coach Mike Brey. Other people argue that it is unfair to hold the program to a higher standard than it’s currently attained because it is unrealistic to think any coach could do any better with the hand Brey has been dealt.

(My pitchfork was so sharp, forged with anger over those losses to the trio of NYC metro teams.)

Over the course of ten years Mike Brey has done a lot for the Notre Dame Basketball Program while dealing with some pretty tough restrictions (academics) and sub-standard facilities. Is it time for a change? There’s been a lot of literature out there recently about why Brey is the right fit or at least why he shouldn’t be let go (here’s an article by Lou Somogyi from BGI, one from Mike Coffey from ND Nation, and an entire state of the program from Kevin O’Neill) so I’ll try to present the educated counterpoint.

(All were well-articulated arguments, I just think there were too many excuses offered that concentrated on macro issues. Most of Brey’s flaws are fixable because they’re on a micro scale—using the macro arguments like lack of facilities to excuse not caring about defense makes no sense. It’s very Bob Davie-ish.


Brey has an impressive overall record and a rock solid record in the toughest conference in America, but eventually there comes a point when numbers don’t tell the entire story and you can see with your own eyes that a ceiling has been reached. Need an example from another sport? Call up some Philadelphia Eagles fans and get their take on the yearly Donovan McNabb-Andy Reid experience. Brey’s dismissal would have less to do with his body of work and more to do with his basic philosophies and the trends and attitudes that have been entrenched within the program over the course of his tenure.

(I think the Reid-Brey parallel is very apt. Eagles fans are reluctantly nodding as they inadvertently wince.)

We can start with the fact that inadequate attention is given to the simple fundamentals of basketball. I vividly remember Brey talking about the loss of Rob Kurz and what it meant to the team during the ’08-’09 campaign. He said, “Rob did all the little things like screening and we really miss that.” Now Rob Kurz was a great and underrated contributor who was greatly missed last year, but you’re telling me that when he left our ability to set screens left as well? Luke Harangody is 6-7, 250lbs. Tell me why he couldn’t square up, lay his body into someone, and spring one of the bombers we had last year for an open three?

(We’re still not very good at springing out shooters off of screens. There have been times when Atkins is running the point and Ben is playing off the ball where we have serious issues getting Ben the rock in a scoring position. We rely a lot on penetrating and kicking to create jump shot opportunities as opposed to running our shooters off picks which means Ben needs to have the ball in his hands at the start of every meaningful possession.)

Setting screens has nothing to do with talent; it has to do with focus and attention to detail. I realize that the players on the court shoulder some of the blame for not executing, but Brey has a responsibility to call out and hold players who can’t perform simple tasks like setting an effective pick accountable. Watching Zeller and Harangody set lazy, half-hearted screens last year as Kyle McAlarney and Ryan Ayers—guys who made open threes far more often than they missed them—tried to get free last year in half-court sets with limited success made me want to jam my head through a wall.

(Jack Cooley sets a mean screen. How? He stands still and doesn’t roll to the hoop or circle cut to the wing—damnit Zeller—before he’s done setting the pick. To be fair, two of our three best shooters—Carleton Scott and Tim Abromaitis—are spot shooters and not in the McAlarney-Falls-Carroll mold that was comfortable quickly firing a shot after rubbing off a screen. And no one is in the mold of kicking a defender and somehow drawing a four-point play like Falls.)

Attention to detail is an attitude that starts from the top and trickles down and it’s something Mike Brey simply lacks. It manifests itself on the boards as well. Countless times over the past couple years we have allowed offensive rebounds at the most inopportune time. Almost every week of the season it seems an Irish player appears on the wrong side of highlight reel putback dunk. Many times it’s not because we’re outmatched athletically, we just completely fail to turn and box a man out. Just a few weeks ago Rutgers essentially locked up a victory by tipping out a missed free throw in the last two minutes that sucked all the air out of the Irish balloon. That’s the definition of lacking focus.

(This is an area where this team has gotten a lot better. Notre Dame is actually outrebounding opponents by 4.8 boards per game and as of a week ago was one of the top five teams in the Big East in rebounding margin.)

Another more glaring shortcoming of Brey-coached teams is defense. There is absolutely no excuse for how terrible our defense is year in and year out. No, we do not have the elite athletes of other teams in the conference and we can’t expect to have a smothering Pitino-like press in the Big East. Does that mean there’s any defensible reason to be ranked toward the bottom of the entire NCAA in defensive efficiency every season? Absolutely not.

(This is far and away the best defensive squad in Brey’s tenure. They’ve allowed 80 points just one time this season and won that game in double overtime. The Irish gave up 80 points an average of 7+ times per year from 2005-2010.)

Brey has gone on record stating that he’s willing to sacrifice defense to maintain rhythm and flow on the offensive side of the ball. This is a guy who learned under the greatest high school coach ever (Morgan Wooten) and one of the greatest college coaches ever (Mike Krzyzewski). Both are icons in the sport that must cringe every time they hear their old assistant utter his philosophy. It blows my mind that in spite of learning at the foot of these legends and seeing how they operate and approach the game, Brey still takes on an indifferent and borderline dismissive attitude about defense.

(Has Brey changed his tune and realized that playing solid defense is possible and necessary? I’m not ready to completely buy that yet because I think it’s the relentless attitude and demeanor of Ben Hansbrough that has rubbed off on the entire team.

Ben doesn’t have an off-switch. Whether he’s on offense or defense he’s going full-throttle and he’s almost single-handedly raised every player on a veteran team to a higher level of effort on the defensive side of the ball.

While the improved defense may not be a direct result of Brey changing his philosophy, my hope for the future (post-Hansbrough) is that Ben has made Brey realize playing solid defense is absolutely possible despite the fact ND is usually outmanned athletically. It’s all about effort and will.)

One excuse that’s trotted out on behalf of shortcomings on the defensive end is the lack of athletes to employ an effective man-to-man all game long. Defense is not as much about having athletes as it is about effort and attitude. Those that tell you otherwise are wrong. Period. He’s right, we can’t lock down the upper level teams by playing man-to-man all day but that’s no reason to wave a white flag. Why not seek to neutralize the disadvantage we face through alternatives?

(Little did we know the best alternative defense would be an alternative offense.)

The Naval Academy doesn’t line up in traditional sets in football and hope to beat the Notre Dames of the world. They implement a disciplined offense designed to confuse their more talented opponents, shorten the game, and level the playing field as much as possible. Do they win all the time? Absolutely not (please use restraint on your Charlie Weis cracks), but sometimes they find a way (you may now unload on Charlie). The talent gap between Navy football and ND football is far greater than ND basketball and the rest of the Big East.

(Brey’s development and implementation of “The Burn Offense” has been absolutely masterful and forced me to reassess the program's ceiling under his leadership.The Burn levels the playing field by shortening the game and plays to our strengths.

Brey’s teams are routinely one of the most efficient offensive units in the country in terms of points per possession. By limiting the opponent’s opportunities and possessions it’s giving us an edge against teams that have clear athletic and talent advantages. Watching a clearly superior Pitt team get completely frazzled and flustered by The Burn not once, not twice, but THREE times has been a thing of beauty. At the same time, the slower pace also allows the luxury of putting forth more effort and energy on defense, something that’s completely necessary if a team wants to take “the next step” toward being elite.)

What about committing to a 2-3 Matchup Zone? It’s something that nobody—to my knowledge—in the Big East currently employs at least on a consistent basis. It could be a wrinkle to disguise our weaknesses and confuse offenses. Temple almost exclusively used the Matchup under John Chaney and had a great deal of success with it throughout the 90’s. Is it a slam dunk to work? No. Could it be worse than the current state of our defense? No. The unwillingness to address the problem over the course of his ten years is unacceptable. The ceiling for teams that can’t buckle down and make stops at crucial points in the game is very low—it doesn’t matter how vaunted their offense is.

(The matchup zone isn’t even necessary, though I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing it implemented in stretches and eventually just replacing the normal 2-3 zone. I’ve always been a big Matchup guy and of the opinion that the traditional 2-3 is a lazy defense unless Jim Boeheim is coaching it.)

Speaking of that explosive offense, let’s dissect that a bit. Much to Brey’s credit his teams are normally chock full of offensive firepower. When things are clicking it is a thing of beauty to watch and the Irish are capable of scoring in bunches that few teams can match. However, inevitably there are times in games where things don’t run like clockwork. Brey’s offensive philosophy is free-flowing, but when it stalls we never seem to have anything to fall back on. This becomes particularly evident down the stretch when games grind to a slower, half-court affair.

(Our problems this year have been based on the fact that we haven’t made shots, not necessarily that the half-court offense has come to a screeching halt. Hansbrough has done a great job making the offense go especially when they’ve used The Burn and getting a shot off in a time-crunched half-court set is a necessity.)

At the end of games instead of drawing up a play it seems Brey puts the clipboard down and says “go out there and create.” Most of the time it leads to the Irish coming out in a 1-4 set where the point guard (whether it be Tory Jackson or Chris Thomas or Chris Quinn) tries to take his man off the dribble. The last time I remember this working was when Chris Thomas hit a shot to beat St. John’s at the buzzer during the ’04-’05 season. We’re not built for a slow, half-court game but a coach has to realize that in each contest there will come a point where an offensive set is necessary. Part of being a great coach in any sport on any level is the ability to make adjustments. Even on the offensive side of the ball—where Brey’s teams clearly excel—the necessary adaptability to be anything more than a fringe team is lacking.

(The Burn has completely dispelled the notion that we’re unable to play a slow, half-court game. This is a very smart team that moves the ball very well in any situation.)

There are also a wide variety of personnel decisions he makes on a yearly basis that are just maddening. Almost every year he decides to go with only a six or seven deep rotation. This allegedly helps the offense maintain its flow but usually at the expense of running out of gas down the stretch of the season. Take this year for example. I don’t think anyone can provide a legitimate reason that Joey Brooks, Jack Cooley, and Carleton Scott couldn’t have played a bigger role earlier in the season. At the same time no one can convince me that Jonathan Peoples should have been anything more than the tenth man on this year’s squad.

(Not a whole lot to complain about this year in terms of personnel. Sure, people cry that there isn’t enough depth but the reality is that there aren’t more than eight people on this team that could make any sort of contribution this season. I don’t see anyone rotting on the bench that should be playing minutes like Carleton Scott and Jack Cooley last season. Jerian Grant probably could’ve made a small impact but he’s redshirting so that’s a moot point.

Brey always says depth is overrated and he’s not necessarily wrong—John Wooden’s rotation was only seven deep and that worked out ok—but I also think you have to maximize all the talent on your roster each especially in such a tough conference. That doesn’t apply to this season though.)

Brey almost seems to slow-play guys so that they can emerge unexpectedly as juniors instead of giving them 8 to 12 hard, intense minutes a game early in their careers to give the starters a blow while giving them valuable experience. We’ve already established we don’t have the caliber of athlete that Syracuse and UConn have so why wouldn’t we counteract that by maximizing the talent we actually do have on the roster? Carleton Scott is the best athlete on the team and instantly upgrades our defense the moment he steps on the court. Was his attitude that bad in the first two months of the season that he couldn’t have gone out and contributed the way he has been the past couple games? Why couldn’t Jack Cooley have been put in for a few minutes per game to bang around inside? He’s actually an upgrade over Harangody on the defensive end. No one is calling for these guys to play 25-30 minutes a game; it just seems to be a waste when they rot on the bench as we slip farther and farther toward the wrong side of the bubble.

(This has always driven me nuts but once again, this doesn’t apply to this season. Judging by recent comments about how players need to buy into sitting for a few seasons I doubt it’ll change. This isn’t something that will cripple or doom Brey if he doesn’t alter his philosophy so I try not to get too hung up on it.)

To me the most damning evidence against Brey is not what we have seen on the court, it’s what we’ve heard from his mouth. Last December when his team was ranked in the top 15 he stated that he would be content with a 9-9 league record. From this Chicago Tribune article he stated, "Where do I sign on Dec. 26? I don't want to sell us short, but I've been through the cycle of the league nine years now. You thrive when you can, then when rotate up into that (difficult schedule), can you survive?"

(You want to talk about a 180? How about the fact that he’s publicly stating that the team is gunning for the Big East regular season title and a spot in the Chicago pod in the NCAA’s? I just about fell out of my chair when I read this article by Andy Katz; I was absolutely thrilled.

Could it be that he feels everything has lined up and it’s time for Notre Dame to take the leap? Is the fact that ND has a savvy, veteran team in a year where every major contender has major flaws enough to make him think something special could be on the horizon?

I have no idea, but I love the change in attitude. In my eyes his unwillingness to take on the challenge of taking “the next step” was far and away his most glaring flaw. This season has a completely different tune than the ’08-’09 campaign where it seemed like his main objective was to limit expectations. Ty Nash said after the UConn victory that they “expect to win every game.” They carry themselves like that proclamation isn’t empty and that’s truly a breath of fresh air.)

When I read that I realized Mike Brey probably had run his course at Notre Dame. Odds are high that we’ll never surpass this plateau under the current regime—middle of the road Big East team that lives on the bubble every season—because the guy leading the ship isn’t striving to push the program to new heights. He’s content with this state of affairs and armed with a Bob Davie-like laundry list of excuses to defend his teams’ shortcomings.

(Brey seems to be pushing. Let’s see if it drives the program to new heights.

Also, Bob Davie would call a timeout here to offer a rebuttal but he used all three of them in the first three paragraphs so he has none remaining.)

Last year—when he had his best team in his ten years at Notre Dame, a preseason top ten outfit—it was the schedule that was to blame. Then he went on record stating that the heightened expectations were unrealistic in the first place. Was our team a bit overrated in the preseason when we found ourselves in the top ten last year? Yes, it was. But we had the best player in the Big East, a veteran squad, and a high octane offense that completed a 14-4 regular season the previous year. It’s crazy to think we shouldn’t have been a top 25 team and it’s even more incredulous to suggest that we should have been even flirting with being on the bubble. Brey set the bar so low that the Irish tripped over it and that is nothing short of unacceptable.

(2008-2009 was a colossal disappointment and inexcusable, but the last twelve months have successfully shifted me back to the Brey Camp albeit somewhat cautious/hesistantly.)

The reality is that for better or worse Mike Brey will not be fired after this season. He’s only two years removed from being dubbed Big East Coach of the Year and replacing him would unleash a media firestorm. In all honesty, I believe that next year this team is poised to have a season much like ’06-’07 when expectations were low and they emerged as a surprise top 25 team by the end of the season. People are going to overestimate how much the loss of Harangody will set ND back, I absolutely love the core of Abromaitis-Hansbrough-Martin-Nash-Scott-Brooks, and we’re going to fall into an easier schedule rotation than the last two years. Another successful year and another NCAA berth will silence the critics for a little longer, but it’s more than likely that they’ll reappear in a few seasons as we fall into the same pattern we’ve developed over the last decade.

(All predictions for 2010-2011 were pretty spot-on. Here’s hoping the reappearance of the old pattern prediction is wrong.)

If the hammer does eventually fall a huge question arises: who will Notre Dame turn toward? That’s far and away the toughest piece of this puzzle. Common sense says you don’t cut loose a good coach unless you have someone lined up that you think is better. Notre Dame is not a job that would attract any top level coach—those that throw out names like Gary Williams and Tom Izzo aren’t even remotely in touch with reality. More than likely we would end up having to roll the dice with a somewhat unproven commodity and hope it pans out.

(Not worth talking about. Swarbrick is squarely in his corner.)

There isn’t anyone out there that jumps out right now, but I’d keep a close eye on Billy Taylor over the next three years should Brey’s teams continue to fall short. He’s a former ND basketball player that took Lehigh to the NCAA tournament—which is like taking the Kansas City Royals to the World Series—and is currently turning around a Ball State program that was in the toilet thanks to Ronny Thompson.

(Billy’s doing a nice job turning around Ball State but the job opening at ND won’t be available for a long time.)

I like Mike Brey a lot. I had the opportunity to meet him a few times in my time at ND and the guy is just so likeable and such a class act that you just want him to succeed in the worst way. I want him to be here another ten years, to take Notre Dame to the next level—which to me is the level of Villanova on Tier 1.5 in the Big East. It’s just disheartening how obvious it is that he doesn’t have ambitions of taking this program higher.

(Still like Brey. Still want him to succeed. I desperately want this year to be the first building block to becoming a better program but I’m certainly not ready to declare, “he’s figured it out and ND basketball is on the verge of breaking into the top tier of the Big East.”)

If you need further proof read this article from yesterday written by Teddy Greenstein. Brey defends himself by pointing to the failures the program endured before he arrived over ten years ago. Looking into the somewhat distant past instead of taking on any sort of accountability for recent shortcomings tells me he’s happy with where Notre Dame Basketball is today and doesn’t understand why others wouldn’t be as well.

(Brey says what he really thinks too much some times if that makes sense. Sometimes silence is golden. He was really defensive in that Greenstein article because at that point he was feeling some legitimate heat probably for the first time in his career in South Bend.)

Mike Brey helped resuscitate a dormant program and made it relevant on a national scene for the first time in a long time. He deserves plenty of credit for doing so. But this is not a situation where Brey has become a victim of his own success—it’s a matter of him becoming too comfortable with the status quo and not striving hard enough to take the next step...or worse yet, shying away from that next step.

(A big part of me thinks Swarbrick’s support has made Brey feel much more at ease about heightening expectations. At least I hope that’s the case.)

He wants to experience success, but it's an equal priority to try to keep his team under the radar. You can't have it both ways. In order to take the leap you have to embrace the pressure and expectations that come with it, not run away from them. I'm not convinced he has the necessary attitude and approach to take on that transformation.

(Don’t worry, we’re almost done…Don't you feel like you should get a t-shirt or something for successfully reading this entire column?)

If his ultimate goal when he arrived was to make the Irish relevant he’s achieved his objective. If he has no greater aspirations then it’s time to find someone who will aim to take the program higher.

(Irish fans will know a lot more about whether Brey has truly changed when Hansbrough graduates this spring. Will there be a continued commitment to defense? Will the team maintain the swagger and confidence they seem to absorb from Ben? Will Swarbrick’s support and supreme vote of confidence make Brey comfortable enough to make a conscious decision to aim higher?

Brey’s personality and style is perfect for Notre Dame. If the tweaks he’s implemented this season stick and recruiting continues on the upward trend it appears to be on then perhaps the program is taking a step forward after spending the last seven season in neutral.)

Of course, we’ll worry about whether changes stick next season. In the present we’re witnessing an Irish squad with the highest ceiling since Digger roamed the sidelines.

Here’s your opportunity to move the program forward and win over a huge chunk of the Irish Nation, Mike. A run to the Sweet 16—or beyond—will do that.

Make it happen. We’re pulling for you.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

ND Recruiting: A Ten Year Recap (Part V)

WeNeverGraduate's week long five part series analyzing the last ten years of Notre Dame Recruiting draws to a close today. In the final installment we examine the last two classes inked by Brian Kelly. It's impossible to assign an exit score for these two groups because the Class of 2010 has only had a year to make an impact while the vast majority of 2011 is still sitting in high school history classes jockeying for prom dates.

We'll take a dive in nonetheless, but before that here's a quick ranking of the contribution percentages and exit scores of the previous eight classes per the request of Piper.

Contribution Percentage
1. 2003 (71%)
2. 2007 (66%)
3. 2008 (65%)
4. 2009 (61%)
5. 2005 (53%)
6. 2002 (50%)
7. 2006 (43%)
8. 2004 (25%)

Exit Score
1. 2008 (48)
2. 2003 (45)
3. 2007 (39)
4. 2009 (32)
5. 2005 (25)
6. 2002 (21)
7. 2006 (18)
8. 2004 (5)

What to draw from these stats? There are a few things.

First of all, the Class of 2004 was epically horrendous and is the root cause for the 2007...I just spent three minutes trying to think of a word that's 10x stronger than disaster, catastrophe, and apocalyptic event rolled into one. There's a Lindsay Lohan joke that's just hovering in the meat of the strike zone but we're just going to let it go.

Another key takeaway helps explain why Weis ultimately failed: the Class of 2006 was a colossal, momentum killing bust. I've heard some accounts that Charlie saw what was coming in the '07-'08 seasons due to the recruiting crater left by the '04 and '05 classes. The low numbers (even before transfers) essentially acted as a self-imposed scholarship probation; the lack of talent across the board deepened the hole.

His three year plan to reemerge hinged on laying a strong foundation in his first full recruiting effort. He came out with guns blazing and landed a class huge on numbers (28) and high on hype (first Top 10 class in years). It was pegged to be the foundation of the rebuilding effort. When it crumbled and less than half made any contribution (while not one person emerged as a star...only class in this study where that was the case) it helped drive the nail in Charlie's coffin.

The good news is that the classes that followed that one have made larger impacts and have had far more significant contributions. It appears things are headed in the right direction not only in terms of bringing in highly touted classes but seeing that hype translate into productivity and ultimately wins. The players in the Class of 2008 are only just now rising seniors yet their Exit Score is already higher than the vaunted Class of 2003's. The Class of 2009 already has a 61% contribution score and they're only rising juniors!

All in all things are looking up. Now let's get to the final two classes.

Class of 2010

Rivals Ranking: #14
Number of Recruits: 23
5-Stars: 0
4-Stars: 10
3-Stars: 12
2-Stars: 1
Arrival Score: 55 (#4 since 2002)

Superstars: 0
Major Contributors: 1
Contributors: 4
Non-Descript/Liability: 4
Transfers/Never Played: 18
Contribution Pct.: Too early to fairly assess
Current Score: +15, -2 Transfers, -1 Matt James

Cat 1 – NONE
Cat 2 – Rees
Cat 3 – Schwenke, Jones, Jackson, Shembo
Cat 4 – Spond, Collinsworth, Smith, Wood
Cat 5 – Boyd, Roback, James, Moore, Nichols, Nix, Massa, Lombard, Hendrix, Heggie, Badger, Roberson, Utupo, Welch

Brian Kelly's first recruiting effort was light on superstars and heavy on what he infamously called "RKG's," which is an abbreviation for "Right Kind of Guys." He stocked the class with athletes that fit his system even if they weren't necessarily recognized as the most elite by the recruiting services.

When he'd finished he'd amassed a solid if not spectacular class that infused much needed numbers and depth to the roster. Three quarterbacks enrolled including Tommy Rees who would lead the Irish to four straight victories to end the season when starter Dayne Crist was knocked out. On the defensive side of the ball Prince Shembo and Kona Schwenke both earned playing time as the year wore on, showing that they would be capable of contributing earlier in their careers than many anticipated.

This class has already lost three members and most likely will lose one or two more to transfers, but early reports show that a significant amount fit Kelly's system and are poised to make their mark whether it be next year or when they're upperclassmen.

Here are some quick hit predictions for guys who vault themselves from Category 5 to Category 1 or 2 in the next couple years:

* NT Louis Nix...the immovable object is penciled in as a starter by coaches and as superstar by fans.
* OT Tate of the lowest rated recruits of the class, he's a athletic freak who will find a way into the starting lineup on the O-Line.
* OT Christian Lombard...word is that he's been extremely impressive and like Nichols is poised to make an impact.
* LB Kendall Moore...he was scout team defensive player of the year and is a perfect fit for inside linebacker.
* S Chris Badger...a forgotten man since he's on a Mormon mission, but he's a smart player who will step in and provide immediate (and crucial) quality depth when he returns in 2012.

Class of 2011

Rivals Ranking: #9
Number of Recruits: 23
5-Stars: 2
4-Stars: 8
3-Stars: 12
2-Stars: 1
Arrival Score: 57 (#3 since 2002)

THE REALITY - Impossible to assess.

Brian Kelly has answered a lot of the critics that didn’t believe he could recruit on a national level this off-season by delivering a consensus top ten class. A highly touted group of high schoolers pledging their commitment to ND isn’t something that’s particularly new—Charlie Weis brought in some huge and even higher rated hauls—but what has Irish fans especially excited is the fact that this class is loaded with potential difference makers on the defensive side of the ball.

The three stories that accompany the three commitments of Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, and Ishaq Williams show exactly why this staff deserves nothing less than an A for this year’s recruiting cycle. All three seemed bound for other schools—in fact, two were well publicized Notre Dame decommitments—but relentless work by Bob Diaco, Chuck Martin, Tony Alford, and the big man BK himself ensured that all three ended up in blue and gold.

With Tuitt, the trio of Diaco, Martin, and Kelly were in his living room within 24 hours of his decommitment from Notre Dame and by the time they left he was back in the fold. Aaron Lynch was ready to enroll in Florida State just days before Tony Alford was able to sway him back to Notre Dame. And perhaps most famously, Bob Diaco paid Ishaq a 4:30am visit the morning he was supposed to visit Penn State and convinced him to head to the Midwest instead of central Pennsylvania.

The class itself is not flawless which is why it’s not an A. There are holes that must be addressed quickly in the next recruiting cycle (CB, RB, NT) and some stinging misses, but this was a serious “mythbusting” class.

The myth that Notre Dame couldn’t recruit top defensive talent was debunked by landing three of the top five defensive ends in the country according to Rivals. The myth that Notre Dame was forever doomed to lose every major defensive line recruit that gave a verbal commitment was busted. And perhaps most importantly (at least in the mind of skeptics among the Irish Faithful), the myth that Brian Kelly was too “small-time” to handle national recruiting was proved completely false thanks to his effort and the staff’s entire body of work.

Things are snowballing in South Bend—and for once the momentum is headed in the right direction.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

ND Recruiting: A Ten Year Recap (Part IV)

The recap rolls on with the fourth of five installments. For a recap of the class of '02 and '03 along with a layout of the rating system refer to Day #1. Day #2 and Day #3 are also available.

Today we examine the rising juniors and seniors that arrived on campus in the summers of '08 and '09. You'll notice an uptick in the contribution percentage; the 65% and 61% lag behind only the class of '03 (71%) and '07 (66%) since 2002.

What does that mean? We hope it will translate to better results, but it should equal better depth as these classes mature as upperclassmen. These are the first two classes in this 10-year period we're examining to have more than 60% of its players make any sort of impact (and obviously there's still plenty of time for more to emerge).

Class of 2008

Rivals Ranking:
Number of Recruits: 23
5-Stars: 3
4-Stars: 16
3-Stars: 4
2-Stars: 0
Arrival Score: 68 (#2 since 2002)

Superstars: 3
Major Contributors: 6
Contributors: 6
Non-Descript/Liability: 7
Transfers/Never Played: 1
Contribution Pct.: 65%
Exit Score: 48

Cat 1 – Floyd, Rudolph, T. Robinson
Cat 2 – Blanton, Fleming, E. Johnson, Lewis-Moore, Slaughter, Cave
Cat 3 – Crist, Cwynar, Filer, Goodman, H. Williams, Gray
Cat 4 – McDonald, Walker, Posluszny, Newman, McCarthy, Golic, Cleeland
Cat 5 – Fauria

According to the recruiting services, this was the highest rated class Notre Dame inked since Lou Holtz's 1995 off-season campaign. It fell just short of the Class of 2006 in terms of Arrival Score in this metric (69 to 68), but that's only because the '06 group had 10 more players than this one. What made this far and away Weis' most impressive recruiting effort was the fact it came on the heels of a 3-9 disaster that fall. His plan to restock the talent in South Bend was uninterrupted by the lack of success on the field.

Headlining the class was a trio of five-star offensive studs: wide receiver Michael Floyd, tight end Kyle Rudolph, and quarterback Dayne Crist. The first two stepped in right away as freshman and seized starting roles while Crist was groomed as the heir apparent to Jimmy Clausen. There most likely will end up being five players who earn the title four year starters when all is said and done (Floyd, Rudolph, T. Robinson, E. Johnson, and Lewis-Moore).

This was a surprisingly well rounded class for how small it was. It contained a potential three-year starter at quarterback, two potential first round picks in the receiving core, two four-year starters on the defensive line (and solid interior depth with Cwynar and Williams), and major contributors in the secondary. By the time they leave campus they may have made a serious run at the Class of 2003 for the most productive group of the last ten years.

Class of 2009

Rivals Ranking: #21
Number of Recruits: 18
5-Stars: 1
4-Stars: 9
3-Stars: 5
2-Stars: 3
Arrival Score: 44 (#8 since 2002)

Superstars: 5
Major Contributors: 5
Contributors: 3
Non-Descript/Liability: 3
Transfers/Never Played: 4
Contribution Pct.: 61%
Current Score: 32

Cat 1 – Te’o, Riddick, Martin
Cat 2 – Watt, Calabrese, Eifert, Motta, Wood
Cat 3 – Toma, Fox, Tausch
Cat 4 – Stockton, Cowart, Turk
Cat 5 – Evans, Banks, Bullard, Golic

This class is where it gets a bit tricky in terms of "The Reality" column because they're only rising juniors, but there have still been plenty of contributions from the 2009 haul during their two years on-campus.

This was not nearly as highly rated a class as Weis' previous three efforts, but it provided the most thrilling victory of all when Hawaiian superstar Manti Te'o selected Notre Dame over Southern Cal in front of a national audience on signing day. The monumental recruiting upset was the culmination of an extraordinary effort from Weis and his entire staff. In two short years Te'o has gone a long way in living up to the monumental hype that accompanied him from the Pacific. He's established himself as one of the country's elite linebackers and thrived in a leadership role on the defense.

Two other players that fall into Category #1 (and perhaps we're projecting a bit here) are running back/slot receiver Theo Riddick and left tackle Zach Martin. Riddick is a gamebreaker no matter where he lines up. In the end the coaching will determine whether he does his damage at running back or receiver. He began to flourish in the slot position after a bumpy start to the season, but he's poised to be a superstar no matter where he lands. Martin was the most consistent offensive lineman as a redshirt freshman and seems ready to follow in Sam Young's footsteps as a four years starter (albeit a more consistent one than Young based on early returns).

This was yet another class that was a little low on numbers. There's plenty of time for players to emerge but already 11 of the 19 have made a contribution. When this group writes its final chapter there's a good chance that another 3-4 players could bump up into the top tier which speaks to the potential this team has moving forward over the next couple years.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

ND Recruiting: A Ten Year Recap (Part III)

The Recruiting Recap Series rolls on! Today we examine Charlie Weis's first two full recruiting cycles, the classes that were supposed to be the building blocks to a sustained "Return to Glory."

Class of 2006

Rivals Ranking: #8
Number of Recruits: 28
5-Stars: 2
4-Stars: 10
3-Stars: 15
2-Stars: 1
Arrival Score: 69 (#1 since 2002)

Superstars: 0
Major Contributors: 4
Contributors: 8
Non-Descript/Liability: 3
Transfers/Never Played: 13
Contribution Pct.: 43%
Exit Score: 18

Cat 1 – NONE
Cat 2 – Young, Stewart, Walls, Olsen
Cat 3 – Wenger, Aldridge, Brown, T. Smith, Ryan, Richardson, Parris, McNeil
Cat 4 – West, Gordon, Gallup
Cat 5 – Burkhart, Carufel, Frazer, Gaines, Jackson, Jones, Mullen, Prince, Reuland, Schmidt, Wade, Webb, Yeatman

Fans may be surprised to see that the Class of 2006 checked in as the highest rated incoming class in terms of the grading metric we're using. A big reason for that was the fact that there were a whopping 28 recruits in this haul thanks to a chance in Notre Dame policy that allowed for the first group of early enrollees.

This group was much ballyhooed by every recruiting service and reestablished the Irish as players on the national recruiting scene. Charlie Weis secured two Rivals Top 100 quarterbacks, added six highly rated offensive linemen (including 5-star Sam Young from Florida) to a position in dire need of reinforcements, and landed highly rated skill players on both sides of the ball.

Unfortunately this group turned out to be the most highly overrated group of the last ten years. The attrition it went through was staggering: a whopping 13 players either transferred or never saw the field and less than 50% made a noteworthy contribution. This was an instance where the recruiting services whiffed on their evaluations and the coaching staff failed in helping the players overachieve.

When their time on-campus was complete there was not one play who fell in the "superstar" category, the only group since 2002 (obviously other than 2010 and the current one) that failed to produce one. The minimal impact of what was supposed to be a key class in the resurrection and rebuilding of the program set the table for the failures of 2008 and 2009.

Class of 2007

Rivals Ranking: #8
Number of Recruits: 18
5-Stars: 1
4-Stars: 12
3-Stars: 4
2-Stars: 1
Arrival Score: 49 (T-#5 since 2002)

Superstars: 3
Major Contributors: 5
Contributors: 4
Non-Descript/Liability: 5
Transfers/Never Played: 1
Contribution Pct.: 66%
Exit Score: 39

Cat 1 – Clausen, Tate, Allen
Cat 2 – I. Williams, G. Gray, B. Smith, H. Smith, Dever
Cat 3 – Hughes, Kamara, Neal, Ragone
Cat 4 – Romine, Paskorz, Nwankwo, Nuss, Walker
Cat 5 – Nagel

Almost an entire year before signing day 2007 Notre Dame landed its biggest recruit: the nation's top-rated signal caller, Jimmy Clausen. This was significant not only because Charlie Weis had reeled in the #1 player in the country, but he plucked him from Southern Cal and Pete Carroll's backyard. Weis would pull similar robberies in Florida (Armando Allen) and Tennessee (Golden Tate and Harrison Smith) which seemed to further validate the fact that Notre Dame was more than capable of hanging with the big boys on the recruiting trail.

The combination of Clausen and Tate dazzled fans before they both took their talents to the NFL after their junior years. In their final year in South Bend, they each had arguably the best season in Irish History for their respective positions. On the other side of the ball the quartet of Ian Williams, Brian Smith, Gary Gray, and Harrison Smith all started three years (Gray and Harrison are penciled in to start their third in 2011) and played key roles in turning around a dreadful defense during their senior season.

The most surprising bust of the class was most likely offensive tackle Matt Romine. Irish fans had high hopes for him to step in right away and challenge for a starting spot after a stellar performance at the Army All-American Bowl, but injuries and inconsistency derailed him and he never made a significant impact.

This group was low on numbers but relatively high on contribution. With the exception of the 2003 class, 2007 had the highest contribution percentage of the last 10 years at 66%. It's just a shame ND fans were robbed of the senior years of one of the three most prolific duos in Irish passing history (along with Quinn-Samardzija and Huarte-Snow).

Monday, February 7, 2011

ND Recruiting: A Ten Year Recap (Part II)

It's time for installment two of five in the ten year recap of Irish Recruiting. Today we examine the classes of 2004 and 2005. After reviewing them you'll begin to understand why everything went horribly wrong in the '07-'08 campaigns.

Click here to read the first part of the series that outlines the scoring system for "Hype" and "Reality" and breaks down the 2002 and 2003 classes.

Class of 2004

Rivals Ranking: #32
Number of Recruits: 16
5-Stars: 0
4-Stars: 3
3-Stars: 9
2-Stars: 6
Arrival Score: 33 (#9 since 2002)

Superstars: 1
Major Contributors: 1
Contributors: 2
Non-Descript/Liability: 3
Transfers/Never Played: 9
Contribution Pct.: 25%
Exit Score: 5

Cat 1 – Walker
Cat 2 – Crum
Cat 3 – Lambert, J. Brown
Cat 4 – Vernaglia, Jabbie, Ferrine
Cat 5 – Banda, Bragg, Duerson, Hoskins, Incarnato, Kadous, Nicholas, Talley, Wolke

Here is where the wheels came off for Ty Willingham.

After suffering through a losing season punctuated with a beat down in the Carrier Dome in the final game, Willingham earned the dubious distinction of landing one of the worst classes in Notre Dame history. When they arrived on campus there was little-to-no hype. By the time they left, they had somehow found a way to crawl under the bar despite it being set almost comically low.

Darius Walker and Maurice Crum were the only two players to make a significant contribution during their time on campus. Walker burst onto the scene in the second game of his freshman season when the Irish upset a top ten ranked Michigan team. He ended up holding down the starting job for three years before entering the draft early (he was not selected). Crum surprisingly emerged as a starter his sophomore season and evolved into one of the quiet leaders of the defense.

When perusing the list of names in this class Notre Dame fans can't help but shake their heads. This failure was the root of the 2007 disaster. When less than 13% of a class fails to make a significant contribution and more than half either transfers, quits the team, or disappears on the depth chart then there are going to be serious repercussions. Unfortunately those repercussions reared their ugly heads when this class entered their senior season to the tune of nine losses, the most in Notre Dame history.

Class of 2005

Rivals Ranking: #40
Number of Recruits: 15
5-Stars: 0
4-Stars: 2
3-Stars: 11
2-Stars: 2
Arrival Score: 30 (#10 since 2002)

Superstars: 2
Major Contributors: 4
Contributors: 2
Non-Descript/Liability: 4
Transfers/Never Played: 3
Contribution Pct.: 53%
Exit Score: 25

Cat 1 – Bruton, McCarthy
Cat 2 – Duncan, Turkovich, Kuntz, Grimes
Cat 3 – Herring, Schwapp
Cat 4 – Hand, Quinn, Sharpley, Smith
Cat 5 – Hiben, Washington, Hord

If the wheels came off in the 2004 recruiting cycle then the resulting tailspin manifested itself in 2005. When Charlie Weis walked in the door, Notre Dame was in the midst of a dreadful recruiting class–and that was before the national media storm that engulfed South Bend after the "racially driven firing of Ty Willingham."

The few highly touted recruits Willingham had seduced over the phone on the back nine of his rounds at the Warren Course (Lawrence Jackson, Brandon Harrison, etc) quickly fled, leaving Weis with the recruiting equivalent of the Hindenburg wreckage to survey.

Rather than stack the class with low level prospects late in the game, he decided to cut losses and signed only 15 players. From this small group a surprisingly solid core emerged. Safeties David Bruton and Kyle McCarthy both helped anchor Irish secondaries from '07-'09, Paul Duncan and Mike Turkovich both emerged late in their careers as solid starters, and Patrick Kuntz evolved into one of the hardest working, productive, and like-able defensive linemen of the decade.

Unfortunately those small contributions did not make up for almost half the class making impact whatsoever. The class was so small it was almost like Notre Dame was on self-imposed probation. When seven of the fifteen recruits flopped it combined with the Class of 2004 to create a crater that set the program back at least 2-3 years.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

ND Recruiting: A Ten Year Recap (Part I)

National Signing Day is without a doubt one of the most backwards days in American sports. It's an all-day event when teenagers hold press conferences, college coaches that make millions hold their breath, and middle aged men take off work to watch and scream and yell at the television depending on which hat the 18-year old decided to put on his head.

The dust has settled from 2011's edition of this bizarre ritual and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have emerged from the roller coaster as one of the clear winners of the day.

In Survivor-esque fashion, Coach Brian Kelly and his staff outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed schools like Florida State, Penn State, and Georgia Tech to land a haul for the ages along the defensive line. Whether it was defensive coordinator Bob Diaco meeting with Ishaq Williams at 4:30am the morning he was supposed to head to Penn State or assistant Tony Alford patiently waiting out Aaron Lynch in the hotel at the Army All-American Bowl, the staff went above and beyond to ensure the bedrock of an Irish Revival was put in place.

The accolades from this class are rolling in and nearly every scouting service has Notre Dame placed squarely in the Top 10 classes in the country. Irish fans are ecstatic and of course the superlatives have begun to fly when describing the haul.

Greatest ever? Greatest of the past decade? It's time to put it in some context in regards to recent history.

In this exercise we're going to look back at every Notre Dame recruiting class since Ty Willingham took over in the 2002 off-season. It's nearly impossible to rank truly rank the more recent classes because some are still only rising sophomores and juniors and haven't been presented with the opportunity to contribute yet.

Still, what I've attempted to do is create some semblance of objectivity by devising a point system to compare the hype of the class coming in against the reality of production and contribution once they arrived on campus. When you look back at the classes and how they panned out it offers very clear evidence as to why the bottom dropped out in '07 and why Charlie just couldn't quite get over the hump in '08 and '09.

Here's the breakdown of the point system:

The Hype...This is what the classes perceived value was when they signed on NSD. I've assigned point values to each player of the class based on their Rivals rating.

5-star = 4 Points
4-star = 3 Points
3-star = 2 Points
2-star = 1 Point

The Reality...This is what the class actually contributed while at Notre Dame. Each player is individually assigned a point value on a scale of 4 to -1.

4 Points - Superstar (One of the best players of the decade for ND)
3 Points - Major Contributor (Solid multi-year starter or someone who made an undeniably large impact)
2 Points - Contributor (Someone who played a relatively significant role but was unspectacular)
1 Point - Played with No Impact or Was a Liability (Pretty self-explanatory)
-1 Point - Transferred or Never Played (Once again, self-explanatory)

Instead of subjecting everyone to about 10,000 words all at once we're going to break down this analysis into five installments of two classes each over the course of this week. Let's get to it!

Class of 2002

Rivals Ranking: #24
Number of Recruits: 18
5-Stars: 0
4-Stars: 12
3-Stars: 4
2-Stars: 2
Arrival Score: 46 (#7 since 2002)

Superstars: 3
Major Contributors: 2
Contributors: 4
Non-Descript/Liability: 2
Transfers/Never Played: 7
Contribution Pct.: 50%
Exit Score: 21

Category 1 – Stovall, McKnight, Fasano
Category 2 – Morton, Landri
Category 3 – Richardson, Santucci, Frome, Freeman
Category 4 – Leitko, Jenkins
Category 5 – Bonelli, Carney, Mattes, Olsen, Raridon, Ryan, Schiccatano

Willingham's first effort on the short recruiting cycle wasn't a bad one at all. The headliners of the group were clearly the highly-rated receiving tandem of Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight, two gamebreakers that he snatched up late in the process. The way he picked up the pieces and reeled in two explosive offensive athletes while picking up the pieces of Davie's class gave Irish fans hope that he would find a way to bring the talent on the offensive side of the ball that Davie had failed to do.

It's amazing that a class with that had 12 4-stars rated as only the 24th best class on Rivals, but you have to remember that's right when the website was getting its start. If you look at that year's ratings they tended to hand out 5-stars with reckless abandon. Rivals really tightened up their system the following year.

In any case, this class proved to have a few big hits and a lot of big whiffs.

Stovall and McKnight emerged as big threats once Charlie Weis came to town while Bob Morton turned into a four year starter. The biggest surprise was probably Mike Richardson stepping up and becoming a starter after being the lowest rated recruit in the class.

Unfortunately though, the contributions of the Class of 2002 were counteracted by the fact that half never made any sort of significant contribution on the field during their four years (in fact, seven literally never saw it in any meaningful capacity). Even if a class isn't full of star it needs to provide quality depth when the recruits mature as upperclassmen. The fact that it didn't happen here shows how the drop-off between starter and backup became so steep in the middle of the decade.

Class of 2003

Rivals Ranking: #12
Number of Recruits: 21
5-Stars: 1
4-Stars: 6
3-Stars: 13
2-Stars: 2
Arrival Score: 49 (T-#5 since 2002)

Superstars: 8
Major Contributors: 2
Contributors: 5
Non-Descript/Liability: 2
Transfers/Never Played: 5
Contribution Pct.: 71%
Exit Score: 45

Cat 1 – Quinn, Samardzija, Harris, Abiamiri, Laws, Carlson, Zbikowski, Ndukwe
Cat 2 – T. Thomas, Sullivan
Cat 3 – Price, Wooden, Brockington
Cat 4 – Anastasio, McConnell, M. Thomas
Cat 5 – Borseti, Gardner, Hedgemon, Parish, Stephenson

This might have been called "The Year of Irish Fools Gold, presented by Ty Willingham." After a season that saw Notre Dame ascend to the top five in the country despite having an offense that relied on the golden right foot of Nick Setta, Willingham inked the best of his three classes while in South Bend.

As the Irish Faithful soon found out, the successes on the field and on the recruiting trail were nothing more than mirages.

A late surge (and some compliance issues with the Maryland coaching staff) plopped highly touted recruits Victor Abiamiri and Ambrose Wooden into Ty's lap very late in the recruiting cycle. It ultimately salvaged what was shaping up to be a mediocre class on the surface.

By the time this group left campus, they'd carved their niche as the most successful since the Lou Holtz Era. Quarterback Brady Quinn shattered just about every Notre Dame passing record in the book. His leadership and charisma captured the attention of the nation and the hearts of Notre Dame fans. Quinn's battery mate Jeff Samardzija was on the receiving end of many of his throws as he did his part to mark his mark in Irish Lore.

Ultimately nine players would go on to play in the NFL and that didn't include Samardzija, who undoubtedly would've been a first day draft pick had he not chosen to sign with the Chicago Cubs instead.

This group won't be remembered as one of the greatest in Irish history for two reasons. First of all, almost 1/3 of the class never made any impact. This largely contributed to the dearth of depth Notre Dame faced in the middle of the decade. Secondly, their cumulative record despite two BCS berths was rather pedestrian.

It doesn't belong at the top of the Pantheon, but it shouldn't diminish just how big an impact this class had and what place it holds in fans' hearts. This was the bedrock class for a pair of BCS seasons which proved to be two of the few true bright spots in a dark, dark decade.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Two Dudes, One Post: Signing Day 2011 Edition

It takes a special day to get Bill to write about anything (Penn State wins over teams not named Coastal Carolina come only ever so often), but it takes a monumental event to get him to write something in the offseason. National Signing Day is just that event. This week we break down the classes that the Irish and Nittany Lions inked and analyze how it will impact things going forward for both teams.


1. Give your team's class a letter grade and a brief analysis of your staff's overall effort in this recruiting cycle.

Mattare: A- for the class, A+ for the staff’s effort.

Brian Kelly has answered a lot of the critics that didn’t believe he could recruit on a national level this off-season by delivering a consensus top ten class. A highly touted group of high schoolers pledging their commitment to ND isn’t something that’s particularly new—Charlie Weis brought in some huge and even higher rated hauls—but what has Irish fans especially excited is the fact that this class is loaded with potential difference makers on the defensive side of the ball.

The three stories that accompany the three commitments of Stephon Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, and Ishaq Williams show exactly why this staff deserves nothing less than an A for this year’s recruiting cycle. All three seemed bound for other schools—in fact, two were well publicized Notre Dame decommitments—but relentless work by Bob Diaco, Chuck Martin, Tony Alford, and the big man BK himself ensured that all three ended up in blue and gold.

With Tuitt, the trio of Diaco, Martin, and Kelly were in his living room within 24 hours of his decommitment from Notre Dame and by the time they left he was back in the fold. Aaron Lynch was ready to enroll in Florida State just days before Tony Alford was able to sway him back to Notre Dame. And perhaps most famously, Bob Diaco paid Ishaq a 4:30am visit the morning he was supposed to visit Penn State and convinced him to head to the Midwest instead of central Pennsylvania.

The class itself is not flawless which is why it’s not an A. There are holes that must be addressed quickly in the next recruiting cycle (CB, RB, NT) and some stinging misses, but this was a serious “mythbusting” class.

The myth that Notre Dame couldn’t recruit top defensive talent was debunked by landing three of the top five defensive ends in the country according to Rivals. The myth that Notre Dame was forever doomed to lose every major defensive line recruit that gave a verbal commitment was busted. And perhaps most importantly (at least in the mind of skeptics among the Irish Faithful), the myth that Brian Kelly was too “small-time” to handle national recruiting was proved completely false thanks to his effort and the staff’s entire body of work.

Things are snowballing in South Bend—and for once the momentum is headed in the right direction.

Bill: C

Too many early missed opportunities. Offers came out slow while the state's top talent took their talents to Oakland, PA and New Brunswick, NJ. The only reason we have a quality speed guy in this class (Bill Belton) is because of the coaching fiasco that took place at Pitt after the season ended.

This was a solid class for offensive and defensive lineman but we whiffed on the elite hogs in Cyrus Kouandjio and Ishaq Williams. Aside from the trenches not much good can be said about the coach's efforts this year. PA had two 4 star defensive backs Terrell Chestnut and Kyshoen Jarrett and we weren't close to getting either. Of the top 10 players in the state Penn State was only able to get commitments from two.

The uncertainty surrounding the coaching staff is coming to a head. Tom Bradley has been pursuing other jobs because it's been made pretty clear the school will go out of house for the next head coaching hire. At this point I hope he gets another job because he's been so loyal and done a great job for us. He's been rumored to be taking as many as 4 assistants with him which will completely decimate the staff. Basically, this has to be Joe's last year. The damage can’t be masked anymore (it's a blog, relax).

A 4:30 am Notre Dame visit to a Brooklyn (Joe's hometown) recruit should not be effective, it should be annoying. The fact that Ishaq was convinced that it's not enough to go to Penn State because of a position coach is unacceptable. The assistants have been holding this ship together with mighty putty for the past few years, and the job they have done is nothing less than astounding, it’s too bad they won't be rewarded for their efforts but it appears they won't.

A change is coming at Penn State, and after seeing what has happened at Michigan I'm afraid that we might have let our program slip to where we end up with the likes of Rick Neuheisel instead of Chris Petersen. This is scary.

2. Who was the most important recruit you got this year?

Mattare: It has to be defensive end Aaron Lynch.

He’s rated the lowest of Notre Dame’s triumvirate of defensive line mega-studs, but in my eyes he’s far and away the most important player to land on-campus this spring. Lynch is equipped with explosiveness and quickness that Irish fans have not seen since Justin Tuck left town. He’s poised to make an immediate impact on pass rushing downs as a true freshman and I fully expect him to make a run at the all-time sack record during his time in blue and gold.

He’s a one-man wrecking crew that Notre Dame has been completely lacking over the past decade. The fact that he is flanked by two other potential superstars only increases the chance he’ll blossom into fulfilling his staggering potential.

Bill: Donovan Smith, OT

Big, big dude. I can see him anchoring our line at left tackle his junior and senior years. He doesn't want to redshirt, he wants to push for playing time right away. That's what I want from our guys…and from what we've seen from the O-line these last two years why not?

3. Which player that you couldn't reel in stings the most?

Mattare: I'm going to go with running back Savon Huggins.

My approach as signing day nears is that I shouldn’t be too greedy because ND has landed three huge studs on the defensive line against unbelievably stacked odds. I’m tempted to go with safety Wayne Lyons, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was more chapped by losing out on a potential four-year starting running back to the State University of Rutgers.

I know he’s from Jersey, but really? What is the appeal other than being able to have family and friends see your games in person (which they’ll need to do unless they have ESPN’s Premium Package where they can catch Scarlet Knight games on ESPN17 in non-HD)?

Rutgers fell flat on its face last season last, stumbling to a 4-8 record in the weakest major conference in college football. After getting their head above water after years of ineptitude and futility, it appears they’ve hit a plateau on the plane of mediocrity. Greg Schiano has gone from the hottest young coach in the business to the guy who seemingly overplayed his hand.

Add on top of that the fact their fan base is without a doubt the one with the biggest gap between their perceived worth (they insist they’re on the verge of being a national power/brand) and their real value (they’re a half step above Temple…if that…and the ceiling isn’t much higher). I just don’t see a single reason an elite prospect would want to sign up to play there.

Huggins wasn’t a “must get” and missing on him doesn’t belittle just how good this class is, but it still stings to lose a major recruit to gnat in the college football world like Rutgers.

Bill: Ben Koyack, TE

Started as the #1 player in PA and finished at #2. And we never even had a chance! He committed to Notre Dame early while we signed two star TE Kyle Carter with offers from Delaware and Bucknell. Tight end is such an underrated position on offense and Penn State utilizes it quite a bit. Koyack could have filled the role Brett Brackett filled this year that netted him 39 receptions.

4. Who do you see making an immediate impact this fall?

Mattare: We’ll go right back to Mr. Aaron Lynch on this one. Many Irish fans will remember the impact that Justin Tuck had during his redshirt freshman season (the 2002 campaign). He only played on clear passing downs, but he was a terror that delivered sacks, quarterback pressures, and offensive holding calls almost every time he stepped on the field. Expect that sort of impact from Lynch this fall.

His fellow five-star recruits Ishaq Williams and Stephon Tuitt will also get some playing time albeit not as impactful as Lynch’s. Ishaq could emerge in a similar way to Lynch but I have a hard time seeing him beat out Darius Fleming for a starting nod. Tuitt is going to require a little more seasoning, is stuck behind a senior on the depth chart, and doesn’t have the pass rushing prowess that makes him completely necessary to have on the field in passing downs (Lynch does).

Bill: No one, but if pressed to make a choice Shyquawn Pullium, DB.

Why? Because he spent the year in JUCO and we seemed more willing to switch up the personnel in the secondary towards the end of last year—Malcom Willis and Andrew Dailey got reps in the Outback Bowl. For some reason we never put athletes at safety, we'd rather be three deep at the cornerback position and convert a second string linebacker to safety.

5. Give us a sleeper or two that may emerge from this class.

Mattare: He’s not necessarily a deep sleeper per se because he’s a 4-star, but I love defensive back Eliar Hardy. He’s a versatile, aggressive athlete that could end up at cornerback, but his early projection is at safety. Hardy is a ferocious hitter and a sound tackler that could be a rock in the secondary for 2-3 years—especially with the lack of depth currently on the roster past 2011.

For a little deeper sleeper I’ll go with our lowest rated offensive lineman Nick Martin. His brother has already shown to be an overachiever and by all accounts Nick is of the same ilk with better athleticism (which will only help him in a spread blocking scheme). His high school coach raved about what a dominant, physical presence he had become over the course of his high school career and he’s got a nasty streak that perfectly fits the attitude Notre Dame is trying to develop in the trenches.

Bill: Matt Zanellato, WR

He was only rated a two-star by Rivals, but he recorded over 1,700 yards and 21 touchdowns receiving his senior year. That's impressive by anyone's standards. Those numbers lead me to believe he didn't have an off game—there are only so many games in a high school season. He's 6'3" and has good hands. He'll find his way on the field.

Pennsylvania is loaded with talent next year; we can't afford this inaction on the recruiting trail that plagued us this year and the never-ending questions with the staff. We need to capitalize and start building for a title run immediately.


Bill: So let's not beat around the bush. I finally beat you in season three of our NCAA Football Dynasty in spectacular comeback fashion. How are you coping?

Mattare: Not going to lie, I'm devastated. Not because you beat me, but because you were dead in the water before the game cut out and we had to replay the final quarter. The Deacs will exact serious revenge in 2013.

Mattare: Savon Huggins chose Rutgers over ND and UNC. Give me a good reason that any elite football player would want to go to Rutgers that doesn't involve Macedonians.

Bill: They had Ray Rice, they've got a good coach, and it's close to the best city in the country.

Bill: Why would anyone go to Notre Dame?!?

Mattare: The weather, the opportunity to live in O'Neill Hall, the chance to have Carl Ackermann for finance, and four years of pasta stir-fry in the dining halls. Oh, and because they could be a part of the resurrection of college football's greatest program.

Mattare: I have a two-day work conference in of all places Ocean City, MD. This is a place I swore I'd never set foot in again when we left there 3+ years ago. What are the odds I end up at Seacrets: Jamaica, USA with co-workers and what are the odds I end up back in the bay bar?

Bill: 10-1 for Seacrets, 100:1 for the bay bar. It's only Maryland, that water is freezing and you'd be there alone. Head to the Purple Moose or The Bearded Clam.

Bill: How would you announce your college decision if you were committing to Notre Dame?

Mattare: I'd have a press conference at Yocco's, have Pat Lyons dressed as a leprechaun, and ceremoniously burn a Nittany Lion doll as I did the jig. My father would then murder me.

Mattare: Manny Pacquiao vs John "Literally Death From Above" Yackabonis in trampoline boxing. Who wins?

Bill: Whose trampoline? This matters. Yack would psyche him out during the match by trying to have a conversation.

Bill: Describe your ideal halftime show scenario in the Super Bowl this year. Careful, Fergie is polarizing.

Mattare: Multiple wardrobe malfunctions. And as a sidenote, Fergie looks TERRIBLE in that Dr. Pepper commercial.

Mattare: Some A-Towners are planning another trip to Orlando, but our buddy Tim is on the fence. Here's you chance to publicly state why he should come. GO!

Bill: I think mention in WNG is enough--he's in. But I still don't mind selling him on wearing shorts and paying $3 per beer.

Bill: Drank bourbon with pickle juice last night. You ready for that?

Mattare: I mean...if I need to be.

Mattare: We're headed down to Houston for the Final Four with Austin and Mr. Balls this April. Can you even fathom how insufferable it will be for you if ND finds a way to make it that far?

Bill: For me??? You don't want me around in that scenario. Remember, we all have to get along at your wedding.