Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"You wait all year long for football season, and then it comes and it just flies by."

--Dayne Crist

Five days! Or four, or three, or whenever the hell you read this--it's almost here. It's so scintillating I had to write another preseason football rant.

Crist -- the second coming! (Oh wait. Too irreverent?)

So most of us ("us" being crazy rabid Irish fans) were not overly shocked by the announcement that Dayne Crist would be the starter for this year. Although as this article in the Observer points out, it wasn't necessarily a foregone conclusion that Crist would be named the starter.

"Call it whatever you want," Coach Kelly said. "I've got two really good quarterbacks who are ready to play championship football."

Crist and Rees are so statistically even that it became "very cloudy" trying to determine the #1 and #2 QB based on numbers. This is a good problem to have. Kind of like waking up in the morning and asking yourself, "Which car do I want to drive today? The Ferrari, or the Lamborghini?"

Not such a hard choice when you know you can switch off at your leisure. Much harder when you've got to make a commitment.

But we've made the choice, and now we've got the Ferrari. Or the Lamborghini. Whichever. You decide.

High-Octane overdrive

After naming Crist as the starter, Coach Kelly noted, "He overcame a knee injury to start the [2010] season, then underwent another knee injury and infection for the spring. He didn't have a great spring, but fought through it and had the kind of summer and preseason camp you want your players to have. He's a much better football player, a much better quarterback. He's the kind of guy I wanna coach. He's tough mentally. He handles himself in that leadership position the way I want our quarterbacks to handle themselves. I didn't know Dayne very well last year. But I do now."

Crist has plenty of tenacity, but he owes a lot of his improvement in the off-season to Rees. Both quarterbacks would have worked hard in any case, I'm sure--that's just the kind of strapping, stalwart youths they are--but nothing makes you run fast like the knowledge that you're being chased. They were both forced to play smarter, work harder, and get better faster. They couldn't have done it on their own, and the best part is they know it. Crist himself said after winning the starting job: "I told Tommy--you gotta keep pushing me."

Just as long as you don't bust your knee again, Dayne, I think we'll all be happy.

Goooooooooooo--oooooooooooo--ooooooooo--ooooooooooOOOO! Irish!

So I've been neglecting the special teams, but the good news is Coach Kelly hasn't. In fact, he's talked a lot about them during fall camp, particularly in terms of player development and the overall direction of the program.

First things first, in case you were wondering who's going to be in the backfield waiting to receive punts and kickoffs this year, the answer is "Theo Riddick, Theo Riddick, Theo Riddick." (Yes, that is a direct quote.)

Second, freshman kicker Kyle Brindza will be handling kickoffs. (Possibly also punts.) I think Ruffer's still getting the nod for field goals and extra points, but it's definitely Brindza on kickoffs. I'm quite enthused to hear this, considering Kyle is the first great kicker we've actually recruited in, oh, I don't know, FOREVER.

Of course, it's difficult to determine whether a kicker will remain consistent (and who can tell whether they'll be "great"), because the quality of their game is mostly in their head and their playing time largely consists of nothing...nothing...nothing... OMG SO MUCH PRESSURE DON'T SCREW UP ...nothing...nothing...nothing.

However, if you take a look at the first three lines of Brindza's player bio, you will likely feel reassured:

Set Michigan state high school record with 19 made field goals as a senior in 2010, including six of nine from 50 yards or more ... averaged 43.2 yards per punt and 60 of 63 kickoffs resulted in touchbacks in 2010 while handling kicking and punting duties for Plymouth High School in Canton, Mich. ... rated ninth-best player in Michigan by Detroit Free Press

Ninth-best player. A kicker. Ninth-best. In the state.

I love our recruiting staff.

Thirdly (or is it sixth and lastly?), Coach Kelly noted that he's been utilizing special teams to help younger players gain valuable game-time experience. Both Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood played on special teams last year, and this year they're expected to aid Gary Gray and Robert Blanton at cornerback. This year, freshmen running backs Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson III are slated to play on special teams so they'll be ready to contribute next season--or even this season, if need be.

This is a common enough strategy--widely used to break in NFL rookies everywhere--but things are different when your players have limited eligibility. Although this system works for now, Kelly would eventually like to abandon it. "I'd prefer that we have enough strength and depth in our program that we didn't have to play guys in special teams roles to get them game-time experience. Down the road, we won't have to do this, because freshmen won't be expected to play as second-year starters."

Whoa, guys.


I've grown so accustomed to witnessing the career arc of players like Brady Quinn, Golden Tate, and Manti Te'o from freshman year onward that the concept of an all-upperclassman team now seems strange. No more four-year starters? Really? That's kind of...sad.

Except that it's not.

If you're starting freshmen, that means you haven't got any upperclassmen who can play the position better. And that doesn't mean your freshmen are so spectacular--that just means you've got some serious holes in your depth chart. Very rarely do you get a player like Julius Jones or Denard Robinson (try not to gak on the maize-and-blue here), who are so straight-up good you'd be crazy to keep them off the field. (Although between you and me, I think Coach Kelly's trying to build the kind of team where you could keep those players off the field for a year. If you wanted to.)

I'm sure it's agonizing for players who were brilliant in high school to come to college and have to wait years before they can start. But if you've got the right system in place, it's much better to give players time to redshirt than it is to just throw them in and let them learn as they go. Game-time experience is valuable, but you shouldn't be getting playing time as a starter when you're still trying to learn the plays. Sometimes it's unavoidable, but the end goal is to build a team where freshmen don't have to start. Not unless you want them to.

Looks like that's the road we're headed down once more.

Let's hope so.


Right. I've waffled on longer than I intended to (everybody's shocked), so in closing I'm going to provide you with some favorite quotes and tidbits I've picked up from interviews, articles, and und.com videos in the last week or so:

Movin' on up. The Irish were ranked #18 in the USA Today preseason poll, #16 in the AP preseason poll, and #14 in Sports Illustrated's college football preview. These are the highest preseason rankings since 2006, when the Irish opened at #2 in the AP poll. (Wow, that seems like a zillion years ago.)

Great Expectations. Most pundits' predictions have the Irish headed to a BCS Bowl game with a nine-win season. My favorite matchup so far has the Irish playing Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl--although actually I'd love to see us play in the Sugar Bowl again. (Any excuse to go back to New Orleans, really.)

We're number...4? Sports Illustrated is fond of rankings. In this year's college football preview, they ranked the best gameday traditions, best overall gameday experience, and best coaches in college football. Notre Dame appeared on all three of these lists, coming it at #10 on the coach rankings with Brian Kelly; #9 on the best game day traditions with the postgame alma mater; and #4 on the best overall Game Day experience, behind Texas A&M, Wisconsin (really? Wisconsin?) and LSU.

Coach Kelly on accountability and the 'Canes: (if you haven't heard about the NCAA's investigation of Miami this might not make sense to you) "That's not to say that the guys at Miami didn't want to go to school--but they had other things in mind, too. As a coach, as a program, you recruit guys who understand that they're coming to a university to get a degree--and understand the value of that degree and what it costs--and play football. The rest of the stuff--we're gonna have to be more vigilant, everybody. Everybody says, 'well, that's just the NCAA.' I think it's a cop-out. I think it's the NCAA, the institution, the coach. I think it's everybody."

Manti Te'o, man-beast. Junior linebacker and All-American candidate Manti Te'o is currently listed on four presason watchlists for awards (Lombardi, Butkus, Bednarik, Nagurski), following a sophomore season in which he recorded 133 tackles--the most since Notre Dame's single-season record of 147 was set in 1983. (Better go ahead and gird your fibers for the season, kids. There's gonna be grass stains.)

ND's version of the Gameday Bus. Apparently this year, the football team is changing up its pre-game traditions. They'll attend mass in the Basilica as usual, but instead of walking to the stadium afterwards, they'll walk back to the buses, which will then drive pretty much all the way around campus before ending up in the tailgating lots south of the stadium and heading back to the Gug. There, the team will have a final pre-game meeting to go over the game plan. After the meeting (a little over 2 hours prior to kickoff), they'll walk from the Gug to the library, swing by the statue of Fr. Hesburgh and Fr. Joyce, admire their reflections in the reflecting pool (this part optional), and then walk down stadium quad to the stadium. Lest we forget, stadium quad is where Cartier Field used to stand--home to Knute Rockne, the Gipper, the Four Horsemen, and the first fabled notions of that blue-gray sky. This is also the part of campus where the Navy trained when they came and saved our school from closure. Fans are encouraged to line the route and cheer.

Season Opener Stats. (courtesy of und.com)

  • Notre Dame and USF will meet on the gridiron for the first time in the 123-year history of Irish football. The Bulls are the 140th different opponent in Notre Dame football history. The Irish own an all-time record of 117-19-3 (.853) when facing an opponent for the first time.

  • The Irish are 102-15-5 (.857) in season openers and have taken 20 of the last 24.

  • The 102 seasons Notre Dame has won its opener, the Irish went on to post winning records 93 times (91.2%), with four losing seasons and five .500 records

  • Revenge of the Skip? (okay, I don't think Skip Holtz wants revenge, but I'm tired, so just go with it - these are more tidbits from und.com)

  • Skip Holtz, a former member of the Irish football team and assistant coach and son of former Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz, returns to Notre Dame Stadium as he leads USF Bulls into Saturday's season opener for both teams.

  • Holtz's playing career at Notre Dame lasted one season, 1986, where he predominantly saw action with the special teams unit. Following graduation, he worked as a graduate assistant under Bobby Bowden at Florida State and a wide receivers coach at Colorado before returning to Notre Dame as an assistant coach under his father, Lou (1990-1993).

  • During Skip's two seasons as offensive coordinator (1992-1993), the Irish posted a 21-2-1 record and averaged 37 points per game, good enough to earn them a top-10 ranking nationally in total offense.

  • Last one -- a quote from the golden boy...

    Crist, on confidence: "If you're not confident, it's because you're not prepared. I think we're gonna prepare better than anybody in the country."

    Damn skippy.


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