Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Notre Dame Football 2011: Let's Make the Coach Bald edition

Giddy like a gilded bagpipe

It's been a busy summer, thank goodness, or I'd be jumping out of my pants right now at the thought of fall training camp and the knowledge that football season is a mere three weeks away. I've been so distracted by work and weddings and the weather lately that I've practically lost track of everything.

It's been so stinking hot and humid in Chicago that I've gotten used to walking out my front door into what feels like an instant sheen of sweat. But last weekend we mercifully had a storm blow through, and all this past week the mornings have been stunningly cool. And then one day I walked out my front door to discover that it was suddenly Perfect Football Weather. I about keeled over.

It's almost here. That crispness of fall, that scent of burning leaves, that tangible feeling of possibility that lurks around preseason like a set of bagpipes, blaring hopes and expectations that reverberate giddily through the eardrums of the faithful.

I am so--freakin'--pumped.

If you're as crazy (read: awesome) as I am, you've probably been watching the fall practice reports on Jack Nolan and the team have been highlighting a different unit during each practice every day; so far they've covered the running backs, wide receivers, tackles, guards, center, defensive line, cornerbacks, and I think quarterbacks. (There have been nine practices so far, so probably there's another unit they've highlighted, but off the top of my head I can't think which.) The reports include practice footage, as well as snippets of interviews with the players, assistant coaches, and position coaches. Coach Kelly has also given two lengthier interviews with the media, both of which are available via streaming video, and one of which has a written transcript posted online as well.

The following is a series of ruminations, extrapolations, and cogitations based on these five-minute pieces of absolute GOLD.

QB Shuffle

Let's start with the question that is surely burning in the minds of all Irish faithful who like to see the offense score touchdowns: Who the eff is our starting quarterback going to be?

Except that this is not really a question, because the answer is Dayne Crist.

Oh, what's that? Sorry? You read some article that looks a lot like this one here?

That's nice. The answer is still Dayne Crist.

I know Coach Kelly is saying there's a battle going on, and I would not be surprised to see both quarterbacks get significant playing time, because the spread offense definitely allows for that sort of thing--and as we know from Kelly's tenure at Cincinnati, he will rotate as many quarterbacks in and out as he has to if he feels like it's the right thing to do.

But I don't think he wants to.

I think he wants solid, consistent leadership at the helm--someone who can not only go in there and play, but who has the ability to help guide the offense to the next level. Not that I'm casting any aspersions on Tommy Rees; he did a great job as a freshman playing in some very high-pressure games. I think he took up the helm better than most freshmen could have, and he definitely looked better out there than freshman year Jimmy Clausen or (much as it pains me to say it) Brady Quinn.

Part of that is due to Rees's own skill and leadership. Part of that is due to the tremendous effort made by the rest of the team to come together after losing not only Dayne Crist, but also lead RB Armando Allen, All-American TE Kyle Rudolph, and (for a split second) Michael Floyd. But I think the biggest part of Rees's success is definitely due to Coach Kelly changing his scheme to accommodate the knowledge base and skill set of his freshman QB--using a contingency plan that would not have been in place if Dayne Crist hadn't gone down for the second half of the Michigan game and alerted the head coach to the fact that none of his backup QB's were anywhere near as prepared as they needed to be for a game-time situation.

If you've been tracking the quarterback buzz in Coach Kelly's interviews from the time Dayne Crist was injured last season up until now (which clearly, why wouldn't you? doesn't everybody do this?), you'll notice that in almost every conversation, Coach Kelly makes some reference to how he wants to get Crist back at the helm. It's possible that the coach's opinion has changed a bit since last fall, considering Rees finished the last four games of the season with twelve touchdown passes, a 61% rate of pass completion, and a bowl victory, but nevertheless...Crist is still older, more experienced, and has a mental edge in understanding the intricacies of the offense, considering he played the spread in high school. There's slightly less need for development and a greater chance of introducing some finesse if Crist is the guy in the pocket. And (just channeling my psychic powers here) I'm pretty sure this is exactly what Coach Kelly wants.

However, like I said, I would not be surprised to see the #2 QB get significant playing time this year. Not only because I'm hoping we're going to kick everybody around so much on the field that we'll have no choice but to give our beloved starters a much-needed rest during the second half, but also because Kelly's "next man in" philosophy supports the development of a real depth chart.

Lots of comments are being made during fall practice about how "you don't want to have such a drop-off" between your #1 and your #2 guy. You want to be able to sub people in. You want to know you have multiple playmakers at any given position. (Kind of like if you get a flat tire, you want the reassurance that you're going to get a replacement for the tire that's just as good as the one you lost, if not better--because you'd really rather not be driving around with a donut for the rest of your life.) This is slightly more applicable to defense, of course, where the subbing in and out of players is practically a necessity if you're running the kind of fast-paced offense that's likely to keep the D out on the field longer. (And even if you're not--defense is tiring, man. You've gotta make sure you've got some juice left for that fourth quarter.)

Plus, with the quarterback position especially, there's always that fear of injury. I hate to bring it up because it seems like bad luck, but come on: two years in a row Crist gets injured? On practically the same date? Crist has another year of eligibility after this, but if he gets injured again this season, I'd say Tommy has a much better shot at taking the helm all the way through that oh-so-crucial third season. Not that I want anybody to get injured. (FOR THE LOVE OF PETE, NO MORE INJURIES PLEASE.) But this year is make-or-break for Crist. He's gotta stay healthy, and I think the job is his. If not, Rees can probably look forward to a little more underclassman record-breaking.

I guess we'll see.

So right, the rest of the offense

They're going to actually play the spread this year, guys! Not just something that resembles the spread, not something that looks like a bunch of guys trying to figure out how to run an up-tempo no-huddle offense, but the actual spread offense. Coach Kelly has already commented that he believes this year we'll be able to go out there and not only increase the speed at which we play the game, but also control the speed of the game. (It's kind of like we bought this new-fangled high-tech TV a year ago and we've only just now found the remote control. And the remote control has slow-motion settings. Right, this is a metaphor that makes sense. Moving right along...)

We've got an extremely capable center in senior Braxston Cave, and we're lucky to have Michael Floyd back after that seriously distressing, semi-mind-boggling, what-the-hell-there-are-like-fifty-cab-companies-in-South-Bend-and-you-should-have-at-least-five-drivers'-personal-numbers-programmed-into-your-phone-by-now-aren't-you-supposed-to-be-a-senior-or-something-how-did-this-happen??? DUI charge in the spring.

Cave, Floyd, and whoever our beloved quarterback turns out to be have it in their power to give us some flashy ZING! BOOM! POW! VICTORY CLOG! this season. If they're all on top of their games, I think we're gonna see a lot of replay-worthy touchdown passes. I mean, let's hope we get a lot of touchdown passes this season anyway; there are going to be a lot of younger wide receivers out there with something to prove, and I hope they prove it--especially the flashy-fast Theo Riddick. (C'mon Theo! You're one of the fastest guys on the team, and you're a WR converted from a RB. Channel the spirit of Golden Tate already, will you?!) But Michael Floyd is an anchor and everyone knows it. With him on the field, we are 70% more likely to be totally badass. (Our opponents will hit the ground so hard trying to chase after him they'll get grass stains on their EYEBALLS.)

With the final departure of Armando Allen and Robert Huuuuuughes, we've got some gaps in the run game to fill. (Ha. Gaps in the run game.) But we've still got Cierre Wood back there, and he picked up the bulk of the carries after Allen got injured last season. And if he can just settle in and stop playing like he's trying to win the Heisman (Coach Kelly's comment, if I recall correctly), he'll probably start playing a lot more like he's capable of winning the Heisman. Plus we've got up-and-coming Jonas Gray, who has shown flashes of brilliance, and who I hope continues to get better until he just is brilliance . (Kind of like Huuuughes at the end of last season, who went from being inconsistently good to just straight-up solid like a freight train.) Also they are talking about switching Theo Riddick in and out of the backfield / WR slot if necessary, which I can't complain about. (C'mon Theooooo.)

Let's just hope our offensive line is getting to be as good as the coaches say it's getting. It's easy to be optimistic during pre-season (OBVIOUSLY), and although it's true that our O-line held defenses to 1.5 sacks per game last year--the lowest total since 1998--I'm still kind of itching for a run game that, you know, looks like a run game. By which I mean I want to see holes open up along that line big enough to drive the College GameDay bus through. Or, in a pinch, I'd settle for the next coming of Julius Jones. (Hey, remember when Julius Jones made our offense look like an offense even when our defense was the highest-scoring unit on the field? Sometimes I drool a little thinking about the possibility of having a running back like that playing with a unit that actually knows how to score touchdowns.) But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's talk about the defense.

D! D! D! -- Diaco!

Can I just say that Coach Diaco is probably my favorite of all the Notre Dame coaches? I love watching his interviews. He's so keyed into his players and so passionate about his job he kind of makes me wish I were a college football coach. (Okay, so I kind of wish that anyway. But that's beside the point.) And particularly in his most recent interview, all of the things he said were just so dead-on I wanted to hug him, around and spike a football in the endzone, or...something.

Anyway, many of the comments he made in this interview are things I've heard echoed by the players and coaches throughout fall camp. One of the best comments I've heard all week is that "The players are happy to be back together. They really like each other." One of the other defensive coaches even referred to the D-line as a "brotherhood."


Is our team a team? Are they starting to act like a--wait for it--family?


This is such a far cry from a couple years ago when the guys were coming into practices and getting into fights with each other. Probably out of sheer frustration over how non-cohesive and non-team-like our team was.

Another favorite moment in Coach Diaco's interview is when he mentioned this quote from Gandhi: "Satisfaction lies in the effort, not in the attainment. Full effort is full victory."

This is such an excellent quote to begin with, and Coach Diaco's tie-in to our team was that "We're interested in focusing on full effort, and that's tough because there's a lot of questions. So there needs to be insulation, a focus on what needs to be done today."

And indeed it is difficult to keep focused on the task at hand when you've got a zillion questions and opinions zooming in from all sides--particularly when expectations for the team have now been raised so high. We're talking BCS bowl this year. And by "we" I don't mean just me and my wishful thinking--we're talking fans, the media, Coach Kelly himself. Coach Kelly has actually promised to shave his head this year if Notre Dame wins a BCS Bowl game. (Technically the head-shaving will be to support cancer research, but nevertheless it's quite a promise.)

The bar has been set. We're climbing toward the possibility of a national championship game--or at least we're trying. (C'mon guys! Let's make the coach bald! You can do it!)

But none of that matters if you can't keep focused on what needs to be done now to allow that to happen. And in watching the interviews this week, it's easy to see that the coaches and the players are all on the same page about things. The coaches in particular are doing the best they can to keep the players focused on one day, one thing, one task at a time. The upperclassmen seem cognizant of the importance of how the players conduct themselves in practice, in meetings, in the weight room, etc., and by recognizing their role as leaders they're working to pass that all down to the younger players.

Which is true of any football program worth its salt, to be sure. But I just cannot get over how excellent it is that so much attention is now being paid to the little things. How you conduct yourself, how you carry yourself, how you approach your work--these things are just as important as the work itself. These things are what make the work possible. And these are the qualities you take away that in the end are the most valuable. Teamwork. Focus. Dedication.


So I'm glad our players are learning these key attributes of sports / life. I'm as glad about this as I am about all this talk of a BCS Bowl this year. In the words of Kronk, "Oh yeah. It's all comin' together."

So about this actual season we're going to be playing

Right, so I realize I didn't talk about the actual defense much, but my general opinion is that they're going to be straight sick this year, what with most of our starters returning and Manti Te'o being a man-beast and Harrison Smith developing into an outrageous ball magnet and all.

But of course this is all pre-season drivel so make sure you ignore it as soon as the actual season starts.

Speaking of which...let's take a look at the hapless victims (I mean, opponents) on our schedule:

vs South Florida
vs Michigan State
@ Pittsburgh

@ Purdue
vs Air Force
--Bye Week--
vs USC
vs Navy

@ Wake Forest
vs Maryland ("home game" in MD)
vs Boston College
@ Stanford

Not a lot of breathing room in this schedule, is there? No "cake" game for the season opener--not facing a USF team with six straight bowl appearances and Skip Holtz as the head coach. And no walk in the park for the next couple weeks in September, either, as we head up to Ann Arbor for our first-ever night game in the Big House, followed by a continuation of our grudge match with MSU at home.

I don't think Michigan's looking at a particularly stellar season, but freaky things always seem to happen when Michigan plays Notre Dame, and one or the other of the two big Michigan teams we play every year always seems to get under our skin when we're not expecting them to. It's been a good long while since we've beaten both Michigan and MSU in the same season. I would cascade into ignoble paroxysms of delight if that we managed to do it this season. As it is, however, I think we're probably looking at at least one stupid trip-up in the first three weeks of the season.

I think the D will be solid enough to manhandle our next couple games--because whatever, Pitt, we're not afraid of you or the Big East; and Purdue is probably the surest win we can point to out of the three night games we're playing this season. Plus, by the time we get to weeks 4 and 5, we will have had time to smooth out some of the wrinkles our first three match-ups will have caused. I'm not going to get my panties in a twist over Air Force (no offense to AF, but if we don't beat them that means there's some serious trouble going on in paradise), so hopefully we'll notch one more win and then--whew!--bye week.

Hate to say it, but last two weekends in October could be kind of a blood bath. Night game vs USC in Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since 1990 = turn me into an emerald and stick me in the jeweled shillelagh, I'm done.

And as achingly depressing as it is to have to worry about Navy--they've beaten us three times now (aughhhhhh), we couldn't stop the option last year, and if we don't watch out we could be toast. (But let's assume that Coach Diaco won't be overlooking anything with the defensive preparations this season, eh? We did manage to handle Army later last season...)

The two big games in November will be Senior Day (really? Boston College on Senior Day??? REALLY???????) and Stanford. Since our program seems to be back on the up-and-up (I know we've said that with the last couple head coaches, but just go with me here), and we somehow managed to pull out a win against Utah on Senior Day last season, I'm actually feeling pretty optimistic about protecting our house against those pesky Eagles.

But eurghhh...Stanford. I think most people are looking at Stanford as a definite loss this season, but I don't know. We improved a lot last year over the course of the season, and I'm expecting us to do that again this year. If all goes the way I hope it's going to go, the beginning of the season will be more at risk for upset losses than later in the season. I expect Stanford to be the best team we play this season, but I also expect our team, by the time Thanksgiving rolls around, to be ready to play them.

Anyway, I think this rambling has run its course.

T-minus three weeks til we meet again, football season. In the meantime, there's only one thing left to say.


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