Saturday, April 24, 2010

Irish Display Progress in Blue & Gold Game

Well the 2010 Blue & Gold Game is in the books, and Coach Brian Kelly has to be pleased with what he saw. The stat sheet isn't out yet, but I wanted to quickly share my initial impressions of the game.

Of course all eyes were on Dayne Crist and his surgically repaired knee, and Dayne looked very good physically while taking every snap for the Blue squad in the first (and most important) half. The first half was played under normal game clock rules and generally featured the players who are on the two-deep depth chart or fighting for a spot on it. The second half was two 12-minute quarters with running clock. It went very quickly and was the opportunity for the back-ups and walk-ons to see some live fire in Notre Dame Stadium.

The most surprising aspect of the game for me was how well all the quarterbacks looked in the new offense. Dayne Crist started for the Blue squad, while Nate Montana ran the Gold team, and both seemed very much in command of the offense, getting everyone lined up and generally making the proper reads and getting the ball where it needed to go. Dayne looked to me to be a little ahead of Nate as far as making the reads and getting the ball out quickly, and he had more zip on his throws, at least until he started to look a little fatigued late in the first half when his throws started falling a little short. But Nate was not far behind Crist in execution and actually had a better stat line for the game. I did not expect our #2 quarterback to look as far along in learning the offense, and I certainly did not expect anything from the #3 QB, Tommy Rees, who looked like he could step in and play if he is needed. Pretty impressive all-around performance from the QB corps (and the coaches who got them ready).

The other really big surprise for me today was Cierre Wood. Wow, that kid has a burst! It didn't take very long to see why Theo Riddick is now a wide receiver (and a good one at that). Wood showed acceleration through through the hole that the Irish haven't seen in decades. He gets through the hole and into top gear right now. If he gets half a step on a defender, he is not going to get caught. I was reminded of the time that Charlie Weis talked about Munir Prince's "whoosh!" speed. Well, we never saw Munir's "whoosh!" translate to a game situation, but Cierre Wood is the real "whoosh!" deal. Armando Allen is the starting running back, but he won't ever get too comfortable in that role because Wood is gaining on him fast.

Robert Hughes and Jonas Gray also looked very good at times. The bottom line is that Coach Kelly has plenty of depth to draw on at running back, especially since we'll generally see only one back on the field at a time.

The one wide receiver that really stood out today was the early enrollee, TJ Jones. Although he doesn't look very big, he did look very quick and sure handed. That young man is going see playing time early and he is going to be a play maker. Shaq Evans also had a good day.

Both Kyle Rudolph and Mike Ragone had very productive days at the tight end spot, and more importantly they both looked 100% healthy.

The defense, although playing vanilla sets, played generally very well and most importantly seemed to tackle much better than last season. Manti Te'o stood out for his instincts and his speed, and Steve Filer surprised by leading the team in tackles. The defensive line seemed to be getting a good push up the middle and had good awareness in batting down several passes.

All in all, I was very pleased that the team on both sides of the ball appears to have already grasped a good understanding of the basic sets they will be using next season, and that the understanding extends fairly broadly across the roster so that Coach Kelly and his staff are developing a lot of depth. The game was played very cleanly with very few penalties, mental mistakes, mishandled balls, etc... I take that as a sign that Coach Kelly's insistence on discipline and attention to detail has begun to take hold.

Overall I was very pleasantly surprised by all the progress the coaches and the team have made over the course of just 15 spring practices. I don't know how many wins that will translate into come the fall, but I am now confident the team will not be unprepared when Purdue rolls that big drum into Notre Dame Stadium on September 4th.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Lou Two?

"The Shirt" has been unveiled, and the 2010 edition of the Blue & Gold Game is upon us. As we wait for the public premiere of the latest version of the Fighting Irish, I wanted to share my thoughts on what has essentially been the prologue of the Brian Kelly Era. I was hoping to make this post much more in-depth, but time constraints (it's already really late on Friday night) dictate that it be just a summary of my impressions. But I think you'll get the flavor.

Lou Two? It hit me like a ton of bricks about a week ago when watching some of Coach Kelly's post-practice remarks to the media that he sounds a lot like Lou Holtz. His remarks that day were particularly tough on Dayne Crist, criticizing his sloppy footwork and his technique in general. He also remarked that "right now we're not a very good football team" and lamented the need to motivate players who are lucky enough to be wearing a gold helmet and playing for Notre Dame. That dose of pessimism and poor-mouthing was vintage Lou. But the similarities don't end there. When Lou came to Notre Dame he found a group of players that thought a little too much of their own abilities, and he had to bring those players down a peg by instilling a much stricter sense of discipline and by emphasizing the concept of "team" over the individual. We're seeing from Coach Kelly a lot of talk about the sense of entitlement he perceived when he walked into the Gug and the need to find the Right Kind of Guys (RKGs) who come to Notre Dame because they want to be part of the tradition of the Fighting Irish, not because it will enhance their chances of being drafted by the NFL. The final similarity I see is the primacy of the "system." Under Lou the Irish ran the option offense. It was who they were. Everyone knew the plays they were going to run, and the game plan was simply to execute the system better than the other team could defend it. Under Coach Kelly the system is his version of the spread offense. His goal is to develop his team to a level of unconscious competence in the spread and then execute it at a high level on game day, regardless of who the opponent is. So, at the outset, the Brian Kelly Era feels an awful lot like the beginning of the Lou Holtz Era. I think these two coaches have very similar ideas about how a head football coach should go about his business. I hope Coach Kelly can have results that compare favorably to Lou's as well.

Tempo. We've had some glimpses of the team's spring practices, although we haven't really been able to see anything meaningful. But we've certainly heard and read a lot about tempo. Those who have observed the practices have said that they are remarkable for the high tempo. Coach Kelly himself has on numerous occasions stated that one of the biggest challenges for the players and the team in the spring has been adjusting to the high tempo at which he expects them to play. But does all the talk about tempo mean anything? Or is it just so much more "new coach" rhetoric? I think all the emphasis on tempo is very significant. Even Charlie Weis noted that one of the problems that really vexed the team in 2007 was "tempo." I have written quite a bit about tempo, or the lack thereof, here on this blog. For example, after the loss to Georgia Tech to open 2007 (sorry to bring that up):

In talking about the loss, Coach Weis had a different take. It wasn't that our guys didn't know what to do, it was a "tempo" problem.
“It isn’t just the players playing each other, it’s handing the speed of the game. You can simulate it in practice the best you can, but obviously they did a much better job than we did of handling the speed of the game. They controlled the tempo with their defense versus our offense.”
And again -
“I thought the speed of the game, especially the offensive front against their defensive front, we were playing at two different tempos.”
What does that mean? Is that like "Well, Mr. and Mrs. Domer, it's not that little Johnny can't read. He actually reads very well. It's just that he reads at a slower tempo than the other children."

Oh, is that all?

And, more importantly, can you fix a "tempo" problem? Because if we don't fix our "tempo" problem I have a very strong feeling that this could be an issue down the road. Like this week in Happy Valley. Or in Pasadena. Or when the Trojans come calling.

This "tempo" issue has been discussed before here at OC Domer. Following the fan appreciation day practice in August I posted my thoughts on what we learned (or didn't learn) from that public practice. Included in my ramblings was the following:
It seemed to me that the line play was only going about 80% speed. Very little real smash-mouth going on. That, and the poor overall quality of the video posted at (too small, too grainy) makes it very difficult to evaluate line play. So I won't try.

Much has been made of the coaches requiring the defense to "run" a lap around the field when they lined up with only ten men on one play, as though the coaches were really cracking the whip. I was disappointed in how most of the guys dogged it on the lap. They pace was very slow, and many of the guys cut the corners in the end zones. I know the guys are fatigued after a week of camp, but maybe the reason USC and LSU run laps around us on game day is that we don't really "run" our laps at practice. Practice slow and play slow. Maybe I'm being unfair and too harsh, but that "lap" bothered me.

So maybe we've had a tempo problem for a while. If so, I am really disappointed. Living in Southern California, I am subjected to a rather steady stream of USC coverage. I've built up some immunity to it and no longer break out in hives. One common, recurring theme from those who visit Trojans' practices is that they are impressed by the high tempo of USC practices. If I know that one of the distinguishing characteristics of the current top program in the country is their high-tempo practices, surely that word has gotten out to the coaching community. Why wouldn't we (Notre Dame) be trying to emulate that? And if we are trying, why isn't it translating to Saturdays? Is it because we're coaching it wrong? Or is it because our guys are just too slow to play at that higher tempo? I sure hope it's the former, because coaching techniques can be fixed. If it's the latter, we're in serious trouble, because you can't teach speed.
It certainly seems that "tempo" is central to Coach Kelly's ideas about how he wants his teams to play the game, and it appears that he puts his money where his mouth is on that point by forcing the team to work at a very high tempo 100% of the time in practice. Hopefully in will translate into a team that plays faster and with more urgency than we have seen at Notre Dame in many years.

Defense. With all the focus on Dayne Crist and the new offensive system, the defense is getting overlooked. In listening to the coaches, it is clear that the new defensive system will be a significant departure from the Jon Tenuta experiment. Rather than a "Tora! Tora! Tora!" attack mentality, this year's defense will be a more disciplined unit with greater attention to gap control and playing one's assignment. Nobody wants to say it, but it is going to be a "bend-but-don't break" scheme that will focus on slowing down the opponent and avoiding the big offensive play. Once Coach Kelly's spread offense is hitting on all cylinders, a solid though perhaps unspectacular defense should be more than sufficient to enable the Irish to win what I expect will be a lot of shoot-outs. But the offense will surely sputter for a while as Dayne and the receivers grow in it, and the defense is going to have to be more than just "solid" if this team is going to win games in 2010. The defense is going to have to generate turnovers and it will have to be very stout when faced with tough situations following stalled drives and turnovers by the inexperienced offense. I have no idea what to expect from this unit, but I have no doubt that it needs to be a lot better than it was in 2009. Hopefully the new 3-4 scheme will be a better fit for our personnel, and hopefully the new defensive coaches can teach basic tackling techniques better than the previous staff did. There is plenty of talent on this side of the ball, and if they can learn the new schemes sufficiently well to "play fast" without making too many mistakes they could be very good. Coach Kelly's public comments on the defensive talent on this team have been very positive. I don't have a lot of insight to offer on what the defense will do. My only insight is that I think folks are underestimating how important it is that the defense be very good right out of the box since it has to be expected that there will be growing pains on the offensive side of the ball.

Chuck & Duck The Spread Offense. In order get some idea what to expect from Coach Kelly's offense, I have been watching this Tony Pike 2009 highlight video:

Obviously the quarterback drives the bus in this offense, and Dayne Crist will have to be very good from week one or we are in trouble. There is no place for the QB to hide in this scheme. There really is no way to protect the QB or slowly bring him along. It is pedal-to-the-metal from the coin flip. But the receivers are equally important. They have to run their routes correctly to get open, and they have to be able to catch the ball, even if the throw isn't perfect. It is clear from watching the above video that Tony Pike had a tremendous degree of trust in his receivers. He frequently threw the ball to receivers who weren't really open and trusted that they would be aggressive enough to come down with the ball or at least prevent an interception. In this system the QB is frequently going to be throwing the ball under duress, and he won't be able to deliver it to his wide-outs on a silver platter. This offense appears to assume that the QB will simply get the ball out of his hand and into the general vicinity of the receiver, who is expected to attack the ball and come down with it. That's the "bad news" for the receivers, so to speak. The good news is that the wide receivers will have many, many opportunities to make big plays. The ball is in the air all the time. When the offense is working, the receivers frequently catch the ball in space with plenty of room to make big gains. There will be plenty of wealth to spread around to those players who are able to grasp the scheme and step up their game. Michael Floyd is obviously the #1 WR right now. But this offense needs at least four WRs on the field at a time, and Golden Tate is playing for Pete Carroll now. It's time for the young guys to show us what they can do.

BGS RIP. The best college football blog on the 'net has decided to go out on top. The Blue-Gray Sky was the best college football blog when I started OC Domer in March of 2007, and they were still the best when they retired their jerseys on March 25, 2010. Week in and week out, season in and season out, the Blue-Gray Sky was the gold standard against which Notre Dame football blogs were measured. While the rest of us made do with our own modestly informed opinions based upon watching the game once, live, while drinking beer and eating nachos, the crew at BGS watched film, broke it down, and gave us actual analysis (accompanied by video clips, diagrams, and screen-caps) of what the team was doing and why it was or wasn't working. That's a lot of hard work and it was without peer in the Irish blogosphere. And it was greatly appreciated by me and thousands of other loyal BGS readers. It was a proud milestone for the OC Domer blog when BGS added us to their blogroll. Thanks for the traffic guys. Here's a portion of my comments at BGS upon hearing the news that they were shutting it down:
Running my own one-man blog, I completely understand how much work goes into a quality post. And as a dad with a job, I understand how hard it is to find the time to blog well. Thanks for all the blood, sweat & tears you guys have poured into your site the past six years. And good luck to all of you as you move on to the next chapters of your lives. But you and BGS will be missed.
NFL. Congratulations to Jimmy Clausen on being drafted by the Carolina Panthers! It looks like a great fit for Jimmy. The offense is the same one he ran at ND, and it is a fundamentally sound team that just needs a good QB to get to the next level. Jimmy will have a great chance to compete for the starting job right away, and if he wins it he will be in a much better situation to stay healthy and win games than Brady Quinn was in with the Browns. Good luck to Jimmy, and I'm glad he wasn't in New York where the cameras could document his pain as he slid down the board. And congratulations also to Golden Tate, who will be in Seattle playing for his old nemesis Pete Carroll. Great pick by Pete, and good fit for Golden as Seattle sorely needs a playmaker like him. How long has it been since Notre Dame had a player drafted (Clausen at pick 48) before the first USC player was drafted (Taylor Mays at pick 49)? Weird that Tebow was drafted ahead of Clausen and will be competing with Brady Quinn in Denver. I hope BQ wins that job and keeps Tebow on the sideline for a long time.

Conclusion. It's been exciting to watch Coach Kelly take over the Fighting Irish and begin to mold it in his image. But up until now its been like fingering the presents under the tree before Christmas, trying to figure out what's inside the wrapping. Tomorrow the wrapping begins to come off and we get to see what Santa brought us. I hope Santa got my letter.

Go Irish!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Observer - Brian Kelly to build on community

Interesting article in the Observer today about Coach Brian Kelly's recent meeting with student leaders. He said a lot of good things, such as:

“The kind of guys that I am recruiting here now are going to be hardworking and they better recognize the value of the Notre Dame education,” he said. “Not all of them will be on the same elite level as the students in this room, but they are going to work their butts off.”
“The number one thing I talk to my players about is whether or not they care,” he said. “If you aren’t excited to play for the University of Notre Dame then you are not going to play here.”

“My players should understand that if they’re going to come to Notre Dame, it’s going to be about being at a unique place,” he said. “There is a uniqueness to us that doesn’t make us better or worse, but it makes us different. The right kinds of guys understand that.”


“We’re not going to be bringing in guys who want to hang out here while they wait for the NFL. Those days are over,” he said. “I want guys who want to play for Our Lady — I usually get what I want.”

All of which I agree with 100%. But part of the interview struck me as being a little bit at odds with the actions we have seen from the coach so far. See if you have the same reaction:

Kelly said he was expecting the football team to get rid of the attitude of “us” and “them” and become a part of the student body.

“My job is to reconnect some of the things that I believe haven’t been emphasized in the proper manner,” Kelly said to the students. “This is not a relationship of separation. It should be all of us together.”

Kelly said he saw a divide between student-athletes and the rest of the student body when he arrived on campus this past winter. He said he believes football is the best way to “get the bridge between students and athletes back.”

“I want the players to reengage with something that is really unique to Notre Dame,” he said. “Part of that is the community and the love students have for what happens on this campus.”

Okay, be honest with me, how many of you when you read that excerpt immediately think "training table" and "bookstore basketball"? Those are the two things that jumped into my head. Coach Kelly obviously has a lot of work to do to take this football program back to the level on which it belongs, and it is to be expected that he will change the way the football program operates in all areas. But I have to admit to being a little skeptical about his desire to tear down the wall between the students and the athletes when the first significant move he made upon becoming head football coach was to institute a training table in the Gug that takes the football players out of the dining halls, where they get to really be a part of the student body, and sequesters them into a private athletes-only facility where they get specially prepared meals served at special hours. I'm not saying that there isn't a very sound football reason for training table. I am saying that training table, especially the way it has been implemented, does not build a bridge between students and student-athletes.

Likewise, Coach Kelly's decision to prohibit football players from participating in the Bookstore Basketball tournament this year, while justifiable from a football perspective, serves to eliminate one of events that truly integrates the football team with the rest of the student body each spring.

It's not my intent to be critical. But I'm just sayin' ...

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

South Bend Spring: Football's in the Air

A terrific article by John Walters that covers a lot of spring football topics (predictable), but also some topics on the evolution of Notre Dame in general. A taste:

Kelly has come to Notre Dame as an outsider and discovered, as has this 1980s era alumnus, that the school and its players are not representative of the Fighting Irish he grew up cheering for. [...] Kelly put up a print of the painting "The Original Fighting Irish" (by former Notre Dame lacrosse player Revere La Noue) in his office.

"You don't see faces," Kelly told Schabach. "You see blue-collar. You see a bit of a swagger. You see toughness. Growing up as an Irish Catholic in Boston, that's what I remember Notre Dame being. That's been one of our goals every day -- to get that fight back in the Fighting Irish. It's good because that's who I am anyway."

It is not, however, what Notre Dame has been for some time. It has become, in the past 15 to 20 years, elitist. Kelly has spoken of a "sense of entitlement" and that comes directly from the top.

Take tuition, for example. Notre Dame was once one of the best bargains around in terms of an undergraduate education. Today, it is closer to Ivy League schools in terms of cost, which has affected the general demographic of the student body. While the school raised tuition just 3.8 percent for the coming academic year -- the smallest percentage increase since 1960 -- the cost of attending Notre Dame (tuition plus room and board) for the first time will exceed $50,000 annually. Cost of "The Shirt" is not included.

About "The Shirt." In autumn of 1988 two enterprising undergrads thought up, designed and then manufactured the legendary "Catholics vs. Convicts" T-shirt for the epic Miami game. That shirt made the pair a small fortune. It also embodies the sharp contrast between Notre Dame students of my era -- and the previous decades -- and those of today.

I can easily picture my classmates and I forking over money for an underground T-shirt that was irreverent and funny without being profane. I can't imagine any of us, though, hiking over to Hammes Bookstore to purchase a T-shirt that the administration has decreed to be the official student body uniform for home games. I understand that proceeds from "The Shirt" go to worthy causes. We all did the Urban Plunge, too. But we also placed a premium on innocent mischief to counter interminable hours of study and the inhospitable climate, both meteorological and social.


This is an assertion based on opinion as opposed to data, but it seems that Notre Dame has for years been killing off its undergraduate middle class. While opening doors to minorities, as it should, the institution has raised prices to a level where few except the sons and daughters of the wealthy (and minorities who are there on need-based scholarships) can afford it.

The school's average Joes -- students from the top 5 percent of their high school classes who were reared in middle-class Catholic families -- were once its backbone. The core of its identity. Students such as Jack Swarbrick, Charlie Weis, Daniel "Rudy" Ruettiger and Tim Bourret (a co-creator of Bookstore who is now an associate athletic director at Clemson). Alumni who, by the way, have told me, "I couldn't get into Notre Dame today."

In 1978, Rick Telander visited Notre Dame to do a feature on Bookstore Basketball, which was born in that decade, for Sports Illustrated. He described a scene in which one student struck golf balls across St. Joe's Lake as another stood across the lake with a baseball mitt, shagging the drives. Telander concluded that Notre Dame would have been a fun place to go to school for a sports-addled guy like himself.

That demographic is being sacrificed in order that Notre Dame may ascend the list of U.S. News & World Report's annual "Best Colleges" rankings. One consequence of this maneuvering, as Kelly may be discovering, is that Notre Dame is no longer the bastion of the plucky underdog. It is aspiring to become, and its administrators would probably be pleased to hear this, the Duke of the Midwest.

And while Duke is an excellent university, Notre Dame's identity was forged by doing more with less. Now that its students are so relatively pampered -- have you stepped inside The Gug? -- you wonder just how tough a football team they can be. Kelly, coming from a Cincinnati school whose facilities were lacking but whose players' determination never was, must find it somewhat ironic that his last job is much closer to the Notre Dame he envisioned than the present one happens to be.

Maybe that was more than just a taste. But very well done. Read the whole thing, as they say.

South Bend Spring: Football's in the Air