Prister’s Thursday Thoughts

Burris gives Irish another former player on staff. Harrison Smith becomes NFL’s highest-paid safety. Jack Swarbrick adds to incredible contributions to alma mater.

BURRIS IS BACK

Irish fans tend to get excited when one of its former players is named to the coaching staff, such as Autry Denson and Todd Lyght last year as full-time staff members, Pat Eilers as a defensive consultant, and now Jeff Burris as a defensive analyst.

It strikes a note with fans because the name offers familiarity and an image of that person performing effectively in a Notre Dame uniform. It jogs the memory of good times with the Irish.

But do Notre Dame graduates make for better assistant coaches? In theory, yes, although if he’s not a good coach, those pleasant memories will wear thin with the players, who know nothing, really, about their coach’s playing days. Ultimately, good people and good coaches lead to success.

One advantage is familiarity with the school and its procedures, which is particularly important at a place like Notre Dame where the atmosphere truly is unique. A former player can help create a comfort zone for future and current players. When he talks about what a Notre Dame student-athlete is going through, he can speak from experience.

What impact will Burris have at Notre Dame? Likely a positive one as he is remembered as an intelligent, communicative individual who represented the University well as a person and player.

Does that make him a good coach? Not necessarily, but Burris spent a decade in the NFL, which also provides a perspective beneficial to all those who interact with him. He’s spent the last couple years coaching in the NFL, which also helps as the Irish try to build on the seven draft picks in the top four rounds from a few weeks ago.

What I like in particular is former teammates (one season) – Lyght and Burris – joining forces to build a better Irish secondary. Those are a couple of quality football players and minds putting their heads together for the cause. It’s all good.

GOOD OL’ HARRY

We used to get a kick out of hearing Manti Te’o refer to safety teammate Harrison Smith as Harry. It was just funny. He’s a Harrison, not a Harry, and even Te’o seemed amused when he referred to his teammate as such.

My recollections of Smith are mainly from two specific moments in time: where I was the first time I saw Harrison Smith and the evolution of Harrison Smith at Notre Dame.

I was sitting in front of a massive fireplace at Pokagon State Park in Angola, Ind. on a late-October Saturday morning – it was a bye week -- when I hit play on a video of Knoxville (Tenn.) Catholic High School. That’s the first time I saw Smith in action, and it blew me away.

If you check the archives, you will find a film review on a young Harrison Smith with the bold prediction that one day, this gazelle of an athlete would be a first-round draft pick.

Smith eventually signed with Notre Dame, red-shirted, started at safety, struggled when he was shifted to outside linebacker, and then returned to form back at safety, where he became the 29th overall pick by the Minnesota Vikings.

Smith’s evolution at Notre Dame was one of many fascinating developments of individuals through the years. There probably isn’t a player who changed more than Justin Tuck, who went from terrifyingly shy and ill-prepared to meet with the media to a national spokesperson for product by the end of his brilliant NFL career. But Smith ranks right up there.

The media can remember a very shy, reluctant, nervous Smith meeting with the press. When he let his hair grow long, he could hide his eyes behind his locks. As he grew, however, a confident, look-you-in-the-eye Smith warmed to the media challenge and became a go-to guy for insight and open dialogue.

Oh, yeah, the real reason for mentioning Smith. He just signed a contract extension for more than $51 million over the next five years, more than half of which is guaranteed with a $10 million signing bonus. Not surprisingly, Smith is now the highest paid safety in football.

Way to go, Harry.

DAVIS AT ELITE 11

Notre Dame verbal commit Avery Davis sat 10th among 24 quarterbacks after the first day of the Elite 11 camp in Redondo Beach, Calif., before finishing outside of the top 12. The top 12 were then invited to The Opening Finals in Beaverton, Oregon July 6-10.

It’s no surprise that Davis didn’t qualify for The Opening Finals, nor is it of great concern as it applies to his future at Notre Dame. Sure, you would have liked for him to be among the top passers at the camp. But he’s undersized, short-arms/pushes some throws, showed inconsistent passing footwork as a junior in high school, and couldn’t really be expected to finish among the elite in a throwing contest.

That’s not really his game. His is more along the lines of a Malik Zaire, who will beat you with his feet and set up the passing game with his mobility.

To Davis’ credit, he seems to have found a more consistent release point since his junior season at Cedar Hill (Texas) High School. He’s light on his feet in the pocket, his throwing motion is quick, and he throws a hard spiral on the short-to-intermediate routes.

Accuracy and the proper footwork that lead to more pinpoint passes will be the challenge Davis faces when he arrives at Notre Dame, although his throwing motion is more conducive to accuracy – shorter rather than longer – compared to Zaire’s.

NOTRE DAME’S INITIATIVE

Notre Dame’s/Jack Swarbrick’s proactive, cutting edge approach to preparing Irish student-athletes as competitors on the battle field today and beyond the sporting arena tomorrow was presented in great detail last week in Irish Illustrated editor Pete Sampson’s four-part series.

That type of extensive, in-depth reporting is in Sampson’s wheelhouse and he nailed it.

While it’s not X’s and O’s and perhaps doesn’t excite the masses the way a red-zone score or a third-down conversion with the game on the line might, it was some of the most cutting-edge stuff written on Notre Dame athletics in recent years.

It’s this behind-the-scenes attention to detail addressed by the University that will help the Irish keep up with the Joneses in a world in which Notre Dame remains at a competitive disadvantage because the University does not operate as a football/sports factory.

Simply put, Notre Dame is never going to be able to attract many of the four- and five-star prospects that end up at some places that are more inclined to compete for football national championships.

So what is Notre Dame supposed to do? Some have suggested lowering the standards by which Notre Dame functions as a place of higher learning. That is not going to happen, most definitely not under Swarbrick’s watch.

Those who suggest the best way to make Notre Dame a consistent national power is by changing the precepts of Notre Dame’s mission are clueless. Swarbrick and his staff are, instead, trying to control the things that can bridge the gap in the cesspool that often is intercollegiate athletics, in particular, football.

It’s an ambitious undertaking and by no way a shortcut or guarantee to success. It’s a path to building a stronger, more resilient Notre Dame. Just exactly how the whole improved infrastructure leads to more victories on the field remains a work in progress. But at least it lays the groundwork for a solid foundation.

What it does guarantee, however, is that Notre Dame continues to do it the right way, the educated way, while building stronger, healthier more mentally tough, more resilient student-athletes, which is an outcome every true University of Notre Dame fan can and should appreciate.

ALI

As an 10-year-old sitting by the radio the night of the first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971, my brother and I awaited the results after each round. There was no radio play-by-play, let alone television coverage, outside of closed-circuit TV in the major markets.

It was a smile-inducing memory to reflect upon when hearing of Ali’s passing last week.

Frazier won that fight decisively, but Ali would reinvent himself several times over the next 10 years, losing to Ken Norton, defeating Frazier twice, and defeating George Foreman in Zaire where the masses followed him through the streets, chanting his name.

He would eventually gain his revenge against Norton, lose to Leon Spinks, and then claim his third heavyweight championship with a rematch victory over Spinks.

Among the places Ali boxing matches took place…Zurich, Tokyo, Dublin, Manila, British Columbia, Indonesia, Zaire, Malaysia, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, West Germany…It’s no wonder he was known worldwide.

There have been many attempts among journalists and within social media to encapsulate what Ali meant to sports, the nation in general, and even the world. It’s no easy task, and I won’t pretend to be capable of doing so.

I will say, however, that when I saw a picture of Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, it struck me that Ali clearly wasn’t the only African-American speaking out at the time against racism in America. Russell, Brown and Abdul-Jabbar frequently shared their concerns in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

But none delivered the message quite like Ali, who brashly and aggressively called racism for what it was in a way that, quite frankly, made many among white America extremely uncomfortable, especially after Ali refused induction into the military, and thus, participation in the Vietnam War.

By the time Ali revived his career against Frazier, Norton, Foreman and Spinks, the Vietnam War was over. Ali gained acceptance among mainstream America. His off-the-chart charisma and, ultimately, his disarming sense of humor and mischievousness, helped alter if not eliminate a country and world inclined/conditioned to racism.

Ali would fight well past his prime, which made those who sat back in awe of all that he was cringe. But that’s who he was and that was his mission.

There’s never been anyone like Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali. Not only will there never be anyone like him, there can’t be. It’s simply astonishing that one man could impact an entire world the way he did and a blessing to have witnessed it.

ENDS AND ODDS

• Attention all sportswriters and sports editors. Break the cliché habit. Stop writing stories that lead to headlines that read: “The Way-Too-Early Top 25” or something along those lines.

If it’s that early, write about something more topical. Now that it’s June, spring practice is in the rearview mirror. The only thing between now and the football season is summer conditioning/workouts, which makes it close enough to begin speculating about all things college football.

• Can someone explain why Lindy’s Sports put Notre Dame’s back-up quarterback on the cover of its Midwest regional edition?

• Can you name the four running backs on Notre Dame’s 2016 schedule that rushed for more than 1,000 yards? If you can, you’re following this stuff real closely.

Okay, we’ll give you the first one, although it’s easy – Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. If you don’t know the other three, check out the story below.

http://www.scout.com/college/notre-dame/story/1676763-first-rate-running-backs

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