THE ASTONISHMENT CONTINUES
A 4-8 season. The swirling winds of discontent, both within the program and certainly outside it parameters. A major overhaul of the staff. An apparent failure on the recruiting trail two weeks before signing day.
Notre Dame football under Brian Kelly had the makings of a disastrous conclusion to a six-year stint that went from good-to-very good (2010-15) to awful in 2016.
But it’s pretty remarkable, astonishing really, that Notre Dame was able to close with bang on the Feb. 1 signing date and now, a mere three weeks later, are in the process of signing what could be a pretty special Class of 2018.
The comparisons to Will Fuller are inevitable – and warranted – although the transition to the next level, after another year of high school football, is never a given.
The Irish are on fire. It’s not as significant as a 10-victory season in 2017, but the time to fully compensate for the ’16 season has not arrived.
Kelly and his energetic young staff have somehow turned the heads of recruits away from 4-8 by promoting the opportunity to contribute early and creating an enticing environment for top talent.
Any way you slice it, it’s impressive and commendable.
I wrote something last week about this in Thursday Thoughts. It is applicable once again with the Lenzy commitment.
Earlier this week, I wrote a story about the issues young quarterbacks face as first-time, full-time starters, as well as some of the advantages and disadvantages red-shirt sophomore Brandon Wimbush will face this fall.
Beginning with Rick Mirer as a sophomore in 1990, I went over all the performances/statistics of Notre Dame’s first-time starters at quarterback the last two-and-a-half decades.
There were way more average-to-bad than good performances. Ron Powlus in 1994 and DeShone Kizer in 2015 highlight the best.
Kevin McDougal, who was a senior when he took over in 1993, helped lead the Irish to the brink of a national-title tilt, but he had the luxury of throwing just 14.4 times per game.
Matt LoVecchio (2000) threw just 125 passes for less than 1,000 yards, but his touchdown-to-interception ratio was 11-to-1.
Some of the worst statistics…
• Brady Quinn (2003) – 47.3 percent, 9-to-15 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
• Rick Mirer (1990) – Eight touchdowns, six interceptions.
• Carlyle Holiday (2001) – 50.6 percent, three touchdowns, seven interceptions.
• Jarious Jackson (1999) – In Jackson’s second year as a starter, he had 17 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions.
• Jimmy Clausen (2007) – Seven touchdowns, six interceptions.
• Tommy Rees (2010-11) – Although Rees completed a high percentage (65.5 in ’11), his touchdown-to-interception ratio was 32-to-22 his first two seasons.
As you can see, there are some pretty good Notre Dame quarterbacks – including the most productive of all-time, Brady Quinn – that struggled out of the gate.
The message: Be patient with Wimbush.
THINKING LIKE BREY
While I won’t pretend to know exactly how Mike Brey will respond to these questions, which I will ask Thursday afternoon, I’m pretty confident I know which way he’ll go.
Recent stories within the national media have pointed out that coaches like Mike Krzyzewski (Duke), Roy Williams (North Carolina), Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) and Rick Pitino (Louisville) are approaching the end of the line of their brilliant coaching careers.
• Question No. 1: Would Brey leave Notre Dame for one of those higher-profile jobs?
• Brey’s Projected Answer: I don’t think so, even the Duke job, where he coached under Krzyzewski for eight seasons before landing his first head-coaching job at Delaware.
Brey is acutely aware of the pitfalls of following legends, and each of the above-mentioned four falls into that category. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen. Who knows if Brey would be a perceived fit for any of those four, even Duke.
But Brey has never been a guy that seeks the spotlight or adulation, although he did give consideration to Maryland a few years back, which was a childhood favorite of his.
Every coach wants to win a national title. Odds of reaching that destination at Notre Dame are relatively slim. But Brey is more of a niche guy who operates best in a comfort zone, which he’s certainly achieved with the Irish.
• Question No. 2: Do you recruit differently now that you have reached the Elite Eight each of the past two years and are once again a frontrunner in the ACC?
• Brey’s Projected Answer: Nope. He’s still looking for program fits more than he is five-star players. If Notre Dame’s success opens up avenues to a higher skill-level, he’s certainly open to pursuing better talent, but not at the expense of system fits.
He’s gone down that road before – think Cameron Biedscheid – and it was a disaster.
If anything, Brey’s recent success emboldens him even further to continue to recruit the way he has in the past. An elite big man certainly would be nice. He recruited Caleb Swanigan (Purdue) a couple of years ago. The Irish are one elite big man away this year from being a contender to go beyond the Elite Eight.
But why recruit a higher-caliber of player that potentially damages the chemistry of his team and the relative harmony with which he coaches the Notre Dame players? Those characteristics are more essential to his success than more pure basketball talent.
Plus, regardless how much success Notre Dame has under Brey, there’s still a cap on the type of player he can bring in.
I’ll be the first to admit when I’m wrong regarding these two questions, but I don’t think I am.
WEIS JR. TO FALCONS
I first got to know Charlie Weis Jr. on the baseball field, and it wasn’t pretty.
Weis was a kid with his father’s genes trying to become a high school baseball player. He hadn’t grown into his body yet. But he worked hard, transferred from my Mishawaka Marian High School baseball program to another local Catholic school (St. Joseph’s), and developed a pretty darn good left-handed swing.
The next time I saw Weis Jr. after his father’s dismissal from Notre Dame was in Lawrence, Kansas in the summer of 2014, the year Weis Sr. was ultimately dismissed after four games.
Weis Jr. had grown, shed a bunch of pounds and had become a young man.
His dad always spoke of Charlie Jr. as a football savant, back from his awkward years as the head coach’s son wearing a headset along the sideline.
One often has to allow for a parent’s bias, but he insisted that his son had a gift and a vision of offensive football, not unlike his father, who had great success as an NFL coordinator.
Weis Jr. held the position of offensive quality control at Florida during his father’s one-year stint as offensive coordinator of the Gators. He then served as a manager for the Kansas football team when Weis Sr. landed the head-coaching role.
Nepotism has its benefits.
It wasn’t until Nick Saban hired Weis Jr. at Alabama, where he served two years (2015-16) as an offensive analyst, before it became noteworthy. There are no mercy hires in the Saban regime. (Note: Troubled Steve Sarkisian wouldn’t have been hired if he didn’t offer Saban true football value.)
After Lane Kiffin departed Alabama in between the playoff victory and the national championship game, he ultimately tabbed Weis Jr. as tight ends coach at Florida Atlantic.
Now Weis Jr. has been hired by the Atlanta Falcons as an offensive assistant under head coach Dan Quinn and new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who left Alabama following the national championship game loss.
This goes well beyond nepotism. NFL jobs, even minor ones, aren’t gift-wrapped. An NFL team that recently lost in the Super Bowl doesn’t just pluck an inexperienced tight ends coach from Florida Atlantic as a favor to a retired football coach.
Just 24-years-old, Charlie Weis Jr. is becoming his own man in the NFL. You’ll be hearing from him again.