Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Prister’s Thursday Thoughts

Every spring football practice emphasizes the basics of the game. Seldom has it been more important at Notre Dame than it is this spring.

FUNDAMENTALS AND TECHNIQUE

We’ve all heard it, and by now, it tends to make you cringe, scream, roll your eyes or some combination of frustrated acts when hearing the same thing over and over and over again.

“We’re focused on fundamentals and technique this spring,” football coach so-and-so says.

That’s not what we want to hear. We want to hear about individuals and their progress, how they’ve improved, where they need to improve, and how their improvement/digression will impact the team in the fall.

That is a somewhat unrealistic expectation during spring football when the game is broken down microscopically, particularly when a team loses a bunch of seniors and/or when there is significant change on the coaching staff and the systems they employ.

This spring at Notre Dame, there are four new coordinators: Chip Long with the offense, Mike Elko with the defense, Brian Polian on special teams, and Matt Balis, whose title is Director of Football Performance.

That’s a lot of change. A lot more change than the player personnel on the field where only one quarterback (DeShone Kizer), one running back (Tarean Folston), one receiver (Torii Hunter Jr.), one offensive lineman (Colin McGovern), two defensive linemen (Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones), one linebacker (James Onwualu), one cornerback (Cole Luke) and one long-snapper (Scott Daly) made a substantial contribution to the 2016 team and are now gone.

Long, because of the nature of his position, has talked scheme and approach offensively. Elko has gone so far as to say that “scheme is irrelevant,” which is a huge exaggeration, but understandable under the circumstances.

Polian, who met with the media Wednesday, said, “We’re not really concerned about the X’s and O’s right now.”

Elko and Balis are the two who have instituted the most change.

Spring is always the time to focus on the fundamentals and technique, but never more so this spring in South Bend where the basics of the game – inexplicably – were downright overlooked, not so much offensively (unless you include the strength and conditioning part), but on defense, special teams to a large extent, and in the weight room/conditioning.

The phrase that Pete Sampson used a few weeks back about not wanting to “re-litigate” all that went wrong last season is one that I’ve tried to adhere to this spring. Turn the page, move on, don’t dwell on what was done poorly before, but rather, focus on what’s happening now.

But it’s impossible to focus on the present without an astonishing look back at the way the defense was conducted and the oversights in the strength and conditioning.

And thus, it would be appropriate to hear even more “fundamentals and technique” comments this spring because the need is so great. And so we are.

RYAN TO TRANSFER
USA Today Sports Images

The news this week that sharpshooting 6-foot-8 junior-to-be Matt Ryan has decided to leave Mike Brey’s program is a disappointing but not unexpected turn of events less than two weeks after Notre Dame’s 2016-2017 season came to a close in Buffalo.

Ryan, who wore his emotions on his sleeve during much of the season when his playing time was limited, was making plans for his departure during Notre Dame’s second-round loss to West Virginia after logging just 11 minutes against the Mountaineers.

You could see it in his face as he sat on the bench and Rex Pflueger put a consoling arm around him. The look said, “I’m outta here!”

The situation certainly was grounds for more playing time for Ryan. Senior V.J. Beachem was in the midst of a 3-of-23 shooting performance in the NCAA tournament, including 1-of-12 from three-point range.

Brey, however, is loyal to his upperclassmen who have paid their dues and who have excelled at a high level in the past, perhaps to a fault in this instance. Ryan was a button Brey could of pushed more. He didn’t, and now Ryan has pushed back.

So as two shooters were scheduled to walk out the door due to graduation – Beachem and the Steve Vasturia – add a third, who happened to be the best pure shooter in the program. That’s a blow to a system that accentuates shooters.

Matt Farrell returns after shooting 43 percent from three-point range in ACC play. Bonzie Colson has developed into a reliable three-point shooter in spurts. T.J. Gibbs is unproven as a volume shooter, but Brey insists that will come with playing time. Pflueger’s shot is a bit too flawed to be a consistent three-point shooter, but he has his moments.

That leaves it up to red-shirt freshman Nikola Djogo, incoming freshman D.J. Harvey and 6-foot-9 sophomore John Mooney to pick up the slack.

The modern-day viewpoint is that Brey let Ryan slip away. Instead of giving him minutes throughout the season – and certainly in the NCAA tournament – he allowed Ryan to get disgruntled to the point where even the promise of huge opportunities awaiting in 2017-18 and 2018-19 weren’t enough to convince him to stay.

Theoretically, the opportunities and benefit of the doubt that Beachem received as an upperclassman would be afforded Ryan as he entered the back half of his collegiate career.

A more traditional viewpoint – the one where the player is expected to please the coach in order to earn more minutes -- is that Ryan did not make himself the kind of player Brey needed him to be.

Brey needed him to make a commitment to defense, assert himself on the backboards and become more of a complete player than just a shot-hunter. Ryan not only didn’t do that, but he pouted during heated, crucial ACC games, focusing on his plight over the team’s.

There was hope that the end of the season would allow for cooler heads to prevail, that Brey and Ryan could find a compromise, and that Ryan would recalibrate his mindset and get back to the work of helping return Notre Dame to the Elite Eight and beyond.

That didn’t happen, and now Ryan must choose a (non-ACC) school, sit out the 2017-18 season, and then play two more years of college basketball before pursuing a professional career, which is quite likely – particularly oversees – with a shot like that.

He’ll have to find a school that a) will play him all the time, b) allow him to hunt his shot without focusing on the other aspects of the game, or c) change his mindset and buy into becoming a more well-rounded player.

His decision indicates that A and B are more likely.

THE FINAL FOUR

I did a pretty good job of forecasting the cut-down from the Sweet 16 to the Elite Eight, hitting on six of the eight with the Arizona over Xavier and Michigan over Oregon the exceptions, although the Ducks’ victory over the Wolverines impacted the Final Four choices.

I had Kansas, Arizona, Kentucky and Florida making it to the Final Four. That’s 0-for-4. In other words, even after recalibrating with the Sweet 16, I still managed to miss on all Final Four participants.

So feel free to skip the next paragraph. In fact, you would be wise to do so if you’re looking for some hot tips prior to Saturday’s tip-offs. Or simply choose the opposite.

I’ll take Gonzaga over South Carolina with the Gamecocks covering the 6½ and North Carolina -5 over Oregon. North Carolina – with the deeper bench and a second shot at winning the national title after last year’s heartbreak to Villanova – defeats Gonzaga Monday night.

SO LONG, DEAN
Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

I didn’t tweet after the passing of long-time WNDU-TV sports director Jeff Jeffers – the Dean of Notre Dame/Local Sports -- because I wasn’t going to reduce his life and my relationship with him to 140 characters.

I also recoil from gratuitous reflections following the death of well-known people because it often dips into hyperbole. Everyone’s a “great guy” when he leaves earth.

Well, Jeffers was a great guy, a friend and a supportive member of the sports media in South Bend. That’s all true. Nothing more needs to be said about that because all of those who knew him well have given their testimonials this week.

Here’s an aspect that wasn’t addressed nearly as much, and it needs to be said.

Jeff Jeffers was a professional. When the red light turned on, he was on. When the camera was rolling, he lit up and delivered his message with passion and enthusiasm.

He was the same, from the moment he arrived more than 40 years ago. When it went live, he was alive, every time. That’s a professional.

When WNDU asked me to come to their studios to reflect on his life and my relationship with him, I willingly accepted because he was a great guy and a real pro.

He and I had something else in common. We both chose the same path. After covering Notre Dame at an early age, we both could have branched out. Jeffers could have gone on to a major market, but he chose to stay here to cover his beloved Notre Dame.

That’s not to say I could have found my way into a major market in my branch of work. Maybe I wasn’t good enough. But I’ve never tried to cover anyone other than Notre Dame. I chose the path that Jeffers chose – to stay close to my roots in South Bend and to remain connected with my alma mater.

If that’s small-time thinking, so be it. But it’s the only path we wanted to follow, and the path that Jeff Jeffers carved was one worthy of all the accolades and warm thoughts that have been expressed this week. Plus, when it came to executing his job, he was a pro.

JEFFERS/TENUTA

One final Jeffers story.

Long-time college coach and former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta absolutely, positively despises the media. There was no one in the Notre Dame media he hated more than me. My associates can validate that.

I never really understood why, other than I asked him questions about his defense and sought answers. I didn’t think I grilled him, but he didn’t like it and it showed. (There’s video proof out there.)

The first time we saw Jeffers and Tenuta interact, Tenuta acted as if they were long-lost friends. Tenuta was engaging. He laughed and exchanged playful barbs. It was a side of Tenuta that we never saw, other than when he was with his players and with Jeffers.

So I asked Jeffers, “How do you know Tenuta?” He said, “I don’t.”

Only Jeffers.


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