Sit down and talk for 10 minutes with new Irish pitching coach Sherard Clinkscales and one will immediately feel at ease and likely will be smiling. Clinkscales has a happy-go-lucky attitude, and his positive outlook just captures your attention. He'll need every bit of that optimistic point of view this season when coaching a very young and experienced Irish pitching staff.
Gone from the 2006 season are Notre Dame's three weekend starters, Jeff Manship, Jeff Samardzija and Tom Thornton, and 25 of Notre Dame's 45 wins from last season.
The Irish will certainly be short on experience heading into 2007, but Clinkscales shrugs off any thought that his arms won't be successful in 2007.
"I'm looking forward to it," Clinkscales said of the challenges ahead this spring. "There's nothing better than watching a young player buy into something you're telling them and then watching them have success."
Success is something Clinkscales knows about as a former standout and strikeout king for Purdue and in the minor leagues. While the first-year pitching coach is entering his first season as a coach, he believes his experience as a scout will be very beneficial for the Irish pitching staff.
"I was a pitcher at Purdue and pitched professionally for five years," Clinkscales explained. "That certainly gives me a little background in regards to what pitchers are going through. As a scout, I was trained to find prospects for the Atlanta Braves organization. What that means is I was the guy scouting, so I know what these guys are looking for, and I think experience can help our pitchers pursue that next level.
"Things like attitude, things like deception, things like developing a pitch that breaks a plane, things like challenging a hitter with their fastball. Those are the things a scout should look for in a pitcher, and those things make you better."
One of the challenges ahead for the man affectionately called "coach Clink" by his players will be building confidence in this young group. He knows he has talent on hand, but it's developing that talent into productivity that will be the hurdle early in 2007.
"We can talk about stuff all day long, but it's going to come down to the mental makeup of the pitcher that's going make him successful," he stated. "Having a short memory is something you have to learn as a pitcher. Getting over the bad start or the bad inning, that's where I come in with the mental.
"The kids, talent-wise, are outstanding. We have good arms here. The type of player that comes to Notre Dame is intrinsically motivated already just by the fact that they're an academic success. That really helps me as a pitching coach trying to teach things to guys, and they'll have the due diligence to listen and try to make it work for them.
"There's a lot of guys that don't have experience, and the only way to get experience is to throw them in the fire. I think what we did as a staff this fall was evaluate what each pitcher brings to the table. What I've noticed is that all our guys can pitch with their fastball. All our guys have a second and sometimes third pitch that they can go to. The biggest part I can bring to them is instill the confidence in them. We're going to take our bumps and bruises, but the key is the minimize those as much as possible."
And Clinkscales has a plan to lessen those bumps and bruises.
"A coach is there to understand the player and find out their strengths and weaknesses. To be able to do that, I know as athletes, we're visual people," he explained. "You have to be able to see what you're doing to get the true buy-in. The thing that we're doing is videoing all the guys so we can sit down and talk about the different things that might need adjustments.
"At this point in their lives it's hard to retrain muscle memory. They've been successful. So what you try to do is fine-tune some things. For example, (Joey) Williamson, he threw across his body a little bit, so what we did was draw a line and tried to get his directionals going toward home plate. That little adjustment has helped him become more consistent, and then that builds confidence, and he's pitching a lot better now."
One player who could really help the Irish this year is senior righthander Dan Kapala. Kapala sat the entire 2006 season recovering from shoulder surgery. Prior to the injury, he was one of Notre Dame's top pitching prospects after finding his way into the weekend starting rotation in 2005.
"Dan has been outstanding," Clinkscales said of Kapala's rehabilitation. "He's shown some leadership, which is something that is needed with our staff being as inexperienced as it is right now. As far as his health is concerned, he has been all fall, anywhere from 83 to 86 (miles per hour). We're very happy with where he is right now. A lot of times when you have labrum surgery, you have the tendency to get behind the ball. He hasn't done that at all. In fact, he's been getting out front and finishing strong. Towards the end of his workouts this fall, he started to cut loose and throw the way he did before the surgery so that was good to see.
"I'm confident he's going to be a contributor for us this season. We didn't utilize him for more than one or two innings this fall, 35 pitches. I think we'll get back from break and then see how he is and how we can best utilize him."
Kapala's health will be a big key for the Irish this season, but it's the other members of the staff that will decide how many games the Irish win. We asked Clinkscales about all his young pitchers and here are his initial thoughts on the Irish staff:
"Wade Korpi is probably our most experienced guy," Clinkscales said. "Jess Stewart has some experience, but he's been fighting some tendonitis. Both of those guys are going to be key for us. Wade's obviously had a lot of success, so we'll have to lean on him early. He looked good this fall.
"Kyle Weiland is as good as advertised. He's an All-American type. We'll use him as a starter and as a closer. At some point in time we'll have to settle into what his role will be. He's definitely a guy we'll be looking to.
"Joey (Williamson) is doing a great job. He's certainly made some strides forward. He's had some command problems and some confidence problems in the past, but he's certainly done a solid job this fall. He's let it be known that he wants to be a guy who can compete for us.
"David Phelps has done a great job as well. He has a good arm. He just needs to get those innings in. We're very happy with him.
"Sam Elam, with my pro hat on, probably has as good of stuff as anyone in the country. It's just a matter of him getting his confidence, getting to know his body so he can be consistent and be successful.
"(Brett) Graffey has had a real good fall. He's certainly stepped up to be a guy. He was definitely a pleasant surprise. When I say surprise, I don't mean we didn't think he had ability, we certainly did, but we didn't know he had as much ability as he does.
"(Freshmen) Andrew Scheid and Steven Mazur have both shown some strides forward. We're certainly going to need them this fall to contribute as well.
"Eric Maust is another guy who we think can really help us. We haven't seen him as much because of football, but we really think he has ability. He has a change-up that he can throw to both lefthanders and righthanders that we think is intriguing. He's a guy we think can really help once we can get him more full time."
Lastly, the Irish also hoping for the return of utility man Tony Langford. Langford is also rehabbing an injury and was a key setup man for the Irish in 2005. The Irish pitching coach isn't sure how much we'll see Langford in 2007, or if it will be on the mound or at the plate at this point.
"Right now Tony's just going to be a bonus for us," he explained. "He's coming back from Tommy John surgery, and we're not sure yet how much he can help. He's in rehab right now. His arm looks good. Everything looks good on Tony. I'm excited about what he can bring to the table. I know he did swing the bat well this fall, especially during the Blue/Gold scrimmages. Whatever he can do for us, on the mound or with the bat, is going to be beneficial."
The 2007 Irish pitching staff will be short on experience but long on talent according to Clinkscales. While innings are important, the Indianapolis, Ind. knows he can't do anything about the lack of experience so he'll just work with what he has.
"I'm going to put a program in place where our pitchers are physically ready to go once they get out there," he said. "Our guys bust their tails, they're bright, and more importantly, they've got good stuff. As long as we prepare them physically, I think mentally they'll be ready to face the challenges ahead this spring. I'm really looking forward to it."
Clinkscales Excited About Young Arms
IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories
Commit Recap: Adams sets recordDavid Adams will go down as one of the best ever at Pittsburgh Central Catholic after breaking the all-time tackles record. Meanwhile, Avery Davis turned in another hyper-efficient…
Status Reports: Irish Defensive LineThe seventh installment in our series of mid-season evaluations examines Notre Dame’s roster with a look at each individual’s status entering the bye week. Is he ascending? Has he…
Irish high on PledgerFour-star junior running back T.J. Pledger landed a scholarship offer from Notre Dame during a summer visit. He hopes to return to South Bend this fall to enhance his relationship…
Second half stars?With the season’s second half a week away, these 10 players can help reverse the course of Notre Dame’s campaign and perhaps set the table for a bounce back beyond November.
IrishIllustrated.comYesterday at 6:30 AM