Walking on again

5th-year Mike Anello a rare breed

October 1, 2009, 9:09 PM

By: Eric Hansen

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Writhing on the field, pretending not to feel the pain, Mike Anello looked into Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis' eyes and made a promise.

He would be back in 2009 to make a difference.

Mike Anello

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Mike Anello is a rarity at Notre Dame -- a fifth-year walk-on.

"He told me lying on the field with his broken leg," Weis said, incredulously, months later. "He said, 'I'm going to be back here for a fifth year, and you can count on me for Nevada.' He is lying on the field and he was thinking about the opener for next year."

The special teams specialist will be ready again Saturday when the Irish (3-1) host Washington (2-2) at Notre Dame Stadium.

Rarely do former walk-ons get invited back for a fifth year at Notre Dame. Even more rarely do they jump at the invitation.

But the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Carl Sandburg High grad has been spellbound with the place and vice versa ever since being talked into coming to ND by … a janitor.

"I was close to going to the University of Illinois," he said. "I came for a visit [when in high school] and was wandering through Dillon Hall. I had like a two-minute conversation with this janitor, who had stopped me. I walked away, and something about it kind of struck me. It's been the best decision I've made.

"Now here I am a fifth-year senior. I tell people I'm on a victory lap right now. This is an amazing place. I tell people all the time, 'There's a difference between playing in front of 80,000 people and playing in front of 80,000 Notre Dame fans, because those people have so much passion."

Anello doesn't channel all his own passion into football. This fall he is in the process of helping to organize an event for the St. Baldrick's Foundation.

St. Baldrick's is the world's largest volunteer-driven fundraising event for childhood cancer research. Thousands of volunteers shave their heads in solidarity of children with cancer, while requesting donations of support from friends and family.

This past offseason, Anello and roughly a dozen of his teammates shaved their heads and visited with some cancer-stricken kids.

"When I broke my leg, all through the rehab right through the start of the season, I felt pain," he said. "And whenever I did, I thought of two things: our troops fighting for this country and those kids and their big smiles. And I never let myself feel bad about my situation.

"One of the kids knew who I was. Even the ones who didn't, it didn't matter to them. You could see what an impact we could have on them, and that's why I'm trying to do more."

More teammates with shaved heads. More events throughout the year. More events smack in the middle of football season, if Anello has his way.

On the field, Anello certainly had his way last season. The former Illinois Scholastic Wrestler of the Year posted numbers so prolific that the third-string cornerback actually made the Lott Trophy watch list, along with guys like Big Ten Preseason Defensive Player of the Year Greg Jones of Michigan State and USC All-America safety Taylor Mays.

To put Anello's impact into perspective, ND had 72 kicks (kickoffs and punts) returned against it last year, and Anello made the tackle on 23 of them, including the play that broke his leg.

He also blocked a punt against Navy and partially blocked one against Syracuse, forced two fumbles and recovered one fumble.

This year the numbers are down so far -- just three tackles. But Weis attributes the slower statistical start to the fact the Irish have had just two punts returned against them in four games so far this season.

"As a cover guy, his numbers will increase as the year goes on," Weis said. "There's no doubt we'll get production from him."

Even if the numbers stay flat, it seems Anello will find a way to keep his promise. In fact, he has taken on the role of coaching the scout-team secondary in practice.

"I'd love to do some coaching for real someday," said Anello, who will do it on the side, with all the corporate/financial people trying to get their hands on him and his near 4.0 GPA in the coming months. "There were so many coaches that made a difference in my life that I just want to give back somehow, some way.

"For now, what I try to do with the show-team guys is get them to buy into making the most of their time down there. No one wants to be down there. They want to be up with the first-team guys. But that's why I've been successful the past couple of years. I made the most of every scout-team rep. I don't know any other way to do things."

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Golden memories

Tate wants to be like ND legend Ismail

September 30, 2009, 9:19 PM

By: Eric Hansen

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- He met Rocket Ismail at a pep rally two years ago, introducing himself to the Notre Dame football legend and expecting no more than a handshake.

Instead, Irish wide receiver Golden Tate received a pep talk that buoyed him through a frustrating freshman season and endures with him today.

"That's who I want to be like at the end of the day," said Tate, now a 5-foot-11, 195-pound junior. "My freshman year, I watched tapes of him before games. Just speaking to the guy, I liked his personality and how he has his priorities right. He told me I had the potential to make big plays and that he saw some of himself in me."

It would be in Notre Dame's best interests if Ismail saw a lot of himself in Tate on Saturday, when Washington (2-2) visits the Irish (3-1) at ND Stadium (2:30 p.m. CT).

This past Saturday at Purdue, Tate certainly was Rocket-esque. The Hendersonville, Tenn., product had a game-high five receptions for 57 yards in the 24-21 win, including a 17-yarder in the final drive that set the Irish up with a first-and-goal from the 4.

He also returned a punt 16 yards and rushed for 55 yards on nine carries, including a 14-yard touchdown. He took handoffs from backup quarterback Dayne Crist and ran from the Irish version of the Wildcat formation.

It was ND's first full game without injured wide receiver Michael Floyd, one of the nation's most dangerous deep threats but now shelved by a broken collarbone until at least late November.

"It forces you to do more game planning," coach Charlie Weis said of Floyd's absence and the challenge to keep teams from constantly rolling double coverage to Tate's side. "You have to be more creative. You have to create more opportunities schematically rather than falling into the comfort zone that we'll just throw it to Floyd and he'll catch it."

Running the ball is still in Tate's comfort zone. He didn't even need to brush up at all with Irish running backs coach Tony Alford.

"He can't play at all. It's a shame," Alford joked. "Nah, he didn't need my help. Just wind up the little thing on his back and let him go."

"It was definitely fun," the converted high school running back said of converting back into a running back for extensive stretches for the first time in his college career. "The game was a little faster when I was playing running back. There were some cases when I should have been a little bit more patient. Overall, it was a fun experience. Hopefully, it will happen again."

There is some question whether it will. Until last week, running back Armando Allen was the Irish player who took direct snaps in the Wildcat, with Tate just one of the many wrinkles and options.

Allen missed the Purdue game with an ankle injury, but the nation's 13th-leading rusher is expected to be 100 percent for the Huskies. Against Michigan State, on Sept. 12, he threw a TD pass out of the Wildcat. So, who's the top cat?

"Well, it's so early in the week, we really haven't gotten into the game plan," Tate equivocated.

"Golden and I are always competing for everything," was Allen's counter. "The most important thing is: When my number is called, I've got to show up."

The Wildcat, whose roots go back to the old single wing, is hardly new in football. The offensive trend, characterized by a direct snap to the running back and an unbalanced offensive line, isn't even new to Notre Dame. It just seems that way.

In 2007 and 2008, the Wildcat plays were largely unspectacular and occasionally disastrous. The very first time the Irish used it was the third game of the 2007 season against Michigan. On the very first play from scrimmage, then-ND center John Sullivan snapped the ball over Allen's head, with the running back scrambling to recover it for a 17-yard loss all the way back to the Irish 1-yard line. It set the tone for an eventual 38-0 rout by the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.

Weis credits new offensive line coach Frank Verducci with bringing some fresh perspective to what he termed an "offseason staff project."

"From a lineman's perspective, I kind of like the Wildcat," Irish offensive tackle Sam Young offered. "I only wish I could watch it as it happens. We have to wait the next day to see the film. But it's a slick little operation."

And one Weis doesn't see as a fad.

"I don't think that it's going go away any time soon," he said. "I think defenses have already zeroed in on how they're going to play it. Even if a team doesn't show it, I think everyone's got to be ready for it every week.

"I know our defensive staff has a plan for it every week. If you are playing against a team that doesn't show it and all of a sudden they run it, you better understand what you are going do against it."

Eric Hansen covers Notre Dame for ESPNChicago.com and the South Bend Tribune.

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Movin' on up

Clausen rides bike during agility drills

September 29, 2009, 8:49 PM

By: Eric Hansen

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Five hours after Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weis proclaimed starting quarterback Jimmy Clausen "back and ready to go," the convalescing junior didn't quite look the part.

At least this Tuesday afternoon, Clausen was way ahead of where he was last week at this time, when he didn't participate in practice at all because of a turf toe injury suffered Sept. 19.

This time, Clausen lobbed the ball around during the 45-minute media window, but when it was time for the quarterbacks to do agility drills, he hopped on a stationary bike and started peddling. Roughly half a dozen pro scouts looked on, as is typical on Tuesdays, but this time perhaps with a little more attention to No. 7.

The 6-foot-3, 223-pound junior has been quietly moving up the NFL draft boards -- the next NFL draft boards -- as has his opposite number in Saturday's upcoming clash at Notre Dame Stadium, Washington junior Jake Locker.

ESPN NFL draft analyst Todd McShay has Locker second among draft-eligible quarterbacks for the April 2010 draft and the No. 7 prospect overall. Clausen is sixth among quarterback prospects.

McShay rates Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, as the No. 1 quarterback and top overall prospect. Mississippi junior Jevan Snead is the No. 3 quarterback, Texas senior Colt McCoy No. 4, Cincinnati's Tony Pike No. 5, and the 2007 Heisman winner, Tim Tebow of Florida, No. 7.

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has Clausen ahead of Locker.

For Weis, the draft scuttlebutt in a quarterback's junior year is not a new experience, nor something he considers an unwelcome distraction. When Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn was a junior at Notre Dame in Weis' debut season in 2005, Weis supported Quinn's thinking and talking openly about his option of leaving early.

He'll do the same with Clausen.

"In Jimmy's case, if you move yourself up so high in the draft that it's an offer you can't refuse, then you have to seriously consider it," Weis said. "But I think that you never want to walk away from a Notre Dame education unless [an opportunity] to complete a Notre Dame education were presented to you.

"I'd love to have Jimmy here for this year and next year, but if he ends up playing so well this year that it warrants him making that decision, that probably will be a good thing for the success of our football team this year."

Clausen is fourth in the nation in passing efficiency a third of the way into the season, one year after finishing 43rd and two years removed from finishing outside the top 100.

Locker, meanwhile, is thriving in new Washington coach Steve Sarkisian's system. He also has a pro baseball option after signing a contract in late August with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim that, unlike the one former Irish receiver Jeff Samardzija signed with the Cubs, does not limit his pursuing football.

"I think that Jake's value is probably going to continue to rise as the season goes on," Weis said. "I think that [pro scouts] are watching a transformation going from him being a read-option quarterback to more pro-style offense quarterback, and I think that's only going to help up his stock and up his value.

"As far as Jake, I just know he just picked up $300,000 from the Angels, so I think he can take his time on what he wants to do because he has a couple of different options."

Locker, a center fielder in baseball, was a 10th-round draft choice of the Angels. Clausen's claim to fame with baseball? He won the homer-hitting contest at Weis' house at a team picnic this summer.

Squibs: Junior running back Armando Allen ran and cut well in Tuesday's practice after missing Saturday night's 24-21 victory at Purdue with an ankle injury. … Irish junior halfback Robert Hughes remains the No. 1 option at fullback while James Aldridge continues to recover from a shoulder injury. But Hughes' game-high 68 yards on 15 carries against Purdue running from the halfback position has Weis looking at him in a different light. "We'll list him as a starting fullback," Weis said. "In reality, he is really looking for halfback reps. Trust me, he wants the halfback reps." … Junior kicker Brandon Walker, ND's No. 1 option at that position the past two seasons until freshman Nick Tausch beat him out in August, missed Tuesday's practice to attend a doctor's appointment. Freshman running back Theo Riddick, ND's top kickoff returner, practiced Tuesday with his right wrist in a soft cast.

Eric Hansen covers Notre Dame for ESPNChicago.com and the South Bend Tribune.

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Feeling better

Clausen condition improving; Allen will play vs. Washington

September 27, 2009, 11:08 PM

By: Eric Hansen

SOUTH BEND, Ind.  Charlie Weis' cell phone was filled late Saturday night with congratulatory text messages from NFL personnel types.

Jimmy Clausen

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Jimmy Clausen showed his guts in leading Notre Dame to victory Saturday while battling turf toe.

The theme was fairly universal: It's good to see a quarterback with guts.

"The word might not have been 'guts,'" the Notre Dame head football coach said with a chuckle Sunday night, less than 24 hours after his Irish (3-1) rallied to a 24-21 victory over Purdue (1-3), behind hobbled quarterback Jimmy Clausen.

Weis may be setting himself up for an encore this Saturday.

He said Sunday that the plan is for Clausen to start and finish Saturday's upcoming game with Washington, then rest the nation's fourth-leading passer during ND's bye week -- Oct. 4-11.

Clausen played roughly half of Notre Dame's victory at Ross-Ade Stadium because of a painful turf toe injury, tag-teaming with sophomore backup Dayne Crist. Crist actually led the Irish to two first-half scores  and without completing a pass on either drive.

Crist finished 5-of-10 for 45 yards passing and netted 16 yards on four rushes.

Clausen was on the field, though, at the end, engineering one of the latest comebacks in ND football history. His fourth-down, 3-yard pass to tight end Kyle Rudolph with 24.8 seconds left completed the rally.

In the 72-yard, 12-play drive, Clausen was 6-of-9 for 69 yards.

But a day later, the biggest questions weren't about his guile, but about his toe.

"Actually his toe is a lot better today than it was last week at this time," Weis said of the injury suffered in the first half of ND's win over Michigan State on Sept. 19. "The toe was really swollen [last Sunday]. He was in a [protective] boot for a couple of days. Today he's not in a boot. The swelling is down.

"We're in this for the long haul. There's only so much rest you can get at this time of year. That rest is going to come next week."'

• Weis said running back Armando Allen is expected to practice with no limitations after missing the Purdue game with an ankle injury.

"I think Armando surprised me at how close he looked in pregame," Weis said. "I wasn't expecting him to look as good as he was. He was politicking during the game to get in there, but I think he could have played in this game."

Allen fell from being the 15th-leading rusher in the nation to 38th in the latest NCAA statistics over the weekend, based on per-game average, without playing a down.

When corrected, Allen will rank 13th.

The problem is that the Purdue stat crew listed Allen as ND's starting weakside linebacker instead of Manti Te'o. Both players wear uniform No. 5.

Since Allen was listing as having played and he accumulated zero rushing yards, his average dropped.

• Speaking of Te'o, it appears Weis is ready to take the training wheels off when it comes to playing the vaunted freshman from Hawaii.

"I think one thing we need to do both in practice and in games is just play him more," Weis said. "The only thing, when you have a young linebacker, you'll go through some growing pains. But I think that you'll see him just playing more. We talked about that today. I think as the year goes on, you'll see his playing time just increase more and more."

Eric Hansen covers Notre Dame for ESPNChicago.com and the South Bend Tribune.

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Weis gets creative

Direct snaps help Notre Dame survive resting Clausen

September 27, 2009, 11:30 AM

By: Eric Hansen

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- In the small window of Saturday night's 24-21 subduing of Purdue, life without Michael Floyd was mostly sweet.

And very unconventional.

Jimmy Clausen

AP Photo/Darron Cummings

After resting for most of the second half, Jimmy Clausen led the Irish to victory.

Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis must have either emptied out his playbook Saturday night at Ross-Ade Stadium or added a few very un-New England Patriots-like pages to it.

In a game in which his backup quarterback threw a key block on a touchdown run by the team's leading receiver, Weis strayed from his NFL roots further than he had ever done in his 53 previous college games, only to set the stage for quarterback Jimmy Clausen to be Jimmy Clausen.

Cast as a bystander much of the night with a painful turf toe injury, the Irish junior quarterback put up his most unspectacular numbers of the season (15-of-26 for 171 yards and an interception) on a night when his guts and guile rose to legendary proportions.

Clausen came off the bench to drive the Irish 72 yards in 12 plays, connecting with tight end Kyle Rudolph for a 3-yard knockout punch on fourth down with 24.8 seconds left in the game.

"The intent was for him not to play in the second half," Weis said of Clausen, who played with a special plate in his right shoe to ease the pain of his injury. "We played him in the first half, wanted to get a lead and then try not to use him. Our packages were kind of limited on what we could do with him. We tried to keep him in the shotgun, so he didn't have to worry much about footwork.

"But when it got to be topsy-turvy late, we started talking about putting him back in, and he was already politicking for that."

Floyd, out until at least late November with a broken collarbone, could only hope and cheer from the sideline during the final drive. The same was the case for leading rusher Armando Allen, who missed the game with an ankle injury.

The Irish found a way to survive in the short term without their most dangerous deep threat. Now, over the long view of the season, can they find a way to grow into a team that's BCS-worthy, beginning with Saturday's home matchup with upstart Washington? First, a look back at the Purdue game.

Player of the Game: Junior wide receiver Golden Tate. The converted running back converted himself back to his old position when asked to do so Saturday night. He ran the Wildcat formation when Clausen was on the sidelines and took handoffs from backup quarterback Dayne Crist as well.

Tate finished with 55 yards on nine carries and one spectacular TD run. But he also caught a team-high five passes for 57 yards, including a 17-yarder on the winning drive to give the Irish a first-and-goal from the Purdue 4-yard line.

Play of the Game: Clausen's 3-yard TD pass to Rudolph on fourth-and-goal with 24.8 seconds left in the game. It marked just the 16th time in Notre Dame history the Irish scored the winning touchdown in the final 25 seconds of the game, and just the fifth time in a true road game.

What we learned about the Irish: Buried in the momentum volleys in the final frantic minutes of the game was the fact the Irish stepped forward Saturday in two areas that were their undoing last year -- running the ball and stopping the run. Third-string halfback and fill-in fullback Robert Hughes (Chicago Hubbard) bulled his way for a game-high 68 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown, outrushing the nation's No. 2 runner, Purdue sophomore Ralph Bolden. The Irish defense, gashed in the passing game late in the fourth quarter, did hold the Boilermakers running attack to 2.8 yards per carry.

What Weis said: About Clausen: "This is a guy who really sucked it up and made the big plays when he had to make them. He never got flustered."

What he didn't say: How long this turf toe situation with Clausen might persist.

Players' perspective: "The team is very different from last year. This year, everyone is so close and just wants to help each other out. We really play like a team." -- Clausen

Spinning forward: With injuries affecting such key components of the Irish offense, Saturday really was about survival. Moving forward, it's all about improvement. This is a team that doesn't have the look or feel of a Top 25 team except in its fortitude and its team chemistry. Freshman wide receiver Shaquelle Evans must ascend to become a reliable deep threat. The Irish running game can't regress. The ND defense must continue to evolve. Washington has already shown it can rise to the occasion on a big stage. The Irish must find a way to rise again too.

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Countdown to kickoff: Notre Dame-Purdue

Irish need backup plans for Floyd, possibly Allen

September 25, 2009, 2:20 PM

By: Eric Hansen

6. The big picture: The Purdue-Notre Dame series hasn't always garnered headlines, but as a harbinger of how most Irish football seasons will end up, it's almost scary in its accuracy.

Of the 63 meetings since World War II, 41 Irish squads have passed the Purdue test and gone on to win at an .824 clip for the season. The 22 ND teams that lost to Purdue averaged a modest winning percentage of .536.

Golden Tate

Matt Cashore/US Presswire

Golden Tate's numbers suffered in 2008 when Michael Floyd wasn't in the lineup.

The exception came in 2001, when an Irish team that finished 5-6 beat Purdue, 24-18, in a game that was moved to the end of the season after the Sept. 11 tragedies originally postponed it.

5. After hours: Saturday's prime-time clash is just the sixth night game in Ross-Ade Stadium's 86-year history. Purdue has lost all but one of the previous five, including a 49-28 dismantling in ND coach Charlie Weis' debut season (2005).

Weis is 6-5 in night games.

4. Weird science: Purdue comes into Saturday's game as the third-least-penalized team in the 120-team Football Bowl Subdivision (69 yards), behind only Houston (45 yards) and Navy (65).

Notre Dame, meanwhile, is averaging as many yards per game in penalties (69.7) as Purdue has amassed in three games this season combined. Strangely, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Weis is 17-8 when Notre Dame amasses more penalty yardage than its opponents, but just 15-14 when it garners the same or fewer penalty yards.

3. Unsung and underrated: Irish safety Kyle McCarthy has emerged as Notre Dame's best defensive player, by far, through its first three games -- both with his consistency and flair for the dramatic.

The lightly recruited fifth-year senior and former high school option quarterback leads the Irish with 27 tackles. And he is the first Irish player since Tom Schoen in 1966 to record an interception in each of the first three games to start the season. His interception late in the fourth quarter on the Notre Dame 4-yard line preserved the 33-30 win over Michigan State on Saturday.

2. Plan B, Part I: In ND's first game without standout wide receiver Michael Floyd, keep your eye on the Irish's leading receiver, Golden Tate, and quarterback Jimmy Clausen. When Floyd missed two games and the better part of a third with a knee injury late last season, Tate's numbers suffered from the extra attention he received from defenses, and Clausen's production severely dwindled.

Weis said he has a plan this time to keep defenses from rolling their coverage into Tate.

1. Plan B, Part II: If the nation's 15th-leading rusher, Armando Allen (ankle injury), isn't able to go, sophomore Jonas Gray (74 yards, 16 carries) and junior Robert Hughes (20 on 7 carries) will get the bulk of the work, with freshman Theo Riddick (19 yards, 6 carries) sprinkled in.

Allen's absence would probably reduce or eliminate ND's use of the Wildcat formation and some other offensive packages that are tailored to the 5-10, 200-pound junior.

Hughes, currently doing double duty at fullback and halfback, was briefly ahead of Allen on the depth chart earlier in their careers. Gray surged to the No. 2 spot behind Allen this fall but has had trouble with both fumbling and blitz pickup.

Weis said Thursday night that Allen's availability would be a game-time decision.

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Good news, bad news

Clausen fit, Allen a game-time decision

September 24, 2009, 6:04 PM

By: Eric Hansen

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen got the green light Thursday to play in Saturday night's matchup at Purdue, but Irish coach Charlie Weis said leading rusher Armando Allen's status would be a game-time decision.

Clausen, the nation's No. 2 passer, suffered a turf toe injury during the second quarter of last Saturday's 33-30 win over Michigan State. The 6-foot-3, 223-pound junior played with the injury for all but a handful of downs. After the game, team doctors placed the injured right foot in a protective boot until Tuesday.

Jimmy Clausen

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen should be ready to go on Saturday against Purdue.

Clausen sat out Tuesday's practice, was eased in Wednesday and had a full session Thursday. A plate inserted in Clausen's right shoe helped ease the pain and discomfort.

"The plan went just the way we thought it would," Weis said. "He looked sharp."

Allen, who was following the same timetable with his ankle injury, couldn't go full speed either Wednesday or Thursday after resting on Tuesday.

Weis said sophomore Jonas Gray and junior Robert Hughes took the bulk of the snaps in practice at running back with Allen out. Allen, the nation's 15th-leading rusher, has rushed for 326 yards on 59 carries with three TDs for ND's resurgent rushing attack. Gray is ND's second-leading rusher, with 74 yards on 16 carries.

Weis said backup QB Dayne Crist was so impressive in running the operation that the sophomore may be sprinkled in for a series or two, even if Clausen doesn't have any physical problems Saturday night in West Lafayette, Ind.

Clausen has completed 62 of 91 passes for 951 yards and 9 TDs without an interception. On Saturday, he became the first Irish quarterback to string together four games of 300 passing yards or more.

Crist has thrown just four passes in his college career, completing three for 16 yards with one interception.

"When he went down, I think the whole Notre Dame Nation kind of held their breath," Irish center Eric Olsen said, "except for all the girls in the student section. They were all kind of cheering Dayne. I don't know what's up with that.

"To Jimmy's credit, he's a tough guy. He definitely has taken a few hits before. So he got back in the game. As a leader, as a captain of this team, as the quarterback, it's something we all hoped he could do and would do."

Eric Hansen covers Notre Dame for ESPNChicago.com and the South Bend Tribune.

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Defensive posture

Irish look to improve against Purdue on Saturday

September 24, 2009, 4:51 PM

By: Eric Hansen

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It was shortly after Sergio Brown strolled out of obscurity last September that Notre Dame student Tim Nelson capitalized on the moment -- all in the name of a better grade in Nelson's Entrepreneurship class.

Brown, a Notre Dame defensive back from Proviso East High School in Maywood, Ill., had blocked a punt, recorded six tackles and broken up two passes in ND's 21-13 season-opening survival of San Diego State.

Sergio Brown

Brad Schloss/Icon SMI

Last year, Sergio Brown's play inspired a T-shirt. He's hoping to attain that same level this year.

The game turned out to be a harbinger of ND's impending schizophrenic 7-6 season, but it was truly a breakout game for Brown, a seldom-used special teams specialist up to that point.

With Brown's permission, Nelson concocted a "Dread the Dreads" T-shirt with Brown's likeness on the front and his No. 31 on the back.

(The T-shirt can be seen here).

"I thought it was pretty cool, and I saw a lot of people wearing them," said Brown, who went on to record 28 tackles and six pass breakups last season, playing primarily as ND's extra defensive back in its nickel packages. "I still have mine."

What the 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior has lacked in the first three games of this season are the kind of plays that would inspire a T-shirt. Brown's six tackles have mostly been nondescript and inconsequential.

His next chance to push back into the spotlight comes Saturday night (7 p.m. CT, ESPN), when the Irish (2-1) visit in-state rival Purdue (1-2).

"We're looking for players to make plays on a regular and consistent basis," said Corwin Brown, Irish co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. "What I have to do is help him see the opportunities. Honestly, there haven't been as many. But he's left a couple of plays out on the field, too."

That could be said about the entire Irish defense, which finds itself ranked no higher than 63rd nationally (out of 120) in any of the four main defensive categories the NCAA tracks. Purdue presents the most prolific offense on the Irish schedule (25th at 440.3 yards per game), at least at this point.

"I don't know why things aren't coming my way as much," said Brown, who played just 56 seconds on defense as a freshman and a modest 32 minutes as a sophomore in 2007.

"I feel like I've matured as a player. And I know this year is my last chance. Early in my career, I had a lot of talks with people about whether I was in the right place.

"I came to the decision that I was here for a reason. I still feel that way. I think that belief will help take me where I need to go."

Eric Hansen covers Notre Dame for ESPNChicago.com and the South Bend Tribune.

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Fine on the O-line

Washington, UConn tickets on sale

September 23, 2009, 8:53 PM

By: Eric Hansen

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- His first meetings were filled with cordial stares and vacant nods.

Frank Verducci knew almost immediately that his biggest challenge as the new offensive line coach and running game coordinator at Notre Dame wasn't about fixing tainted X's and O's but soothing heavy hearts.

Notre Dame Offensive Lineman

Matt Cashore/US Presswire

The players protecting quarterback Jimmy Clausen have seen a renaissance under new offensive line coach Frank Verducci.

His ability to soothe the purge of player favorite John Latina was the first step in what so far is one of the most dramatic offensive line turnarounds in college football.

The Irish (2-1) head into a non-conference clash Saturday night at Purdue (1-2) on pace to allow eight sacks, a year after surrendering 22 and two years removed from an NCAA-record 58. Kickoff for the ESPN-televised matchup at Ross-Ade Stadium in 7 p.m. (CDT).

"First of all you're not dealing with average 19- to 22-year-olds," Verducci said of the transition process with the ND players. "I mean these are bright guys. The thing that made them receptive was, bottom line, they wanted to be good. And they were willing to give me a chance in the hopes that they'd be better football players.

"I'm sure they were somewhat skeptical in the beginning, because from a technique standpoint and an approach standpoint, I was different, which the next guy after me is going to be different. But once they started to see some tangible evidence, they bought in a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more."

Beyond the sacks, the Irish running game has jumped to a respectable 55th nationally (out of 120 schools), with 155 yards per game, from 109.7 yards and a 110 ranking a year ago. It also ranks as the second-worst rushing attack in school history.

Yards per carry is up from 3.3 to 4.3. Passing yardage rank has vaulted from 34th to 10th, and passing efficiency is up from 22nd to No. 1.

ND's offensive stagnation that past couple of year, particularly the depths of the offensive line problems, were puzzling, given Latina's pedigree and past success.

He was a Joe Moore disciple, and there is no more revered name in O-line coaching at ND than the former Lou Holtz assistant. And Latina's lines were particularly strong at his last coaching top before South Bend -- Ole Miss.

The biggest hindrance seemed to be a disconnect between ND head coach Charlie Weis and Latina. For better or for worse, at least Verducci and Weis seem to view offensive football similarly. "From Monday morning, right through the entire week, it's really put me in a position where I can do things the way I was always used to doing them," Weis said.

"He's not just an offensive line coach. He's also dealt with skill guys," Weis said. "A lot of offensive line coaches just worry about the offensive line, but, Frank understands the big picture."

The big picture gets tougher down the road, though. Purdue is 105th in total defense and upstart Washington 77th, but USC (12th), Boston College (4th) and Connecticut (20th) are all among the nation's elite defensive units thus far.

"It hasn't been smooth," Verducci said of the line's progress. "We've backslid at different times. It's been a challenging road to get to this point, and we're only good until Saturday night. The expiration date is 7 p.m., Saturday night, and then we've got to renew it again."

Irish Items

  • ND-Purdue tickets available: According to the Purdue athletic department, there are 8,000 tickets left for Saturday night's ND-Purdue game at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Ind. Tickets are $70 each and you can buy them by following this link.

  • Washington and UConn tickets on sale: A number of tickets for Notre Dame's home football game with Washington on Oct. 3 at Notre Dame Stadium will go on sale to the public at 7:30 a.m. CDT, Thursday through the Notre Dame ticket office.

    The sale is a result of the University of Washington returning an additional portion of its ticket allotment. Tickets are contiguous; limits and availability are to be determined.

    In addition, a limited quantity of tickets remain available for the Nov. 21 game with the University of Connecticut as a result of its allotment returns earlier this month. Tickets for both games are $68 each and may be purchased at www.und.com/tickets.

  • Rudolph honored: Notre Dame sophomore Kyle Rudolph was named the John Mackey Tight End of the Week by the Nassau County Sports Commission.

    The sophomore recorded six receptions for 95 yards as Notre Dame edged Michigan State, 33-30, Saturday. Other candidates considered for this week's Mackey Tight End of the Week included Caz Piurowski of Florida State and Dennis Pitta of BYU.

    Eric Hansen covers Notre Dame for ESPNChicago.com and the South Bend Tribune.

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  • Weis hopes injuries don't force innovation

    MRI on Clausen's foot negative

    September 22, 2009, 6:10 PM

    By: Eric Hansen

    SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Wild Irish Rose? Wild-cat-olic? Wild Leprechaun?

    Nothing that cheesy is rattling around Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis' mind regarding the latest Irish offensive wrinkle.

    "We just call it 'Wildcat right' and 'Wildcat left,'" he said at his Tuesday news conference with a chuckle. "I'm real innovative."

    He hopes his future innovation does not include trying to find someone to replace junior running back Armando Allen in the Wildcat formation, or quarterback Jimmy Clausen in ND's regular formations, for that matter.

    Both players missed practice Tuesday with injuries, but Weis was optimistic both integral pieces to the nation's 14th-most prolific offense would be available for Saturday night's clash at Purdue (1-2).

    Clausen hurt his right foot in the second quarter of Saturday's 33-30 win over Michigan State while being sacked for the first time this season. He alluded to playing in considerable discomfort for the rest of the game.

    The MRI on Clausen's right foot came back negative. And after wearing a protective boot over the weekend, the nation's No. 2 passer is expected back in action, albeit in limited fashion, on Wednesday.

    "So rumors of him having a broken foot and being done for the year are incorrect," Weis said, "but he does have a turf toe."

    Weis said Clausen will wear a special plate in his shoe this week to help alleviate the pressure and some of the pain. His first full practice of the week with the Irish (2-1) is expected to be Thursday.

    Allen (right ankle sprain), the nation's 15th-leading rusher, is following the same timetable.

    Quick kicks

  • Navy executed two onside kicks in the final 69 seconds of last November's near upset of the Irish. Weis vowed, at the time, that it would never happen again.

    Never ended Saturday. The Spartans pulled one off, but not the upset.

    "The biggest problem I have on that one is I sat there and I listened to [special-teams] Coach Polian say, 'Heads up for the onside kick,'" Weis said.

  • Weis opened the door Tuesday to the possibility that injured wide receiver Michael Floyd could be back earlier than anticipated from a broken collarbone. His initial projection was for a potential bowl game.

    "There would be an outside shot," Weis said, "but I would never put Michael at risk. That's one thing I wouldn't do."

  • Eric Hansen covers Notre Dame for ESPNChicago.com and the South Bend Tribune.

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