Still in touch

Weis, Samardzija still share strong bond

September 9, 2009, 4:02 PM

By: Eric Hansen

His days are longer, his patience sometimes shallower this season, but Notre Dame head football coach Charlie Weis never forgets a special player.

Charlie Weis

AP Photo/Joe Raymond

Charlie Weis said Jeff Samardzija's idea of encouragement is good-natured ribbing.

Even in the midst of Weis' preparations for Saturday's date with arch-rival Michigan, it didn't escape him that former Irish All-America wide receiver Jeff Samardzija was recalled by the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday, marking the 24-year-old pitcher's sixth trip on the shuttle between Wrigley Field and Class AAA Iowa this season.

Nor did the pitcher's struggles with consistency, that kept the roller coaster in motion, escape Weis.

"I have tried to talk to Jeff, but that isn't the easiest thing in the world to do," Weis said with a laugh. "What most of these guys do is they leave their phones full, so you can't leave a message, and then they see that you called and they call you back.

"I mean, heaven forbid, you call and they actually answer their phone. He's done that once since he's left here, and that was the first time he got called up by the Cubs (in the summer of 2008). So my only real alternative is texting."

Weis said he never had to give Samardzija a pep talk, despite the pitcher's uninspiring 5.04 ERA with the Cubs this season and his 6-6 mark and 4.35 ERA with Iowa. That followed a sensational 2008 in which Samardzija recorded a 2.28 ERA in 26 relief appearances.

Jeff Samardzija

Getty Images

Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija was easier for Charlie Weis to reach when he was an All-America receiver at Notre Dame.

"Any time I get through to Jeff, what comes through on the other end is a person who's totally confident in his ability," Weis said. "You don't have to worry about him not having confidence. He's confident by nature. You never have to worry about his psyche. He has one of those personalities that if he pitched crummy five times in a row, he's like, 'Oh well, I'll do better next time.' "

Weis says Samardzija, who left Notre Dame after the 2006 season as the school's all-time leading receiver, reaches out to Weis, too -- sort of.

"He never calls to encourage me," Weis said laughing. "His communication is always shots. And he doesn't even deliver them to my face. He'll tell one of you guys [media] to make sure it gets back to me."

Eric Hansen covers Notre Dame for ESPNChicago.com.

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Michigan game important in ND's history

Uncanny symmetry between Clausen, Forcier

September 8, 2009, 10:28 PM

By: Eric Hansen

Just another game?

Notre Dame head coach football coach Charlie Weis tried, largely unsuccessfully, on Tuesday to pass off Saturday's rivalry game between the 18th-ranked Irish (1-0) and Michigan (1-0) as nothing more than the next game on the schedule.

History says otherwise. Even if you backtrack only to the start of the Weis era.

Charlie Weis

AP Photo/Joe Raymond

Charlie Weis said Jeff Samardzija's idea of encouragement is good-natured ribbing.

Some of the most profound twists in Weis' five seasons have happened against the Wolverines.

The 2005 game, a 17-10 Irish victory in an unexpected defensive battle, helped give Weis and his new regime early credibility, even though Michigan ended up being way more ordinary than its No. 3 ranking, at the time of the game, suggested.

The Irish vaulted 10 spots in the AP poll, from No. 20 into the top 10, and it put them on a BCS trajectory.

In 2006, ND had a chance to wrestle back the all-time lead in winning percentage in college football history from the Wolverines. More importantly, the Irish came into the game ranked No. 2 with national title aspirations.

Eleventh-ranked Michigan's 47-21 conquest not only ended those hopes, but it impaled ND quarterback Brady Quinn's Heisman candidacy and started the mantra "lack of signature win" when Weis' college résumé was debated.

The 2007 meeting between two 0-2 teams was the worst of times and, eventually, the best of times for Weis. The 38-0 loss in Ann Arbor is the most lopsided verdict in the 36 meetings between the two schools, and, quite frankly, it wasn't even that close.

But it was the game that opened Weis' mind up that maybe the Bill Belichick/Bill Parcells template didn't fit so perfectly at the college level and started an evolution in his coaching style and substance.

The 2008 game, a 35-17 Irish win in South Bend, gave Weis enough momentum to survive a late-season slide and return for a fifth season. And Saturday in Ann Arbor?

"We're going to treat that game the same way we're going to treat Michigan State the following week," Weis deadpanned.

At least Irish running back Jonas Gray was willing to break the party line.

Gray, a sophomore who grew up in Detroit, was offered a scholarship while at Country Day High School by the Wolverines, but as an "athlete," not as a running back.

"They told me they weren't sure if I was fast enough to be a running back for them," he said. "I'd like to show them Saturday. This is the biggest game of my career."

The opposite number: At first glance, there's an uncanny symmetry between Saturday's starting quarterbacks.

Irish junior Jimmy Clausen grew up in Southern California, had two older brothers who played quarterback at the college level, seemed destined for stardom from a young age and trained under quarterback guru Steve Clarkson.

Michigan freshman Tate Forcier grew up in Southern California, had two older brothers who played quarterback at the college level, seemed destined for stardom from a young age and trained under Marv Marinovich. Yes, that Marv Marinovich.

Forcier even attended Weis' Notre Dame football camp, but the two sides didn't dance together very long in the recruiting process.

"I thought he was athletic," Weis recalled. "I just didn't think for us, for what we do ...There is a perfect fit for everyone, and it wasn't a perfect fit for us."

The future: ND's newest recruit, running back Cameron Roberson of Newbury Park, Calif., hopes to make history when he suits up for the Irish next fall.

His grandfather already has.

Thomas Murray Turner was one of the first black students to graduate from Notre Dame back in 1959.

Roberson, 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, is considered a four-star prospect by most recruiting services. He chose the Irish over Northwestern, Arizona, BYU, Wyoming, Minnesota and Utah, but more high-profile offers were starting to pour in.

Roberson, who visited ND over the weekend, becomes the 15th verbal commitment in the class of 2010.

The good, the bad and the ugly: The good for Notre Dame: The Irish are coming off their eighth game of 500 yards or more in total offense under ND coach Charlie Weis, but the first since his prolific 2005 debut season.

The bad for Notre Dame: Granted, Nevada was the nation's No. 3 rushing team in 2008, but the Irish gave up a troubling nine runs of 10 yards or more to the Wolf Pack Saturday.

The ugly: It's all relative, but Michigan is planning a "Maize Out" for Saturday's clash with Notre Dame. The means lots of yellow and/or gold if the 106,000-plus comply.

Is it too late to declare a Blue Out?

The view from practice: In the one-on-one receiver/defensive back drills Tuesday, Irish sophomore Michael Floyd was, by far, the most dominant receiver, but sophomore Deion Walker showed some impressive upside. Among cornerbacks, sophomore Robert Blanton was consistently the biggest pain in the rear. ... The Chicago Bears' Jeff Shiver was among the pro scouts at Tuesday's practice. Bears GM Jerry Angelo attended Saturday's Irish rout of Nevada.

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Te'o's time will come

Weis has luxury of depth

September 6, 2009, 3:19 PM

By: Eric Hansen

Manti Te'o's parents soaked up the sunshine Saturday without shivering, something they were unable to do during their only previous visit to the Notre Dame campus.

What Brian and Ottilia Te'o didn't get to experience much of during their roughly 4,400-mile trip from Laie, Hawaii, was a prolonged college debut by their son.

Manti Te'o is a freshman linebacker and Notre Dame's highest-rated defensive recruit since Lou Holtz was coaching national championships for the Irish instead of predicting them.

The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Te'o played on kickoff coverage Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium and was sprinkled in on defense during a 35-0 subduing of normally high-scoring Nevada -- the first shutout among fifth-year coach Charlie Weis' 51 games at Notre Dame.

Te'o made a sensational pursuit tackle on the very first play he lined up for as a linebacker, and had another stick that was so bone-jarring, it sent a buzz through the crowd.

But all in all, Te'o played roughly the equivalent of one quarter, and most of that came after the game had lost its drama factor.

Afterward, no one was complaining, not even the Te'o family, whose only previous trip to South Bend came in January, about a month before Manti stunned the college recruiting subculture by signing with Notre Dame.

Why did Weis choose to keep the training wheels on Te'o Saturday? Two reasons: (1) Nevada's "pistol" offense, and (2) because he can.

"The uniqueness of their offense boded more towards making sure you had the most-experienced guys out there to play assignment football," Weis explained. "And I think that the combination of Toryan [Smith] and Brian [Smith] out there for the majority of the time was a secure type of feeling for the defensive coaches."

Early in the Weis era, the coach wouldn't have had the choice to ease Te'o into things. But the depth he has built with four strong recruiting cycles has altered that. Other freshmen to make their Irish debuts Saturday were strong safety Zeke Motta, running back/kick returner Theo Riddick, wide receiver Shaquelle Evans, kicker Nick Tausch, long snapper Jordan Cowart and tight end Tyler Eifert.

Of the 11 remaining freshmen, the only three who are "maybe" candidates to play this year -- barring injury to a veteran player -- are running back Cierre Wood, punter Ben Turk and nose tackle Tyler Stockton. Weis said Sunday the Irish won't make final determinations on the redshirt issue for the 11 players who didn't see action until Notre Dame's bye week, which is Oct. 10.

The eight players who have little chance to play this year actually have been impressive in practice -- particularly offensive linemen Chris Watt, Zach Martin and Alex Bullard.

Others who will likely gain a fifth-year option are tight end Jake Golic, cornerback E.J. Banks, wide receiver Roby Toma and linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese.

"In another time, we would have played these guys, because we had holes," Weis said. "Now if a freshman gets on the field, it's not because we're plugging a hole, it's because they're very, very good."

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Walking the line

Players following Weis' edict to walk, not talk

September 5, 2009, 10:15 PM

By: Eric Hansen

Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis pulled even with Gerry Faust on the Irish coaching victory list on Saturday with the first shutout and the most lopsided of his 30 victories. The Irish squashed Nevada, 35-0, at Notre Dame Stadium in the season opener for both teams.

Jimmy Clausen

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Jimmy Clausen was the player of the game.

The No. 23 Irish visit Michigan next Saturday, looking to inch a little closer toward retaking the all-time Football Bowl Subdivision lead in winning percentage.

First a look back at the Nevada game:

Player of the Game: Quarterback Jimmy Clausen. The junior threw for 315 yards and four touchdowns (15-of-18) with no interceptions. He set the tone on the first drive of the game and never took his foot off the gas. In the process, he passed Joe Montana and moved into 10th place on the Irish career total offense list and jumped over Jarious Jackson into the No. 4 spot on the career touchdown passes list.

Play of the Game: Clausen's 88-yard pass to Michael Floyd. Floyd outjumped Nevada cornerback Doyle Miller for the slightly underthrown pass at midfield, broke his attempted tackle and sprinted into the end zone for the third-longest pass play in Irish history.

What we learned about the Irish: The defense was gashed at times on runs up the middle, but showed the poise and big-play ability to overcome that. The offensive line looked more physical. The special teams were more solid than spectacular. It wasn't a defining win, but certainly something on which to build.

What Weis said: "We're thanking Teddy Roosevelt on that one," he said of the players' new talk-less, show-more policy. "Believe it or not, we've been living off this little mantra. It's not a motto. We're not T-shirt bound or anything. We just want to go out and do something about it. So we're trying to carry that big stick that President Roosevelt talked about."

What he didn't say: Thank goodness for no new billboards.

Players' perspective: The turning point to this offseason happened after the nadir of last season -- a 38-3 humiliation by USC in the regular-season finale. The players said a team meeting set the tone for the Hawaii Bowl rout of Hawaii on Christmas Eve. Saturday was a sequel.

"After the USC game last year, the team came together and said the Hawaii game was going to be a transition game into next year. In the Hawaii game, we kind of showed what we can do and kind of boosted ourselves into the offseason program. I think it's working well for us." -- Irish defensive captain Kyle McCarthy.

Spinning forward: Saturday wasn't a statement game for the Irish, but it did roll back some of the doubts and negativity surrounding the program. Nevada's pistol offense will help in preparation for the Wolverines due to some of its spread principals. But the Michigan crowd is a different matter.

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Points to ponder

Five things to consider before Notre Dame's opener

September 4, 2009, 5:31 PM

By: Eric Hansen

Countdown to kickoff:

5. Sea of Green?: That was former Notre Dame linebacker Tom Reynolds' hope for today's game against Nevada. The man who purchased a billboard for 12 weeks to needle Irish head coach Charlie Weis saw it come down Thursday after just three days, much to his chagrin. But he still plans to sell green T-shirts with the billboard's slogan emblazoned on them. He's just not sure where and for how much, but he does have an e-mail address: meansend@yahoo.com.

4. Eye to the future: The biggest recruiting weekend of the Charlie Weis Era will be Oct. 17, when 19 elite prospects are scheduled to make official recruiting visits. The Irish staff will entertain three this weekend, including one already committed in the 2010 class (defensive lineman Justin Utupo of Lakewood, Calif.). The other visitors are safety Sean Parker from Harbor City, Calif. (Narbonne H.S.) and running back Cameron Roberson of Newbury Park, Calif.

Irish men's basketball coach Mike Brey also is hosting a couple of prospects: Jerian Grant, a 6-foot-4, 180-pound wing from DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School and Ralston Turner, a 6-6, 200-pound wing from Muscle Shoals (Ala.) High.

3. For Math majors: Notre Dame begins its quest Saturday to take back the lead in all-time winning-percentage from Michigan this season, and perhaps even do it within the confines of a mandated 20-hour work week. If the Wolverines do what most prognosticators project them to do -- go 6-6 -- ND would have to go 10-2 and win its bowl game to reclaim the lead it lost in 2004.

2. Personnel matters: Junior wide receiver Duval Kamara recovered from August knee surgery quicker than expected and will be on the field Saturday, Weis says, at least in multiple-wide receiver sets. The only two Irish players not at full speed for Nevada are senior wide receiver George West and nose tackle Tyler Stockton, both reserves who weren't likely to play anyway. Chicago product Robert Hughes, a junior running back, must sit out the first half due to an NCAA-imposed suspension for a fight he was involved in during last year's USC game.

1. Hawaiian punch: The player advertised as the most impacting defensive recruit at ND for at least the last decade debuts for the Irish Saturday. Six-foot-2, 245-pound Hawaii product Manti Te'o will play in ND's nickel defense packages and perhaps more as the game goes on.

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In a rush to learn

Fleming's workouts with the Bears' Harris paying dividends

September 3, 2009, 3:36 PM

By: Eric Hansen

Darius Fleming

Scott Boehm/Getty Images

Darius Fleming's move to No. 1 strongside linebacker is arguably the most significant among the recent Irish depth-chart shifts.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Darius Fleming's climb up the depth chart to a starting outside linebacker's spot this fall started in a crowded weight room last spring and with an unlikely mentor.

Chicago Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris befriended the Notre Dame sophomore from Chicago and several of his Irish teammates last May, when they were regulars at EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park, Ill.

Fleming, running back Robert Hughes, safety Sergio Brown, linebacker Steve Filer and recently anointed special teams captain Scott Smith first ran into Harris at EFT during the six-week interlude between ND's spring semester and the start of summer school.

"I practically lived at the gym, it seemed," said Fleming, who gave up the sport of bowling for the summer. And if you don't think that's a big deal, consider the once-aspiring pro bowler almost transferred from St. Rita High School because he wasn't convinced the school took the sport seriously enough.

Harris took his role of mentor seriously. He gave Fleming tips on rushing the passer and offered him and his Irish teammates advice on working out.

Fleming's move to No. 1 strongside linebacker is arguably the most significant among the recent Irish depth-chart shifts. After playing defensive end situationally on obvious passing downs last season as a freshman, Fleming moved to linebacker in the offseason.

But he'll drop down to end in ND's nickel packages.

"He is definitely our best pass rusher," said fifth-year Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis, whose Irish open the season at home (2:30 CDT) against Nevada on Saturday.

And Fleming is quick to credit Harris for helping him build that reputation.

Here are the four other significant depth-chart shifts in the past week to 10 days:

• Freshman kicker Nick Tausch displacing junior incumbent Brandon Walker on place kicks and senior Ryan Burkhart on kickoffs: Walker finished a respectable 14-of-24 on field goals after a 1-of-7 start, but the four he missed in November were all big ones -- one in the fourth overtime of a quadruple-overtime loss to Pittsburgh and three in a one-point upset loss to Syracuse; Burkhart had just one touchback in 2008, tied for fewest in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

• Freshman kicker Theo Riddick surfacing as the top option on kickoff returns: Riddick was the "other running back" in ND's 2009 recruiting class. Cierre Wood has been impressive in practice, but Riddick will make it to the field on game day first.

• Sophomore Jonas Gray to No. 2 running back: Weis said Gray's ascension is due in part to Hughes' NCAA-imposed suspension for a fight he was involved in during a loss to USC last November. But Weis said, more significantly, Gray had a strong training camp.

• Sophomore Sean Cwynar to No. 2 nose tackle: The Marian Central Catholic product was buried on the depth chart in the spring and made perhaps the most dramatic surge of any Irish player during fall camp.

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