Saturday, May 17, 2008

Football Preview 2008: Team leaders

This is my first post in the summer-long preview project, and it also happens to be the first post that I'll be uploading to Bleacher Report, a service that might help me to expand my readership to a wider audience.


Team Leaders 2008

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish suffered from a severe lack of leadership in their ranks last season, after losing one of their best all-time leaders in Brady Quinn.

This year, the leadership on the team is still in transition, but should be coming together throughout the season. Many of the people who will likely be stepping into leadership roles are still relatively young, and should provide strong leadership going into 2009, which I think will be a special year for the Fightin' Irish.


Jimmy Clausen, quarterback

The offensive leadership always starts with the quarterback, and the biggest question this year is whether sophomore quarterback Jimmy Clausen can take on that leadership role successfully.

The best sign of him stepping up as a leader is his dedication to offseason conditioning. Coach Weis discussed Clausen's physical shape coming into the Spring during his pre-spring press conference:

Jimmy (Clausen), last year, started off at 194 and he's walking in at 212 for the first day of training camp. That is obviously a significant gain. His body fat is status quo but has a lot more lean muscle.

Another measurable aspect of leadership is knowledge. Leaders are the people on the field that their teammates look to to get direction. To give good direction, they must understand the game plan. Weis has been positive in his praise of Clausen regarding his progress in this regard.

The final aspect of leadership is intangible, and can't be developed - it can only be earned. To paraphrase Coach Weis from one of his pressers, Jimmy must become the guy that the team looks to to run the play rather than just the guy they look at to call the play.

From what I've seen and heard this spring, the verdict is still out on Jimmy as a leader. He has all of the tools of a good leader, and physically and mentally he is in better shape to display them. Whether he can rally the troops when the chips are down and the breaks are beating the boys (in addition to being a terribly mixed metaphor) remains to be seen.

Sam Young, offensive tackle

Sam Young, in a not-so-well-kept secret last year, went into Weis' office and asked him what he could do to become a better leader on this team. As a sophomore.

Physically, he's a beast at 6'8" 330 lbs. He is a true phenom, who has shown incredible natural athletic ability in addition to his god-given size. And his work ethic is amazing, who has led the charge in the weight room this offseason that has given the offensive line a lot more strength.

But his heart and dedication have been truly impressive. After a brief stint at left tackle last year (the result of an injured wrist), he is back at his natural position at right tackle, where he can serve as a roadgrader for the rushing attack.

Of all of the leaders on this team, Young has the biggest burden, trying to resurrect a line that was responsible for the worst rushing attack in school history last year.

David Grimes, wide receiver

Although unlikely to be the go-to receiver, or even a legitimate deep threat, Grimes is the elder statesman of the receiving corps, which is loaded with young talent. He is an astounding possession receiver, with a talent for working the sidelines unlike anyone I can recall in recent memory. However, his lack of height and pure speed will likely keep him from long term success in the NFL.

His understanding of the game and incredible work ethic should be invaluable to younger receivers like Duval Kamara, Golden Tate and incoming freshmen Michael Floyd and Deion Walker.


David Bruton, safety

Nobody on the 2008 roster has me more excited this season than David Bruton. Last year, something clicked in Bruton's head, and he quickly proved himself superior to preseason All-American Tom Zbikowski, the other safety on the field for the Irish last year.

Bruton has an incredible awareness of the game, and some sick closing speed. I don't recall the exact game right now (and am admittedly too lazy to go back and figure it out), but I remember sitting in the stands and watching him break from right of midfield to make a diving interception near the left sideline between the time the QB set his feet and when the ball arrived.

He has no fear when it comes to bringing the wood, and can lay people out. He's a lot like former standout Chinedum Ndukwe, only with more raw athleticism.

The really scary thing for opponents is that there is no real weakness in his game. He is extremely disciplined, and doesn't give up the big play. However, he manages this in the aggressive scheme that Notre Dame plays, without sacrificing run support.

Maurice Crum, Jr., linebacker

Crum is a two-time captain for the Irish this year, a rarity for Notre Dame players. Last year's scheme funneled everything into the capable hands of Trevor Laws and Maurice Crum, who both showed an incredible game-changing ability.

If you want to see exactly how much potential Crum has for disrupting opposing offenses, just go back and watch last year's UCLA game. He has the natural ability of an outside linebacker, and I thought going into the last 2 seasons that he wasn't big enough to play the middle. However, he has consistently proven me wrong, showing not only stoutness inside, but a penchant for forcing turnovers.

Crum (along with Bruton) was named to the preseason watch list for the Nagurski trophy.

Pat Kuntz, defensive tackle

Although he isn't on the roster for the Irish right now (he is struggling with meeting Notre Dame's academic standards) the word on the street is that Kuntz will be back in uniform this fall. If he isn't, it will be a major blow to the Irish who are very thin along the defensive line.

Kuntz is crazy. The kind of crazy that made watching Steve Irwin stick his head in the maw of a crocodile riveting. And that level of crazy makes him a wild card inside, with a motor that never quits and a disregard for personal safety that borders on the absurd. Much like Notre Dame great Michael Stonebreaker, you want to tread softly around him, mostly because you have no idea whether at any moment he is about to bust out a spin move and sack the quarterback or open his gaping maw and bite your damn head off.

There are plenty of knocks on Kuntz. Not smart enough. Not big enough. Not fast enough.

But I dare you to block him. Proceed at your own risk.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

More accusations of NCAA violations at USC

Although it is a different sport, there is a major story brewing in Southern Cal, where allegations are surfacing that many of the same types of benefits that have chased former Trojan Reggie Bush into the pros are now being alleged about USC basketball star O.J. Mayo. ESPN is reporting that O.J. Mayo may have taken cash and gifts at USC during his one year at the school.

This allegation comes on the heels of the allegations surrounding Reggie Bush in football. Taken together, there appears to be a growing pattern of abuse of NCAA regulations in Southern Cal. I'm not going to speculate too much on this at this time, but USC had better take a close look at its athletic department, as there are clear hints of a lack of institutional control.

Sports Blogging

I just watched the entirety of the Costas NOW show where they discussed sports blogging. (the author of Deadspin), (the author of Friday Night Lights), and Braylon Edwards of the Cleveland Browns were the panelists.

Putting aside the rant of ???, this show was interesting to me, if for no other reason than it shows very clearly the general views of each of the constituencies in this debate.

Here is how I would characterize each of these positions:

Mainstream media: Bloggers have no accountability, no morals, and no integrity in what they write, and they are by and large idiots and losers. The writing is bad ("despicable"). We hate you because you steal our readers.

Athletes: We get a microscope on us wherever we go, and the bloggers exploit us by posting whatever they want on their blogs, without any respect for our privacy.

Bloggers: Don't come after us with the rantings of commenters on our blogs - comments are a free forum where anyone can post whatever they want. Blogging is a meritocracy, where you have to work hard and be a good and consistent writer to develop a readership in a more competitive world than mainstream media.

There is some merit to each of these views, however Bob Costas fails to moderate the agreement on his show to clearly get at the truth of blogging.

Blogging IS the mainstream media, without the influence of corporations and sports leagues and owners. Bloggers are not bound by worries such as accuracy, accountability, and revenue generation. This allows sports bloggers to provide much deeper and more accurate penetration into the news of the day. This also allows bloggers to abuse the lack of accountability by exploiting athletes and inserting their bias, negative or positive, into the discussion.

In defense of the lack of accountability of bloggers, however, is the current state of the so-called mainstream media. The explosion of sports media, especially the ring-leader ESPN, has diluted the media's old school commitment to things like accuracy and objectivity. In fact, my experiences with ESPN and their ilk has shown them to be little more than a blog with money. They regularly report opinion and speculation as news. The only difference between the sports blogger's opinion (often based on actual inside information that is completely unverifiable) and a mainstream media opinion (often based on actual inside information that is completely unverifiable) is the formality of the access.

I have friends that have either been on or involved with the Notre Dame football team in the past, are involved with the football team in some manner right now, or have access and insight to the administration of the University and/or athletic department. However, I do not use these friends to further my blog. I use them for perspective on the rumors and news I often report, or for unofficial confirmation of a story that is unconfirmed. But I don't go after them for stories or report on my personal interactions with them. In that manner, I may be the exception when it comes to bloggers. There are many stories I've heard from highly credible sources that I'm itching to write about, but that I refuse to report because they were told me as a friend, and not as a reporter.

And that is really the difference between mainstream media and the bloggers. Bloggers are simply reporters that are always on the record, and are not identifiable as reporters. Reporters have better access by and large, but are also restrained by the rules of their profession. And I am familiar with the rules of the profession.

I worked as the Ombudsman for the Indiana Daily Student in my undergraduate years. I was responsible for independently reporting on and criticizing the newspaper in its own pages, promoting journalistic integrity. When I was the Ombudsman, I clearly recall a conversation with the administrator at the University who dressed me down over the phone because he heard me typing when he was speaking to me "off the record." And I can tell you, the story I heard "off the record" was nothing like the story I was allowed to report on the record. And it was a very frustrating experience for me, as I was restrained by the rules of that organization.

As a blogger, I have only my own moral compass to guide me on what I do or do not choose to report.

As a consumer of both the mainstream media and the blogosphere, the reality of the situation is that there is a hierarchy of reliability in sports reporting. I would rate something like this (from least reliable to most reliable):

1. word of mouth
2. commenters on blogs
3. general message board posters
4. new, infrequently updated, or unprofessional blogs
5. frequent message board posters
6. message board moderators
7. national TV news media
8. established and regularly updated blogs (I would place myself in this category)
9. small market mainstream newspapers
10. national or very large market newspapers
11. word of mouth

From my experience, that hierarchy above has correlated to the most accurate and truthful information. And yes, I know that word of mouth is at both ends of the spectrum. That was by design.