Chicago Sun-Times
with Mark Lazerus

December 2012 Archives

This bowl trip no day at the beach for Notre Dame

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A bowl game is a chance to reward players for their hard work all season, a chance to escape the cold and go somewhere warm, to act like tourists, to stay out late, to have a good time, and to eventually play a football game.

But for Notre Dame, its impending trip to South Florida will be no day at the beach.

"This is not a bowl game," Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "You're playing for a national championship."

So you can forget that 2 a.m. curfew Kelly has imposed in the past for the first couple days of the bowl trip. Doors close at 11 p.m. every night once the team arrives in sunny Florida on Jan. 2.

And you won't hear the players complaining. The Champs Sports Bowl was fun. The national championship game against Alabama is all business.

"You get the feel we're here for something more than going to Disney World and playing in a nice game," lineman Chris Watt said. "We're here to win a national title."

Watt said that goes for everyone, and that the veterans will keep the younger guys in line.

"Some of the guys who won't play might feel the need to go out," he said. "But we're going to need everyone for this game -- at all the practices, we're going to need everyone at 100 percent giving great looks. Curfew's real important. It reminds us that we're playing in a big game -- not that we need to be reminded; every day we hear about it. It's good for us."
Notre Dame senior guard Chris Watt plans to be back next season for the Irish.

Assuming he's wanted.

"I haven't been officially asked yet, but I think I heard I was coming back," said Watt, a Glenbard West grad who redshirted his freshman season. "I think I heard someone say that Zack (Martin) and Chris Watt are coming back, so I'm hoping that was my invitation."

Given the success Notre Dame's thin-but-talented offensive line has had this season -- paving the way for 2,430 rushing yards -- there's little doubt the Irish want him back. With fellow senior Zack Martin announcing last week his intention to spurn the NFL and return for his fifth season, and junior Christian Lombard coming back, the Irish can bring back 60 percent of their veteran line next season. It's a key component to building on this season's surprising success.

"It's big, because communication is a big part of the offensive line," said Lombard, a Fremd product. "Being a close-knit group definitely helps that communication a lot. We jell well together."

Martin's announcement was the key for the Irish. The talented tackle from Indianapolis is a senior captain and a solid NFL prospect. His decision was expected to be a tough one, but he wasted little time in making it. Didn't even bother telling anyone at first, actually.

"It was really great hearing that Zack was coming back," Watt said. "I kind of knew a little beforehand because we signed our lease for an apartment (a week before his announcement). I was like, 'You gonna pay for this while you're in the NFL, or are you coming back?' That was pretty funny. He didn't really tell anyone, I was like, 'I'm pretty sure you're coming back.' He was like, 'Oh, yeah, forgot to tell you.'"
 

Notre Dame DC Bob Diaco addresses coaching rumors

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Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is the architect of the No. 1 scoring defense in the country, and was just given the Broyles Award as the top assistant coach in the country. So it's no surprise that his name keeps popping up as schools across the country search for a new head coach.

He was reportedly a finalist for the Boston College job, which went to Temple's Steve Addazio. He's also been mentioned in connection with the Wisconsin job, which opened when Bret Bielema left for Arkansas. Diaco said he's not currently involved in any direct talks to become a head coach.

"I would imagine that there are opportunities, but I'm not in direct conversation with anyone in the country," he said Monday. "I haven't personally heard from Wisconsin."

Diaco said he was "honored" by the attention, but insisted that his work in preparing for the Jan. 7 BCS championship game against Alabama won't suffer from the speculation.

"Not really, because of a few reasons," he said. "And I'm not trying to be coy in any way. One, I really believe that I have the best assistant coaching job in America. I love who I work for, I love where I work. I don't want to change who I work for, and I don't want to change where I work. So I love my job. Number 2, the commitment to the players and the daily process and the focus that shifts to Alabama -- it's already in our DNA to work that way. That just doesn't go away. We're focused on our preparation for Alabama and the national championship game. And I love the job that I have.

"At the same time, it's an honor to be in the conversation. I'm very proud of that and I'm honored by it. I don't run or hide from that. But it hasn't been a problem to manage any of that."


Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said today that receiver DaVaris Daniels -- who suffered a broken clavicle at Boston College and missed the last two weeks of the season -- still is on track to return for the BCS national championship game against Alabama on Jan. 7.

"Yeah, we're in the fifth week now, so he was involved in all of our drill work," Kelly said. "He was non-contact last week. He'll be in a contact situation next week. So he looks really good. He's going to be able to be a key contributor for us."

Daniels was fourth on the team with 25 catches for 375 yards in 10 games this season. Senior John Goodman had started in his place against Wake Forest and USC. 

Nix, Martin returning to Notre Dame next year

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Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly announced Monday that nose guard Louis Nix III and tackle Zack Martin both will return to school next season rather than enter the NFL Draft. Nix, the big man in the middle of one of the best front sevens in the nation, was arguably the biggest reason for the Irish's dominance against the run, and was rated as anywhere from a third- to fifth-round pick by various scouting services. Martin, a senior captain this year, was the leader of a veteran offensive line that paved the way for a dominant rushing game and protected redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson as he grew into the starting role.

Running back Cierre Wood, meanwhile, is still weighing his options and will explore his draft standing before deciding whether to return to Notre Dame.

Brey: Big East upheaval could expedite ACC move

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Notre Dame men's basketball coach Mike Brey is sad to see what's become -- and what might become -- of the Big East. But he's glad the Irish will be away from the blast radius when the league finally implodes.

With reports swirling that the seven non-football-playing Catholic schools in the Big East -- DePaul, Marquette, Georgetown, St. John's, Villanova, Seton Hall and Providence -- are planning to leave the league en masse, Brey didn't sound surprised on Thursday.

"It's another blow we all felt was coming," Brey said. "It's one of the reasons we made the move to the ACC. But to see that league maybe breaking off, it's hard for anyone who invested a lot of time in the league."

Brey said the Big East turmoil could expedite Notre Dame's impending departure for the Atlantic Coast Conference -- one of the many body blows the Big East has suffered in recent years.

"When I look at the climate right now with the Big East, maybe that does get us there next year," he said.

Brey said he hopes to continue scheduling those seven Catholic schools on a rotating basis in his non-conference schedule, in which he hopes to play four "power" schools per year.

"I had very mixed emotions (when Notre Dame announced the move to the ACC) because our identity and my identity has been with the Big East," Brey said. "And I'm really proud of being a Big East guy."

Manti Te'o loses Heisman, gains "motivation"

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About a half hour after Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was named the winner of the 78th Heisman Trophy on Saturday night, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o no longer looked like the man at the end of a week of unceasing travel, photo ops and media obligations.

He sounded happy. Relieved. And not just a little fired up.

"I just felt that burn," he said when asked what it felt like to hear someone else's name called. "I can't really describe it. I just felt that burn -- hey, gotta get better."

Te'o called it "motivation." Motivation for the 30 days that lay ahead, as top-ranked Notre Dame prepares to face No. 2 Alabama on Jan. 7 in the BCS national championship game. That's something on which Te'o can finally focus, when he lands in South Bend early Monday morning after taking the red-eye home from southern California, where he attended the Lott IMPACT award ceremony -- the last of eight trophies for which he was a finalist.

"It's motivation," Te'o said. "I always wanted to be the best. I just use that as motivation to be the best I can be. Obviously, I have a lot of work to do. I'm just excited to get back and get things cracking. ... Go back home, see all my brothers, get back into the groove of things. Get the pads back on, smack around some guys, study a lot of film. That's what I love about all this time, I have weeks and weeks to study film. Usually, I'll have about three days to study film, but now I've got three weeks to study film."

Some of Te'o's teammates -- including nose guard Louis Nix III, whom Te'o told a national TV audience would get his Heisman vote if he had one, and DaVaris Daniels -- took to Twitter to express their displeasure with the results. It was motivation for them, too.

"That's family, man," Te'o said. "That's what families are all about. And that's what our team is all about. ... They all just blew up my phone just now."

Te'o took some solace in the fact that he earned more points -- 1,706, including 321 first-place votes -- than any strictly defensive player ever had. And while Irish coach Brian Kelly had said that if Te'o didn't win the Heisman, it should just be recalibrated as an offensive award, Te'o disagreed that a defensive player can never win the award, pointing to the sheer volume of votes for him. And he laughingly apologized to the masses back home in Hawaii, who gathered for a huge watch party.

But more than anything, Te'o was eager -- excited and invigorated, even -- to get off the awards circuit, and get back to the grind.

"I did the best I could do, and I'm happy with that," Te'o said. "I wish I could have came first, obviously, but it gives me motivation and gives me fire to come back and get better. Obviously, what I did wasn't good enough. And I felt I could do better, and that's exactly what's going to happen." 

Te'o on Heisman: "I didn't come here to get second."

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Thumbnail image for teo.jpgNotre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o returned to school for his senior season, delaying the millions the NFL surely would have offered, to work on himself physically and spiritually, to become a better football player, and to bask in the college experience for one last season.

When he anguished and prayed over that decision, did he ever expect to be playing for a national championship, or be feted in Times Square as a Heisman Trophy finalist?

"Not in a million years," Te'o said two hours before the Heisman ceremony began, down the street from the Best Buy Theater at the Marriott Marquis. "When I decided to come back, it was just to get better, improve my own game, just enjoy the experiences and memories I could create with my team and my family. I never thought I'd create memories in New York, let alone create memories on Jan. 7 in Miami."

But now that he's here in Times Square?

"Obviously, I want to win," he said. "I didn't come here to get second. I want to win."

As for nerves, Te'o -- who has done nothing but win trophies all week, but is a bit of a long shot to win tonight -- said, "For some reason, I'm not nervous at all. I'm just excited. I'm just happy to be here. Back home, everybody's watching. I find joy in that."

As much as anything, Te'o just wants to get back home and return his focus to football, and to BCS title game foe Alabama. On Friday night, Te'o eschewed the city tour that the other finalists went on and holed up in an NBC office, watching the live feed of the Notre Dame team awards ceremony back in South Bend. When he was named MVP, he was able to give a speech and see his teammates' reaction to it on a monitor off to his left. He said the most poignant moment was the senior film, which included the seniors' parents talking about their sons.

So as remarkable as this week has been for Te'o, he can't wait to return to the grind, with 30 days left until the national title game.

"I can't wait," he said. "To be honest with you, that's the thing I can't wait for. I can't wait to get with my team and get with my guys again. I miss my guys."

Some other comments from the session:

Te'o on front-runner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M: "He's always on ESPN making plays running around like a human video game."

Manziel on Te'o: "He's the heart and soul of that defense and a big reason they're 12-0."

Kansas State QB Collin Klein on the differences between Manhattan, Kan., and Manhattan Island. "It's a little different world than Manhattan, Kan., no doubt about it."

Te'o on if he's watched any film on Alabama yet: "No, not yet. Haven't seen any Alabama film yet. They haunt my dreams, though. I can see their plays in my head."

By the numbers: What a Heisman win would mean for Te'o

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If Manti Te'o were to win the Heisman, he would be:

-- The first strictly defensive player (and second primarily defensive player) to win.

-- The first player to win seven national individual trophies (he's already the first with six).

-- The 15th player to win after an unbeaten, untied regular-season season.

-- The eighth player to win after a 12-0 (or better) season.

-- The 23rd winner from a team from the Midwest, more than any other region (Southwest is next with 16).

-- The third winner to wear No. 5 (Notre Dame's Paul Hornung and USC's Reggie Bush -- now stricken from the record books -- were the others).

-- The eighth Notre Dame player to win, breaking a tie with Ohio State and USC for the most ever.
There's only one award left for Manti Te'o to win. And it's the big one.

Notre Dame's star senior linebacker became the first player to win six national awards on Thursday, when he was named the winner of the Maxwell Award, given to the nation's most outstanding player. Earlier in the evening, Te'o won the Bednarik (top defensive player) and Walter Camp (player of the year) awards.

Previously this week, Te'o had won the Lombardi Award (top lineman/linebacker), Nagurski Award (top defensive player) and Butkus Award (top linebacker).

Michigan's Charles Woodson won five national awards in 1997, including the Heisman.

The Maxwell is a big one, the closest equivalent there is to the Heisman -- he beat out fellow Heisman finalists Johnny Manziel and Collin Klein for it -- which will be announced on Saturday. Te'o's win ended a nine-year streak of quarterbacks winning the Maxwell, and he's the first defensive winner since Pittsburgh's Hugh Green won in it 1980.

"I'm at a loss for words," Te'o said on ESPN (in his umpteenth interview of the week).

Notre Dame's Manti Te'o adds Lombardi Award to his haul

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Manti Te'o might not be the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, but he's cleaning up on the awards circuit so far.

Te'o won the Lombardi Award, given to the nation's best lineman/linebacker, in Houston on Wednesday night, becoming the fifth Notre Dame player to win the award. On Tuesday, he won the Nagurski Trophy as the nation's top defensive player -- the first Notre Dame player to do so -- and on Monday, he won the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker.

Te'o thanked his school, his teammates and his parents.

"I was one of the very fortunate young men to be raised by great parents," Te'o said. "It's because of them I was taught all the characteristics and the qualities that this trophy stands for."

Thursday, Te'o heads to Orlando for the Home Depot College Football Awards show, where he'll be awarded the Butkus, and where he'll be up for the Maxwell (player of the year) and the Bednarik (defensive player of the year) awards. The three finalists for the Maxwell Award are the same as for the Heisman, so Te'o will go head-to-head with Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein for the first time. For the Bednarik, Te'o is a finalist alongside South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones.

Notre Dame's Bob Diaco a hot topic on coaching carousel

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The coaching carousel came and went on Tuesday, and as of now, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is still a member of the Irish coaching staff.

After an ESPN report stated that Diaco -- the architect of the nation's top scoring defense -- was one of three finalists for the Boston College head coaching job, along with Ball State coach Pete Lembo and New Orleans Saints offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, Boston College announced a few hours later that it had in fact hired Temple coach Steve Addazio.

In the biggest coaching move of the day, Wisconsin's Bret Bielema, about to take the Badgers to their third straight Rose Bowl, was lured away by Arkansas.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was asked about the Boston College speculation on Sunday night.

"It doesn't surprise me if they wanted to talk to Bob Diaco," Kelly said. "I think he's the finest defensive coordinator in the country. Bob is a bright football coach. We have conversations about it. All I could tell you is that it doesn't surprise me that he's part of it. I won't get into the specifics about conversations about particular schools out of respect for them and their process. But it wouldn't be a surprise to me if they went after Bob Diaco.

"I'm not a guy that's going to run down to his office and give him the top 10 list of questions you're going to get asked on an interview. But if he asks me for some input, I've been happy to help him with that. I will tell youi this, Bob Diaco is an incredible coach and he knows he fits so well here at Notre Dame. That's why we haven't had a ton of conversation about it."

If the first day of Manti Te'o's awards tour was any indication, the Notre Dame linebacker will have to check an extra bag or two on the way home to South Bend.

Te'o -- in Charlotte, N.C., for the Nagurski Trophy (for the nation's best defensive player) presentation tonight -- got a surprise phone call from Dick Butkus on Monday morning, informing him that he'd been named the 2012 recipient of the Butkus Award, given to the nation's best linebacker.

Later in the day, as expected, Te'o was named one of three finalists for the Heisman Trophy, to be awarded on Saturday in New York. He'll be joined on stage by Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein.

Te'o finished with 83 points in the Butkus Award voting system, ahead of Georgia's Jarvis Jones (54 points) and Alabama's C.J. Mosley (21). LSU's Kevin Minter and Oregon's Dion Jordan were tied for fourth.

After the Nagurski ceremony tonight, Te'o heads to New York for the Campbell Trophy (top scholar-athlete) on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he'll be in Houston for the Lombardi Award presentation (best lineman, though Te'o and Jones are both among the four finalists). On Thursday, Te'o heads to Orlando for the nationally televised Home Depot College Football Awards Show, where he'll be up for the Maxwell and Bednarik awards. Then on Friday, he'll likely be headed to New York as a Heisman Trophy finalist (the finalists will be announced at 5 p.m. central time today). On Sunday, he'll head to Newport Beach, Calif., for the presentation of the Lott IMPACT Award.

"He's burned out," said Irish coach Brian Kelly -- who's making the rounds alongside Te'o -- on Sunday night. "There's no question. He's on fumes right now. He also respects where he is in this process, to be mentioned for the kinds of awards he is. ... He's finding the energy to be engaged in all these things."

Notre Dame recruit Jaylon Smith, of Fort Wayne Bishop Luers High School, also got a call from Butkus this morning, informing him he was the high school winner of the Butkus Award. Te'o was the first high school winner of the award.


It'll be Notre Dame vs. Alabama for the BCS title

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Let the hype begin.

Notre Dame and Alabama -- two of college football's most storied programs -- will meet in South Florida on Jan. 7 for the BCS championship, as the second-ranked Crimson Tide held off No. 3 Georgia 32-28 in a thrilling SEC championship game on Saturday.

It'll be the first meeting between the third (ND) and seventh (Alabama) winningest teams in college football history since 1987. Notre Dame has won five of the six matchups, including the 1973 Sugar Bowl and the 1974 Orange Bowl.

The biggest matchup yet likely won't be the prettiest, as defense should rule the day. Notre Dame has the top scoring defense in the country, while Alabama is No. 2. Alabama has the second-best rush defense in the nation, Notre Dame is fifth -- and both teams are run-first offenses. The Tide racked up 353 rushing yards against Georgia, with big Eddie Lacy (185 yards) and freshman T.J. Yeldon (152 yards) doing the heavy lifting. But A.J. McCarron entered Saturday as the nation's second-most efficient passer, and despite throwing an interception and losing a fumble, he came up with the game-winning play, a 45-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper with 4:01 to go in the game. That perfect pass -- on play-action -- came after the Tide had lulled the Bulldogs to sleep with run after run after run.

The Irish have five weeks to find a weakness in the Tide defense. Of course, Alabama coach Nick Saban has five weeks to break down the Irish, too. But finals and time off for Christmas come first.

"I'm not going to get ready to play them until we start practicing," Saban said. "So I've got a couple weeks, I think."

The key for Alabama will be flustering redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson, and slowing down the Notre Dame ground game, featuring Theo Riddick (880 yards) and Cierre Wood (740 yards).

Alabama already has been installed as a 10-point favorite in Las Vegas. It's a familiar position for the Irish, who were never expected to win more than eight or nine games this season.

"Just keep doubting us... we love it," receiver Robby Toma said on Twitter.

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