And We Back

For a quick second just now, I found myself wracked with anxiety, both generalized and specific, over this routinely beautiful, routinely troubling amateur sport — looming Bulldogs and Wolverines, ill-timed collarbone injuries, and even the forthcoming loss of Notre Dame’s three best pass rushers to the pro ranks, oh my. Then I took a breath, reset my brain, and realized how insane it is to worry about future graduating seniors when we haven’t seen a single snap of game action in two thirds of a calendar year. Chill out, man.

Thankfully, we’ll get (probably) 13 games out of this group. Thankfully, that eight month hiatus is almost over. And really, the eventual loss of a few studs isn’t something to grieve — it’s actually worth celebrating. This is a funny subject to broach at this point in the (pre) season, but college football itself is change, perpetual and unbroken, never not fluid. The window is narrow, and the window is vast.

As fun as it is to marvel at the guys who have seemingly stuck around forever (after at least two full undergrad terms, Hunter Renfrow has finally exited Clemson, while Rodrigo Blankenship lives to kick another day at Georgia), the revolving door is kind of the point. Each college career is just a flash, and so much success is circumstantial —  Jimmy Clausen had an arsenal of Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, and Kyle Rudolph and went 6-6. Fuck! That’s why we task the coaching staff with keeping the bones healthy for everyone that passes through the door, even if we only get to bear witness to a season or two of them as fully realized football players.

And right now, a lot of these guys, our guys —Book, Okwara, Kareem, Claypool, Gilman, etc. — are about to reach the apex of their Notre Dame careers. There’s an obvious beauty in getting to do this year after year. We’re able to sit back and watch some college kids we’ve gotten to know from afar make the case that they can hang with the best in the world. It’s an opportunity to put a cap on three or four years of ice baths and study halls and treks through South Bend winter winds, and a chance to etch a legacy into stone or athletic facility walls or digital record book pages. That it all happens in the eye of the storm that is college football’s unceasing change makes it that much better.

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Notre Dame football offseasons have a mostly deserved reputation of being some sort of labyrinthian purgatory where the sole objective is to escape without any mortal wounds. We all probably have some sort of PTSD tied to various recruiting disasters and marijuana arrests and crippling injuries and hush-hush suspensions and surprise staff departures. All are more or less inevitable, at least partially because major college sports are a profitable and largely grotesque display of capitalism working for those in power and leaving those actually grinding the gears to fend with the repercussions of the system working as intended. Don’t @ me.

But this offseason felt like something different, right? Not that it’s been particularly compelling, or that it’s necessarily exceeded reasonable expectations — whether Ian Book makes the good-to-great leap remains to be seen, the linebacking corps remains unsettled, and special teams will be an adventure no matter what practice reports and podcasts lead you to believe. When you’re not a recruiting juggernaut like Alabama, Ohio State, or Georgia, these problem areas will always arise. But there’s a sense of direction and stability, permeating down from the coaching staff but becoming real among the rank and file. Sometimes dull stretches are good. Sometimes the train just needs to stay on the tracks, even as its passengers jostle for position.

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Somewhat relatedly, here’s an incomplete list of both material and immaterial offseason data points that passably relate to this good juju:

  • Ian Book’s Uncle Rico mustache (shaving it off may undo that goodwill, that’s TBD).
  • Notre Dame needs a reliable backup quarterback, not just a guy who happens to be second on the depth chart. And wouldn’t you know it, Phil Jurkovec might just be that guy! Hopefully we’ll get to see for ourselves in garbage time on September 2, but cautious optimism is the word for now.
  • BRADY FINN.
  • Tony Jones has put himself on equal footing with Jafar Armstrong in the backfield, which isn’t great if you look at it from a zero-sum perspective, but it’s definitely interesting! Jones elevating his game would certainly be a boon for Chip Long.
  • Chase Claypool friendship ended with Miles Boykin comparisons. Now Michael Floyd comparisons are my best friend.
  • Take a page out of Chris Finke’s book and tell your homies that you love them.
  • All reports on Trevor Ruhland are positive, a far cry from possible medical retirement chatter just a few months ago. Having a quality backup interior lineman, along with Josh Lugg in the wings at tackle, is huge, and will almost certainly come into play at some point this season.
  • Aaron Banks barrelled through foot surgery in a flash and is already practicing like he’s the best of the starting five. The human body is a marvel.
  • Sure, the former #3 nationally ranked tight end went down, but he’s being replaced by the former #2 nationally ranked tight end. And all current signs, knock on wood, point to a pre-Georgia return for Cole Kmet.
  • Javon McKinley’s arrest was the nadir of the offseason, and it looked like his spots on the team and at the university were in serious jeopardy. But word is that he’s bounced back with a purpose, and even if he doesn’t get many snaps on Saturdays, that really means something.
  • The interior of the defensive line is still a concern until proven otherwise, but Jacob Lacey seems to have put himself in a position to play meaningful snaps after enrolling early. That’s a win for the Irish and for the freshman who’s probably the most talented defensive tackle on the team.
  • Julian Okwara is going to have himself a year. I haven’t been so excited to watch an Irish defender since Jaylon Smith, and Larger Julian is lucky enough to have a real defensive coordinator running the show. With apologies to Kyle Hamilton, can we start the Heisman campaign early?
  • Speaking of…I haven’t been so excited to watch an Irish freshman since Manti Te’o. Kyle Hamilton is also going to have himself a year, and then a career.
  • The drop off at linebacker is about to get very real, but the one bright spot seems to be Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah at Rover. He’s held his own covering Chris Finke in camp, and his athleticism is garnering some (obviously hyperbolic) comparisons to Jaylon Smith.
  • Knocking on wood again, but Shaun Crawford is alive and well and talking trash (a prerequisite for any aspiring elite corner). He figures to be something of a Swiss army knife for the Irish defense, having cross-trained at nickel, outside corner, and safety. A healthy Crawford means a much healthier Irish secondary.
  • The team rallied around Alohi Gilman in solidarity for Mauna Kea, which is rad any way you slice it. This is a group of guys you can feel good about throwing your support behind, which makes this whole thing we’re doing a lot cooler.
  • It’s funny how quiet of a subplot the safeties have been — Alohi and Jalen Elliott are both captains and All-America candidates, but are seemingly so steady they’ve been overshadowed by turnover machine Kyle Hamilton and myriad other defensive uncertainties. I doubt they’ll be so quiet once the season starts.
  • Apropos of nothing, I recently learned that our backup long snapper is named Axel Raarup. Gnarly.

I don’t have to list the bad things if I don’t want to! They’re fewer and farther between, and now is no time for Bad Vibes. I should mention that the coaching staff is gaining confidence with the specialist positions, but it’s advisable to take that with a beach full of salt. Practice ≠ high pressure in-game moments, and that’s doubly true for the guys kicking the ball.

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It’s time for things to change again. (Change that involves twelve hour stints on the couch? Can’t beat it). We get a year with this crew, and they should win a bunch of games, and then some of them will say goodbye, and some others will grow into those shoes, and then they’ll win a bunch of games, and we’ll keep doing it until the world ends. Not bad.

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