Notre Dame: Three Thoughts

1. Tight End U. Will Be Fine
There is no position in Notre Dame football that consistently makes me feel more secure that it’s in good hands, literally and figuratively, than tight end. That’s why it hardly registered with me when coveted Camp Hill, Pa., tight end prospect Adam Breneman this week chose the in-state Penn State Nittany Lions over Notre Dame, Maryland and Ohio State.

Senior Tyler Eifert has continued Notre Dame's line of excellence at tight end.

Yes, I am aware that the Irish didn’t sign a tight end in the last class, and that “Big Skill” athletes are the priority in this recruiting cycle. One thing you learn to appreciate is Notre Dame will ink its share of stellar tight end prospects, and even develop them like no other position. Current All-American Tyler Eifert, a three-star recruit in 2009, is bound to join Anthony Fasano (2006), John Carlson (2008) and Kyle Rudolph (2011) as the fourth straight Irish selection in the top two rounds at his position. Meanwhile, Ben Koyack, Alex Welch and potentially former outside linebacker Troy Niklas — all four-star recruits — still have three years of eligibility remaining.

Miami refers to itself as “Tight End U.” and it did have an unparalleled decade-long run from 1997-2006 with four straight first-round picks in Bubba Franks, Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow Jr. and Greg Olsen.

But since 2006, Notre Dame has taken back the mantle it already held since 1973 with the likes of Hall-of-Famers Dave Casper (NFL) and Ken MacAfee (College), three other first-round selections in Tony Hunter (1983), Derek Brown (1992) and Irv Smith (1993) — and All-American and future All-Pro Mark Bavaro sandwiched in-between.

One way or another, count on the Irish to continue to thrive at this Big Skill spot.

2. March Sadness
This is the time of the year when the Notre Dame men’s basketball program annually has four months work of stellar work overshadowed by disappointing performances in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments.

It’s like the student who does diligent, consistent work all semester from September through December, and then freezes on the final. He may have done “A” work through 90 percent of the semester, but he gets a “D” on the final. Overall, he did laudable “B” work, but all that is remembered or talked about is that final.

Unfortunately, the grading scale in men’s college basketball has reached a point where about 90 percent of the result is riding on what you do in March and 10 percent of what is achieved in the four months preceding it. From that perspective, even though the time for a playoff in college football seems to be nigh, a lot can still be said for having the entire body of work from September into January mean something.

Personally, over the last 15 years, I’ve equated an NCAA Tournament bid in Notre Dame men’s basketball with a BCS bid in football. One win in the tourney is almost like winning that BCS game. Two straight wins in the tourney — which the Irish have achieved only four times since 1959 — is like getting invited to the BCS title game.

Three straight wins — which the Irish achieved during their lone Final Four season in 1978 — is like a national title in football.

3. Remembering John Panelli and Marty Wendell
Two of Notre Dame’s greats from its Golden Years in 1946-49 — when the Irish were 36-0-2 on the gridiron with three national titles — were lost in the last week. Both running back/linebacker John Panelli (passed away on March 2) and lineman Marty Wendell (March 7) were 85 and 1949 graduates.

Last fall we listed 10 of the greatest 1-2 running back punches in Notre Dame history, and at No. 8 was the duo of Panelli with College Football Hall of Fame member Emil “Six Yard” Sitko. During Notre Dame’s 1948 unbeaten campaign, Panelli rushed for 692 yards and 7.52 yards per carry — the third highest by an Irish back in one season, behind George Gipp (8.11 in 1920) and Reggie Brooks (8.04 in 1992). The 12th pick in the 1949 NFL Draft (Detroit), Panelli became the founder of the NFL Alumni Association.

Pound for pound, Wendell was one of the toughest and most overshadowed players ever at Notre Dame. On Irish teams where fourth-team players such as Art Statuto — who starred in the NFL — couldn’t crack the top three units, the relatively undersized Wendell played alongside College Football Hall of Fame members such as George Connor, Leon Hart, Jim Martin, Zygmont “Ziggy” Czarobski and Bill “Moose” Fischer.

Leahy’s Lads are gradually dwindling, but they lit an eternal fire at Notre Dame.

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