Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Evacuating Notre Dame Stadium

In the past 13 years of attending games at Notre Dame Stadium, I've sat in a pile of ice and snow, and I've baked on cloudless 95-degree days.  I've seen the crowd cheer for a squirrel running into the end zone when the Notre Dame offense could't, and I've seen sprinklers try to stop Pittsburgh when the Notre Dame defense couldn't.  But I'd never had to evacuate the stadium until Saturday - and neither had anyone else.

Saturday started as one of those cloudless 95-degree days.  When PA announcer Mike Collins did his usual pregame weather report, he got wild cheers when he mentioned they were tracking storms headed to the stadium, since rain sounded like quite a relief at that point.  I had also seen a weather report that called for possible showers, but they didn't look possible at that point.

Towards the end of the first half, there was a brief but refreshing shower.  They sky still didn't have any storm clouds though - at least until the end of the half.  As the band was running on the field for their halftime show, Collins asked them to stay on the sideline.  Immediately after that, he asked them to seek shelter in the tunnel.  Then, the now infamous announcement came:

"Would Usher 800 please report to the press box?"

While still in school, I knew a student who had gotten a job as an usher after graduation.  This was briefly after 9/11, and he had told us that a message calling usher 900-something to the press box was code for a terrorist attack.  So I knew this message was a similar emergency code.  Sure enough, minutes later we were being asked to seek shelter.

Fans were given the option of simply staying on the concourse, or moving to one of the nearby buildings.  One of the buildings mentioned was Fitzpatrick, the engineering building.  I figured that would be our best bet.  One, our group wouldn't have to stand on a packed concourse for an undetermined amount of time.  Two, we'd have easy access to restrooms and vending machines in a building that probably wouldn't be ask crowded as the other options mentioned (among them DeBartolo hall and the Joyce Center).  Plus, Fitz has not one but two basements in case of a tornado - not that one had been mentioned in the weather reports.

The evacuation itself was quite orderly - I don't think people were taking the threat of lighting seriously, especially when it wasn't even raining yet.  In fact, if anything people were slow in leaving the stadium - my wife and I waited close to 10 minutes for my dad and sister to catch up with us from their seats 11 rows above.

My wife, dad, sister, and I set up shop on some couches on Fitzpatrick's second floor, right outside the dean's office.  The wife and I then set out for some vending machines.  When we came back, my dad and sister were nowhere to be found.  It was a bit eerie - their coats and newspapers had been abandoned as if they were kidnapped or needed to flee to the basement.  As it turns out, they had just been invited into the dean's office - by Dr. Brockman, one of my former professors - for freeze pops.

After a two hour delay that included Dr. Brockman and his son stopping outside to play Frisbee between the storms, and a text from my brother-in-law about the press box being hit by lightning, we finally got a message - piped from the stadium press box into the designated evacuation buildings - letting us know the game would be starting again soon.

We made it back to our seats after missing only the kickoff and USF's brief opening drive.  The crowd was electric at that point.  Maybe it was the fact that most of them had been standing around on the concourse for over two hours.  Maybe it was that others had used that as additional drinking time.  Or maybe it was just the announcement that Tommy Rees had taken over for a jumpy Dayne Crist.  But that crowd was ready to go, and the team responded.

Halfway through the fourth quarter, we could see more lightning off to the south of the stadium. On the field, it seemed like NBC was making up for lost commercial time, and I groaned that that was going to cause us to get stuck in another weather delay.  Sure enough, with just under five minutes left in the game, Usher 800 was again called to the press box.

This evacuation was a little less orderly, as most people just wanted to get out and go home at that point.  But there were still no incidents, at least in my section.  My pregnant wife refused to climb the ramp a third time that day, so our group made the decision to pack up for the hotel, and just lie and say that we had stayed if the Irish did in fact come back to win.

We started to make the trek back to White Field, stopping for about 15 minutes under the overhang of the library when it started pouring.  Believe it or not, after 11 hours on campus, that was the first time we had actually gotten rained on.  After the rain let up, we continued to White Field, and heard the announcement about the game resuming as we were passing Stepan Center.  However, we decided to continue on.

We made it to our car shortly after the game resumed, and were amused by a very cranky Don Criqui's take on the events of that day.  We were able to listen to the final touchdown as we were pulling into the hotel parking lot, and see the onside kick from the hotel lobby.  The Irish weren't able to recover that kick, but at that point the group was too concerned about drying off and getting to bed to care.

So, it was a very eventful home opener this year.  And an eventful day for Jim Smith, who in his first game as Head Usher got to call the shots on the first two evacuations in Notre Dame Stadium's 82-year history.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Notre Dame Position Previews: Defense

Defensive Line

Spotlight: Ethan Johnson
Also Returning: Sean Cwynar, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Brandon Newman, Emeka Nwankwo, Kona, Schwenke, Christopher Skubis, Tyler Stockton, Hafis Williams
Lost: John Belcher, Martin Quintana, Christopher Skubis, Ian Williams (graduation)
Gained: Bruce Heggie, Louis Nix III (DNP as freshmen), Chase Hounshell, Aaron Lunch, Tony Springmann, Stephon Tuitt (freshmen)

Ethan Johnson has had a good career at Notre Dame, but he's yet to become great. This year, he'll look to join Justin Tuck and Victor Abiamiri, current NFL defensive ends who made the leap from good to great late in their Notre Dame careers. In past years, Johnson got a lot of attention from opposing lines for being the one good player on ND's line. This year, with a very good all-around line, Johnson should see less double teams and his numbers should improve.

That very good line starts at the other end, where Kapron Lewis-Moore has put together a good career for himself as well. In the middle, Sean Cwynar becomes the opening day starter after finishing the season in that position last year.

How good is Notre Dame's future on the defensive line? The starters are all seniors, of course. But three youngsters - freshmen Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt, and sophomore Louis Nix - have made the two-deep without playing a snap of college football. Sophomore Kona Schwenke joins them on the two-deep after playing his way onto the field last year as well. The line is so deep, in fact, that Hafis Williams - last year's other key backup - isn't anywhere to be found on the two-deep this year.

Aaron Lynch was the star of the spring game, but at 265 pounds will need to bulk up a bit before he can play every down. Louis Nix sat out all of last year after showing up to camp out of shape. He's trimmed down and improved his conditioning, and if he can prove he can stay on the field, he'll be a starter on the end of the field. Meanwhile, Stephon Tuitt is already college-sized (and perhaps NFL-sized) at 6-6, 295.


Spotlight: Prince Shembo
Also Returning: Carlo Calabrese, Steve Filer, Darius Fleming, Dan Fox, Anthony McDonald, David Posluszny, Sean Oxley, Danny Spond, Manti Te'o
Lost: Steve Botsford, Kerry Neal, Steve Paskorz, Brian Smith (graduation), Derek Roback (transfer)
Gained: Jonathan Frantz (walk on), Kendall Moore, Justin Utupo (DNP as freshmen), Ben Councell, Jarrett Grace, Connor Little, Troy Niklas, Anthony Rabasa, Joe Schmidt, Ishaq Williams (freshmen)

As the season went along, Prince Shembo earned more and more playing time with his relentless nose for the quarterback. This year, he's taking over Kerry Neal's outside linebacker role, where he'll have to prove he's capable enough in pass coverage to be an every down player.

Also joining Shembo in the starting lineup is Dan Fox. Fox replaces Carlo Calabrese as the inside linebacker next to Manti Te'o, although Fox and Calabrese will likely see even playing time. Anthony McDonald also returns as depth on the inside.

On the outside, Steve Filer, now a senior, has one more chance to convert his exceptional athleticism into results on the field. If he can't, he'll be passed up for sophomore Danny Spond or highly-touted freshmen Ishaq Williams and Troy Niklas.


Spotlight: Zeke Motta
Also Returning: Dan McCarthy, Zeke Motta, Chris Salvi, Jamoris Slaughter, Harrison Smith, Thomas Smith
Lost: Thomas Smith (graduation), Eilar Hardy (injury)
Gained: Blake Breslau (walk on), Austin Collinsworth (position change - wide receiver), Connor Cavalaris (freshmen)

Jamoris Slaughter has regained his starting position at strong safety, but both he and Zeke Motta should see their fair share of playing time this fall. As in the past, Motta could resume his hybrid linebacker/extra safety role on passing downs. Or, with the dearth of experienced cornerbacks on the roster, Motta could come in at safety and Slaughter move to corner in nickel and dime sets.

Last year, Harrison Smith went from the Jim Sanson of defensive players to one of the best free safeties Notre Dame has had in recent memory. Smith finished with seven interceptions, thanks in large part to his performance in the Sun Bowl. He'll be backed up again by Dan McCarthy.

Austin Collinsworth makes the move to safety this year, a position he played (at least part time) in high school. His depth will be welcome in the defensive backfield, especially after a knee injury will cost Eiler Hardy his freshman season.


Spotlight: Lo Wood
Also Returning: Robert Blanton, Gary Gray, Nick Lezynski, Andrew Plaska, Ryan Sheehan
Lost: Michael Garcia, Darrin Walls, Barry Gallup, James Redshaw (graduation)
Gained: Bennett Jackson (position change - wide receiver), Joe Romano (walk on), Josh Atkinson, Jalen Brown (freshmen)

Notre Dame has two very capable starters in Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, but after that they are very thin at cornerback. That makes Lo Wood a critical piece to this team. Not only will he be needed against three-plus receiver sets that are becoming more and more popular these days, but Wood would also be the "next man in" to move up to a starting role if Gray or Blanton were to go down.

The cornerback position is so thin that converted wideout Bennett Jackson has cracked the two-deep. Jackson showed great speed and a nose for the ballcarrier last season on special teams, but the cornerback position is still new to him. Behind Jackson is a group of freshmen and walk-ons. Essentially, anyone in that group that impresses on the practice field against the first team offense will earn himself playing time on Saturdays.


Spotlight: Ben Turk
Also Returning: Mike Greiko, David Ruffer, Nick Tausch, Ben Turk
Lost: Brandon Walker (graduation)
Gained: Kyle Brindza

Ben Turk wins the spotlight again after another up and down season in 2010. For now, the punting job is Turk's to lose. But strong-legged freshman Kyle Brindza has already won the kickoff specialist role, and many already have him penciled in to replace Turk as punter at some point this season.

Nick Tausch continues to be the odd man out on this kicking unit, thanks to a historic 2010 by David Ruffer. Fortunately for Irish fans, Ruffer is back for another season in the blue and gold. Fortunately for Tausch, the starting job should be his again in 2012.