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Academics play significant role in Notre Dame recruiting process

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Academics play significant role in Notre Dame recruiting process

Louis Nix couldve stayed home in Florida, content to play at a university where football would be his main focus. But Nix, a four-star defensive tackle out of Jacksonville, chose to go north to Notre Dame, where student-athletes often have to do more than pay lip service to academics. That classroom challenge and potential for success motivated Nix and was a point in Notre Dames favor when it came time for him to choose his university.

Coming up when I was getting recruited, going to different schools in Florida, and hearing from people that went to college for football, they told me itd be a little bit easy, class wouldnt be that hard, blah blah blah, Nix recalled earlier this year. They told me, you come here, its not going to be that easy, youre going to have to push yourself. And me, I like pushing myself. I like to take up a challenge. Right now, Im almost to a 3.0. I just like taking up challenges, and I think thats a good thing.

Recruiting is a cutthroat business, especially when it comes to blue-chip prospects, and even more when those players hail from the South. But two of Notre Dames biggest recent gets from SEC territory -- Nix and defensive end Stephon Tuitt -- mentioned they wanted to challenge themselves academically.

We're going to validate that this year, obviously with the No.1 graduation rates that you can do both, and they don't have to be mutually exclusive in college football, coach Brian Kelly boasted in November.

That message didnt fall on deaf ears. Five-star class of 2013 running back Greg Bryant committed to Notre Dame on Sunday, and his dads explanation of the verbal commitment had nothing to do with the teams success on the field.

"One hundred percent (graduation rate) for minority athletes, 97 percent for team graduation," Greg Bryant, Sr., told Rivals.com affiliate Irish Illustrated. "I like those odds. Everyone else (is) 50 percent or below. It's bigger than the game of football."

Bryant told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel -- which characterized his commitment to Notre Dame as a shocker -- prior to the season he expected to commit to an SEC school. And no doubt, Notre Dames success in 2012 certainly played a major factor in Bryant choosing the Irish.

The Irish have built an impressive class of 2013, one which Rivals.com ranks No. 2 nationally. Kelly and his coaching staff have signed 15 four or five-star recruits to date, the largest crop of blue-chip prospects the school has brought in since 2008.

Related: Four Chicago-area prep players make Rivals Top 100 list

Notre Dames on-field success is its biggest selling point -- for the first time in over two decades, a coach can legitimately tell a high schooler hell have a chance to win championships at Notre Dame. But just as important of a pitch is that, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Notre Dame is the first school to be ranked No. 1 in the BCS and have the nations top graduation rate.

I think if you have the football program that has the highest graduation rates and is also a team that is competing for a national championship, I would qualify that as good for NCAA football, Kelly said earlier. You have something that has both ends working towards excellence.

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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USA TODAY

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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USA TODAY

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.