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Debating Mendoza

There was some good back and forth over the past week about the performance of Ruben Mendoza’s strength and conditioning program, started by a nice article written by Blue & Gold’s Ryan O’Leary. O’Leary touched on the common phenomenon of blasting the departing staff and touting the incoming guys, just as it happens at nearly every major sports program that replaces a head coach.

While many Irish fans have surely forgotten, O’Leary points out that both previous Irish head coaches, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis, won national coach of the year awards. O’Leary also went on to support the work of Ruben Mendoza, Weis’ man in charge of strength and conditioning. He largely used the performances from the four Irish players that worked out at the NFL Scouting Combine as support:

From O’Leary:

Quarterback Jimmy Clausen didn’t work out at all because of his toe injury, but four other former Irish players showed the scouts their stuff at the annual meat market, and their results were pretty impressive:

Kyle McCarthy didn’t blow anyone away with his 40-yard dash time, but he was first among the 23 safeties - and sixth among all combine participants, trailing only two receivers and three cornerbacks - with a time of 11.13 seconds in the 60-yard shuttle run. McCarthy was also second among safeties in the 20-yard shuttle (4.13 seconds) and the three-cone drill (6.74 seconds).

Offensive linemen Eric Olsen and Sam Young tied for ninth among 46 players at their position group in vertical jump, with each getting 29.5 inches of separation from the ground. Young was also 10th among linemen in the standing broad jump (8 feet, 8 inches), while Olsen was tied for fourth in the three-cone (7.50 seconds).

Receiver Golden Tate didn’t surprise a lot of people with his excellent time of 4.42 seconds in the 40, which ranked fourth among 44 wideouts, or his 10-foot broad jump, which tied for 10th at the position. But while Tate performed as expected in the speed and agility drills, he also impressed with his 17 reps on the 225-pound bench press, the lone strength measurable at the combine.

Tate’s number ranked him seventh among receivers, and he wasn’t alone - each of the Notre Dame players placed in the top 10 at their position group on the bench press. McCarthy tied for second among safeties with 24 reps (or one more than Oklahoma defensive tackle Gerald McCoy). Young tied for 10th among offensive linemen with 29 reps, while Olsen tied for third with 35.

Perhaps these guys were forced to do some work in the weight room all this time after all.

O’Leary combined this year’s combine work with the impressive workouts that both Trevor Laws and Brady Quinn had at the combine, and drew a fairly reasonable conclusion that Mendoza certainly shouldn’t be blamed for the team’s downfall. Pretty logical thought process, right?

Over at Irish blog, The Biscuit took exception:

I have 2 main issues with the crux of his argument.

First, he uses the performance of a few players at the combine, in particular categories, to evaluate an entire program.

Yes, ND guys put up some good numbers at the combine. In some places, our guys finished in the top 5 or top 10 at their position. But in other exercises, which Ryan conveniently leaves out, our guys didn’t finish in the top 5 or 10. So I could’ve just used those stats, and written an article on how BAD Mendoza was. So he’s really only telling part of the story. I mean, if I just use Olsen’s bench numbers (#5 of all those in the combine) to make the argument, that’d pretty much be the same thing. Because he picked the measures where our guys did best and said “Hey, hey, look how great they’re doing! Mendoza was really good”. But what about all the places where they didn’t do great? Those numbers are just as valid.

Speaking of numbers, ND has 5 guys at the Combine. 1 of them, Clausen, isn’t even working out. So we’re looking at 4 guys on a roster that’s HUGE. So now these 4 guys represent the entire report card on Mendoza? Last I looked we had 11 guys playing offense, 11 D, plus ST’s, on the field. And we’re going to use our 4 best/most athletic guys as the barometer for how well Mendoza did? Seems a bit skewed.

My 2nd beef with the argument is that he puts a bunch of emphasis on a few meat-market-ish tests designed for NFL Scouts to pick and prod top athletes for the pros. This isn’t necessarily what translates into a program-wide result of fitness. For example, ND’s issues in the latter half of the season in ’09 and ’08 were clearly endurance-related. The ability to keep going, for a full-game, non-stop and 100%. ND dropped long, hard-fought games to teams like Pitt and UCONN, and they faded late in the year 2 years in a row. There’s no 2-mile run at the combine, so there’s no metric for how well Mendoza taught and enforced a discipline that would lead to stamina and endurance in the face of adversity.

I fall somewhere in the middle on this one. O’Leary’s main point -- that outgoing staffs take way too much heat -- is spot on. His best example was that of former ND strength coach Mickey Marotti, who was butchered for the training he did under Bob Davie, but has lead Urban Meyer’s strength and conditioning program at Florida to unprecedented heights.

That said, The Biscuit is spot on with his two beefs. Five guys is hardly an accurate assessment. And while the combine numbers of some Irish players have been impressive, one of the best players developed in the Mendoza program was Denver Broncos tackle Ryan Harris, who hardly set the combine on fire with his strength numbers.

For whatever reason, second half results were an issue for Weis’ last three seasons, and the Irish wore down as games went on this year. That could be a result of Mendoza’s training philosophies, a lack of leadership by Weis and the coaches, players not eating right, and just about anything else.

As the Irish begin their transformation under Brian Kelly and his hand-picked strength coach Paul Longo, it’ll all come down to one thing: Results on the field.