Notre Dame football - Analyst Palmer shares opinions on Irish

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK

Jesse Palmer has watched a Notre Dame football game before just for the fun of it and without financial compensation.

The former Florida quarterback — and yes, former star of reality TV’s “The Bachelor” a decade ago — has some ND ties. His father, Bill, was a teammate of former Irish athletic director Mike Wadsworth back in their Canadian Football League days.

And the ESPN analyst’s younger brother, Billy, played tight end for the Irish in the early 2000s, first for coach Bob Davie, then for Tyrone Willingham but was obscured by future NFL tight ends Anthony Fasano and John Carlson.

“He’s doing great,” Jesse said of his now 32-year-old sibling. “He’s married, two kids, working insurance in Orlando.”

Both will likely be watching Saturday when the 25th-ranked Irish (8-4) make the 26th appearance in school history in Yankee Stadium, this time in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl opposite Rutgers (6-6).

Only one will have his opinions aired to millions. Here’s a sampling of Jesse Palmer’s views as he prepares to team with play-by-play man Chris Fowler on the Pinstripe’s ESPN telecast (Noon EST).

Q: What do you make of Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees?

Palmer: “I give him a ton of credit with what he’s been able to do this year. He’s been a guy that’s been gutsy and a competitor and he’s maximized his potential.

This wasn’t supposed to be his year, and yet he’s never really pouted. There were obvious chances for him to transfer. He never did that. He just kind of kept his head down, kept working. He was given the football this year to lead this team. I think he’s done a heck of a job. I really do.

The one thing I would say that is where he needs to improve is critical turnovers at critical junctures in games, especially in the fourth quarters of games. That’s kind of been an Achilles’ heel. And oftentimes the interceptions are the result of the fact is that he isn’t the most physically gifted quarterback. And in the red zone, where windows get small, he hasn’t always been able to fit the football in.

He can’t always see, because he’s not the tallest quarterback, and he misses chances or can’t see defenders. And again, on this year’s team, with a defense that is not as dominant as it was a year ago, they haven’t been able to get away with those turnovers and those mistakes on offense. And it’s cost them.”

Q: Savon Huggins was a five-star running back Notre Dame really coveted in the 2011 recruiting class and lost him to Rutgers. He hasn’t found his way in three years in, it seems, and now he’s playing behind former walk-on Paul James and lightly-recruited freshman Justin Goodwin. What’s happened to him?

Palmer: “I know he’s arguably the highest-profile recruit Rutgers ever signed. I know he had fumble problems early in his career, which I think hurt. And because of that, other guys got more chances. I think this year he ran into a situation where again he was given an opportunity at the start of the year and then Paul James — just from the jump against Fresno State (Rutgers’ opener) - — kind of came off the bench, had a big game and just kind of ran with it.

When I talked to Savon a year ago, he said maybe he was running hesitant early in his career. He wasn’t necessarily hitting the holes as fast as he needed to. But I don’t know if Savon Huggins not playing is a knock against him as much as it is just the talent Rutgers has been able to bring in and develop.’’

Q: When you look at this Notre Dame team, do you see a team that is a few pieces away from being an elite team or something less than that?

Palmer: “I think they’re close. I think next year coming back on offense, there are a lot of positives. Obviously, getting Everett Golson back is huge. Everyone is kind of curious to see where his development is now that he’s got an entire year under his belt, led the team to a national championship, worked the entire offseason with George Whitfield Jr.

I mean the running back position is absolutely loaded. There’s so much skill and talent around (Golson) at the skill positions. And that’s even more so if Troy Niklas decides to come back at tight end. I know he’s a second-round projection right now (by the NFL Draft Advisory Board), so it’ll be interesting to see what his decision is.

You lose Zack Martin at left tackle, which is huge, but a lot of guys return up front as well. And even though they lose Chuck Martin, their offensive coordinator, the system’s going to stay the same. It’s Brian Kelly’s offense. I think, looking forward, this offense has a big opportunity.

I think my biggest question for this team is going to be on defense. They’ll lose a lot, maybe most importantly (coordinator) Bob Diaco. You lose potentially some big playmakers. It’ll be interesting to see if Stephon Tuitt decides to leave. You lose two senior experienced linebackers in Calabrese and Fox.

But I think more important to me than any of that is who can emerge as a leader on defense next year. I think that’s one thing they had last year in Te’o and Motta and Kapron Lewis-Moore, and this year I just don’t know if anybody ever established themselves as that voice, as that guy.

And it will be interesting next year to see who can that be. Is it No. 9 (Jaylon Smith)? Is it Sheldon Day? Somebody has to step up and become that leader. It could be a new-look defense next year.

We’re going to have to wait and see who Brian Kelly names as a defensive coordinator. He told me a couple of days ago he’s already made the decision. He’s just not going to say who it is yet. In last year’s national championship run, the defense was the identity of that team, and I think for them to be a top 10 team, and not just a top 25 team, you’ve got to play great defense.

Q: What are your impressions of Notre Dame freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith?

Palmer: Unbelievable athleticism. He’s a guy who always seems to be around the football. He’s a guy that is multiple. They can do a lot of things with him because of his athleticism. I think everyone is thinking he’s playing two more years of college football and then he’s bouncing, because he’s that kind of a talent.

He’ll get bigger. He’ll get stronger. That’s scary. But a guy with that kind of athleticism, that can cover, that can blitz, and that plays with the fire he does, with the effort level that he does, I put on the film and I’m immediately looking for No. 1 (Louis Nix) and No. 7 (Stephon Tuitt). And No. 9 is the guy your eyes keep flashing to.

I’m eager to see him play this weekend and the next couple of years, because he could go down as one of the greats to play that position at Notre Dame, and that’s obviously saying something considering the lineage they’ve had.’’

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (13) pressures BYU quarterback Taysom Hill (4) during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER