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Two-sport star

Heather VanHoegarden | Friday, September 23, 2005

Jeff Samardzija was just waiting for an opportunity.

The opportunity to catch a pass in the end zone.

The opportunity to play two sports in college.

And now that he’s finally caught not just one, but five touchdown passes, after not finding the end zone for two years, and now that he is a key member of the Notre Dame baseball team as well, he’s just looking for more opportunities.

“If they were going to throw the ball my way five times in the end zone [I would have expected to have five touchdown receptions],” the junior wide receiver said. “You’ve got to think you’re going to make those five catches. It’s just a matter of personnel and being in the right place at the right time, and then just taking advantage of the opportunity.”

A slow start in the fall

Samardzija came into Notre Dame as a highly touted recruit from nearby Valparaiso High School after excelling in football, basketball and baseball. Samardzija never missed a start in his four years.

He was an all-state centerfielder in baseball, he finished second in the voting for Mr. Football in Indiana and he was named the top receiver in the state of Indiana.

However, his freshman year at Notre Dame, he was hidden behind then-sophomores Rhema McKnight and Maurice Stovall as well as then-senior Omar Jenkins. Samardzija played in all 12 games but caught just seven passes for 53 yards.

Last year, although he emerged as quarterback Brady Quinn’s go-to receiver on many third down conversions, he was still a quiet player for the Irish, catching 17 passes for 274 yards on the season, but still no touchdowns.

“If you’re a receiver, just throwing the ball your way [is what helps you succeed],” the 6-foot-5, 216-pounder said. “I guess that’s all it comes down to is getting the opportunity to make plays, and when you do get those opportunities, just to come through and make the plays to keep that confidence going within the team.”

But he didn’t have that opportunity – that is, until this season.

This year Samardzija has caught 13 passes in just three games, including five touchdowns, three against Michigan State, and at least one in every game, tying a school record.

Irish coach Charlie Weis attributes these numbers to not only throwing the ball more, but Samardzija’s skills as well.

“You would expect receivers to have big numbers when you throw it 60 times,” Weis said. “I think that Jeff’s a very dependable, reliable receiver with great hands and good ball skills. He’s been the recipient of being open. We don’t ever design plays just to go to a guy. We try to throw it to the guy that’s open based off of coverage and progression. He’s been the recipient of being in the right place at the right time.”

Stovall wasn’t surprised to see his counterpart put up big numbers thus far this season.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” Stovall said. “I know the ability that Jeff has. The things that you see in the game are the things he does in practice, so it wasn’t a surprise to us at all.”

Samardzija says he’s just getting more opportunities to have the ball than he was in the past – there’s nothing more to it.

“I don’t think there’s too much of a difference,” Samardzija said of this year and previous years. “It’s just getting the opportunity to [make a play]. If you’re in the right area and the ball’s coming your way – I think last year there were a couple chances I may have let slip away and I didn’t make the plays, and I think this year maybe I made a play or two early that gave the coaches confidence to put me out there in different situations.”

The “other” sport

When Irish baseball coach Paul Mainieri read an article that said new Notre Dame football recruit Jeff Samardzija wanted to play college baseball if he could, he immediately talked to then-coach Tyrone Willingham, and he said it was alright to look into the possibility of him playing baseball as well.

“So I started asking some professional scouts about him, and they said they’d seen him play, and he’s not bad,” Mainieri said.

So Mainieri sent his pitching coach at the time to watch Samardzija. And after scouting him, Mainieri called him to ask him if he wanted to play baseball for the Irish.

And with Willingham’s blessing, Samardzija became a two-sport athlete. Mainieri said now he and Weis have also come to an agreement to let the pitcher/wide receiver play both sports.

“Charlie’s been great as far as supporting Jeff,” Mainieri said of Weis, who he said attended one or two of the games in which Samardzija pitched.

As far as Samardzija, he is just glad he got the opportunity to play both college baseball and football.

“It kind of just worked out for me,” Samardzija said. “There were some places who said I could do both, and there were other places that said I couldn’t, so that had a little bit to do with [what school I went to], but it’s kind of nice that it just worked out.”

And so Samardzija has become a force on the diamond as well. As a freshman, he earned freshman All-American honors after posting a 2.95 ERA, the second-best among Big East pitchers. Last spring, Samardzija posted a 3.89 ERA with a record of 8-1 in 15 appearances and ten starts.

“One of Jeff’s most successful traits is that he’s a competitor,” said Irish assistant Terry Rooney, who works with pitchers. “He’s a competitor both on and off the field. I think that’s what makes him so successful in both baseball and football. He knows how to compete, he loves to compete, and he plays both sports with a tremendous amount of confidence.”

But it goes beyond just baseball and football. Both Maineiri and Rooney emphasized Samardzija’s importance as a person to Notre Dame.

“Jeff Samardzija is one of those guys you don’t see very often,” Maineiri said. “He has such a competitive side to him, I don’t care what sport he’s playing or what he’s involved in, he wants to win so badly.”

Rooney echoed Maineiri’s comments.

“He’s an extremely likable, coachable young man,” Rooney said. “He’s someone that all of us here in the baseball program have grown extremely fond of.”

And both coaches said they think Samardzija could play baseball at the next level.

“I think he’s got potential,” Mainieri said. “There’s no question in my mind when he’s out on the mound that he looks like a Major League pitcher.”

Balancing act

Although these two sports keep Samardzija plenty busy, he has not had to miss a spring football practice due to his baseball commitment. His days, however, are scheduled to the fullest, balancing sports as well as a marketing major.

“I think balancing, it just comes down to time management,” he said. “I think my schedule’s pretty much down to the half hour. A lot of it comes down to just before it happens, be ready to go to whatever that day’s calling for.”

Rooney said he is impressed with the way Samardzija is able to balance all of his commitments.

“It’s a real credit to Jeff for the self discipline and the time management skills that he has,” Rooney said. “Obviously he has a challenging schedule for both sports, but it’s a credit to Jeff and the way he goes about his business. He’s a very determined guy. He has a very structured routine that he does everyday.”

But even with all the scheduling, Samardzija sometimes finds that 24 hours is not enough to fit everything in a day.

“Sometimes there’s not enough time in the day to do everything you want,” he said. “Just getting it all in is pretty tough sometimes.”

And what’s his best sport?

“Whatever he’s playing,” Mainieri said.