JJ Stankevitz

Comcast SportsNet Notre Dame Insider; NBC Sports College Football Talk contributor

Jersey Boy

With a knowing grin on his face, Todd Frazier worked his way around the cramped confines of the visitor’s clubhouse at Fenway Park with a large silver tin. He stopped at everybody — teammates, coaches, support staff, media relations, media members — peeling back the aluminum foil covering the container to reveal a coffee cake dusted with white powdered sugar that his mother, Joan, baked and brought up for this trip from the family’s home in Toms River, N.J.

Make no mistake, this was the best coffee cake in New Jersey, if not the world, according to Frazier. It was, quite literally, a slice of home for the White Sox third baseman who’s remained committed to his roots since he rose to national and local fame — and started signing autographs — at the age of 12.

* * *

Long before he was winning a Home Run Derby or becoming the centerpiece of the White Sox’s offseason roster retooling, Frazier was the undersized youngest brother in a family full of athletes. His two older brothers, Charlie and Jeff — who both went on to be MLB Draft picks, Charlie in the sixth round by the Florida Marlins in 1999 and Jeff by the Detroit Tigers in the third round in 2004 — and their friends often didn’t want to pick Todd for their backyard games due to his youth and diminutive stature.

“He was always a little guy to us,” Charlie says. “We always called him ‘Todd the Toad’ because he never grew.”

There was a problem with this exclusion from baseball, football, basketball or whatever game the Fraziers would play, though. Jeff says if Todd was ever left out, he’d go in and tell his father, Charlie Frazier, Sr., that his older brothers wouldn’t let him participate.

So Charlie Frazier, Sr., would come out, take the ball, and say if Todd isn’t playing, nobody’s playing. And all of a sudden, Todd would be on a team. If it was football, he’d be in the middle of the huddle urging his elder teammates to remember, “Hey, I’m here, and I’m going to get open.”

“I think he always had that will in him to say ‘Hey, listen, whether I’m not good enough today or tomorrow, I’m going to keep working and I’m going to prove you wrong,’” Jeff says. “So it was kind of like he had no choice. He had to fight his whole way up. And it’s obviously paid off.”

The competitiveness stretched beyond the backyards and streets around Toms River. Charlie estimates he, Jeff and Todd broke “four or five” ping pong tables as kids because games would get so heated, someone inevitably would slam a corner of the table after losing a game, rendering the surface unplayable.

Charlie and Jeff had the luxury of being the oldest kids, too, when it came to picking their favorite sports teams. Toms River is about the same distance to New York as it is to Philadelphia, so for the kids, there were decisions to be made as to which teams to root for. But there was no way the three Frazier boys were going to root for the same side.

So Charlie and Jeff laid claim to New York’s teams — Charlie was a Yankees and Giants fan, Jeff was a Mets and Jets fan. Todd picked the Boston Red Sox as his childhood team, but when it came to the NFL, he decided to be a Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan.

“I tell him every year, have fun with that one, bro,” Jeff laughs.

When Todd and Toms River East reached the Little League World Series, ESPN listed him at 5-foot-2, 104 pounds. The growth spurt came later, sometime around the end of middle school and the beginning of high school. When it did, Todd quickly became able to compete with his athletic siblings.

It’s hard to imagine Frazier, who will compete in his third Home Run Derby Monday night in San Diego and has the most home runs of any White Sox third baseman before the All-Star break, as an underdog. But in his family structure, that’s what he was as a kid. And it’s something he still appreciates to this day.

“I loved every second of it,” Frazier says. “I loved everybody saying, you gotta live up to (them). I couldn’t ask for two better people to look up to and try to live up to. They were always pushing me to be better. … I thank them all the time and whatever records they had, I was trying to get those records and eventually I broke mostly all of them. I thank them every day of the week and I couldn’t ask for two better guys to look up to.”

* * *

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The first time Todd Frazier became known for hitting home runs came long before he dramatically won the 2015 Home Run Derby at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.

In 1998, in front of a crowd of 41,200 at Howard J. Lamade Stadium — which, by the way, accommodates more fans than 18 major league ballparks, including U.S. Cellular Field — Frazier launched a 1-1 pitch from Kashima, Japan starter Tatsuya Sugata over the left-field wall to lead off the Little League World Series Championship game.

Now 30 years old, Frazier still thinks back to that moment from time to time. It’s hard not to remember it — he has a photo of the moment hanging in his locker in the home clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field.

Frazier said his coach, Mike Gaynor, told him to take a peek behind him to see where catcher Tomoyuki Okawa was setting up. That’s obviously against the unwritten rules of baseball, and Frazier pretty clearly did it twice. And the second time, Frazier saw Okawa bounce inside.

“We actually caught eyes when we did it,” Frazier laughs. “… I thought he said something in Japanese to me, probably not some kind words.”

So Frazier stepped in the bucket — his front foot pointing between shortstop and third base — and swung with everything he had. His dinger quickly relaxed a team that ultimately had to fight back to secure the first win by a team from the United States in the Little League World Series in five years.

“I just wanted to get things started and get everyone excited,” the 12-year-old Frazier told Little League’s website in 1998.

Frazier, too, got the win in the championship game, with his 1 1/3 innings coming at a critical time. Frazier entered the game in a fifth inning that saw Kashima take the lead. Toms River then scored four runs in the top of the sixth, and Frazier closed things out in the bottom of the sixth to secure a championship.

“When I look back at that kind of stuff, playing in front of 30, 40,000 people, God, it seems like it was so much pressure but we didn’t have any pressure at all,” Frazier recalls. “Just like here today, you’re playing in front of 50, 60,000 people and the pressure’s still off you because it’s just a game. In a way, it’s your job, but it’s just a fun game that you’ve grown up to play and you don’t take any of it for granted because you gotta understand, the one thing in baseball that I’ve come to learn is you’re going to fail more than you succeed.

“And when you can accept that and not expect it, it’s a big difference. You accept failure knowing that you’re going to get up there again and you’re going to have a better opportunity to get on base and drive some runs in.”

Frazier isn’t the first player to play in and win the Little League World Series and later reach the major leagues. But those games in Williamsport were key in developing Frazier into the level-headed, never-too-high-never-too-low player he is today.

“There’s no doubt that the Little League World Series helped him play at the next level,” Frazier’s father, Charlie, says. “There’s no doubt.”

* * *

Jordan Descafano remembers a moment the winter after Todd Frazier won the Little League World Series, when the pair were playing in a basketball tournament in New Jersey. Frazier excelled at other sports besides baseball — Descafano figured he could’ve developed into a pretty good college or pro quarterback — and when winter rolled around, it was basketball season.

So Descafano and Frazier’s team was warming up for their game, doing the usual drills. As the team is in the layup line, Descafano realized Frazier wasn’t participating in it.

“All of a sudden I look and he’s signing autographs in the corner to older kids,” Descafano, one of Frazier’s closest friends, says. “Fourteen-year-old kids, he’s signing baseballs, basketballs.

“That’s Todd. Nothing’s changed.”

The Fraziers always had a reputation as an athletic family around Toms River, but Todd’s home run and win in the Little League World Series elevated him to local stardom. He got to go up to Yankee Stadium and stand next to Derek Jeter at shortstop — the position he played for Toms River East — before a Yankees game. The parade Toms River held for its Little League champions was “insane,” Frazier’s dad says, with a crowd so large it was almost impossible to get to the field where the parade ended.

“They put us on a fire truck, drove us around Toms River for about an hour and the streets were packed,” Todd says. “It was crazy. Everybody’s out on the streets. Hundreds of thousands of people coming from not only Toms River but all across the East Coast and even further. It was a whirlwind, man. It was a whirlwind time for us. We dominated the world, we took it by storm. I don’t know how a bunch of 11 and 12 year olds did it, but we did.”

With a swing of a bat and a dog pile in Pennsylvania, Frazier got his first taste of fame. Descafano recalls getting to see three movies for the price of one, with help from local cops, when he would go to the local theater with Frazier.

“He thought he was a bad, badass,” Todd’s brother, Charlie, says.

But Frazier’s parents and brothers weren’t about to let his success go to his head. His father’s mantra was “stay under the radar.”

So whenever Todd or any of the kids got a little too cocky, the patriarch of the family would raise his hand above his head and say: “You’re here right now,” and as he lowered his hand to his hip, he’d say, “I want you here.”

“All three of us had success, even at a younger age,” Jeff says. “We’d be seven, eight, nine years old, putting home runs out, I think each of us in Pop Warner football scored like 20 touchdowns a season. Basketball, we all scored 1,000 points. So we had every right to let our heads get swollen a little bit, but if we even started to act like we were the big shots in town or something, it wasn’t somebody else telling us. It was Big Fraz.

“That kind of discipline is still instilled in us now. So him doing that, gosh, it meant the world to us. Because easily we could’ve got away with everything and easily we could’ve just thought we were hot stuff. Him doing that and the discipline he instilled definitely made us the people we are today.

“You got a 6-8 guy raising a paw that’s about 12 inches big, we ain’t messing with that big dog. No way.”

That humbling discipline helped Frazier deal with fame at a young age, but also helped him in his baseball career. It’s a sport where failure happens more than success, and the lessons Frazier received at a young age about life still remain relevant to him today.

“You go 5-5 one day and the next time you’re 0-20 and it’s like God, what’s going on,” Frazier says. “My dad taught me the right way. Those kind of things, not only was it the right thing to do, I was a very emotional kid. I was very hyper. Sometimes I got too excited so he’d bring me aside and say, ‘Chill out a little bit.’ I respected that because he’s the guy, he’s your father. You gotta respect him.

“He knew best. Most of the time I didn’t think so as a young kid because you’re a little brat. You think back on it and every step of the way he did the right thing.”

* * *

Toms River, N.J., is a city of a little over 90,000 situated on New Jersey’s coastline about halfway between New York and Atlantic City. It’s about equidistant from New York and Philadelphia, with a ride to each city taking about an hour and a half.

Its beachfront boardwalk area has been featured on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and MTV’s Jersey Shore, but back in the 1990s, it was known predominantly for its baseball prowess.

In addition to the Fraziers, the Leiter brothers — Al and Mark, who pitched a combined 30 years in the majors — hail from the area, as does former major league reliever and Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry DiPoto. Todd’s brother, Jeff, played for Toms River East in the 1995 and 1996 Little League World Series, too.

“It’s a sports town for one, whether it’s baseball season, basketball or football, it always seems like everybody knows what’s going on when it comes to sports,” Todd Frazier says. “They love their baseball. I’d say it’s predominantly baseball first.”

Charlie Frazier, Jr., runs a baseball academy in Toms River, at which Jeff helps out plenty (Todd does, too, when he’s back in the offseason). Even for a beachside town without a professional team, baseball is big here.

“Sometimes, I gotta hide,” says Todd’s father, “because — ‘Hey, about his swing, did he drop his hands on that one or did he pull them in?’”

Staying close to home has always been important to the Fraziers, even if it means the occasional question about a cold stretch Todd is going through.

When faced with a decision about where to play his college ball, Frazier didn’t go to a baseball powerhouse in the ACC or anything like that. Only 23 Rutgers alums have ever played in the major leagues, and of those Scarlet Knights, Frazier has appeared in the third-most games behind Eric Young and David DeJesus. And he’s the first one to appear in multiple All-Star games.

But the decision to attend Rutgers wasn’t described as a difficult one by his friends and family.

“He’s a Jersey guy through and through,” Descafano said.

* * *

Frazier, his wife, Jackie, son, Blake, and daughter, Kylie, all reside in Toms River. Given his upbringing, it makes plenty of sense that he’d choose to raise his family in this town alongside the Atlantic Ocean.

“I love the city, I love the town,” Frazier says. “… It’s just a close-knit group that you have and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

While Todd can’t be there much during the season, by having his family in Toms River, there’s a strong support system there for his wife and kids. His brothers and parents see his family about once or twice a week, and there’s always a get-together before Jackie & Co. leave to join Todd on the road.

And when the family comes back after those trips, there’s always an offer on the table to lend assistance. Jeff and his wife will offer to watch after the kids for a day to help out Jackie, which has the added benefit of helping those young cousins bond with each other.

“It’s not like (Jackie’s) coming home and going to Scottsdale (Ariz.) to a house with a bunch of neighbors you barely even talk to,” Jeff says.

In the offseason, Todd always makes it a point to get back to his prep alma mater — Toms River South High School — to see how the football team looks and hang out with some of the locals who’ve been there since he was a teenager. Descafano says Todd always makes time to see his parents when he’s back, too.

“I’m a New Jersey guy, I’m always there to sign an autograph, if they say Rutgers or Toms River, I’m always there to have a one-minute conversation with them,” Todd says. “It’s just something that makes me feel at home and I feel good about it.”

Some of the more special moments in the Frazier family come not only on holidays, but on those offseason nights where the three brothers and their wives and kids are all together. The ability to make those get-togethers a normal occurrence is something the family cherishes, with Todd’s parents and brothers also residing in Toms River.

“It brings it back to normal to the old days,” Charlie Jr. says. “Our wives start yelling at us because it starts to get a little heated with us talking crap on each other, we’ll start throwing the football outside and the kids will start yelling and screaming if we’re not throwing to the kiddies. It brings us back to the old days. You have your bickering here and there and it brings back a lot of memories. There’s always Italian food there. We’re in Jersey so you always have some kind of pizza or garlic bread or something.

“We always say, eat your Italian food, Todd, get those calories.”

* * *

For the third consecutive year, Charlie Frazier, Jr., will pitch to Todd in the Home Run Derby Monday night at Petco Park in San Diego. The Fraziers finished second in 2014, then won the 2015 home run derby in front of Frazier’s then-home crowd in Cincinnati.

A day after winning the Home Run Derby, baseball’s All-Stars were paraded to Great American Ballpark through downtown Cincinnati on the back of Chevy pickup trucks. Charlie Frazier, Sr., gets emotional thinking about the sight he saw there — a throng of fans going wild cheering for his son. It was a bookend of sorts to the 1998 parade celebrating Toms River East’s Little League World Series championship.

“There are some things — I don’t know what to tell you,” Charlie Frazier, Sr., says. “It’s just very humbling for me. Oh my God, look at what this kid has done.”

Charlie Frazier, Jr., agrees: “It was the first time our family got to sit back and go, holy shit, baseball’s been very good to us.”

But make no mistake, the Fraziers still won’t let anything slide with Todd. If Charlie Sr., Charlie Jr., Joan or Jeff ever see anything they don’t like, they won’t hesitate to call Todd out on it.

“He’s not that big a deal to us,” Charlie Sr. says.

“The reputation around Toms River, New Jersey is level-headed kids, down to earth and we’ll never let that get away,” Jeff adds. “He knows that.”

In that respect, not much has changed since Frazier hit that home run and earned the win in the Little League World Series championship 17 years ago. That swing, that final pitch, that celebration, and the Frazier family structure go a long way toward explaining who Todd Frazier is today.

“I think that stage right there in the Little League World Series was the start of something good for me and for the city and my family,” Todd says.

But through his journey to the major leagues and All-Star Games and Home Run Derbies, Frazier always carries Toms River, N.J., with him.

Even if it’s in the form of, again, the best coffee cake in the world.

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    Here come the Irish

    SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Jaylon Smith took a few steps toward a table teeming with reporters and TV cameras before noticing it wasn’t where he was supposed to be.

    Smith, a linebacker and probably Notre Dame’s best player, saw the name card on the table set out to identify which player would sit there and answer questions for about an hour during media day in August. It was Malik Zaire. Smith’s table only had a handful of people at it.

    “Quarterbacks, man,” Smith said, smiling and shaking his head.

    Welcome to Notre Dame, where a quarterback who’s only played about six quarters is the focus of preseason attention and even had his name pop up in a few Heisman Trophy watch lists. After a 2014 season in which Notre Dame’s quarterback turned the ball over far too frequently, the attention — and pressure — is on Zaire, a left-handed redshirt sophomore from Kettering, Ohio.

    Surrounding Zaire are the players and coaching staff Notre Dame believes can propel it to a spot in the College Football Playoff. But Zaire is the most important part of the equation. Without a fruitful season from its quarterback, Notre Dame won’t reach its lofty goal.

    “I’m not the new kid on the block any more,” Zaire said. “The expectations that are out there for me should be high because I have high expectations for myself.”

    * * *

    Notre Dame’s 2014 collapse wasn’t all on Everett Golson’s shoulders, but his 22 turnovers had plenty to do with it. Zaire, in a sense, represents the safer option as a running-oriented quarterback who completed an efficient 12 of 15 passes against LSU in the Music City Bowl last December.

    Zaire is a hard-nosed, emotional player who galvanized the Irish offense in that season-ending upset of a top-25 SEC West powerhouse. His throwing mechanics need work — both Kelly and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford said Zaire tends to throw with too wide a base, leading to some inaccurate passes — and he’s yet to be tested in a hostile environment against a defense that sells out to stop the run.

    “I think he throws it pretty good for a college football quarterback,” Kelly said. “He throws it pretty good. He could throw it better. He’s a (redshirt) sophomore. He’s going to be around here a few more years. I think he could be a top, elite thrower of the football because his mechanics are not far off.”

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    It’s unfair to say throwing will be secondary for Zaire this year, but it is fair to say his ability to succeed in Notre Dame’s ground game is his most important trait. Each of college football’s last seven champions have averaged at least five yards per carry; Notre Dame hasn’t hit that mark since 1996. The closest it came was 2012 (4.87 YPC), which not coincidentally stands as Kelly’s best year since coming to South Bend in 2010.

    Joining Zaire in the backfield are junior Tarean Folston (889 yards, 5.1 YPC, 6 TD in 2014) and converted slot receiver C.J. Prosise (who averaged 16.5 yards per play from scrimmage in 2014). Folston is the steady, durable running back who can grind for necessary yards and work in pass protection. Prosise is the home run hitter and matchup nightmare who could find himself on plenty of highlight reels this fall.

    Watch Notre Dame vs. Texas: Kickoff on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. on NBC

    Most importantly for Irish ball carriers, though, is offensive-line-coach Harry Hiestand’s strong unit, anchored by redshirt junior Ronnie Stanley, who passed on entering the NFL draft in January to play one more season in South Bend. Keeping Stanley, a left tackle with the potential to be a top-10 pick in the 2016 NFL draft, on campus was Kelly’s biggest recruiting coup in years.

    Along with Stanley is center and returning captain Nick Martin — whose brother, Zack, was also a two-time Irish captain and 2014 first-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys — and third-year starter Steve Elmer, who’s settled at right guard. Athletic redshirt sophomore Mike McGlinchey started the Music City Bowl and is entrenched at right tackle, while hulking redshirt freshman Quenton Nelson will take over at left guard.

    Though two of this unit’s members are largely lacking experience, Hiestand has earned the benefit of the doubt since joining Kelly’s staff in 2012. While other position groups have had off-and-on issues over the last few years, Hiestand’s offensive lines have been among the most consistent features of Kelly’s tenure.

    “The offensive line is the engine of the car, I’m just the nice shiny paint on it,” Zaire said. “We don’t move without them.”

    With all this focus on Notre Dame’s rushing attack, though, it’s easy to forget every single wide receiver from 2014 returns this fall. That’s a group headlined by breakout star Will Fuller (76 catches, 1,094 yards, 15 TDs) and the boundary-side tandem of Chris Brown and Corey Robinson, which combined for 79 receptions, 1,087 yards and six touchdowns last year.

    And it’s a group that has plenty of players pushing for playing time, like redshirt sophomore Torii Hunter Jr. (“Torii’s got to get on the field,” Kelly said) and freshman Equanimeous St. Brown (“He just keeps running by people,” Sanford said). When Zaire is tasked with throwing the ball, he won’t lack for skilled targets.

    * * *

    Notre Dame’s defense last year was lousy.

    Opponents averaged 5.6 yards per play, frequently ripped off big-chunk runs and passes and converted over 40 percent of their third downs. For the Irish defense, trips to the red zone went about as well as Ned Stark’s trip to King’s Landing. After middle linebacker Joe Schmidt suffered a season-ending ankle injury Nov. 1 against Navy, the Irish defense allowed 43 points per game during the rest of a month in which they lost four games in a row.

    So why are expectations so high — Notre Dame wouldn’t be ranked No. 11 in the AP and Coaches’ preseason polls without hopes for a good defense — for this group?

    The discussion starts with the nine returning starters from 2014, plus KeiVarae Russell, a cornerback with 26 career starts who was academically suspended last season. Had nose guard Jarron Jones not suffered a season-ending knee injury during practice in August, every starter on the Irish would have had at least eight career starts.

    That experience matters, especially entering Year 2 of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme.

    Notre Dame Central: Your hub for news about the Fighting Irish

    “Last year, a lot of the times it was maybe you just do it because he said to do it or that’s what’s written on paper, this assignment,” said Smith, the team’s star linebacker. “But now, guys have an understanding of why this needs to be done and in what situations should this be called and things like that. It’s not like he didn’t teach this to us last year, we just didn’t grasp it how we should have. But with any young defense there’s going to be those flaws.”

    Smith was a Butkus Award finalist last year, but Notre Dame thinks his junior year can be even better. The plan this fall is to move Smith around the field — he’ll play both inside and outside, swapping in for James Onwualu at the SAM — to get him into more pass-rushing situations and to prevent opposing offenses from game-planning against him to effectively take him out of certain plays.

    This team doesn’t have a guy who will be on any national sack leaderboards, but it does have a group VanGorder & Co. believe can collectively improve off last year’s middling average of two sacks per game. Russell and junior Cole Luke are a formidable cornerback duo — arguably one of the best in the country — and junior safety Max Redfield has earned positive reviews during spring and preseason camp after a dismal sophomore season.

    Notre Dame’s defense shouldn’t be expected to be as good as the group Manti Te’o led in 2012, but with so much experience and talent returning, VanGorder’s guys should be sharper than last year.

    * * *

    That 2012 Irish team remains the gold standard not only for Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame, but for the program since Lou Holtz left in the late 1990s.

    But here’s the thing about the 2015 Irish: Kelly and plenty of the players who were on that 2012 team think this year’s version is better.

    “It’s a faster team, it’s a more athletic team,” Kelly said. “We’re deeper at virtually all positions across the board, both on the offensive line and the defensive line. Maybe we don’t have singularly one superstar here or there, but the depth of the group is a whole different football team than that group.

    “That was a unique group in that they knew how to win, had great leadership. Look, winning teams have a special group of guys that find ways to win, and that group did. But this is, from an athletic standpoint and from a physical prowess standpoint, a deeper football team.”

    The 2012 Irish reached the BCS Championship with a 12-0 record, but won five games by seven points or fewer. Their depth was fragile — the same five offensive linemen started all 13 games, which was good, because by December the team only had six healthy scholarship linemen — and “knowing how to win” was exposed by an Alabama team far stronger and faster in the title game.

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    But 2012 was a crowing achievement for more than what happened on Saturdays. Kelly & Co. brought in their strongest recruiting class that next February, one Rivals ranked as the third-best nationally. Members of that recruiting class have been in the program for three years and form the core of the team; Zaire, Folston, Fuller, Robinson, Hunter, Elmer, McGlinchey, Rochell, Onwualu, Smith, Luke and Redfield have built to this point since the fall of 2013.

    Not only does Kelly have a blossoming junior class at his disposal, he has a much better understanding of Notre Dame entering his sixth year on campus. He knows the program and university — he’s lost, due to academics, Golson, Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels and running back Greg Bryant in the last three years — and feels better prepared to navigate the path to championship contention.

    “I don’t know if you ever get comfortable in the seat at Notre Dame,” Kelly said. “Comfortable wouldn’t be a word that I would use. I think what I would probably say is that the picture is a lot clearer in the sense that I really know where our strengths and weaknesses are as a program, what we need to continue to work on and develop and know the direction that we need to continue to push the group in. So I think it’s just a more clear understanding of the program and what we need every single day more than a comfort level.

    “Like I said, I don’t think you ever feel comfortable here at Notre Dame. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. I just think you’ve always got to be looking at how to get better every day.”