Five things we learned: Notre Dame vs. Miami

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Irish fans have heard this story before. Two storied programs come into a bowl game with millions of eyes watching. One walks out a shell of its former self. The other, with sky-high expectations for next season after an impressive performance. Only this time, it’s Irish fans buzzing with excitement after their team took another proud football program to the wood shed, flipping a script almost 20 years in the making.

In a battle of two 7-5 teams, Notre Dame looked like the only team that wanted to play this afternoon, with the Irish scoring touchdowns on three of their first four possessions, taking a 27-3 lead into halftime before cruising to a 33-17 win over Miami in the Sun Bowl. Paced by junior wide receiver Michael Floyd’s six catches, 106 yards, and two first half touchdowns, an Irish victory was never really in doubt against a Hurricane’s team that was favored walking into the snow-covered El Paso stadium.

Here’s what we learned in Notre Dame’s 33-17 victory over Miami in the Sun Bowl, giving the Irish their first 8-5 season in school history.

1. If this is it for Michael Floyd, he certainly left us with something to talk about.

Receiving the Sun Bowl MVP trophy after the game, fans serenaded Floyd with “One More Year!” chants, a sentiment quickly taken up by the junior wide receivers teammates who joined in the shouting.

We’ve had our say (more than once) about Floyd’s NFL decision, but if he does decide to walk away from Notre Dame, he’ll do it as the school’s leader in touchdown receptions with 28, his two touchdown catches against Miami surpassing Jeff Samardzija’s 27. That’s 28 touchdowns in 28 games for the junior from St. Paul, Minnesota, who lost quite a bit of time during his three seasons thanks to a knee and collarbone injury.

Miami opened the game in press coverage on Floyd with talented cornerback Brandon Harris, another junior mulling a departure to the NFL draft. That decision backfired, as Floyd beat the Hurricanes on both short and long patterns, showing a diversity in his game that didn’t exist in his first two seasons in South Bend.

There might still be questions about Floyd’s speed, but it’s hard to take those worries too seriously when you watch the 6-foot-3 receiver run past potential first round cornerbacks on his way to dominating a team that made the receiver their defensive priority.

We’ll find out soon enough what Floyd and fellow junior Kyle Rudolph are going to do, but if Floyd’s performance in the Sun Bowl was his swan song, Irish fans should be happy whether or not they get an encore.

2. Regardless of what the future holds for Tommy Rees, he saved Notre Dame’s season.

The baby-faced freshman quarterback who loves Glee may become the next great signal caller for the Irish or may go the way of former freshman starter Matt LoVecchio. Either way, he deserves a great deal of credit for stepping in at quarterback and helping the Irish finish their first season with four straight wins since 1992.

The season could’ve gone a lot differently for Rees, who had an ignominious start to his career even before he threw the game-ending interception against Tulsa in field goal range. But Rees showed moxie far greater than you’d expect in a true freshman, and the decision to forgo his high school basketball season and the second half of his senior year and enroll at Notre Dame early is one of the main reasons why Rees has put himself at the front of the line in the competition to be the quarterback of the future for the Irish.

Rees only completed a shade over 50 percent of his throws, but was efficient in his decisions, didn’t turn the ball over, and showed great poise in the face of a Miami pass rush that battered and bruised him. Rees consistently stepped up and made big throws, whether they were first half completions to Tyler Eifert, or game-icers to John Goodman and TJ Jones.

Before the game, Kelly said Rees had to play well for the Irish to win the football game. Throwing two touchdown passes against zero interceptions (and being a few finger tips away from two more touchdowns) certainly qualifies, especially against a team that had only given up seven passing touchdowns all year.

Only time will tell us Tommy Rees’ legacy at Notre Dame, but his impact on the 2010 season can’t be overstated.

3. Even without a 100-yard rusher, Hughes and Wood provided the ground game needed to win.

Sure, Notre Dame finishes the season without a 100-yard game from a running back this year. But both Robert Hughes and Cierre Wood provided the thunder and lightning needed to control the game clock and balance an offense that couldn’t just rely on a passing game.

While Brian Kelly isn’t one for the time of possession stat, he used Hughes and Wood to dominate the playclock, with the Irish winning the battle convincingly, holding onto the football for over 37 minutes to Miami’s 21. Hughes only averaged three yards a carry, but his 27 carries were a career high for the senior playing his last game in a Notre Dame uniform, and his bulldozing style wore down a Hurricanes defense that spent a lot of time on the field.

Hughes’ inside running provided a perfect counterbalance to Cierre Wood’s afternoon, where the sophomore broke multiple big plays and showed a great burst in the open field. After starting slowly, Wood finishes the season as the team’s leading rusher, besting Armando Allen’s total by eight yards and averaging a very respectable 4.9 yards per carry.

With Theo Riddick providing some Wildcat looks, the Irish ran the ball 47 times amongst the trio, for a very respectable 4.7 yards per carry.

4. Harrison Smith embodies Bob Diaco’s defense.

For Irish fans that kept Harrison Smith in their doghouse for much of the last two seasons, it had to border on the bizarre to see the senior safety turn into a ballhawk right before our very eyes this afternoon.

Smith led the team with six solo tackles and intercepted Miami quarterbacks three times in the first half, leading the charge for Bob Diaco’s defense as it finished the season with another dominating performance.

Smith’s development both on the field and as a leader (he leads all Irish defenders, being chosen game captain four times) embodies the development of Diaco’s entire defense, turning a misplaced misfit into a elite defensive player.

While we joked about it earlier in the week, Diaco’s fable about the scorpion and the frog is a telling parable for a defense that has been in need of a identity for the last five years. This unit has bought in completely to the ideals and philosophy Diaco constantly preaches, understanding that they truly are 1/11th of a unit, and must simply “master their musts.”

With Smith coming back for a fifth year, the Irish will have an anchor for their secondary. It may have taken a long time to get there, but Smith’s intellect on the field has finally matched the athleticism he’s flashed in his first three seasons in South Bend.

5. Don’t look now, but the 2011 season could be a special one for the Irish.

Notre Dame fans will have the next nine months to get overly excited about 2011, but the pieces are in place for the Irish to be BCS contenders next season. If Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph decide to return, the Irish will have their leading quarterback, running back, wide receiver, and tight end back on offense, with four of five lineman returning to protect them. They’ll return both defensive ends, three of four starting linebackers, and three of four starting defensive backs as well. That’s a lot of continuity as the Irish head into year two of the Kelly era.

Kelly made comments during Sun Bowl interviews that he’s confident that he can manufacture the offense needed to win football games, and he’s shown that he’s been able to do that since Rees took control of the team. With his sights set squarely on defensive talent, the Irish finally have a coach that not only understands that the Irish need an elite defense to win BCS games, but is willing to put an emphasis on it during recruiting.

There will never be a coach at Notre Dame that admits publicly he’s in the midst of a rebuilding year, but the 2010 season was exactly that for Notre Dame. Replacing three of five starters on the offensive line, an All-American caliber quarterback and the Biletnikoff-winning wide receiver all but gutted an offense that also had to learn a completely new philosophy and scheme (with a first-time starting quarterback recovering from major knee surgery). The challenges were just as significant on the defensive side of the ball, where a beleaguered unit needed to relearn just about everything it had been taught in order to get back to playing just mediocre defense.

Kelly certainly didn’t pass every test he faced this season, and a few decisions he made cost the Irish dearly. But he’s instilled a confidence and optimism in both the team and the fanbase that’s been absent for a long time.

“I was confident that when I took the job here at the University of Notre Dame, I would bring the program back,” Kelly said last week. “Now I know we will. Stay tuned. It’ll be a fun ride.”

After the program hit a low not seen even during these last 15 seasons, the Irish picked themselves up from the ground, dusted themselves off, and won the final four games of the season, dispatching programs like Utah, USC, and Miami along the way. That was something just about all of us didn’t see coming.

246 days until the Irish take on South Florida in Notre Dame Stadium. All of ND Nation awaits…

 

 

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’

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Notre Dame’s next offensive coordinator will not matter; whomever Irish head coach Marcus Freeman hires to replace Tommy Rees, he will lean on his running backs.

Notre Dame’s running backs room looks the same as it did a year ago, but oh so different. The order has been drastically reshuffled, though through no one’s failure, only youngsters’ successes.

Any new offensive coordinator will know he has three proven backs to lean on with an intriguing youngster joining a promising one slowly recovering from injury. Oh, and the No. 8 running back in the class of 2023.

They will once again be coached by Deland McCullough. Some further coaching turnover could occur yet this offseason, but McCullough looks secure at Notre Dame.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
This space’s running depth chart — running as in ever-evolving, not as in running backs — still has Chris Tyree atop the running backs listing. In-season, the “ever-evolving” depth chart is not updated as much given the week’s prior game lingers in memory and informs more than anything else.

But even in the season opener, Tyree was not the Irish starter. Audric Estimé got that honor at Ohio State. His preseason was strong enough to vault Estimé to the top of the depth chart, a spot he should not relinquish until he heads to the NFL.

Fellow rising junior Logan Diggs also ended up with more carries than Tyree, creating the type of running-back depth needed to be a viable contender in modern college football.

Some Notre Dame fans insist Tyree is a failure. A former four-star running back who has never taken over a season, they argue. But that overlooks a few realities:

First of all, Tyree backed up an All-American for two years. Complementing Kyren Williams’ all-around game with a speed element was vital for the Irish to make the Playoff in 2020 and threaten it in 2021.

Secondly, if the floor of every four-star recruit is to become a four-year contributor with 13-and-counting touchdowns, recruiting would be far easier. Many “can’t miss prospects” fall quite short of that.

Lastly, Tyree’s kickoff return touchdown against Wisconsin in 2021 is now overlooked because of Graham Mertz’s subsequent fourth-quarter meltdown, but if Tyree had not given Notre Dame that lead — flipping a 13-10 deficit to a 17-13 lead — then Mertz never would have needed to get so desperate. There is a very real chance the Irish do not come within a yard of the 2021 Playoff if Tyree does not break that 96-yard kickoff return touchdown.

All of which is to say, Estimé and Diggs leapfrogged Tyree because of their strengths and improvements, not because of any of Tyree’s supposed struggles.

2022 STATS
Estimé: 13 games; 156 carries for 920 yards, a 5.9 yards per rush average, with 11 touchdowns. 9 catches for 135 yards and another score.
Diggs: 12 games; 165 carries for 921 yards, a 5.0 yards per rush average, with four touchdowns. 10 catches for 211 yards and two more scores.
Tyree: 13 games; 100 carries for 444 yards, a 4.4 yards per rush average, with three touchdowns. 24 catches for 138 yards and two more scores.

Of particular note looking at those three running backs, they combined for only 50 yards lost on their 421 carries last season. In the throttling upset of No. 5 Clemson to start November, just two of Notre Dame’s 45 rushes were stopped behind the line of scrimmage.

More notably, the three Irish backs carried the ball 32 times in the Gator Bowl win against No. 19 South Carolina for 205 yards. None of those rushes lost yardage.

After Diggs found full health (an April shoulder injury slowed him into the season) and Notre Dame fully committed to the running backs after quarterback Tyler Buchner was lost for 10 games, the trio averaged 230.5 yards from scrimmage each week.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Make no mistake, the Irish running backs were as disappointed as anyone when Rees left for Alabama last week. They knew, without a doubt, his offense would feature them. After all, Rees has said he wishes he had grown up as an offensive guard rather than a quarterback if he could choose body type.

They also understood Rees’s decision.

Nonetheless, the trio knows it will be a key piece of Notre Dame’s offense in 2023 for two reasons. One, they are that proven. Two, with Sam Hartman at quarterback, the Irish offense should be more prolific for a change. More snaps and more scoring opportunities will benefit all the skill position players.

The proven “three-headed monster,” as Freeman described them in the 2022 season, should not need to show too much this spring. Estimé needs to hold onto the ball, Diggs needs to find a bit more comfort running between the tackles, and Tyree may spend even more time split wide as a slot receiver, something that was not needed significantly last season because that was often where Michael Mayer aligned.

But those improvements will be on the edges. The three are already known. They will be the most reliable collective piece of Notre Dame’s offense.

The change this spring will be from freshman Gi’Bran Payne. He was the rare delayed signee, de-commiting from Indiana after McCullough left the Hoosiers for South Bend and then eventually following McCullough, committing in mid-April.

Without a spring to impress and behind three stout running backs, Payne never had a viable chance to contribute in 2022. That could change this spring, particularly since classmate Jadarian Price will still be recovering from an Achilles injury, something that usually takes a full year. Price may end up a midseason option, but until then, Payne is Notre Dame’s No. 4 running back, and an injury to any of the leading trio would push No. 4 into a Saturday role.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame adds former four-star Indiana signee, RB Gi’Bran Payne, to incoming freshman class
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 13 Gi’Bran Payne, freshman running back, late recruit

FUTURE DEPTH
He may not factor in this season — again, the Irish have three proven and reliable, and largely durable, running backs — but consensus four-star Jeremiyah Love will almost assuredly draw some notice in the preseason.

At every step of his decade at Notre Dame, Tommy Rees provided stability otherwise lacking

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He was a three-star quarterback coming from a Chicago suburb with scholarship offers from only two other Power-Five programs. The head coach who recruited him had been fired.

And then Notre Dame needed the freshman quarterback to start against a top-15 team and try to redeem a sub-.500 season. Tommy Rees threw three touchdown passes to upset No. 15 Utah. He completed 13-of-20 passes to avoid any distinct mistakes, an immediate 180-degree turn from how the previous week ended with Rees filling in as an injury replacement. The Irish did not want to lean on him too much, hence only 129 passing yards, but he delivered.

“Everything in our game plan was you’ve got to run the football, we’ve got to be high-percentage in our throws and not put Tommy in too many positions where we could turn the ball over,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in November 2010. “I wasn’t going to put this game on Tommy Rees.”

Kelly would, in time, put many games on Tommy Rees. At the outset, though, he continued to rely on the Irish ground game to rattle off a four-game win streak and turn a 4-5 debut season into an 8-5 finish with resounding momentum. Notre Dame ran the ball 144 times in those four games compared to 106 pass dropbacks (sacks adjusted).

RELATED READING: 30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated

Most memorably, the game-winning drive at USC featured five rushes and only two passes, taking a lead with just two minutes left to snag the first Irish win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 2000.

Kelly turned back to Danye Crist to start the 2011 season and quickly flipped to Rees after only a half. In 2012, Kelly called on Rees in the most critical of moments to steady freshman quarterback Everett Golson. Then when Golson was suspended for the 2013 season, Rees was again thrown into the chaos and dragged Notre Dame to a respectable season rather than one lost in all sorts of ways.

At every step of his playing career, Rees provided the Irish stability when it was otherwise absent. He would do that again these past six years as an assistant coach.

First, he showed up expecting to be the 10th assistant coach only for the NCAA to delay that implementation, forcing Rees to become a graduate assistant, both adding coursework to his workload and removing his ability to coach the Irish quarterbacks in practices.

Then he threaded the delicate needle of a midseason quarterback change in 2018 even though Notre Dame had not lost a game. Keeping both Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book engaged with the team and moving forward propelled the Irish to the College Football Playoff, a direct counter to the quarterback debacle that torpedoed the 2016 season. Doing that while under an abrasive offensive coordinator who has continued to burn his way out of subsequent coaching jobs makes the player relations that much more impressive.

When Chip Long was fired following the 2019 season, Rees took over the offense for a resounding — and decently unexpected — throttling of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.

Obviously, 2020 brought instability to everyone in every industry, including college football. Rees’s offense averaged 6.2 yards per play, the No. 4 most explosive offense of Kelly’s 11 years at Notre Dame.

In 2021, Rees worked with three quarterbacks to keep the Irish in Playoff contention. Again, his ability to prop up the psyche of the most important position in college football was the key to Notre Dame’s success, particularly as the head coach was apparently actively planning his exit from South Bend. Of course, Kelly’s abrupt departure gave Rees the biggest platform in his Irish career to buttress the program, to provide stability, to secure its future.

When Rees turned down Kelly’s LSU overtures — “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees told his offense — he eased Freeman’s first-year learning curve by magnitudes. The former defensive coordinator knew what offense would be run in 2022 and that he did not need to worry about it much. For the second consecutive Irish head coach’s maiden voyage, Rees led a late-season surge, potentially setting the tone for his first few seasons.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

In literally every one of his 10 years at Notre Dame, Rees navigated choppy waters.

He turned Ian Book into an NFL quarterback who could win a Super Bowl ring this weekend. He won eight games with Drew Pyne as his starter. Those may not be the accolades of a “quarterback whisperer,” but finding success with talent as questioned as he once was proved Rees’s bona fides enough that the greatest coach in college football history came calling.

Rees owed Notre Dame nothing.

That is not, “Rees no longer owed Notre Dame anything.” It is that he never did.

He played four strong seasons as a quarterback in undesirable situations at every turn. Whatever debt a player owes his school, Rees paid then.

There is no further loyalty or obligation owed to an alma mater. The expectation of one says more about those conjuring those expectations than anyone else.

Coaching for Nick Saban is a clear step forward in a young coach’s career, no matter what transfer quarterback has arrived in South Bend this winter.

For that matter, by recruiting Sam Hartman, Rees provided Notre Dame some stability for an 11th year, rather notable for someone who spent only a decade at the university.

RELATED READING: Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.