Five things we learned: Notre Dame 15, Pitt 12

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The recipe for disaster was there. Eight penalties for 85 yards. Another lost turnover battle, 2-0. Drive killing mistakes. But Saturday turned out differently, with Notre Dame beating Pittsburgh 15-12 thanks to a great fourth quarter drive by Tommy Rees, who up until that point was held captive by a blitzing Panthers defense.

It was the ugliest win of the Brian Kelly era, and a victory that wasn’t official until Kelly made a gutsy call on 4th and 1 at the Pitt 35, opting to put the proverbial dagger in the Panthers instead of putting Ben Turk on the field to punt. The gamble paid off, Rees got the first down by half a football, and the Irish escaped Pittsburgh with a 2-2 record.

“Any time you’re on the road, you need to find a way to get the win,” Kelly said walking off the field.

It wasn’t pretty, but the Irish escaped disaster and did it with another solid defensive performance, limiting Pitt to under 300 yards on the afternoon and getting a great pass rush from the front seven. With their offensive bravado blown but their postseason hopes still in tact, let’s find out what we learned in the Irish’s ugly 15-12 win over Pitt.

The Irish were one drive away from an ugly quarterback situation.

Even if you watched the game alone, you probably heard the grumbling about Tommy Rees on Saturday afternoon. Rees turned the ball over twice on Saturday, losing a fumble on a sack and throwing late to Tyler Eifert after evading the Pitt rush, turning an open receiver into another interception deep in the opponent’s territory.

At Notre Dame, the back-up quarterback is always among the most popular players on the team, and with Dayne Crist, the sentiment is understandable. Crist only got one half of football as starting quarterback before Kelly pulled him for Rees, and Crist passes every conceivable eyeball test known to man.

Yet Kelly’s patience with Rees says all we need to know. He still believes that the sophomore quarterback with a weaker arm, slower legs and a troubling turnover habit is the guy that gives the Irish the best chance to win. And Rees proved his head coach right once again with a clutch drive to win the game, going eight for eight as he drove the Irish from their own 15 yard line, connecting with Eifert five times, including the go-ahead touchdown and two-point conversion.

You can say it 100 times, but it doesn’t make Irish fans feel any better. Young quarterbacks make mistakes. Brady Quinn did it, Jimmy Clausen did it, and Heisman Trophy winners like Carson Palmer did it. It’s not just happening at Notre Dame. (Check out BYU’s Jake Heaps, the No. 1 recruited quarterback in Rees’ class. He’s thrown five interceptions against just three touchdowns.)

Against a defense that was hellbent on taking away Michael Floyd, Rees struggled to find his rhythm, made a few dangerous throws, and showed why he’s not a perfect fit in Brian Kelly’s offense. But he also marched coolly down the field with the game on the line and pulled out the win.

That’s why he’s the starting quarterback at Notre Dame.

Even with Darius Fleming answering the bell, the Irish are struggling with their linebacker personnel.

Darius Fleming played maybe the best game of his career, answering his critics and coming up with two sacks, three tackles-for-loss and a great play at the goal line to stop Pitt. But Fleming’s production doesn’t hide the personnel imbalance that the Irish are fighing with, specifically at the Dog linebacker position, where Prince Shembo is struggling with the intricacies of playing the field-side linebacker position.

Shembo is on the field because he’s the best option the Irish have, especially with Danny Spond battling a hamstring injury. But the sophomore linebacker, recruited to Notre Dame as a defensive end and used last year as a designated pass rusher, doesn’t look all that comfortable in space, and Pitt consistently picked on Shembo in coverage, gaining easy yardage in front of him when they chose to roll the pocket and throw to the big side of the field. Troy Niklas, a talented but raw freshman, got some time in place of Shembo, but the Irish will need to get Spond healthy to see what he can do if they want to play better pass defense. With Spond available on passing downs, Shembo can do what he did when he played well this afternoon, filling the box score with six tackles and a sack.

Once again, Manti Te’o led the Irish in tackles, making ten total with eight solo stops, also chipping in a sack on Pitt quarterback Tino Sunseri. But neither Carlo Calabrese nor Dan Fox have stepped up and seized the position next to him, and both guys had some ugly missed tackles this afternoon.

It’s hard to be too tough on the Irish defense after a nice day at the office, which included hold Pitt to a net of 103 yards on 38 carries. But with four games in the books, opposing offenses are seeing ways to pick on the Irish defense, and Pitt provided more tape this afternoon.

Battling back from adversity, Jonas Gray is making himself a valuable part of the Irish offense.

When Jonas Gray fumbled the ball inside South Florida’s one yard-line, more than a few people wondered if Gray would ever get into the endzone. But the senior running back bounced back from that early season failure, played solid football the past two weeks, and broke loose this afternoon, his 79-yard touchdown run supplying the game’s biggest play, and a highlight reel first touchdown of the senior’s career.

Kelly’s continued faith in Gray has given a huge boost to the offense and adds a second legitimate runner to the Irish backfield, with Cierre Wood going over 90 yards for the fourth straight Saturday. While most reporters will look back at a summer-time conversation Gray had with former Irish running back Jerome Bettis, Kelly’s preseason goals for Gray have actually been what the Irish needed most out of the senior from Michigan: Simply be a faster Robert Hughes.

Gray has done that plus more, utilizing his speed to notch the Irish’s longest run since Terrence Howard‘s 80-yard touchdown against West Virginia back in 2000.  At 6.7 yards-per carry this season, Gray is doing more than just complement Wood, who’s averaging over 99 yards an afternoon at five yards per carry, he’s making an argument to get more touches, something that’ll come in handy as the season wears on.

After a rough opening drive to the season, Gray’s turned around his season.

The Irish played a dominant football game at the line of scrimmage.

The Irish’s defensive line didn’t get the double-digit sack numbers that Aaron Lynch hoped, but they did come up with six sacks, the most in the Kelly era, and their eight tackles-for-loss was the team’s most prolific day behind the line of scrimmage since the Irish’s 2008 bowl victory in Hawaii.

Darius Fleming paced the Irish effort behind the line of scrimmage, getting two sacks of Sunseri and making another play behind the line of scrimmage, continuing a trend of good play Kelly hoped to see from his senior linebacker. More impressively, the Irish’s pass rush took over the game when it was needed, with Lynch and Shembo getting two drive-killing sacks on Sunseri on Pitt’s last possession of the game.

Their play is likely getting lost behind all the turnovers and Irish miscues, but the Notre Dame defense has allowed one offensive touchdown or less in seven of their last nine games. (And the Miami touchdowns came in mop-up time.) More impressively, the Irish defense is a place where runningbacks go to die, and Graham’s 89 yards on 21 carries — largely buoyed by his 42-yard scamper after Rees’ interception — was one of the best days an opposing running back has had against Notre Dame in the Kelly era. You have to go all the way back to last September to find a 100-yard rushing running back, when both Stepfan Taylor of Stanford and Le’Veon Bell had 100 yard days against the the Irish. That’s an impressive run by Bob Diaco’s troops, and part of why the Irish don’t seem too worried when they give up short completions.

Brian Kelly doesn’t lack belief.

If you were looking for another reason to doubt Brian Kelly, he gave you a very large one with less than a minute left in the ballgame, choosing to go for it on fourth and one at the Pitt 35, putting the game on the back of his offensive line instead of on a defense that had played rock solid football.

How difficult was the decision? Consider that Urban Meyer flip-flopped on it, and he was in the press box.

Kelly’s decision to sneak Rees essentially ended the football game, and shows that the head coach has plenty of confidence in his football team, and certainly a lot more than the members of ND Nation have, many of whom were apoplectic when Rees and the offense stayed on the field after the Irish called a timeout, not to mention throughout a football game where not a lot went right for the Irish. But the decision showed Kelly’s belief in his team, and more importantly, gave the Irish a huge positive to take away on an afternoon that wasn’t filled with them.

“I like the way our guys battled,” Kelly said after the game. “I’m really pleased with our resilience and toughness. We’re playing the kind of football I want our teams to play. It’s not going to be an instant classic, but it certainly is from a football standpoint — games that you have to win on the road. You’re going to be presented with some of these kinds of closely fought, last drive, come up with a big stop or a big conversion, and that’s what we saw today.”

By every account, this was an ugly win for Notre Dame. And while the flaws that cost the Irish their first two games of the season still popped up more times than anyone would like. While the team is trending in the right direction, it feels like they’re running uphill in quicksand while they do it.

At 2-2 with Purdue and Air Force on the horizon, the Irish have a chance to be 4-2 going into bye week and a home date with Southern Cal. Kelly’s squad has proven incapable of looking past any opponent, but if the Irish want to put together a good run, they’re well positioned to do so.

It might not have looked good, but it bears repeating that substance outweighs style every day of the week, especially on Saturday. A solid defensive performance and a gutsy drive by Tommy Rees proved it this afternoon.

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.