Pregame Six Pack: Bring on BYU

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Leave it to Brian Kelly to spice up a week without an obvious storyline. With Everett Golson recovering from a mild concussion suffered last Saturday against Stanford, Kelly announced he’d be making a game-time decision on his starting quarterback.

Even better, he wouldn’t narrow things down between three candidates, the incumbent starter Golson, who didn’t practice this week until Wednesday, Tommy Rees, the guy people are slowly warming up to after he’s played fairly heroically as a reliever, or Andrew Hendrix, the forgotten man in the rotation, who Kelly said had a great week of practice.

So while there’s no grudge match, intriguing neutral site, or national rivalry on the line, don’t call this week boring.

Before No. 5 Notre Dame prepares to take on Brigham Young University, let’s run through six fun facts, tidbits, leftovers and miscellaneous musings before the Irish and the Cougars battle at 3:30 p.m. ET this Saturday in South Bend.

***

Does a game time decision at quarterback mean anything to the Irish offense moving forward?

Once again, there’s a question mark at quarterback. And while this season has been anything but ordinary behind center, there’s certainly a strategic advantage to forcing BYU to prepare for three different options at quarterback. But before we start wondering if there’s anything behind the move, let’s take Kelly at his word.

“I won’t make a decision on the quarterback until game time,” Kelly said when discussing Everett Golson’s return from a mild concussion. “We’re monitoring his health. This is about health and safety. This isn’t about who the starting quarterback is.

“I want to see Everett for 48 hours. I want to go all the way up there. I don’t think there’s a cookie cutter approach to concussions. You want to see how they handle exertion. You want to see how they handle all the things leading up in film study and watching and then get back on the field. I want to take the 48 hours that I have before I make that decision.”

Credit Kelly for taking his time with a concussion and not rushing Golson back from a vicious hit. But just for the exercise, let’s just play out the scenario at quarterback through a different lens. The Irish are 14-point favorites against BYU, meaning the Irish should win this game with any one of the three options behind center. But that certainly won’t be the case when Notre Dame travels to Norman, where they’ll face their sternest test of the season. If there’s going to be a move at quarterback — namely to Tommy Rees — this would certainly be the week to give Rees a chance to break into the lineup.

After watching the offense continue to thrive with Rees under center and Golson understandably struggle against a defense like Stanford’s, getting Rees a few more live snaps, especially while Golson is coming back from a head injury, isn’t a bad plan.

Credit Kelly for handling the delicate dance at quarterback thus far. But don’t be surprised to see multiple quarterbacks on the field this Saturday, as Notre Dame gives Bob and Mike Stoops as much to think about as possible.

***

If the Irish look past BYU, they’ll have done it at their own peril.

If Brian Kelly worries about his squad looking past BYU, he can just get the attention of a former Irish coach that saw his team get jumped by the boys from Provo in Notre Dame Stadium: Lou Holtz. In 1994, a Holtz team that opened the season ranked No. 3 in the country lost a mid-October date against LaVell Edwards‘ Cougars 21-41, dropping the Irish out of the top 25 and helping them skid their way to a 6-5-1 record.

The Deseret News’ Jeff Call caught up with some of the former members of that ’94 Cougar team as they recounted some of their memories.

BYU returns to South Bend Saturday (1:30 p.m. MDT, NBC) to face an undefeated Notre Dame squad that is ranked No. 5 in the nation.

For longtime assistant coach Lance Reynolds, that win 18 years ago remains fresh in his mind, adding that it ranks among the greatest in school history.

“It would have to be among the best ones,” he said. “It was at Notre Dame, against a storied program. Anytime you get a win like that, at a place like that, it’s just huge. It was kind of like the Miami game (in 1990).”

Chad Lewis, who played tight end for the Cougars and now serves as an associate athletic director, recalled that as BYU’s team buses left the stadium after the game, Fighting Irish fans put down their coats and blankets and clapped their hands. “Our team stood staring out the window at these people,” Lewis said. “It was totally amazing.”

This year’s BYU team is led by a defense that’s put up some strong statistics while the offense gets back to their roots. Chief among that unit is pass rush specialist Kyle Van Noy. At 6-foot-3, 235-pounds, the outside linebacker filled the stat sheet during his sophomore season, among the team leaders across the board statistically. He’s taken a step forward during his junior campaign, with 7.5 sacks already this season, good for fourth in the country, and 11.5 tackles for loss.

When asked to compare Van Noy with the elite linebacker he has playing for him, Kelly was complimentary.

“I actually see Van Noy more as an edge player,” Kelly said. “I think the way they ask him to play, he gets the opportunity to get after the quarterback much more than Manti. But he’s a guy that is relentless like Manti. The great players have the same traits.  It’s just they are played at different positions, but they certainly could be interchangeable.”

While the generation before them got caught up in the mystique of Notre Dame, don’t expect this team to be awestruck.

“I don’t really get sucked into the hype of it all. It’ll be fun to go to South Bend and play there,” linebacker Spencer Hadley said. “Fans get to approach it that way but as players we don’t really get to look at it like that. It’s a business trip. It’s not like we’re going to Disneyland. We’re going to play a football game and we’re preparing as such.”

***

While we haven’t seen him yet on the field, safety Chris Badger isn’t questioning his decision to come back to Notre Dame.

Safety Chris Badger faces off against BYU, a program many thought the Utah native would be playing for by now. But Badger, who left Notre Dame after participating in Brian Kelly’s first spring practice to spend the better part of two years serving his Mormon mission in Ecuador, is settling in nicely in South Bend.

While many expected the 20-year-old freshman to be one of the early contributors on the field, spending two years away from the game, not to mention living in an impoverished third-world country, makes the transition back to major college football a difficult one.

Former Utah safety Steve Tate, who played for Urban Meyer, mentored Badger throughout the recruiting process and has stayed in touch with him during his journey from South Bend to Ecuador and back, talked about that difficult transition.

“I can only imagine what it’s like at Notre Dame,” Tate told the Deseret News. “You’ve got to be patient with guys off missions. You kind of feel like you are on an island, and as everyone knows at Utah and BYU, its difficult to get back in shape.”

When Tate got back, Eric Weddle told him he looked out of shape. “Well,” he replied, “I’ve been in a third-world country (Argentina) for two years.” That Badger is redshirting this year will make a big difference, said Tate.

Badger has had to deal with the realities of building a football program like Notre Dame, where he’s believed to be the first football player to have taken a Mormon mission.

“In an elite program, they don’t juggle their recruiting or numbers around returned missionaries,” Badger’s brother Troy told the Desert News. “Notre Dame and Kelly were great when Chris wanted to go on a mission. When you look at it, there haven’t been many successful returned missionaries at the big-time programs that recruit nationally. Most LDS athletes haven’t interrupted their careers to do it. For Chris, his chances were better if he stayed. But he really felt like he needed to go and he had a great experience in Ecuador. Now he’s back, it will take some work as well as luck to get that opportunity.”

Badger will be in uniform on the sideline against BYU, but won’t likely get his shot on the field until next season.

***

Everybody remembers USC, but Manti Te’o was also the one who got away for BYU, too.

Most Trojan fans grimace when they see video of a young Manti Te’o picking that Notre Dame hat back in Hawaii. But before Te’o narrowed things down to Notre Dame and USC, BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall gave chase after the Hawaiian linebacker.

“We wanted Manti,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall acknowledged. “We thought he was an excellent player. Heavy recruiting race. Had an official visit, saw everything that we had to offer, and [he] really didn’t want BYU. So, certainly our evaluation [of him] as a player was right. He’s very good.”

Adding to BYU’s pain was the fact that several of his family members told reporters prior to his official decision that he was leaning heavily toward BYU. Rumors abounded that something happened on his official visit that turned him away. However, Mendenhall said Tuesday he never felt like BYU had the edge. Nor did he ever get a reason from Te’o about why he rejected BYU.

“I don’t ever think it was [certain] that he was heading here,” Mendenhall said. “He chose to go elsewhere, and we wished him well, and that was it. I am glad to see he is having success.”

The Cougars (and Trojans) loss was certainly Notre Dame’s gain.

“I prayed about it, and everything pointed towards Notre Dame,” Te’o said this week about his collegiate choice. “Notre Dame is where I came because I was directed to come here.”

***

In his final year at Notre Dame, Kapron Lewis-Moore is making it count.

It was hardly the type of senior season you’d want to remember. After a knee injury cut his season short against USC, Kapron Lewis-Moore watched as his team’s season short-circuited as well. The veteran defensive end, who was one of the many Charlie Weis recruits rankled by Kelly’s infamous radio comments that nearly divided the team, carried a large chip on his shoulder as a season that opened with promise turned into an 8-5 year spent largely in neutral.

That chip might have stuck with Lewis-Moore into the spring as well, especially when he returned to practice after rehabbing his injury only to be rising sophomore Aaron Lynch’s back-up. It was an irritating bit of fuel for his inner fire.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t,” Lewis-Moore told the Chicago Tribune. “Even if he was still here, I would still do whatever it takes to help the team. If my role was to be on the bench, or whatever, hey, so be it. I know what I can bring to the team.”

But Lynch is no longer in South Bend, instead waiting in South Florida for his year long sabbatical to end before he can return to football. But for Lewis-Moore, the home stretch of his collegiate career is upon us, and the fifth-year veteran, named one of the team’s captains this fall, has done his best to make up for lost time.

Lewis-Moore is anchoring the defensive end spot across from Stephon Tuitt, chipping in 18 tackles, with a sack and two TFLs. He’s also been a role model for young players like Sheldon Day, while contributing to the stiff defense front that makes running against Notre Dame so difficult.

“It’s crazy around here. Everybody is excited. At the same time, we have to keep our eye on the prize,” Lewis-Moore said.

Spoken like a true veteran.

***

As the Irish offense evolves, productivity trends emerge.

After listening to Brian Kelly earlier in the week, you get the feeling there’s plenty more to it than statistical breakdowns, but after six games, it’s time to start looking at some trends that are starting to emerge. As Notre Dame looks for ways to get more out of its offense, it might start looking at the productivity of their offensive weapons.

A quick down and dirty analysis of player targets and player production gives you an interesting look at the team’s offensive weapons and how well they’ve been performing. Let’s take a quick look at some of the key players.

Theo Riddick
80 rushes for 308 yards. 20 catches on 30 targets for 170 yards.
Targeted: 28% Production: 20%

Cierre Wood
47 rushes for 277 yards. 2 catches on 2 targets for 9 yards.
Targeted: 13% Production: 12%

George Atkinson
32 rushes for 290 yards. 2 catches on 2 targets for 41 yards.
Targeted: 9% Production: 12%

TJ Jones
19 catches on 33 targets for 235 yards.
Targeted: 9% Production: 10%

Davaris Daniels
14 catches on 21 targets for 231 yards
Targeted: 5% Production: 10%

Robby Toma
12 catches on 18 targets for 118 yards. 3 rushes for 23 yards.
Targeted: 5% Production: 6%

Tyler Eifert
15 catches on 28 targets for 246 yards.
Targeted: 7% Production: 10%

Suspension or not, it’s amazing that Theo Riddick has been targeted on 28% of Notre Dame’s plays from scrimmage, yet only produces 20% of the team’s total offense. You can say what you want about the play calls, blocking, or other circumstances, but no player is producing less with their opportunities than Riddick.

It’s also not hard to see who this team’s most explosive player is. With only nine percent of the team’s targets, George Atkinson is accounting for 12 percent of production. Only Tyler Eifert (+3%) and Davaris Daniels (+5%) is outperforming their opportunities like that, and it makes you wonder what that ankle injury did to slow down Daniels’ productivity.

A few quick looks at how to get this offense more effective:

* Do a better job of capitalizing on throws to Eifert — he’s only caught 15 of his 28 targets.
* Get the ball in George Atkinson’s hands more.
* If you’re going to give the ball to Riddick, do it through the air.
* Keep receivers like Daniels, TJ Jones, and Robby Toma involved.

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

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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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.

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

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A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.

The lull of National Signing Day underscores need to move the early signing period

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The early-morning chaos of today’s National Signing Day did not disappear with the implementation of the December “early” signing period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. It just moved six weeks earlier.

In 2014, waking up at 6:45 a.m. ET to be logged on and publishing at 7 a.m. led to noticing one expected recruit had not yet signed with Notre Dame by 8 a.m. Pointing that out and reminding the world Michigan State was making a late push led to an Irish media relations staffer reaching out to quietly say something to the extent of, “Just letting the young man have his moment at school.”

In 2017, less than two weeks after taking over this gig, waking up at 3 a.m. CT to churn through 2,000 words before signings could begin becoming official eventually led to napping through Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference.

Nothing changed 10 months later. That December, the afternoon of Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, was spent waiting for receiver Braden Lenzy to officially choose Notre Dame over Oregon. Sitting at your parents’ kitchen table not helping your niece make a gingerbread house because recruiting-obsessed fans harassed a player through two de-commitments is not a strong way to conjure up holiday spirit.

Coaches across the country advocated for the earlier signing period, claiming it would allow high-school seniors to make their collegiate decisions official earlier on in their senior years, particularly when the prospects had already made up their minds on where to play football at the next level. That was all optics, if even that.

These high schoolers now make their decision official just six weeks earlier. In the preps football calendar, those six weeks are meaningless. Both the December signing period and today, the traditional National Signing Day, come well after the high-school seasons have ended.

The truth was, coaches across the country did not want to tend to their solid commitments over Christmas and New Year’s, particularly not amid bowl prep. It was self-serving at best and short-sighted at worst.

First of all, when the December signing period became reality in 2017, one-time transfers were not yet allowed without losing eligibility the following season. Secondly, no one predicted the early signing period would lead to the coaching carousel beginning earlier and earlier in the season. September firings used to be the result of only off-field scandals, not outright expected from half a dozen programs each fall. Athletic directors now want that headstart on hiring a new coach so he can have time before the December signing period commences.

Exhibit A: Notre Dame may have ended up with Marcus Freeman as its head coach after Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure following the 2021 season, but if the primary signing date had not been lingering just a few weeks away, Kelly likely would not have jumped to LSU before the College Football Playoff field was set, and Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick would have taken more time in choosing his next head coach, more than the 48 hours he used last December. After all, Swarbrick took 10 days in hiring Kelly in 2009.

Lastly, with a 12-team Playoff coming in 2025, December will become only more hectic.

Those head coaches who wanted a little less stress over the holidays will then have to deal with, in chronological order:

— Keeping their own jobs.
— Securing their recruiting classes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
— Preparing their teams for bowl games.
— Preparing their teams for up to four games if in the Playoff.
— Re-recruiting any players considering entering the transfer portal before the winter window closes.
— Winning a bowl game.
— Retaining their coaching staffs.
— Oh, and celebrate the holidays with their families, as was their want when they hollered for the early signing period.

Most of those tasks are immutable and inherent to the sport.

But one can move. It already has once.

The logic is too clear. Nothing was gained in moving up the primary signing date by six weeks. And sanity was lost.

This is, of course, a sport that prefers to ignore logic, but usually that is charming. A mustard bottle on the field is quirky; lacking a worthwhile voice of authority is stubbornly stupid.

So the early signing period may not move as soon as it should (now), but it will move. There are no anti-trust worries tied to it, fortunately.

And aside from the logic, cramming more content into December costs the media, too. Spreading out that context through the vacuum of mid-January to mid-March will be much appreciated.