Michigan State mailbag

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Another week, another mailbag.

I’ve been enjoying the camaraderie in the comments section. It’s starting to feel like our big, dysfunction, happy family is starting to get along. Maybe 12-win regular seasons really help the spirits!

As usual, I’ll do my best to answer your questions. Feel free to correct me in the comments (also as usual).

@dickasman: Will Tuitt and Nix breakout this game? How’s MSU OL?

Ah, Dicky. A football question! So nice of you. I think this is one of the more interesting match-ups going because the offensive line for the Spartans has been pretty shaky. Just a quick glance through their depth chart and you’ll see five underclassmen in their two deep, including starters at left tackle, center, and right tackle.

So if there’s a game for the Irish to get some pressure on a young quarterback who up until last week was 12 for 27 for 74 yards, this might be the game.

@JoshHyde: Why does the o-line look worse than last year?

Are you sure it does? This group has only given up one sack in 112 passing attempts. While the rushing average is a meager 4.1 yards per carry, I think it’s a product of the running backs trying to find some rhythm while looking to establish “the guy” and work through five ball carriers.

Let’s turn back the clock so you can remember where this offensive line was at the same time last year. After beating Navy like a drum and running all over them, the run game ran for 1.4 yards a carry against Purdue and 3.6 yards a carry against Michigan State. And through three games, the Irish gave up a whopping eight sacks last season while breaking in Everett Golson.

So I guess what I’m saying is that I disagree with your assertion.

 

@JCirba: Does Tuitt, Shembo, or anybody reach double digit sacks this year?

Can I tell you after Saturday? I think you’ve obviously hit on the two guys that can do it. But we’ve yet to see Shembo get on track, even though he was mighty close to three or four sacks against Temple. (That said, his sacks come in bunches.)

This weekend looks like it could be a favorable match-up for both guys, but you might see a bunch of max protect looks to make sure this doesn’t happen. Before the season started, I thought both Tuitt and Shembo could get to double digits. We’ll know better after this weekend.

@mfmitchell88: Do you think it would be beneficial for Kelly & co. to eval. their own tendencies? We seem to be very predictable/scouted.

Every coaching staff self scouts. Brian Kelly’s does too. (Bill Belichick came in during the offseason and did some evaluation of how the Irish systems ran, so it’s not for lack of brain power.)

That said, I think the one criticism that’s been valid so far of the offense is that it’s been a bit predictable with some of it’s formational looks. Now Oregon is mighty predictable with its formations and tendencies, too. Stopping it is another story.

The offense will likely continue to add wrinkles as the season progresses. They did against Michigan and opened things up in the second half against Purdue. But yeah — I get that when you see Daniel Smith and Troy Niklas spread wide with TJ Jones in the slot that the Irish are likely throwing a screen to Jones. And the Irish’s screen offense wasn’t all that effective against Purdue. So a few change-ups are probably necessary.

don74: Of the following what group is most likely to “break out” this week: The coaching staff (BK, CM, BD), the ILB’s, the secondary or the RB’s? OL not mentioned, if the RB’s break out they did their job.

I’m going to say that the inside linebackers could have a nice Saturday. It’s going to be a physical match-up between the front sevens, and I think Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Jarrett Grace should log quite a few tackles.

One thing to keep an eye on: Connor Cook. He’s an elusive kid and that’s given this defense some pains. A big play free secondary performance would also be very nice, and could spell victory for the Irish.

BlackIrish23: Looking beyond Daniels and Jones, who else do you see as having the potential to create additional match up problems from all these teams daring Rees to beat them with his arm?

I think this is the best personnel Notre Dame has had at wide receiver since the early Weis days, and probably much deeper. Forcing any team to look past their best two receivers is a mixed bag, but I think ND feels confident that a guy like Chris Brown can do some damage against defenses, especially as a third option. And just because we haven’t seen much of him yet, Corey Robinson is a guy that’ll be a real headache to defensive coordinators.

What about Troy Niklas? A 6-7, 270-pound Thor lookalike doesn’t seem all that fun to cover. And we’ve seen James Onwualu and Will Fuller get their chances as well. And CJ Prosise had a big catch after having a nice spring in the slot.

If Michigan State tries putting their secondary on an island with the Irish receivers, it could be a long day if Tommy Rees is accurate.

(Speaking of Tommy…)

@dudeacow: Tommy Rees would have passed 1000 yards already if not for a few drops. If he plays like he’s been playing for the rest of the season, his stat line will look like this: 4200 yards, 61%, 28-8 td/int. too early to include in an all-America conversation?

I believe the stat I saw this week is that Rees is leading all quarterbacks in the country in yardage against FBS teams. Project out those numbers for a full season and indeed — Rees will be having a very nice senior season, though I think it’s too early to talk about things like All-American awards.

I’m cutting this answer short until after this weekend. Then we can take another look.

andy44teg: How much stock do you seriously put into MSU having the top ranked D in the country this early in the year? Before last week Alabama had like the 115th ranked offense and we all saw how they spanked TAMU’s D.

Ah, good old sample size questions. Of course, there’s a big grain of salt along with that stat, but it sure sounds good. (Kind of like beating Michigan State when they were a “top ten” team last year.) No, they haven’t played anyone. But they’ve got really talented personnel and the defense has scored almost more points than the offense.

So underestimate them at your own peril.

@mtflsmitty: Based on your experience reading posts from the characters over the years, please write a short, fictional bio for:
– Historian
– Bern
– Dick
– Nude

I am staying so far away from this question it’s ridiculous. But I’d probably end up asking my mom for the answer to this one, as she spends quite a bit of time reading through the comments, asking me about the crew and worrying about all of you when skirmishes erupt and naughty things are said.

(Perhaps I’ll put her on the job and get back to you guys next week. But don’t get your hopes up, she’s a busy lady!)

I only step in once in a while. Most writers stay out of the comments section for their own mental health. And because, well — we’re writing the articles.

sm29irish: I know Prince and Ishaq are ahead of him but do you think Romeo Okwara could be used situationally to put more pressure on qb haven’t seen much of him this year? Also, what happened to the leprecat formation where Slaughter was successful. I think Shumate or Jaylon would really flourish in that position if it was implemented again at times.

This question was right on the brink of being too long to answer. But here goes: I don’t think Okwara is necessarily the answer as a situational pass rusher. He’s always the guy that swings over to the field side, which says more about his athleticism than his pass rush abilities.

What the leprecat Slaughter? I thought that was ND’s version of the Wildcat, which was used sparsely early in the Kelly era. What you’re likely thinking of is when Slaughter dropped down to play outside linebacker, taking over for Prince Shembo when he was at the Drop position. This was more of a product of personnel deficiencies, and Jaylon Smith is the answer there.

Smith’s been put in that spot already and done a nice job. As for Shumate, I think he’s finding life a bit more complicated than last season, where he covered slot receivers and let his athleticism take over. Don’t give up on him yet though. At this point in Harrison Smith’s career, Irish fans were ready to run him out of town.

sweetnd: 1) How much longer will Kiffin be coach at U$C? Forever (I hope). Or if he loses four games this season, until about December 1, after they get beat by UCLA again.
2) Why does Zahm suck? Why is the sky blue? (Love dorm rivalry questions…)
3) If Tommy throws for 4,000 yards and 28 td’s will he get drafted? If so what round? Good question. I don’t think so, but he’ll find his way to a training camp.
4) what’s your prediction? Will ND cover the spread? Predictions aren’t my thing. But if the past two seasons are any indication, this game will feel closer than the score is.

onward2victory: Coach Kelly won’t come out and say it, but do you think TJ Jones is healthy? He got banged up against Michigan and didn’t seem like himself against Purdue.

He looked pretty healthy making that circus catch near the pylon last week. I think Jones is fine, though he was a little banged up after the Michigan game. (I spoke with him then and he said he was fine, only that he got a pretty bad stinger, something he hasn’t had since high school.)

If Jones ISN’T healthy, you’ll probably see him come off punt return first. And if it’s an upper body issue, that’s far better than an ankle tweak or a sore knee. Let’s remember, Jones only hit 50 catches in a season for the first time last year. He’s already got 19 catches through three games.

lambda02750: Do you anticipate an increase in carries for the freshman backs this weekend?

Not really. But if one of the guys gets hot, they’ll keep getting the rock. But I just don’t think this is the type of game where you go out and force a ball into the least experienced guy on the team’s hands.

Let’s not turn this into another one of those only-at-Notre-Dame self-fulfilling prophesies, where fans get so upset that it turns Greg Bryant upset, and he starts looking around for better opportunities. We routinely saw Charlie Weis’s teams wilt down the stretch when the negativity just overwhelmed them.

(That and a lack of a defensive front…)

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

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Notre Dame v South Carolina
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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

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Rutgers v Notre Dame
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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

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.