Mailbag: Air Force edition

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Another week, another Mailbag. Let’s get into your questions.

jcmpa: Given the struggles of the ND defense this year, last week not included, is Diaco still a legitimate head coaching candidate?

I think you might be taking “struggles” a little too seriously. It’s not as if this Notre Dame defense is getting torched, and when all is said and done, they’ll likely be a Top 25 unit. That’s three straight seasons as a Top 30 defense.

Diaco is young (just turned 40), energetic, passionate and a good looking dude. That said, I don’t think he’s in a hurry to move his family from South Bend unless the right offer comes his way.

As some background, Diaco and I had a chance to talk before the BCS Championship Game about him taking a head coaching job. He didn’t seem to stressed about it and said it’s all about timing and opportunity. Put simply, Diaco wouldn’t be who he was if he was spending that time looking for a new job.

He’ll be a great head coach one day. Maybe even soon.

irishaggie: After 7 games we only have one RB (GA) go over 100 yards. ND is 96th in the country in rushing yards. With a shaken up Tommy and a bad Air Force defense what RB do you think will have a break out game?

I think you’re on to something Aggie, but guessing what back is anyone’s guess. If I had to wager, I’d think that George Atkinson will bust a couple big plays and that’ll get him over 100 yards. Otherwise, if you’re looking for chaos, how about Tarean Folston getting 13 carries for 110 yards.

onward2victory: At this point of the season, is Jaylon Smith already one of the top 5 players on the roster?

So you’re saying Smith’s behind only this group?

Louis Nix – All-American
Stephon Tuitt — On his way there, likely 1st rounder if he wants to be
TJ Jones – Offensive MVP, Captain
Zack Martin — All-American caliber player

I think that’s probably a little too lofty, though I think he’s probably slotting in around the top ten, with guys like Prince Shembo, Troy Niklas, Chris Watt, and Bennett Jackson all playing more consistent football.

Still, that’s lofty ground for a true freshman.

irishlee: Do you think Tuitt will stay or go?

I think he stays. Don’t think the decision will be easy, but seeing that Senior Day presentation will be tough, and him telling The Observer that he wants to stay is telling.

irishdodger: So Air Force has six losses after one win over a brand of toothpaste, they’ve struggled keeping a QB healthy & their defense can’t stop air. Sounds like a recipe where ND will play down to their competition (ala Temple & Purdue) by waiting until the fourth quarter to put the Falcons away. You know I’m right…what say you?

If you’re right, why are you asking? I tend to think the Irish will take care of business.

mediocrebob: Why are other fans so obsessed with Notre Dame? I understand that their sorry programs don’t add up to all that Notre Dame is, but how do they have time to follow their weak programs, follow Notre Dame, and have a life all at the same time?

Trolls are hardly unique to Notre Dame, but there are plenty of reasons to hate on the Irish and a football program that sometimes plays by different rules. And Bob, don’t be so tough on yourself.

bernhtp: Given that Hendrix appears to be THE alternative to Rees, how much effort do you expect Kelly to expend to rehabilitate Hendrix’s confidence and performance? Do you expect him to get most of the snaps against a weak AF team, assuming the game is put away early? If Hendrix still fails to perform, do you expect Kelly to burn Zaire’s red shirt if Rees goes down again, the game is in jeopardy, and Zaire appears ready?

A lot of effort. (Not as much effort as it took to chop down your question, Bern. But I’ve gotta bust your chops a little bit here…) Getting Hendrix’s confidence up is going to be important, because I don’t think burning Zaire’s redshirt is an option unless they’ve got no other choice.

We tend to forget things as they pass us by. Remember when Everett Golson was playing in his first big game against Michigan and played worse than Hendrix last week? That didn’t ruin the kid, nor will last week ruin Hendrix.

domerboyirish: I’ve been trying to ask this for weeks but never seem to catch this segment. Why don’t we have a standard running back screen pass in our playbook? It seems like the perfect play for the players we have on the line and at tail back. What gives?

It’s a valid question DomerBoy. The Irish don’t tend to run many RB screens and I wonder if it’s a product of the spread attack. Count me among those that would like to see them incorporated more.

mtflsmitty: 1) How did Diaco change his game plan after Rees exited the game? Can you cite specific adjustments that allowed our D to get so stingy?

I don’t think there were that many specific adjustments. Stephon Tuitt just killed USC’s left tackle. And the Trojans didn’t have Marqise Lee to balance the passing attack.

2) The Max Redfield situation is interesting. Why hasn’t he seen more action? Are they waiting for him to put on a bit more weight? Is he having a hard time picking up the complexities of the defensive scheme? What else?

Redfield talked about this over bye week. He’s working on getting himself ready to play, and it’s one of the hardest positions on the roster to just walk in and play. He got some snaps at safety against USC and I don’t think it’s fair to tag the kid as a slow learning. He’s right on the edge of the two-deep and will likely challenge for a starting job by spring.

3) I don’t think Robinson has a catch in the last several games. After getting a lot of attention early why is he getting so few looks lately?

I don’t know if he’s gotten a lot of attention, other than from those of us breaking down the frames of ICON videos from UND.com. There is only one football. Getting the ball to TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels are the first two reads in the passing game. Then Troy Niklas. Then you look at the other options… and there’s Robinson with a pack of guys like Chris Brown, Will Fuller and James Onwualu, who is still looking for that first catch.

steincj36: Keith, especially with a thin LB corps, how much will the altitude be a factor? We hear about the 4th qtr conditioning the team has, but South Bend is like 700 ft above sea level, not 7000…

Not much you can do about altitude in college football. If this game comes down to fourth quarter conditioning, something went pretty wrong for Notre Dame.

nducsb: With the recent setback BK has had at Notre Dame, do you think a jump to the NFL has officially been squelched  at least for this year? Was what happened last year basically just the Eagles reaching for straws (case in point, how horrific Chip Kelly is doing?)

This question kind of cracks me up. Setback? What happened? If losing two games to Oklahoma and Michigan is a setback, I think ND fans are getting mighty spoiled and might have their heads tucked while they sit out a pretty special run.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the last 20 games in college football, as pointed out by @OakND1

19-1: Alabama, Oregon, Ohio State, Northern Illinois
18-2: Florida State
17-3: Notre Dame, Clemson, Stanford, Louisville
16-4: South Carolina, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Boise State

If that’s a setback, we’ve got to re-evaluate expectations.

As for Chip Kelly’s NFL debut, NFL teams don’t replace head coaches unless the team is underperforming. That Andy Reid can start off undefeated with the Chiefs but couldn’t win with the Eagles gives you an idea of the personnel that Chip is dealing with.

Brian Kelly should be on a short list of any team hiring. Whether he’s interested is another story.

4horsemenrideagain: Was Hendrix’s “under-performance” against SC due to his nerves and to the big stage, or was it just a clever ploy by Hendrix to play poorly on purpose as a favor to Tommy Rees so that all of the Rees detractors would be a little more appreciative this week?

 

I think Hendrix might have been the second gunman on the grassy knoll, too. My guess? Probably nerves and the fact that he was stacked into some tough situations.

harvupdyke: Keith, do you see Alabama winning an unprecedented 3rd bcs national championship in a row? I’ll take your comments off the air. Roll dam tide.

Harv – You might want to head to Austin, Texas and start buying up some properties. But I think Alabama is the odds on favorite to win, though I would like to see Oregon take a shot at them.

tburke9601: What do you think of the Cam McDaniel photo sans helmet?

Handsome Devil. Now don’t fumble in the fourth quarter.

 

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.

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

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The traditional National Signing Day is this Wednesday, and for yet another year, Notre Dame has no intentions of inking any high-school recruits on the first Wednesday of February. The recruiting calendar has so changed that the Irish have not signed a recruit in February since 2021, when running back Logan Diggs pondered a late LSU push before doubling down on his Notre Dame commitment. Before that, not since 2019, when defensive end Isaiah Foskey publicly did so in order to be a part of his high school’s ceremonies.

Notre Dame turned its focus entirely onto the class of 2024 following December’s early signing period, when it inked a class of 24 players that ranks No. 9 in the country, per rivals.com.

Now with nearly 10 months to go before the next decision day to influence the narrative around Irish head coach Marcus Freeman’s recruiting focus, he already has pledges from seven players in the class of 2024. Class rankings this early in the cycle are rather meaningless, but for the sake of thoroughness, the Notre Dame class of 2024 is currently ranked No. 2 in the country, behind only Georgia with nine recruits pledged to date.

One player stands out among the early Irish seven. He stands out to such a degree this space broke from usual form when he committed in early June. To pull from that opening,

“This space has a general rule to not report on recruiting developments classes ahead of time. Worrying about the thoughts of high school seniors is enough of an oddity; focusing on juniors and underclassmen is outright absurd.

“But exceptions exist to prove rules, and Notre Dame landing the commitment of the No. 3 quarterback in the class of 2024 — prospects entering their junior years of high school — is such an exception.”

Consensus four-star quarterback CJ Carr is now only the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the class and the No. 14 recruit overall, but he is the kind of key piece to a recruiting class that the Irish lacked in 2023, despite Freeman’s continued excellence hauling in defensive prospects. Carr has been an active and vocal recruiter on his own for Notre Dame, not an unusual occurrence from an early commit but a habit the Irish have not garnered out of a quarterback in quite some time. Even Tyler Buchner, due to both the pandemic and his own soft-spoken nature, was not the loudest campaigner among his peers.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame beats out Michigan for Lloyd Carr’s grandson, QB CJ Carr

At 6-foot-3, Carr looks the part of a prototypical quarterback, and his arm strength fits in line with that thought. He has downfield touch that would open up Notre Dame’s playbook in a way entirely unseen in 2022.

The other six early commitments to the Irish in the class of 2024 …

Consensus four-star running back Aneyas Williams (Hannibal High School; Mo.), ranked as the No. 1 all-purpose running back and No. 106 recruit in the class, per rivals.com: There will be many comparisons to former Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams when Aneyas Williams arrives on campus, and though they are from the same state, there is no relation. The younger Williams can do a bit of everything while his 5-foot-10 frame carries plenty of punch. He lacks truly elite speed, as Kyren did, but obviously that did not kept the elder Williams from cracking 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.

Consensus four-star receiver Cam Williams (Glenbard South H.S.; Glen Ellyn, Ill.), ranked as the No. 11 receiver and No. 102 recruit in the class: The Chicagoland product visited Iowa a handful of times and took looks at Michigan and Wisconsin, seemingly intent on staying in the Midwest. Williams has all the fundamentals wanted of a receiver, 6-foot-2 size combined with a comfort catching the ball. Time will reveal what part of his game, if any, develops into his specialty.

Consensus four-star tight end Jack Larsen (Charlotte Catholic; N.C.), ranked as the No. 7 tight end and No. 187 recruit in the class: Whether Larsen will be the next piece of “Tight End U” or not is a premature thought, but at 6-foot-3 and an ability to snag passes downfield over defenders, Larsen already looks the part. Credit a basketball background for that aerial ability.

Four-star offensive guard Peter Jones (Malvern Prep; Penn.), ranked as the No. 4 offensive guard and No. 99 recruit in the class: Jones plays tackle in high school, nearly an absolute requirement for any offensive line prospect chased by Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, but his playing style suggests a future on the inside of the line.

Consensus four-star defensive tackle Owen Wafle (Hun School; Princeton, N.J.), ranked as the No. 10 defensive tackle in the class: Pronounced like playful, not waffle, Wafle should add weight to his 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame as he grows from a high-school junior into a college player. That may seem obvious, but the quality of that weight he adds in the next 20 months will be what most determines how quickly he can contribute in South Bend.

Consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati): Anyone committed right now has made a decision relatively early in the recruiting cycle, yet Hobbs was committed to South Carolina for three months before he flipped to Notre Dame in early November. Seeking out a committed three-star more than a year before he can officially sign may strike one as foolish, but Irish cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens has earned some leeway in his evaluations, given the early impacts of Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey in 2022.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Ohio State, Clemson & Pittsburgh hurt most by early NFL draft entrants among Notre Dame’s opponents
40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part I: Notre Dame’s rushing offense hid many early struggles
Part II: Notre Dame’s upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach
Part III: Notre Dame’s November far from the expected disappointment
Part IV: Notre Dame’s 2022 ended where it was always expected to

OUTSIDE READING
How QB Sam Hartman found trouble with turnovers in 2022
College QB Austin Reed got transfer portal offers comparable to late-round NFL draft picks
I requested my Notre Dame admissions file
Boston College, offensive coordinator John McNulty parting ways after 2022 struggles
Hamlin’s injury highlights precarious position of many young N.F.L. players
On the Broncos’ head-coaching finalists
Bally Sports RSNs headed for bankruptcy
Auditor: LSU overpaid Brian Kelly by more than $1M in 2022