Five things we learned: Notre Dame 38, Navy 34

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With the game on the line late and Midshipmen facing a critical fourth down with four yards to go, Navy offensive coordinator Ivin Jasper rolled the dice, hoping to catch the Notre Dame defense over-committing to the option that haunted them all afternoon. But Keenan Reynolds headed around the right side only to pitch the ball back to wide receiver Shawn Lynch heading the opposite direction, and a foot race to the wide side of the field ensued.

First on the scene was reserve safety Eilar Hardy, who cut beneath the block of Navy lineman Bradyn Heap and dove at Lynch’s feet, slowing him up and stretching him wide. Then came cornerback Bennett Jackson, who got a hand on Lynch before Jaylon Smith cleaned up the mess, putting the finishing touches on Notre Dame’s 38-34 victory and ending Navy’s upset bid with just 1:08 remaining.

“We had a chance. I think we were one block away from breaking it,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said after the game.

After executing almost flawlessly all game, it was the Irish that made the game’s most important play, with Notre Dame surviving on Saturday, keeping their BCS hopes alive as they move to 7-2. After two straight 40-point victories over Navy, the Midshipmen made a sweep a Notre Dame’s option opponents hard work. And while the Irish got the victory, the win came at a price, with injuries piling up and the Irish stretched to their limits.

Let’s take a look at what we learned during Notre Dame’s wild 38-34 victory.

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After getting killed by the option in the first half, Bob Diaco and the Irish defense did just enough to make adjustments in the second half and pull out the win.

Heading into half down 20-17, things looked ugly for the Notre Dame defense, especially with Navy starting the second half with the football and an opportunity to extend the lead to a two-score game. The Midshipmen had run for 207 yards in the first half, averaging over five-yards a carry on a stunning 40 attempts, while going a perfect three for three in the red zone with touchdowns.

But with the body count piling up, the Irish came out and broke Navy’s serve, stopping a 3rd-and-6 and getting a much needed punt out of the Navy offense, the one stop the Irish defense got until their last stand.

After the game, Brian Kelly all but tipped his hat to the Navy offense, acknowledging how well quarterback Keenan Reynolds piloted the option attack.

“They executed flawlessly today. Hats off to them,” Kelly said. “Shorten the game, no penalties, no turnovers.

“If you look out at option teams, especially Navy, I’m ecstatic about getting out of here with a win. They were flawless in terms of their execution.”

That execution utilized a lot of counter option looks, with Reynolds turning away from his original read and running the option to the back-side. That look made it difficult for Notre Dame’s secondary, and a week after the cornerbacks had a field day tackling, nobody had more than KeiVarae Russell, who made just four stops.

With the Irish unwilling to commit to a single-high safety, Notre Dame was continually at a numbers disadvantage in the box. But when defensive coordinator Bob Diaco had his safeties shoot the alley on the way to the pitch man, Navy caught the Irish with a well designed pass for a 34-yard touchdown.

“It’s just one of those deals where they’re difficult to defend. We just scored more points than they did today. And we got a win. I’m happy about that.”

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In a wide-open running back race, freshman Tarean Folston took advantage of his opportunities.

With Notre Dame needing to score every time it touched the ball in the second half, Brian Kelly leaned heavily on freshman running back Tarean Folston and the youngster responded with 140 yards on 18 carries, including the game-clinching touchdown with just over five minutes remaining.

Folston’s 100-yard day was the first time an Irish freshman running back went over 100 yards since Robert Hughes did in 2007 against Stanford, and effectively catapulted him to the front of the line in a running back race that seems to change every week.

Kelly talked after the game about Folston’s contributions, doing his best to measure his words, while ultimately happy about the performance from the talented Florida native.

“I don’t know if he’d have made that many carries early in the year, he wasn’t conditioned well enough,” Kelly said. “He always had the mental makeup, we felt that from the very beginning. I think this is more about his physical conditioning. And really just having the hot hand.”

Folston was far from the only back to have a field day against the Navy defense, with Folston, Cam McDaniel, and George Atkinson all averaging more than 7 yards per carry. But with the game on the shoulders of a powerful Irish running game (all the more impressive with Notre Dame playing without Chris Watt), it was Folston that heard his number called.

And Folston delivered.

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Notre Dame’s defense is hurting in a very bad way.

If there’s a worry after Saturday afternoon’s win it’s the injuries that are piling up on the Irish defense. Coming into the game already short on bodies, the Irish lost Sheldon Day with another ankle set back, Ben Councell to what looked like a serious knee injury and Kona Schwenke to an undisclosed lower-leg injury as well.

When asked after the game if the Irish depth chart had reached a point of concern, Kelly was quick to respond.

“We’ve reached it and surpassed it. We’re past it,” Kelly said.

Sundays medical update will likely give us a better idea of the type of toll Navy’s option attack took on Notre Dame’s defense. But it’s easy to see just how deep Notre Dame had to dig into its roster when little-used fifth-year senior Tyler Stockton is playing with the game on the line.

“They’re all banged up. They all will require some attention that I’ll have to get further information,” Kelly said. “It was a triage in there.

“We’ve got some guys that didn’t play today and we’ve got more guys that are banged up.”

***

In a game where the Irish needed to be efficient, turnovers and missed opportunities nearly cost them the game.

There were varying degrees of mistakes made by Notre Dame, but all of them played a key factor in Navy nearly pulling the upset.

There were opportunities missed, like the touch pass Tommy Rees missed to Troy Niklas in the end zone that forced the Irish to kick a field goal instead of get seven points. There was the sloppy playing surface that took down TJ Jones in the middle of a route and resulted in an interception. There was a “holding” call on Troy Niklas that likely took seven points off the board, and a bizarre personal foul called against Justin Utupo that gave Navy a critical first down, keeping alive a drive that resulted in a touchdown.

For Navy, they needed to play not just a near-perfect football game, but they also needed the breaks to stay in the football game.

“For us to beat them, that’s what’s got to happen,” Niumatalolo said after the game. “They had a couple turnovers, we didn’t have any. We didn’t have any penalties. We’ve got to play almost perfect to even have a chance.”

As Navy kept the game within reach throughout the afternoon, Niumatalolo felt like the game was playing exactly by the script he had envisioned when he plotted Navy’s upset bid. And after a second big kickoff return by Marcus Thomas, the Midshipmen had the ball at midfield with the game there for the taking.

“I thought we had a perfect scenario. We got the ball at the 50 yard line, all of our timeouts left,” Niumatalolo said. “I didn’t want to give them the ball back. So if we were going to score, I wanted to score with nothing on the clock. We had a chance.”

Ultimately, the Irish defense made the plays when it needed to, helped out by a poor pitch by Keenan Reynolds that stacked Navy into a crucial 3rd-and-long that they converted to get to 4th-and-4. But Notre Dame’s defense made the play when the game was on the line.

“It wasn’t good enough though, we didn’t win,” Niumatalolo said. “We struggled against Notre Dame the last couple years. I thought our kids played well, but it still wasn’t enough.”

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Ugly wins are part of the evolution of a football program now on very solid ground.

Don’t expect Brian Kelly to apologize for winning a close game against Navy. And don’t expect the Irish to celebrate any less after squeaking out a victory against a service academy.

“We haven’t made any excuses about guys being out of the lineup,” Kelly said. “We just went out and battled the best we could.

“There are no asterisks next to this one. This is a W, and we’re excited about it. We’re going to have our 24‑hour rule. We’re going to take all 24 hours on this one.”

While there was plenty of griping among fans that fail to understanding how difficult it is to win every week, seeing Brian Kelly’s team continue to find ways to win has to be encouraging. That’s ten straight victories for Kelly in games decided by a touchdown or less, matching some guy named Knute Rockne for second-most in program history.

There will be a full calendar year for the Irish to work on playing against the option. But when the chips were down and the game was on the line, it was a full team effort to pull out the victory, with talented freshmen emerging next to unheralded veterans.

The Irish move to 27-4 over their last 31 regular season games. Only Alabama and Oregon have gone on a better run, putting into context just how strong this program is after Kelly took it over from Charlie Weis.

“We’re not in a rebuilding mode. I think it’s always about blending in some true freshman,” Kelly explained. “It’s really nice to see some of those young players, because they’re extremely skilled, it gives you a glimpse of some of those guys that are going to be here for the next three-and-a-half years.”

The Irish don’t win the football game if Jaylon Smith and Tarean Folston don’t play big down the stretch. But they also don’t win if Eilar Hardy and Kona Schwenke come up big, as both did on Saturday.

Niumatalolo talked about the weekly challenge Notre Dame faces, a target on their back courtesy of the rich tradition that turns a .500 opponent into hopeful world beaters.

“I think Notre Dame goes through this every week. Everybody gets up for Notre Dame,” Niumatalolo said. “For everybody that plays Notre Dame its the Super Bowl for that team. For us to come to the mecca of college football, our kids were excited about it. We played really really hard.”

This Saturday, playing hard wasn’t enough, as Notre Dame used almost their entire roster to hold off Navy’s charge. And in doing so, they kept their postseason goals alive.

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.