Mailbag: Opening Weekend

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Happy Labor Day weekend, everybody. Here’s hoping you’re spending the holiday with friends, family… and some long-awaited college football.

With the Irish in their final practice before game day, let’s run through some of the mailbag questions you had for me. I tried to take something from everyone, but a quick reminder — a manifesto is not a question.

On to the questions from both Twitter and the comments:

 

@GregMusser: Is there news out on the fate of the 5 players since the investigation is over?

@FairCatch_Corby: Question about the investigation that’s bothered me: why would GC be involved in Honor Code violation? Does that always happen?

@bearcatirishfan: Are the four players currently “on leave” allowed to attend class until the results of the inquiry are final? Would be a shame for them to be cleared (if hat happened) and be two or three weeks behind on class work.

dmacirish: Is there any way you see notre dame “winning” with the academic investigation? for instance, if it ends up no one did anything wrong then i foresee a “cover up” being called on nd. if it ends up that there was a minor infraction but nothing major and they only miss a game or two, does nd end up classified as “just like everyone else but to arrogant to admit it”. if it ends up being a big thing, does everyone condemn nd and throw the hatchets at us?

Is there any way that you can see the general public looking at it and saying “notre dame handled it correctly and came to the right conclusion.”

Let’s get the academic investigation stuff out of the way first. As I wrote yesterday morning, Kelly’s comments on the Dan Patrick radio show gave us a clue that the investigation was all but over. That’s only one part of the process.

To address Corby’s question, the General Counsel was involved because there was a concern that NCAA rules were violated. After speaking with people very knowledgable about the process, the General Counsel worked with an outside firm as well, being proactive in the case of widespread issues — like we saw at North Carolina and some other cheating scandals that including university staff, etc.

As Father Jenkins stated, all of the students are still enrolled in classes and other than being held out of practice and meetings, they aren’t found to be guilty until proven innocent, even though that’s what a lot of the media reporting seemed to push along as truth.

To DMac’s point, I’m not sure anybody wins in this one, but I think there’ll be a level of relief for Notre Dame fans and coaches if this is found to be just five students making a poor academic decision. While that’s embarrassing and does chip away at the academic prestige of the Irish football program, it’s hardly the death kneel some reporters made it out to be.

As for the reaction to the upcoming Honor Code decision? That depends on the person. Like most things Notre Dame, you find out quite a bit about how someone feels about the Irish by the opinion they form. In this case, I have a hunch that we could see a few of the players on the field against Michigan, though that’s a leap I don’t think everyone should take, if only because it sets you up to be mighty disappointed.

 

sjb198: Keith, I saw this asked on a different board and it went unanswered. Were there revisions to the targeting rules during the off season?

The rule was tweaked slighty. But in my opinion, it still puts too much power in the snap judgment made by the official on the field, when it’s just as easy to suspend a player for the next game.

That said, I saw the rule executed perfectly last night, when a Ole Miss defender put his helmet right into the chin of Boise State’s quarterback. The ruling on the field was a 15-yard penalty and an ejection, and it stood after replay review.

 

@JMset3: over/under week 2 on Irish fans calling for BK’s head. Also, is Tyler Luatua the first H Back @ ND since early 90s?

I think that depends if the Irish beat Michigan. But honestly, if you’re calling for Kelly’s head this season, you’re pretty much a dummy. (At least after two games.)

As for the interesting part of your question, Kelly tried to use Mike Ragone as an H-back for a bit, but injuries made it difficult for Ragone to stay on the field.

We might be making too big of a deal out of Luatua’s official role on this team. If we’ve learned anything these past few years it’s that Kelly has used his tight end in a variety of ways, some of which could be considered traditional H-back duties.

 

@Johngoolsby12: How fast of tempo do u expect from Irish this year? Cinci fast?

No clue, John. Every year we talk about tempo offense I feel like Charlie Brown getting ready to kick the football. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t watch too much Cincinnati football back when Kelly was there. So to call it Cincy fast or Oregon fast or Boise fast seems to be a little hard to peg.

But listening to Everett Golson this week, he said it was a much faster operation than it was in 2012. So we’ll find out tomorrow.

 

NotreDan: Can you comment on the selection of captains this year versus last? As you know, I was vocal last year about the lack of “passion” in last year’s group (that they were inward, sort of quiet guys). I’m a little nervous that this year’s captains seem to be on the quiet side again, do you think they will be more active?

 

Dan, I think measuring passion is pretty difficult. Especially when you’re watching the team on a 42-inch flatscreen. But I get your point.

TJ Jones was a quiet guy. Bennett Jackson wasn’t necessarily the team’s most vocal leader. And Zack Martin had the reputation of being an internal guy, though I hardly think that’s the case.

If there was an issue, it was that Notre Dame’s best players weren’t their best leaders. So when you’ve got potential stars like Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt taking up the attention, perhaps that makes it more difficult for the leaders to lead.

I don’t feel comfortable connecting those dots, but I do like what BK did with captains this year. As he mentioned, the strength of this team is its youth. But you can’t turn your back on veteran leaders, so naming Cam McDaniel and Austin Collinsworth was a smart play from a program building standpoint. Both those guys are “lead from the front” types, and have the respect of their teammates.

You can say the same for Nick Martin, who is a really strong and vocal leader. And Sheldon Day is probably one of the most respected guys on the team. It’ll be interesting to see if Martin and Day are both two-year captains.

Because if they are, I can almost tell you right now who the captains are in 2015: Martin, Day, Jaylon Smith and Everett Golson.

 

@mbannon92: With so much youth and inexperience on both sides of the ball, do you think BK and the coaching staff will bring out the full playbook against Rice to gain experience and get in a groove for Michigan, or will they hold back so that that Michigan has a limited amount of tape to study?

I know Nude might object, but I don’t think you’re going to see every wrinkle on Saturday, especially if the Irish can get out to a comfortable lead.

But that’s likely because Rice will challenge the Irish in a much different way than Michigan does, and with a quarterback that hasn’t shown the best ability to throw the ball. That should allow VanGorder to be less multiple than he will be against Michigan, who will be running Doug Nussmeier’s offense, the former Alabama coordinator who had his way with the Irish defense in the BCS title game. (With the Crimson Tide’s personnel…)

Offensively, nothing the Irish will do on Saturday will be that different than the rest of the season. That said, they might hold a play or two back on that side of the ball to try and catch Greg Mattison off guard.

 

simmel65: How do you see Brian Kelly using the running backs? Is it going to be one guy each series, or do you see on of them being a primary back and then maybe a 3rd down guy and goal line back?

No clue. But I hardly think it’ll be a rotation, or something as simple as trading series. This isn’t the NFL preseason. These games count, so I’m guessing they’ll have a stable of plays that each back runs very well, and game plan and situation will determine who gets what. Or the hot hand. I’m excited to see what Greg Bryant looks like with a hot hand.

That said, Kelly has always said he prefers to have a lead back. It’s up to McDaniel, Tarean Folston or Bryant to go out and get the job.

 

@DrewBrennan77: What does ND need to do to improve their Red Zone offense and score TDs. It has been brutal the last few yrs. 

We could talk about this question for hours. But I think it comes down to execution and personnel. With Golson back, the zone read running game is in play. Remember, even though Golson didn’t have a designed run called for what felt like all of September, he still led Notre Dame in rushing touchdowns.

Outside of that, it’s doing a better job finishing off drives via execution. It’s always going to be harder to move the ball close to the goal line. Does that mean giving a more powerful back like Bryant the goal line carries? Is it properly utilizing Corey Robinson’s size? Being more accurate with the fade route? Running empty set, five wide at the goal line?

Red Zone has been a point of emphasis in both spring and fall camp, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Irish approach things. But they’ll have more options than when Tommy Rees was under center, just because of the QB run option.

 

padomer: Is Trumbetti that good? Or is Okwara still asleep (get it! cuz he a sleeper!), and will he ever wake up? Im beginning to put him into Ishaq territory, you?

I’m not sure about Trumbetti being that good, but he’s certainly an impressive player. Just talking with Mike Elston last week will tell you that. But he’s a freshman. And the Irish haven’t recruited a defensive end like him in a few years.  But don’t get down on Okwara. He’s still a teenager, and finally getting an opportunity to play a position that might better suit him.

Part of the problem of having excellent depth is the fact that your young hotshots don’t play until they’re ready. Okwara was stuck behind some pretty quality players in 2012, and last year the Irish had Prince Shembo (soon to be a starting linebacker for the Atlanta Falcons) and Jaylon Smith playing his position. It’s a pity he couldn’t redshirt in 2012, but that’s water under the bridge now.

 

mtflsmitty: Who do you think will be the “surprise breakout players” of the season? One for offense, one for defense.

On offense, I’ll go with Amir Carlisle. I was really high on him last year (and completely wrong), so why not double down. On defense, I’d have a hard time picking anybody but James Onwualu. I’ve got a soft spot for my fellow CDH Raiders.

But otherwise, consider me really high on Joe Schmidt. Even if he might get overpowered from time to time, I expect him to be a tackling machine.

 

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.