Mailbag: Weekend reading

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Before we have an Irish-free Saturday, let’s get to some questions. For those of you wondering what you should do on a day usually committed to football, the world is your oyster. Or you could watch some of Notre Dame’s opponents do battle.

Navy is taking on San Jose State in the early game. Both USC and Arizona State are playing late tonight. It’s three opportunities to see three of the challenges ahead, especially with Louisville and Northwestern sitting this weekend out.

Welcome to a Justin Brent joke-free Mailbag:

 

@WorldBWhee: why should we think that “this” the Irish are back? Been down this road a few times in the past 12 years to no avail…

Okay, I’ll bite.

I’m not necessarily sure that this team is going 11-1, and if they do, they’ll certainly need to play a lot of good football. But if you can’t see what’s happening under Brian Kelly, and the improvement of this football team, then you’re never going to see it.

This isn’t like 2005-06, where a veteran team had a gigantic drop-off behind it when the talent graduated. It’s not like the 2002 team, getting by on defense and an offense that literally struggled to score an offensive touchdown for the first month of the season.

Even if you take into consideration 2013’s four losses — a team that was playing all season with its backup quarterback — the roll Kelly and Notre Dame are on since 2012 is pretty impressive. It’s also one that doesn’t seem close to stopping, with this program set up for success over the next few years, especially when you consider this team is led by the youth on the roster.

“Being Back” is a pretty stupid concept in general. But if it means Notre Dame’s going to compete for a spot in the playoff over the next few years (and could likely open next season as a preseason No. 1 candidate), then they’re back.

 

goirishgo: What’s your take (and ND’s) on the impact of the FSU and UNC academic investigations on the ACC? Wasn’t part of the attraction to the league cultural? Having to do with the perceived academic strengths of schools like Duke, Wake, UVA, and the like? Has that changed?

I think you’re absolutely right that the ACC’s culture was one of the most attractive parts of the conference membership. And while the Jameis Winston stuff and Florida State’s alleged complicity in all of it is quite distasteful I actually think the North Carolina situation is far worse.

It will be very interesting to see how Mark Emmert and the NCAA handle this, and how dramatically they plan to sanction the Tar Heels athletic department. A systemic issue that went on for 18 years is mind-boggling.  All that being said, I don’t really see it impacting Notre Dame, the conference at large, or its members. Other than the black eye in general not being good for one of the conference’s premiere athletic departments.

 

@waylonlc13 Can u put a grade on the #ShamrockSoldiers15? How do they compare 2 previous groups and who do u c contributing early?

I’ve learned long ago that football coaches evaluate recruits much better than sportswriters.  That said, I expect this to be one of Kelly’s best classes, especially if they close with a flourish, as I expect they will.

What’s interesting with this group is Brian VanGorder’s imprint on the defensive recruits. After focusing on the defensive front late in the last recruiting cycle, the Irish are rebuilding the back-seven of the defense, especially needed with injuries and attrition in the secondary. These guys don’t profile like earlier recruits. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with the common denominator being speed and athleticism.

Pair that with some early targets that turned into early commitments and we’re seeing the way Kelly and his staff prefer to recruit: Build your base early and stay in play for the big-time, national guys.

 

mediocrebob: Word’s out that Daniels will likely try to return to Notre Dame. With scholarships limited and several big names left on the board, is there a good chance of seeing DD back next year?( assuming the university will have him of course) Is there a possibility of Van Gorder’s son giving his scholarship up? Never quite understood the reasoning behind that.

If word is KeiVarae Russell’s instagram page, then that’s the word. But it’s probably pretty premature to know what DaVaris, the Daniels family, or the university are thinking, or what the readmission policy is for any of the athletes with eligibility remaining. Especially when last Kelly talked about it, he said he had yet to speak with DaVaris at all.

All that being said, I’d find it hard to believe that Kelly wouldn’t take Daniels back. He was expected to be the team’s best receiver this season. Add him to the mix next year and the Irish could go five-wide with playmakers and even the most old-fashioned Irish fans would have little to complain about.

Daniels likely sees a draft grade that would have him lucky to be taken this year, with only an injury-plagued two seasons for scouts to work from. But a big 2015 season he could catapult him up draft boards, earn Daniels a diploma and be a win-win for everyone.

As for the VanGorder scholarship, I’m not sure if it’s a year-to-year proposition with walk-ons being awarded scholarships. And while most make the moderately valid point that dad could and probably does get some tuition reciprocity, the likely reason VanGorder was put on scholarship was so he could take part in all the prep meetings and travel with the team, considering in an emergency, VanGorder is likely the No. 3 quarterback, with the staff desperately wanting to save a year of Deshone Kizer’s eligibility.

 

@michaelmartin78: CDH Raider James Onawalu doesn’t seem to make a lot of plays, is he under performing or just hard for novice eyes to notice?

Good question. Not really sure, although the staff likes what he’s doing. And the Irish are really playing a 4-2-5 a lot of the time, with a nickelback on the field and Onwualu on the sidelines.

For a guy making a transition to defense, that Onwualu is already in the starting lineup certainly says something. But the fact that he’s got eight total tackles likely says something, too. We’ll see how much this staff likes their situation at Sam linebacker when the new recruits come in. I expect Onwualu to keep getting better this season as it goes on, but right now, it’s all but a two-man linebacking corps.

 

irishdog80: Schmidt has been playing great. Many thought, myself included, that Nyles Morgan would be making a bigger impact by now. What’s the story on Nyles Morgan and his development? Is he this year’s Max Redfield?

Last fall, Nyles Morgan was playing high school linebacker, one of the least complex jobs in all of football: Search and Destroy. This year, he’s being asked to learn a defense that has more scheme and inventory than most NFL defenses. Whose head wouldn’t be swimming?

VanGorder talked about Morgan’s development earlier in the week, having nothing but good things to say about him. But this is Schmidt’s defense and Morgan is spending his freshman year learning and playing special teams. Let’s see if VanGorder can get him some snaps in garbage time this month.

 

dudeacow: How has VanGorder’s decided schematic advantage helped overcome the youth and inferior physicality of some of the defense’s players so well?

I see what you’re doing there… But I’m not sure your analysis is helping you, because as I mentioned earlier this week in the special edition of the Good, Bad and Ugly, this isn’t a physically inferior football team. Just ask Florida State.

VanGorder is proving a few things: 1) He’s a great Xs and Os coach. 2) He’s got physically talented young kids. and 3) They’re smart enough to learn his system.

That this is all happening so quickly is the best surprise of the season.

 

ylilbnosredna: Keith, how much do you think Folston’s performance against FSU helped ND’s chances with Jamabo? Before that game, I really didn’t think Kelly and co. were doing much to convince RB’s that this was an offense where they could thrive. However, I think Folston’s performance demonstrated that if a RB can really take over in this offense, Kelly will be a lot more hesitant to take him off the field and give him a chance to dominate like we saw Sat night. Do you think Jamabo truly believes he can thrive in this offense and will ND get him? If so, when’s the last time ND could boast signing a trio of blue-chip backs like Folston, Bryant, and possibly Jamabo in a 2 year period?

I see where you’re going, but this would be a three-year period, not two. And I don’t think Soso Jamabo, or any elite running back, needs to see Tarean Folston’s performance against the Seminoles to decide to come to Notre Dame.

The Irish will only look better on the ground as the weeks continue. And with just Folston, Greg Bryant and incoming freshman Josh Adams (don’t sleep on him) on the scholarship roster, the depth chart is as good as you could ask for.

 

johngaltisspeaking: my question is how are we going to defend Arizona State when they play more like a spread team. Florida State played a very similar style of football to ND but since UNC took it to us in a tight loss I see Arizona State being a team that could take us out of the playoffs.

I’m willing to answer good questions, especially if you’re done being a troll. The ASU game is the next “game of the year.” They play fast, they’re explosive on offense and it’s going to be a hostile atmosphere in Sun Devil Stadium. And Taylor Kelly has pronounced himself 100 percent healthy.

VanGorder said he didn’t do a good job against North Carolina. We’ll see if the Irish have a new way to attack a hurry-up team, but I also think the speed wasn’t as difficult to deal with as Marquise Williams, who played the game of his life.

 

tracyjordansminifridge: Is Hunter Jr. Healthy enough to play? He has looked extremely athletic in the glimpses we have had of him. He also appears to be a much stronger runner than carlisle who goes down at the thought of contact

He’s healthy. And he’s learning. But right now, Hunter is in the John Goodman-Dayne Crist-Washington State-Sample Size category. He’s been good, but it’s been three or four plays, not exactly a complete body of work.

Carlisle has been very good this season, though let’s hope the fumble against FSU doesn’t send him into a tailspin, like it did against Purdue last year. He’s got a knee brace on that could be limiting him, so we’ll see if he stays in the rotation with C.J. Prosise, or if Hunter can cut into those snaps.

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.

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

Clemson v 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.