Pregame Six Pack: The showdown in the desert

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A tumbleweed blows by. Dust kicks up. Todd Graham saunters into the foreground, space-aged headset just off his cheek. Brian Kelly steps out from behind a saloon door. No, this isn’t the O.K. Corral, but Saturday’s (just after) high-noon showdown certainly has some drama baked into it.

Two teams will enter Sun Devil Stadium with hopes of joining College Football’s Playoff. Only one will exit. It’s not exactly Wyatt and Doc taking on the McLaury brothers, but the mid-afternoon showdown is one of the biggest games to come to Tempe in a long time, and Sun Devil fans are mighty excited.

So are the Irish. After stumbling through a hard-fought victory over Navy, Notre Dame gets another opportunity to beat a Top 10 opponent. This time, they’d be wise not to put victory in the hands of a back judge.

Let’s get to the pregame six pack before Saturday’s elimination game.

 

There are big games. And then there’s the Notre Dame game. Tempe will be ready to rock this weekend. 

In many ways, the best thing that ever happened to Notre Dame was former Sun Devils athletic director Steve Patterson taking to the radio waves to complain about Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick trying to move/cancel/whatever this football game.

Patterson, who high-tailed it out of Tempe to take the Texas AD job, called out Swarbrick last April on the radio and threw some Catholic guilt Notre Dame’s way.

“The school didn’t have the courtesy to have the athletic director (Jack Swarbrick) call the athletic director at ASU to discuss it,” Patterson said. “They had their PR guy call (ASU’s media relations office) to give us a message Friday afternoon while everybody was out of town at the Final Four.

“At least in the little Catholic town I grew up in — Beaver Dam, Wis. — the good nuns wouldn’t have thought that was a very appropriate way to honor your word.”

Whether that grousing was what saved the game or not (I’m guessing it probably did), the result is super beneficial to Notre Dame just 19 months later. The Irish get a much-needed opportunity to beat a “top team” in the selection committees eyes, and reboot their stalled out pursuit of a final spot in the first College Football Playoff.

Arizona State has that same opportunity, but also gets the type of big game that they hoped to host when they agreed to a three-game series. So while Patterson may come from the Dave Brandon school of athletic administration (, mark this down as one of the few times that taking it public paid off.

 

Now the featured back in the Irish offense, Tarean Folston has the opportunity to emerge as a star.

While last year’s victory over Arizona State was the team’s most impressive feat, it was a turning point in the wrong direction for running back George Atkinson. After serving as the silver lining against Oklahoma, when his 148 yards on 14 carries looked like a potential light-bulb moment for the inconsistent back, Brian Kelly gave Atkinson the opportunity to seal his role as the team’s featured back against Arizona State.

Facing a defense that was giving up yards by the bushel, Atkinson was expected to feast against the Sun Devils front seven. Instead, he ran for just 54 yards on 18 carries, as Kelly rode Cam McDaniel down the stretch, with McDaniel gaining 82 yards on just 15 attempts. That opportunity basically spelled the end for Atkinson’s chances, eventually opening the door for Folston to ascend to the No. 2 job, a role he inched up from as the season rolled on, turning into the team’s best back down the stretch.

One year later, Folston enters the Arizona State game this season looking to make a similar move. To his credit, he’s already done something an Irish back hasn’t done since 2006, run for over 120 yards in two consecutive games.

Against the 90th ranked rushing defense in the country, expect to see a steady diet of Folston, and to have the sophomore back introduce himself to a national audience.

 

The defense will run through Nyles Morgan. And we’ll get our opportunity to see how ready the young linebacker is for the spotlight. 

Thursday evening, Kelly updated the local media on the progress young linebacker Nyles Morgan made this week. And according to the head coach, Morgan is going to handle playcalling for the defense, a sign that Morgan is ready for the responsibility that comes with the position.

“Nyles handled pretty much all of the communication. He did a great job this week and he’ll be the guy making the calls out there,” Kelly confirmed.

“He had a really good week and he’s extremely confident. Look, he’s not gonna be perfect. Certainly there’s gonna be a hiccup here or there, but he’s got a pretty good understanding of what we’re trying to accomplish and I think he had an excellent week.”

Sunday, Kelly said he expected sophomore Michael Deeb to back up Morgan in the middle, with the Tuesday depth chart update confirming that plan. But Thursday evening, Kelly said fellow freshman Greer Martini would serve as the primary backup, a sign that last week’s nine-tackle performance against Navy was no fluke.

The Irish will be incredibly young on the inside this week at linebacker. We’ll find out if it hurts them tomorrow afternoon.

 

We’ll find out Saturday afternoon if Will Fuller got Brian Kelly’s not-so-subtle message. 

Sometimes Brian Kelly uses the media to deliver a message for him. Usually, it’s in a subtle manner. In the case of Will Fuller, it wasn’t.

On Tuesday, Kelly took a question about Torii Hunter and used it as an opportunity to call out his sophomore wide receiver. After Fuller dropped a touchdown pass and generally slept-walked through Notre Dame’s 49-39 victory against Navy, the rising star has a chance to matchup with Jaelen Strong, one of the best receivers in the country.

Finding the way his players tick is a specialty of Notre Dame’s head coach. But digging one layer deeper into the showcase afternoon for Fuller presents an opportunity for Fuller to play big against a Sun Devils defense that plays a lot of man coverage, but also measure his talents against another one of Philadelphia’s finest, Jaelen Strong.

Strong’s road to the top of the Pac-12 receiving food chain is far from the one most-traveled. After just 17 catches and 318 yards as a senior at West Philadelphia Catholic, Strong headed to junior college instead of accepting offers from VMI, Villanova or Eastern Michigan. After sitting out his freshman season, he scored 15 touchdowns in 10 games for Pierce College. Then he chose Arizona State over offers from some of the best programs in the country.

Strong’s breakout 2013 season at ASU included a monster game against the Irish last season. While his 821 receiving yards best Fuller’s 599, Notre Dame’s sophomore has nine touchdown catches to Strong’s eight.

A week after failing to show up, Fuller needs to be at his best on Saturday afternoon. We’ll see if Fuller got Kelly’s message.

 

A year ago, Notre Dame managed to sack Taylor Kelly six times. Can they make Kelly’s afternoon miserable again?

Notre Dame’s pass rush dialed up its finest game of the year against Arizona State last season, with Prince Shembo unblockable at times and Taylor Kelly harassed and hurried in the Irish’s 37-34 victory.

The Irish defense held the Sun Devils at bay most of the afternoon, and after ASU made a fourth-quarter charge, Dan Fox’s pick six extended the lead to 10 points and the Irish held on from there. While Kelly’s stat line looked mighty pretty — 33 of 47 for 362 yards and three touchdowns, the Irish managed two interceptions and six sacks, ruining the afternoon of one of the Pac-12’s most efficient quarterbacks.

Not wanting to give away any specifics, Kelly credited the defense’s success to some coverage tweaks that they hadn’t shown in previous weeks. While Brian VanGorder has built this defense around scheme changes and confusing looks for an opposing quarterback, some wondered if that ability is hampered without Joe Schmidt in the middle of the defense.

It certainly doesn’t look like it will be.

“We have not simplified what we’re doing,” Kelly said Thursday. “I don’t think you can go into a game like this against that offense and play vanilla. If you do, it’s gonna be a long day. They’re just too good. They have a ton of answers. We have to be who we are.”

 

The Irish didn’t blink walking into Doak Campbell. We’ll see if they can do the same in Sun Devil Stadium. 

Swap out stadium lights for desert sun. And swap out the Seminoles’ war chant for a group of screaming students who’ve been camped out since Sunday.

Notre Dame showed the type of tunnel vision and big game preparation that they’ve displayed under Brian Kelly since he got the program up to speed in 2012. On Saturday, they’ll have another opportunity to walk into a road stadium and come out a victor. After preparing his team for a hostile atmosphere before traveling to Tallahassee, Kelly expects that experience to help his team be ready for business this weekend.

“We did a little bit of [extra preparation before] Florida State and I think we passed that test,” Kelly said. “We did less of that for Arizona State because we think we’ve kind of been there and done that. I think they know how to handle that. This is really about going out and executing and playing clean football. We have to play well. We have to play better defensively and we have to be more efficient on offense. I think it’s less about the things we had to concern ourselves at Florida state and more about what we do in this game.”

If there’s one message Kelly sent clearly at Florida State it was that he wasn’t coaching not to lose. The Irish played aggressively from the start, throwing deep on first down. He was daring on fourth down, showing confidence in the offensive line multiple times.

With his team looking to their coach for his lead, Kelly showed the type of confidence you want in a leader. That makes Saturday less about the opponent or the venue, but the players wearing gold helmets.

“For me, the most important thing is our guys play the kind of football they’re capable of playing,” Kelly said. “I want to win, right? That’s why we’re in this. We want to win the football game. I want us to play to the level we’re capable of playing. If we do that, then I expect us to win the football game.”

 

 

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.