Pregame Six Pack: Wildcats in the winter

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It’s a winter wonderland in South Bend. As an early snow covers the Midwest before the middle of November, it’s a wonderful reminder that FieldTurf has been installed in Notre Dame Stadium, allowing Saturday afternoon’s game to look more like football than broomball, as it has in the past.

That’s not a consolation prize for those of you out shoveling the driveway this week. But it will likely make the quality of the football a lot better on Saturday. And after playing one of their sloppiest games of recent memory last weekend in Tempe, the Irish can use any help they can get.

Also likely supplying some help is Northwestern. After having the Wildcats program playing some of their best football in over a decade, Pat Fitzgerald’s team has struggled through two sub-par seasons, practically in a freefall since last season’s tight loss to Ohio State.

[WATCH LIVE: Notre Dame vs. Northwestern, 3 pm ET on NBC and online via Live Extra]

Northwestern enters Saturday 3-6 and losers of 13 of their last 17 games. And outside of their surprising upset win over Wisconsin this fall, the Wildcats have beaten just Illinois, Penn State and Western Illinois since beating Maine last September.

Still, in the first matchup between these two programs since Northwestern pulled off a shocking upset in 1995, on a wintery weekend in South Bend, anything can happen.

Let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack.

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We’ll find out Saturday, but a big question remains: Just how bad is Northwestern?

There’s no snark in that question, as the Wildcats have put together a season that sometimes defies logic. For as bad as Northwestern has looked at times (“Embrace the suck,” Fitzgerald quipped), the Wildcats have two impressive victories over Wisconsin and Penn State (the Badgers more so than the Nittany Lions), and have lost four one-score games. A program that built a reputation for winning the close ones is now losing them.

The biggest culprit for those struggles? The offense. While the defense has played mostly good football, the offense has hit rock bottom this year. Behind a struggling line, senior quarterback Trevor Siemian hasn’t been able to stay healthy or be productive. And a lack of big-play threats has put the offense into a pretty damning statistical black hole.

Scoring Offense: 18.0 per game (122nd)
Total Offense: 322.7 yards per game (117th)
Rushing Offense: 109.9 yards per game (114th)
Passing Offense: 212.8 yards per game (84th)
Yards Per Play: 4.24 yards per play (125th)
Yards Per Carry: 2.88 yards per carry (123rd)

Notre Dame fans expecting those numbers to turn into an easy Saturday, pump the brakes. We’ve had countless weekends over the past few years where one-way battles turned into slugfests. And the fact that Northwestern was able to beat Wisconsin, a team that still could turn out to be the best in the Big Ten, means there’s some fight in this team.

 

After failing to play big against Arizona State, Tarean Folston has another opportunity to shine.

Last Saturday wasn’t the breakout performance I expected from Tarean Folston. While the Arizona State ground game was able to make its mark, Notre Dame’s wasn’t. Sure, a lot of that was because the Irish found themselves in a 31-3 hole after eight chaotic minutes of football. But Folston was kept off the field in favor of Cam McDaniel because of the senior’s pass-blocking prowess, a skill that often times comes down to effort.

Earlier this week, Kelly talked about Folston needing to up his game in that facet to become a complete back. The sophomore running back was clearly listening.

“They understand. They hear what we say. They listen to my press conference, too,” Kelly said on Thursday. “They hear me say Folston needs to be a complete back. He had it written on his tape on his wrist this week, ‘I need to be a complete back.’

“He was focused on blitz pick up. When it was blitz pick up drill he was wanting to be in there proving that he can be… Folston knows what he’s doing. This was more of a kick in the butt with him.”

On a Saturday where snow is still in the forecast, hopefully pass blocking isn’t the priority for the Irish running backs. Running the football should be.

So after a brief hiccup in his production, we’ll see if Folston returns to being the team’s featured back, and providing the production that made it an easy decision.

 

With their final month of college football in front of them, Cody Riggs and Austin Collinsworth will do what it takes to help the Irish secondary.

The back end of the Irish defense looked really young last week against Arizona State. With sophomores Cole Luke and Devin Butler playing cornerback, along with sophomore Max Redfield and junior Elijah Shumate playing safety, there wasn’t much experience on the field against the Sun Devils and their playmaking wide receiving corps.

But it looks like veterans Cody Riggs and Austin Collinsworth will do their best to return to the field this week, with both fifth-year seniors hoping to contribute in a limited fashion as they battle injuries.

Riggs sat out last weekend with a “stress reaction,” a foot injury that made matching up with All-American candidate Jaelen Strong a tough task. Riggs will be back on the field this weekend, working his way through the pain taking limited snaps.

“He’s gonna play. He’s not gonna play the whole game,” Kelly said. “But he’ll be able to contribute and play some. He practiced this week. We’re not gonna put so many snaps on him that we lose him next week. We’ll be smart with him.”

Also doing his best to get back on the field is Collinsworth. The fifth-year senior captain has only been able to make an impact in the locker room this year, with knee and shoulder injuries robbing him of his starting job just 48 hours before the season was set to begin.

Collinsworth is medically available, though how long his shoulder will last remains to be seen. That’s a big reason why Kelly isn’t willing to play him on special teams.

“I’m not going to lose him on special teams. Not in this situation,” Kelly said. “Here’s a kid, he’s given us everything to even get back out there. I’m not going to lose him on special teams.”

Ultimately, it’ll come down to Collinsworth being able to provide Shumate or Redfield a breather, or finding a situation where he’ll be able to succeed — perhaps along the goaline.

“I think just a coaching decision, he’s not holding himself back,” Kelly said. “He’s practicing. He’s able to play if we decide to play him. There’s no holding back on his part. He wants to get back in the game.”

After watching USC’s offense last night throw the football all over Cal, taking it easy on Riggs’ foot until Thanksgiving weekend would be wise. And if Collinsworth is able to help communicate and keep the Irish defense in the right position, giving him some snaps at safety would be well worth it.

 

As Pat Fitzgerald has upped the profile of his football program, Notre Dame and Northwestern have battled for more and more football players. 

You’re likely to recognize more than a few names on Northwestern’s roster. And it’s not from watching the Wildcats on Saturdays. Rather, Notre Dame and Northwestern’s coaching staffs have done a fair bit a battling on the recruiting trail these past few years, with Pat Fitzgerald doing a nice job winning his fair share of battles.

While it’s not necessarily true that Kelly and his staff view Fitzgerald in the same way they see Brady Hoke (for now) and Urban Meyer, LakethePosts took a nice look at the past five recruiting classes and found quite a bit of overlap.

In the last five recruiting classes, there have been a total of 51 recruits (according to rivals.com) who committed to either Notre Dame or Northwestern while being courted by the other school. This includes both players who received offers from both school, or players who merely received interest from both schools. Of those 51, 35 committed to Notre Dame, of whom the average rivals star rating was 3.5. Northwestern took 16 with an average star rating of 3.1.

Credit the writer for including some obvious caveats that come with culling your data from a recruiting website. And as the Irish coaching staff have adjusted their offering process to stay up to pace with the demands of the recruiting world, it’s difficult to say with certainty that “Notre Dame lost out on Matt Alviti” or that the Irish simply moved on to a better prospect.

All that being said, with a handful of Chicagoland prospects on both rosters, and recruits (especially in the 2016 class) still considering both programs, this paragraph from LTP is especially true.

This is why the NU/ND game might mean more than just one win or one loss. If Pat Fitzgerald can find a way to knock off one of his chief recruiting rivals, he immediately has a new pitch. When you beat the guy you’re recruiting against, it gives you an awfully clear edge. Meanwhile, if Northwestern goes into South Bend and loses gets blown out (the line right now is ND by around 17), challenging Notre Dame gets a lot harder. Not only do you not have any concrete edges from an institutional standpoint, now you’ve gotten smashed in a head-to-head. If you’re 17 or 18 years old, it might be that much harder to turn down one of the most historic teams in sports in the Fighting Irish.

In a game that may be one of the less intriguing on the schedule, this is a storyline worth tracking.

 

Looking for something important? How about getting Notre Dame’s young defense back on track. 

The stats listed above are a large indicator why we might expect better from Brian VanGorder’s young defense. If you’re looking to get your confidence back, no Power Five offense might be a better option than the one Northwestern is trotting out there right now.

With question marks at every position except maybe running back, where true freshman Justin Jackson is doing his best to keep the ground game afloat, the Irish defense should be able to right the ship after Notre Dame has given up 42 points a game over the last four weeks.

Yesterday, we talked about the struggles with Sudden Change defense and in the red zone. But after wondering if this group would lose confidence after a few bad outings, Kelly had nothing but good things to say about a young defense that desperately wants to improve.

“They are so engaged. They are so anxious. It’s probably a poor analogy, they wanna do so well they’re like hunting dogs. Just looking up at you, ‘What can I do?'” Kelly said Thursday.

“But they’re young. There’s mental errors and mistakes that we have to clean up every day with them. You ask Coach VanGorder and for him it’s great because you have such captive group that they just want to learn, but there’s a lot of learning going on. Every day it’s something new for them.”

That includes freshman Nyles Morgan, who’ll get a chance to find his footing against an offensive that’ll try to move quickly, but won’t much resemble the one he saw in Tempe. And after playing a poor game up front, don’t think Kelly’s comments earlier this week weren’t heard by the defensive line, who should have ample opportunities to get sacks against the Wildcat offensive line.

 

If the Irish want to win out, Everett Golson needs to take a big step forward. 

As you might expect, all eyes were on Everett Golson this week after his five turnover game. And while we’ll find out tomorrow whether or not Golson has remedied his problems, he’s certainly impressed his head coach this week.

“I think what I’m most pleased with is we got great leadership from Everett this week,” Kelly said after recapping the week on Thursday. “He’s got an immense amount of pride and I really enjoyed coaching him this week. It was a fun week in the growth department from that perspective. Nobody likes to be that guy that is singled out for their play, but he’s the quarterback at Notre Dame and he embraces that and took control this week of practice.”

Golson said as much earlier this week, when he told the local media he wasn’t going to change his mentality. But he’ll need to change his habits if the Irish are going to win three-straight regular season games and finish with ten wins before a chance to win a bowl game.

Even with Northwestern this weekend and Louisville losing starting quarterback Will Gardner, the odds are against a clean finish. Football Outsiders views the Irish’s shot of winning out at just 10 percent, a surprisingly low number, but one that’s been radically effected by the turnovers.

On a wintery day, ball security will have to once again be the priority. And sometimes the biggest play Golson will make will be the one to check down and take something small. Golson admitted to relying on his athleticism too much to try and get out of trouble. Saturday he’ll have some short routes available against Northwestern, especially if the Wildcats decide to bring pressure.

Kelly talked about that part of Golson’s evolution, and how he’s looking to get more from his quarterback.

“When you have an athletic quarterback that knows he can make a play with his feet, dropping it down to the back is, ‘Well, I can do that,'” Kelly explained. “What we really want him to do is through his progression, utilize if you’re in trouble and you can’t get out of it with your feet, find out where you outlet is. We felt there were a couple instances where there was an impending crisis that he couldn’t get out of and he tried to get out of it.”

“I don’t want to change him, I want him to use his feet. I want him to try to get out of some things, but you can’t get out of everything. So I think the process there is, you can’t get out of everything, understand that. What you can’t get out of it, find your release and get the ball out. That’s gonna be a process.”

 

 

 

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.