Northwestern Mailbag: (Begrudgingly) Moving on

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Nothing like a difficult loss to rankle the soul of an Irish fan. And while I smartly steered clear of the comments, it doesn’t look like too many of you did.

For a football fan, you can dwell on struggles and turnovers and other mistakes for weeks and weeks. For a football team? It’s on to the next one.

So before we get to that next one, the 3-6 Northwestern Wildcats, let’s get to the mailbag.

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bearcatirish: A real football question. Given evevertt’s recent turnovers do you think northwestern might try to blitz more than usual and surprise the Irish offense. Or are they too committed to the bend don’t break philosophy?

I think they’d be silly not to bring some pressure against Golson. It’s proven to be the best way to get this offense out of rhythm. And I don’t think it’s just the quarterback’s issues, but rather the pass protection in general.

(Thanks for a football question!)

 

@01Dhish: Golson stares down his WR, allowing Dbs to jump routes. Is this an offensive line issue, or is it play calling from BK?

I’m not sure it’s any of those things. And I can’t necessarily get behind the general gist of your question. On quick passes, there’s an element of locking into your wide receiver. And the missed cut blocks by offensive linemen were the issue.

For the most part, the quick game has been a great part of this offense. But against ASU, whether it was just a nice job by the Sun Devils’ personnel or a coaching point by Todd Graham and company, the Irish paid for the batted passes.

As for DBs jumping routes, that’s happened once or twice (the pick-six against Syracuse and to a lesser extent, the one against North Carolina.) But otherwise, I think Golson’s done a great job of distributing the football, especially compared to recent years when they’ve force-fed the football to one or two targets.

 

glowplugv: NW should be a game that the Irish can control and win (I hope). I am not saying that Zaire is solution to the TO’s but shouldn’t this be the time that Zaire gets a chance to play when the game is still on the line? Getting Zaire real “practice” has not been done. So shouldn’t Coach Kelly consider letting Zaire play (at least a few series) particularly if Golson puts the ball on the ground? Message and practice: a twofer!

And…

bkl11: For all the good Everett has done for this season, 17 turnovers in 5 games is beyond alarming and has ultimately cost the Irish not only a berth in the Final Four, but a New Year’s Day bowl as well. Knowing Brian Kelly’s preference of reliability over talent, has / will Kelly lose his trust in Golson’s ability to protect the football (as I already have) and move him in a Tommy Rees 2012 supporting role as he brings Malik Zaire along? As the Irish are relegated once again to what toilet bowl is left over from conference play, it would not hurt my feelings a bit if this happened starting Saturday.

And…

beatfsu: Why did the Irish redshirt Zaire last year instead of playing him over Rees and red shirting him this year?

There were a few more I could’ve included, too. Talking about Malik Zaire has been a popular thing this week — no doubt the product of Notre Dame’s five turnovers. But I’m not worried about a redshirt freshman feeling involved, especially when he’s not going to be the team’s starting quarterback next season either.

Right now, Notre Dame fans are basing their love for Zaire on what? A few good throws in the Blue-Gold game? Why didn’t Zaire play last year? Because he wasn’t even close to ready!

Would it be ideal to get Zaire some snaps today? Absolutely. Even better, some snaps that matter? That could be ideal. (Remember, I’m the guy who said he’d see time in the first half against Rice!) But at this point, getting your offense right and efficient over these next three weeks is key. And there’s no question that Golson is the team’s best quarterback. Otherwise Zaire would be playing.

Let’s remember, Kelly and the coaching staff see him taking a large portion of the first-team reps every day in practice. They know what he can do. And if he was ready to challenge Golson and be a quarterback that was ready to help this team win, he’d be getting a look.

 

@ericruethling: after ASU a well respected writer of NDFB said now was a critical junction in the program. Isn’t that overstating it a bit?

I think it is. (And I have no idea who wrote that.) This team is ahead of schedule. The loss might put this team at a critical juncture in the season — and getting to 10 (or 11 with a bowl) wins will be huge for next season, but the program is safe.

But this team is at an inflection point, and they need to right the ship this weekend.

onward2victory:

Brian Kelly is a fantastic coach, excellent fit for ND. But he’s not perfect, the Irish have consistently struggled in the following 3 areas for all of Kelly’s tenure:
1. Special Teams
2. Turning the ball over
3. Not matching the energy of the opponent

Do you think he will improve in these areas, or are we just stuck with these traits as a trade off for all the good things that BK brings to the table?

Onward, I challenge the very premise of your question. ND’s special teams struggles on special teams have been because of a variety of reasons. First, a mediocre amount of depth on the roster. (Last year, especially.) This season, it’s been drops by a holder that’s literally specialized in it every practice of the year. Before, the Irish didn’t have a return man that could make a play happen.

As for the turnovers — look at other teams when they play first or second-year quarterbacks. Notre Dame’s turnovers aren’t too unlike every other program in college football. Not to say they aren’t frustrating. But 2013 wasn’t a bad year for turnovers. 2012 was an amazing season for turnovers. Even at 19 right now, the Irish are tied with… Florida State. In 2010 and 2011, the Irish were juggling between two young, inexperienced quarterbacks. That’s not a Kelly thing, that’s an every coach thing.

As for the energy comment, how are we measuring that? By more than the eyeball test? I think this third one is dubious at best.

 

danirish: Keith, do you or anyone think that Golson’s ball security problems is a symptom of Whitfield (the qb guru) changing his grip on the ball? Didn’t Golson hold the ball without laces until the Guru change it? Is that the issue with the fumbles?

Golson has routinely thrown the football with or without the laces since he showed up in South Bend. Over the summer, Whitfield got Everett to start using the laces, though that’s been a habit that’s not quite stuck this year.

And no, I don’t think it’s the issue — or even a fraction of the issue. Unless the laces have velcro these days.

 

domerboyirish: I’ve seen some nice photos of yesterday’s snow removal off the field in the stadium. I wonder what you think about not doing a heated field now? It sure would be nice to Saturday with a high of 32 degrees. A slick field late in the afternoon may affect the outcome of the game.
Domerboy — I don’t think the ground is going to freeze just a day or two after the first snow. Especially when the temperatures never really dropped below the high-20s. (Granted, it’s been a long time since I’ve been home in the cold for winter.)

I know a lot of people complained about the FieldTurf — and then not heating it — but it’ll be just fine out there, I promise. A lot better than natural grass.

 

migshields: seeing that the Irish seem to be prone to a “Navy hangover” every year. Plus hearing BK talk about how difficult it is to change the defense for one week to prepare for the triple option. Do you see Swarbrick scheduling this game for earlier in the season? Apparently the 2015 and 2016 schedules are already set, but maybe for 2017?

While the “Navy Hangover” has been discussed quite a bit, I tend to think that this game is a tough one any week you schedule it… if the Midshipmen can hang in there and keep it close. In 2012, playing the opening game worked great, but mostly because it was a 50-10 blowout.

I’m sure putting the off weeks close or around the Navy game are something that’s been discussed. But so is giving the team some extra time to prep/heal for opponents like Florida State, and some of the other tough games coming up.

Ultimately, it’s Navy. They’re tough, but you need to win the game. And when the depth chart returns to full strength, it’ll be a game that becomes less of an impact, especially if the Irish can play turnover free.

 

sullivan1009: Just trying to get a handle on the CFP rankings and the logic that goes into them… Would ND be ranked higher if they had beaten FSU and ASU, but lost to UNC and Navy? Are these rankings so hard to grasp because they go against decades of poll voter thinking, or do they just defy logic?

The rankings — until the final rank — are all a waste of time in my opinion. Ultimately, that’s when I’ll really take this seriously.

But the absolute made-for-TV circus that this has become is really disappointing, though I’m kind of upset with myself for not seeing it coming.

 

johngaltisspeaking: Keith its so obvious that Brian K does not posses the skills of the great coaches, Lou Holtz, Ara Parseghian, Jimbo fisher, Nick Saban. All of these great coaches have the ability to out coach their oppo —

Sorry, there must’ve been a bad connection. Your question got cutoff.

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.

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.