After unexplainable loss, can Irish rally again?

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Few memories are shorter collectively than football fans. Every mistake is magnified in the prism of “now,” with the devastation of a difficult to understand loss like last weekend’s to Northwestern consistently taking dead aim at the foundation of a football program, regardless of its stability.

In the span of four, mistake-filled hours, (for some) opinions on the future of Brian Kelly turned drastically. That’s to be expected in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of major sports. And when you’re cashing seven-figure pay checks, people don’t tend to care if you’re playing freshman and sophomores, if your best players are suspended, or if injuries have gutted the heart of your roster.

Losing isn’t good. Especially in the spectacularly painful manner the Irish managed to last weekend, where a toxic blend of mistakes both on the field and on the sidelines merged gasoline with blowtorch, the flames killing any momentum this season could’ve salvaged with a defeat at the hands of one of the Big Ten’s most unimpressive teams.

So you can understand the bellowing for pink slips and the demands for house-cleaning. And that junk-draw dig for that list of usual suspects, if only to feel better by kicking the tires on the Grudens and the Shanahans, or hoping that this won’t ever happen again if Stoops or Meyer leave their pressure cooker for another.

But at this point, it’s worth looking past the disaster. Because now Brian Kelly’s job isn’t to explain why Northwestern managed to beat Notre Dame. It’s to not let the Wildcats beat them twice. So while most Irish fans already have the turkey cooked a week before Thanksgiving, Notre Dame’s still a 3.5-point favorite, so at least the town that’s built on picking a winner hasn’t completely given up on the Domers yet.

On Tuesday, Kelly acknowledged the stench that’s still coming off of this loss. But he rightfully put into context where this loss falls in his five-year run in South Bend, pushing away from the comparisons to the soul-stomping loss to Tulsa in 2010.

“Understand that these are some tough times,” Kelly said. “But relatively speaking I remind them of some tough times, that we were here just a few years ago, when we were 4 and 5. Those are tough times. Those are difficult times. This pales in comparisons. You’re now in a winning environment. And you’ve won a lot of football games.

“Our seniors win on Saturday, that would be 18‑2 in the last 20 games at home. So keep it in perspective.”

Perspective doesn’t get passed around these circles too often, especially not after bungled two-point conversions and goal line fumbles. But after watching mistakes compound last Saturday by the unusual suspects – the school’s record-setting kicker, its team captain running back, and a head coach that’s usually one of the better strategists in the game — Kelly quickly ended any talk about the self-fulfilling prophecies of doom and gloom that too often haunted these parts in years past.

“We’re not going to get into that. I think you get in the game and [the mistakes] definitely affect you,” Kelly acknowledged, when asked about having worries that these mistakes might spread. “Look, it affected me. I went for two when I should have kicked the extra point, right?

“It affects everybody. I can’t fall into that. I’m not getting paid to make stupid decisions like that. But you fall into that, right? And so I can’t let our players fall into that.”

So it’s back to the basics. And even if Kelly himself wasn’t going to bring up the darkest days of his tenure in South Bend, a look at those moments should give you a good feel about how his team has responded to adversity.

For clues as to how the Irish will respond to crisis, let’s go back to those big moments:

 

Tulsa 28, Notre Dame 27
October 30, 2010
Gut-Punch Level: Infinity

Overview: A week after being humiliated by Navy 35-17, the Irish took the field just three days after the tragic death of Declan Sullivan.

The Irish lost Dayne Crist early in the game with another major, season-ending knee injury. The Irish gave up two points on a blocked extra point. (Sound familiar?) And after taking a 27-18 lead over the Golden Hurricane in the third quarter, the Irish gave up 10 unanswered points before driving inside the Tulsa 20 yard line with under a minute left.

But after taking a timeout on 2nd-and-8 to discuss things, Tommy Rees underthrew Michael Floyd in the end zone and was intercepted, leaving kicker David Ruffer on the sideline without ever getting to attempt a game-winning 37-yard field goal.

The Aftermath: Kelly’s opening postgame comments were his first about the Sullivan tragedy. After answering those difficult questions, they shifted to his decision to throw the football with a true freshman quarterback with a makeable field goal in range. Here was Kelly’s response.

“We knew we had a one-on-one matchup with Mike Floyd. We certainly wanted to give that an opportunity for success and score a touchdown there. Took a timeout there to talk about it. I think we all know what happened there,” Kelly said. “But keep in mind, you better get used to it, because that’s the way we’re playing. If we can get a one-on-one matchup, and we think we can get that accomplished, we’re going to call that play again and again. We’ll make that play. We didn’t make it today. But in time we’ll make that play.”

The loss pushed the Irish into a very real scenario where a postseason bowl berth looked doubtful. Notre Dame’s two toughest opponents — a ranked Utah team and USC — still remained. As did another option offense, with an already bowl-eligible Army team awaiting for the Irish in Yankee Stadium. Notre Dame needed to win two of three just to get to .500.

The Response: Entering as nearly touchdown home underdogs, the Irish hadn’t beaten a ranked team since 2006, an 11-game run. But facing an offense that had averaged 41 points a game, the Irish won the turnover battle 2-0, got a huge blocked punt by Robert Blanton for a touchdown and Austin Collinsworth forced a fumble on the second half’s opening kickoff.

Tommy Rees completed 13 of 20 passes for just 129 yards. But three of those went for touchdowns with Floyd catching one and Duval Kamara catching two as students stormed the field after a cathartic 28-3 victory.

“Today for our football team was a moment that you really can’t explain unless you’re with us all the time, and that moment is shared between players and coaches. We were able to do that in the locker room after the game,” Kelly said after the victory. “Our seniors were playing in their last game. Through the last three weeks we certainly have had a great deal of adversity that we’ve had to overcome together as a group. In those times to steal a quote from Coach Parseghian, adversity elicits traits sometimes that we didn’t think we ever had.”

 

Michigan 35, Notre Dame 31
September 10, 2011
Gut-Punch Level: Infinity

Overview:: Few losses hurt more than this one. Notre Dame’s defense gave up 28 second-half points and the Irish offense’s 513 yards were all but negated by five turnovers as a broken coverage late in the game allowed Denard Robinson and company to walk out of an electric evening in Michigan Stadium with a win for the ages, capped off by a 16-yard touchdown pass with two seconds left.

After losing in painful ways the previous two seasons, the Irish looked like they had pulled out a clutch victory when Tommy Rees hit Theo Riddick on a 29-yard touchdown with 30 seconds to go. But Jeremy Gallon was left wide open in the secondary, setting up the game-winning touchdown.

The Aftermath: A week after self-destructing against USF, the Irish did so on an ever larger stage, an unlikely 0-2 football team that left the equivalent of 55 points on the board because of turnovers in just two weeks.

With a visit from Michigan State just days away (who had beat the Irish on their famed Little Giants fake field goal attempt a year prior), Kelly sounded resolute that he and his team could get things turned around.

“I really believe that you haven’t won a game yet, but you haven’t been beaten,” Kelly told his team. “We’ve really had a hand in beating ourselves. If we do not beat ourselves, we’ve got a chance to be the kind of football team that we believe we can be.”

The laundry list of improvements seemed quite daunting. In addition to an offense that was self-destructing, the secondary did the same. The Irish short-yardage units were abysmal. And the Irish had now lost seven of eight games that were within four points.

The Response: Notre Dame 31, Michigan State 13.

Few remember that the Irish offense only gained 275 yards. Or that the Spartans won the turnover battle 3-2. Notre Dame’s defense came to play, picking off Kirk Cousins in the shadow of their end zone and stopping a Mark Dantonio fake field goal attempt for good measure as well.

On special teams, George Atkinson provided the big play, an 89-yard kickoff return pushing the Irish up 14-3. On defense, freshman Aaron Lynch was relentless as a pass rusher.

The Irish essentially iced victory when Michael Floyd scored on a 22-yard touchdown to push the lead to 28-10 in the third quarter. While Cierre Wood’s 14 carries led the team, Jonas Gray made his early mark on the team, gaining 5.4 yards a carry on his 12 touches.

“We just had to find a way to win. And that was the theme this week. By any means, just find a way to win the football game,” Kelly said afterwards.

 

Pitt 28, Notre Dame 21
November 9, 2013
Gut-Punch Level: Painful

Overview: Things seemed to go wrong from the drop, with defensive end Stephon Tuitt ejected in the first quarter for targeting, gutting an already injury-depleted Irish team. But the Irish pulled ahead late in the third quarter when Rees and TJ Jones connected on an 80-yard touchdown pass.

But the lead wouldn’t hold, as Devin Street matched Jones’ big play with a 63-yard score to tie the game and James Connor pushed Pitt ahead early in the fourth quarter as two late interceptions by Rees allowed the score to hold up.

“Our mantra is you can’t start winning until you stop losing and we did things tonight that caused losing,” Kelly said.

Critics wondered about playcalling, with the Irish running for 5.8 a carry, but giving freshman Tarean Folston just four carries among the team’s 24 attempts. And Jones’ individual effort, 149 yards on six catches, wasn’t enough to overcome three turnovers, including one by the Irish receiver in scoring position.

The Aftermath: The loss killed the Irish’s BCS dreams and was also a rare November nightmare for a team that had played historically well down the stretch. With the defensive front gutted, the Irish were forced to play unproven reserves like Tyler Stockton, Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, and it showed as the Pitt offense wore down the Irish defense. But Kelly didn’t use that as an excuse.

“Stephon Tuitt not playing in the game, that’s not why we lost this football game,” Kelly said. “That is not why we lost this football game. It had nothing to do with this loss tonight.”

After living on the edge with a close victory over USC and then two weeks later Navy, the Irish regression was a disappointing development for a team that had hopefully left turnover problems behind in their loss to Oklahoma.

“This really was about our football team going on the road and executing poorly on offense and not being good enough when they needed to be on defense,” Kelly said. “Coaches are responsible for getting their players to execute. That’s why we’re hired. That’s what we do. We didn’t get that from our players tonight. I’m responsible for that. That didn’t happen tonight.”

The Response: On Senior Day, a bludgeoned Irish defense was carried by a surprising offensive attack, with Notre Dame’s ground game leading the way to victory. Played in intermittent snow, Rees hit DaVaris Daniels for a big 61-yard touchdown pass on the game’s first series, but won it on the ground, with the Irish running for 235 yards against a BYU defense that was statistically among the best in the country.

With the wind howling and the weather nasty, the Irish seized the opportunity to win the game with their offensive line, limiting mistakes (and the opportunity to make them) in a 23-13 victory that saw Notre Dame control the time of possession.

“Well, as I told our team, first and foremost, getting a win at home is always extremely satisfying in that we always want to defend our home stadium,” Kelly said, noting the Irish run of winning 12 of 13 in Notre Dame Stadium, before turning the attention to his graduating seniors. “Certainly getting a win for them is important. We told them that, you’ll get a chance to kiss your mom again. But you’ll remember winning the game. That’s the most important thing.”

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Notre Dame v South Carolina
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Notre Dame’s next offensive coordinator will not matter; whomever Irish head coach Marcus Freeman hires to replace Tommy Rees, he will lean on his running backs.

Notre Dame’s running backs room looks the same as it did a year ago, but oh so different. The order has been drastically reshuffled, though through no one’s failure, only youngsters’ successes.

Any new offensive coordinator will know he has three proven backs to lean on with an intriguing youngster joining a promising one slowly recovering from injury. Oh, and the No. 8 running back in the class of 2023.

They will once again be coached by Deland McCullough. Some further coaching turnover could occur yet this offseason, but McCullough looks secure at Notre Dame.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
This space’s running depth chart — running as in ever-evolving, not as in running backs — still has Chris Tyree atop the running backs listing. In-season, the “ever-evolving” depth chart is not updated as much given the week’s prior game lingers in memory and informs more than anything else.

But even in the season opener, Tyree was not the Irish starter. Audric Estimé got that honor at Ohio State. His preseason was strong enough to vault Estimé to the top of the depth chart, a spot he should not relinquish until he heads to the NFL.

Fellow rising junior Logan Diggs also ended up with more carries than Tyree, creating the type of running-back depth needed to be a viable contender in modern college football.

Some Notre Dame fans insist Tyree is a failure. A former four-star running back who has never taken over a season, they argue. But that overlooks a few realities:

First of all, Tyree backed up an All-American for two years. Complementing Kyren Williams’ all-around game with a speed element was vital for the Irish to make the Playoff in 2020 and threaten it in 2021.

Secondly, if the floor of every four-star recruit is to become a four-year contributor with 13-and-counting touchdowns, recruiting would be far easier. Many “can’t miss prospects” fall quite short of that.

Lastly, Tyree’s kickoff return touchdown against Wisconsin in 2021 is now overlooked because of Graham Mertz’s subsequent fourth-quarter meltdown, but if Tyree had not given Notre Dame that lead — flipping a 13-10 deficit to a 17-13 lead — then Mertz never would have needed to get so desperate. There is a very real chance the Irish do not come within a yard of the 2021 Playoff if Tyree does not break that 96-yard kickoff return touchdown.

All of which is to say, Estimé and Diggs leapfrogged Tyree because of their strengths and improvements, not because of any of Tyree’s supposed struggles.

2022 STATS
Estimé: 13 games; 156 carries for 920 yards, a 5.9 yards per rush average, with 11 touchdowns. 9 catches for 135 yards and another score.
Diggs: 12 games; 165 carries for 921 yards, a 5.0 yards per rush average, with four touchdowns. 10 catches for 211 yards and two more scores.
Tyree: 13 games; 100 carries for 444 yards, a 4.4 yards per rush average, with three touchdowns. 24 catches for 138 yards and two more scores.

Of particular note looking at those three running backs, they combined for only 50 yards lost on their 421 carries last season. In the throttling upset of No. 5 Clemson to start November, just two of Notre Dame’s 45 rushes were stopped behind the line of scrimmage.

More notably, the three Irish backs carried the ball 32 times in the Gator Bowl win against No. 19 South Carolina for 205 yards. None of those rushes lost yardage.

After Diggs found full health (an April shoulder injury slowed him into the season) and Notre Dame fully committed to the running backs after quarterback Tyler Buchner was lost for 10 games, the trio averaged 230.5 yards from scrimmage each week.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Make no mistake, the Irish running backs were as disappointed as anyone when Rees left for Alabama last week. They knew, without a doubt, his offense would feature them. After all, Rees has said he wishes he had grown up as an offensive guard rather than a quarterback if he could choose body type.

They also understood Rees’s decision.

Nonetheless, the trio knows it will be a key piece of Notre Dame’s offense in 2023 for two reasons. One, they are that proven. Two, with Sam Hartman at quarterback, the Irish offense should be more prolific for a change. More snaps and more scoring opportunities will benefit all the skill position players.

The proven “three-headed monster,” as Freeman described them in the 2022 season, should not need to show too much this spring. Estimé needs to hold onto the ball, Diggs needs to find a bit more comfort running between the tackles, and Tyree may spend even more time split wide as a slot receiver, something that was not needed significantly last season because that was often where Michael Mayer aligned.

But those improvements will be on the edges. The three are already known. They will be the most reliable collective piece of Notre Dame’s offense.

The change this spring will be from freshman Gi’Bran Payne. He was the rare delayed signee, de-commiting from Indiana after McCullough left the Hoosiers for South Bend and then eventually following McCullough, committing in mid-April.

Without a spring to impress and behind three stout running backs, Payne never had a viable chance to contribute in 2022. That could change this spring, particularly since classmate Jadarian Price will still be recovering from an Achilles injury, something that usually takes a full year. Price may end up a midseason option, but until then, Payne is Notre Dame’s No. 4 running back, and an injury to any of the leading trio would push No. 4 into a Saturday role.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame adds former four-star Indiana signee, RB Gi’Bran Payne, to incoming freshman class
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 13 Gi’Bran Payne, freshman running back, late recruit

FUTURE DEPTH
He may not factor in this season — again, the Irish have three proven and reliable, and largely durable, running backs — but consensus four-star Jeremiyah Love will almost assuredly draw some notice in the preseason.

At every step of his decade at Notre Dame, Tommy Rees provided stability otherwise lacking

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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

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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.