Five things we learned: USC 49, Notre Dame 14

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Held together by duct tape, twine and every bit of adhesive Brian Kelly could find, Notre Dame’s 2014 season officially exploded Saturday afternoon. The wreckage included a decimated defense incapable of stopping anyone and an offense in the middle of a full-blown identity crisis.

With a four-game losing streak ending the Irish’s regular season at 7-5, Notre Dame made an unranked USC team look like a vintage Pete Carroll squad. The Trojans sprinted to 577 yards of offense and could’ve added plenty more if they wanted to do so. On defense, Steve Sarkisian’s team finally forced Everett Golson to the sidelines, benched as Malik Zaire took over down 35 points after Golson put together four straight punts followed up by two turnovers.

The regular season is over, with the Irish losing five of their last six to end this season with a thud. After flying back to South Bend tonight, they’ll have a few weeks to perform the autopsy on the season that was before learning their bowl fate.

So let’s get to the five things we learned in Notre Dame’s most lopsided defeat of the Kelly era.

 

Notre Dame has a quarterback controversy. 

It seemed preposterous just a month ago that the Irish would find themselves in this position. But after giving Everett Golson the hook in the second quarter, Malik Zaire provided a spark for the Irish offense and turned the month of December into a very interesting one around the Gug.

“Today we thought we had some things early on that we didn’t execute on,” Kelly said after the game. “And that’s why we made a change at the QB position.”

Zaire turned the Irish offense around in short order. His three-play scoring drive took less than a minute and included everything Irish fans have been begging for from Golson. A run from Greg Bryant. A 49-yard completion to Chris Brown. And an 11-yard quarterback keeper for the score.

Zaire moved the Irish into field goal range just before half as well, though Kyle Brindza’s attempt clanged off the left upright.

Asked after the game how he thought Zaire played, Kelly liked what he saw from a young quarterback playing his first significant minutes.

“We tried to get a spark offensively and I think Malik gave us that spark,” Kelly said. “He did some pretty good things.”

On paper, a 9 of 20 afternoon against the 111th-best pass defense in the country isn’t enough to make this change a no-brainer. But credit Zaire for showing the type of competitive spirit and energy this team desperately needed, especially after the game was out of hand.

“The only message I wanted to convey was that we need to play with a lot of heart and that we need to have a no-quit attitude,” Zaire said after the game. “I felt like we were in the game until the clock hit zero. We cannot quit. And we need to play with a lot of heart even when the scoreboard says something different.”

Something’s wrong with Everett Golson. After playing productive football amidst his turnover problems, Golson’s struggles against USC’s defense were the biggest surprise of Saturday afternoon.

And now that makes December a key month of practice at a position that seemed at its strongest in October.

 

Notre Dame’s defense is absolutely decimated.

Notre Dame didn’t have much of a chance on defense heading into the game. And that was before the Irish lost six more players from their two-deep.

On the defensive line, the Irish lost Jacob Matuska and Jay Hayes. At linebacker, Greer Martini went down. And in the secondary the Irish lost Max Redfield and Austin Collinsworth. Cody Riggs didn’t even dress, wearing a walking boot from the sideline. Add those losses to Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Joe Schmidt, and there wasn’t much the Irish coaching staff could do.

“We knew we were shorthanded. We’ve lost a lot of players on defense over the last five weeks,” Kelly said after the game. “It’s been a very difficult run for us with key players on defense. And having to play so many freshman on defense. We just haven’t been able to stop anybody, and it’s been a difficult run for us.”

That was evident from the start, as the Irish tried their best to stop the run by loading the box. But that left Notre Dame’s young secondary in man coverage, and led to Cody Kessler’s career day.

“We loaded up against the run. We were in man coverage all day,” Kelly acknowledged. “We knew it was pick your poison today. And we just don’t have a lot of answers in that situation.”

That’s to be expected at just about any program when you reach this level of injuries. And against an offense that just had too much talent, Kelly all but acknowledged the hole his young defense was playing from.

“They played as hard as they can. It’s just there’s a deficiency there personnel wise,” Kelly said.

 

Greg Bryant took advantage of his opportunities on Saturday.

If you’re looking for a silver-lining to the drubbing, sophomore running back Greg Bryant took advantage of his increased reps on Saturday afternoon. After making a big play in the punt return game against Louisville, Bryant led the Irish in rush yards with 79, breaking into the USC secondary more than a few times.

“It was nice to get him in and get him more touches, that’s what our intentions were,” Kelly said after the game. “We got him in on kickoff as well and I thought he ran hard.

“The more he’s in the game he’s starting to feel more comfortable running the ball. He’s a nice addition to our offense where we have a backfield now where we feel those kids are just getting better and better.”

Bryant looked especially effective running with Zaire in the backfield. Multiple times the Irish hit the Trojans with a zone-read play, with both quarterback and running back picking up a big gain.

While Bryant did most of his damage with the game well in hand, he’ll take this momentum into bowl practice. And paired with Tarean Folston the Irish have a two-headed running back depth chart that’ll look awfully nice in 2015.

 

Mike McGlinchey appears to have made his move at right tackle.

It took until the final game of the regular season, but Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand decided to put sophomore Mike McGlinchey in at right tackle and the first-year performer held his own.

The massive right tackle paired with fellow sophomore Steve Elmer to keep the quarterback protected, often times against USC All-American Leonard Williams.

“Other than the last play, our quarterback was clean when he was in there. And obviously that’s the biggest thing,” Kelly said. “When you go to right tackle, you want your quarterback upright. So the initial observation, and again, I didn’t watch the film so I can’t give you the specifics, our first thought is can he hold up on the edge, especially when Leonard Williams is lined up over you.”

That wasn’t the case with Christian Lombard, who got beat on the strip-sack fumble that spelled the demise of Golson. And while McGlinchey is still learning how to keep his feet and play against pass rushers, he’s a promising piece of the future along an offensive line with four starters likely returning.

 

Remember this game. Because Brian Kelly and his team certainly will.

As Cody Kessler was setting records and USC scored more first half points against Notre Dame than any opponent since 1998, the Irish were all but helpless. That made for a painful afternoon, and one that’ll likely serve as a reference point during an important offseason that’s taken the Irish as far away from the mountain top as they’ve been since Kelly took over the program.

“It’s a red-letter day for our football players and coaches alike,” Kelly said. “Two years ago we were playing for a national championship. Today, we got our butts beat. And it wasn’t as close as the score.”

Kelly was careful to put into context where he sees this football team. And with Jack Swabrick and Father John Jenkins standing inside the small media tent, Kelly made a careful distinction as to where this team sat.

“This is not a program situation. This is a personnel,” Kelly said. “We’re talking about young guys growing up and maturing.”

That’s a hard to understand distinction, but one where Kelly still deserves the benefit of the doubt. But as the Irish try and piece together an eighth victory that’s remained elusive for most of November, Kelly made it clear that the final weeks for this football team will be steeped in competition.

“They got punched in the nose today. So you want to see a response, too,” Kelly explained. “The bowl preparation, we’re going to have to see a response. All jobs are available. We’re going to have to see something from this group.”

 

 

 

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.