Spring solutions: Offensive Line

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There might not be a deeper unit on the roster than the offensive line. After a lack of depth made it nearly impossible to practice at full speed heading into the 2012 BCS title game, Notre Dame enters the 2015 season with a two-deep most teams would pay for.

You name it, the Irish have it. Experience, with every projected starter from the Music City Bowl returning. Elite talent, with left tackle Ronnie Stanley turning down an opportunity to be a first rounder and returning to South Bend.

After watching Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand collect talented recruiting classes over the past four cycles, we’ll get our chance to see what is likely the top offensive line of the Kelly era next season. But before we get there, let’s take a look at the depth chart and what needs to be accomplished this spring.

 

OFFENSIVE LINE DEPTH CHART

LT: Ronnie Stanley, Sr.*
LG: Nick Martin, Grad Student
C: Matt Hegarty, Grad Student
RG: Steve Elmer, Jr.
RT: Mike McGlinchey, Jr.*

LT: Alex Bars, Soph.*
LG: Quenton Nelson, Soph.*
or Jimmy Byrne, Soph*
C: Mark Harrell, Sr.*
or Tristen Hoge, Fr.
RG: Colin McGovern, Jr.*
or John Montelus, Jr.*
RT: Huter Bivin, Jr.*

*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility available.

While the depth at tackle is still probably a little bit below optimal, Kelly’s willingness to allow blue-chipper Jerry Tillery start as a defensive lineman instead of on offense gives you an idea as to his comfort level.

With over a dozen scholarship players to look at, let’s take a rapid fire look at the depth chart.

 

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Ronnie Stanley: Learn how to be a dominant player and a position-group leader. While Nick Martin wore the ‘C’ on his jersey last season, it’s going to be Stanley who’ll morph into the leader of the offensive line if things go according to plan.

Kelly has talked openly about his belief that it’s critical for a team to have its best players be its best leaders. We saw the last two seasons when that wasn’t the case.

If Stanley turns himself into a captain candidate–and we heard hints of that happening before the Music City Bowl–then the rest will take care of itself.

(I’m assuming a full offseason in the weight room and another year of work will turn Stanley into one of the premier performers in the country and likely an All-American.)

Nick Martin: After a somewhat trying and disappointing season by Martin, the grad student needs to turn himself into a top-level interior offensive lineman. Whether that’s at center or guard remains to be seen.

Martin had a hand injury that hampered his ability to snap last year, playing most of the year at less than 100 percent. Combine that with the ascent of young talent like Quenton Nelson and Martin may shift inside. Either way, he’ll be a starter in 2015, and another good leader on a roster filled with them.

Matt Hegarty: If you’re looking for hints as to how Kelly and Hiestand plan to go next year, you’d think that Hegarty’s role on the offensive line will lead you in that direction. Then again, maybe not.

Last year, Hegarty played center during spring, serving as a fill-in as Martin recovered from knee surgery. But after committing late to a starting five (or at least their positions), it’ll be interesting to see if Kelly and Hiestand prefer Hegarty over young talent.

It wasn’t all great last season for Hegarty, but he’s a very solid player who will only be better in 2015.

Steve Elmer: He’s a guard.

That’s probably the biggest takeaway from last year, when Elmer’s struggles getting comfortable on the edge required Christian Lombard to move back outside and Elmer to return to the interior spot he played more than capably as a freshman.

Elmer has the size of a tackle and if all things were equal most probably preferred him making it as a bookend. But as we’ve seen recently in the NFL draft (hello, Zack Martin), a good lineman is coveted wherever he plays, inside or out.

Mike McGlinchey: You have to feel optimistic about McGlinchey’s play considering he was thrown into the fire against USC’s All-World Leonard Williams and then took on LSU in his first start. And McGlinchey thrived under the circumstances.

He’s big, he’s strong, and he’s long been one of Kelly’s favorite prospects. Entering his third season in the program and his first as a projected full-time starter, it’s time for McGlinchey to prove his coach right, as Alex Bars will be breathing down his neck.

Alex Bars: In a perfect world, Bars is Stanley’s understudy, watching a technician at the position and taking mental reps before earning his spot in the starting lineup. But football is rarely perfect, so Bars will need to be ready at both tackle spots, sooner than later.

Many raised an eyebrow when Kelly said in December that Bars was among the best young linemen he’s seen in his 25 years. There’s no reason to think that he won’t come gunning for a job, whether it be McGlinchey’s or anybody else on the offensive line.

Quenton Nelson: When Kelly pointed to Nelson working on the interior, it put a bullseye on the guard position that Martin and Hegarty shared last year. Depending on how the coaching staff viewed the production of that duo, Nelson will get a shot to jump the line and earn some playing time.

Big, strong and (presumably) nasty, Nelson is still a very young football player. But after many wondered if he’d even be redshirted in 2014, you should expect the New Jersey native to try to make up for lost time this spring.

Jimmy Bryne: When you talk about promising young offensive linemen, Bryne’s name often gets lost in the shuffle. But while it’s natural to make assumptions about players we don’t know, until we see Bryne given a chance to earn his keep, we have no idea if he’ll be capable of making a move.

That move this spring might just be into the second-string, with Bryne playing some tackle during bowl prep. And if there are health issues with Hunter Bivin, Bryne could see plenty of time with the second unit this spring.

Mark Harrell: We saw during the spring game some of Harrell’s struggles shotgun snapping. The senior hasn’t ascended into the starting line as some expected when he signed, but he’ll likely be practicing for an opportunity to stick around for a fifth year.

It’s hard to say anything negative about Harrell’s play, consider we’ve seen very little of it. But with freshman Tristen Hoge a natural center and participating this spring, Harrell might need to showcase some flexibility if he’s going to earn any playing time.

Tristen Hoge: Welcome to college football, kid. He won’t be starting his career against Louis Nix or Stephon Tuitt, but Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell will teach Hoge a few things.

Earning time on this offensive line won’t be easy, but Hoge is getting an extra semester in a race for the starting center job in 2016. Bulking up and learning behind Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty will be a good learning experience.

Colin McGovern: If you’re looking for a really good football player who is flying under the radar, McGovern is my candidate. While he’s been challenged by some injuries and a depth chart that doesn’t seem to have an opening, McGovern could have some flexibility, playing inside or out.

The time might not come in 2015, but McGovern needs to get into the mix for playing time as the Irish will likely be replacing three starters after this season.

John Montelus: After starting his college career as a very large body, Montelus has worked his way into shape. Now he needs to find the playing field.

We’ll get a status report as to how close Montelus is come March 18. He’s another intriguing piece that Harry Hiestand has collected.

Hunter Bivin: Sitting out some bowl prep for LSU, what to expect from Hunter Bivin is anyone’s guess. Is he a center? A tackle? Is he healthy?

Bivin’s been in the program, so he’s no longer just another blue-chip recruit. But until we know that he’s healthy and what position he’ll be playing, it’s hard to understand how he’ll fit into the plans.

 

 

 

 

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.