Pregame Six Pack: Keys to stopping Tech’s offensive juggernaut

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The objective is straightforward. Accomplishing it? That’s much more difficult. As Paul Johnson and his Georgia Tech team travel to South Bend, they bring with them an offense that’s provided sleepless nights to opposing coaches all around the country.

Johnson’s triple-option attack stresses defenses in ways others do not. Its ability to be both singular and multiple, simple and yet complex; it starts to feel like we’re discussing a Sherlock Holmes villain, not an offensive scheme concocted in a long-ago era of football and improved upon by Johnson over the last two decades.

So while Georgia Tech leaves half of the offensive menu largely untouched (so far, Yellow Jacket quarterback Justin Thomas has thrown the ball 13 times this season, the same as DeShone Kizer), the challenge is a singular one, and will likely determine the path Brian Kelly’s football team will travel this season.

As we crack open this pregame six pack, we’re going to focus on six key members*  of the Irish who will play a large part in determining if Notre Dame sings the alma mater undefeated, or if the home crowd heads to the parking lot with frowns on their faces.

 

JAYLON SMITH

Notre Dame’s defensive star needs to be one on Saturday. Last year against Navy, Smith only made six tackles. Against Georgia Tech, that number should double if the junior is on his game.

Also playing a factor is where Smith lines up. After being taken out of certain plays schematically, Notre Dame’s staff has made certain that whatever the Yellow Jackets plan on doing, they’ll need to accomplish it by going through Smith.

“We’ve made sure that regardless of the situation, Jaylon is going to be central to what happens on the field on Saturday,” Kelly said on Tuesday.

That should mean a move to the middle for Smith, likely in tandem with Joe Schmidt. And while that’ll mean tougher sledding in the trenches for a linebacker who is still learning how to shed blockers and excel in the interior, Smith’s other-worldly athleticism and skills need to be on display.

 

DESHONE KIZER

Making his first start, Kizer carries the weight of the Irish offense on his shoulders. But this week Kelly and the Irish offensive staff did their best to tell Kizer he was just one-eleventh of the equation.

“We want to make sure that he understands that he’s got a lot of good players around him,” Kelly said. “He needs to just be who he is and we’ll take advantage of what his skills are.”

That’s easier said than done. Kizer’s life has been turned inside out this week. After shuffling through his first year on campus as just another football player, the biggest news heading into spring football was that Kizer would see the field…as the holder.

But after the transfer of Everett Golson and the injury to Malik Zaire, Kizer is now the starting quarterback on a Top 10 football team.

“I’m trying my hardest to make it as normal as I can,” Kizer told Jac Collinsworth this week for our Stay Gold podcast. “Obviously there’s some things you just can’t get around… It can become overwhelming at times, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job trying to push myself into my academics and push myself into preparing for Georgia Tech, trying to ignore some of the extra stuff that comes with the position.”

If Kizer’s on-field performance is anything like his game-week remarks, the Irish offense won’t miss a beat. From the moment he took the podium after Notre Dame’s win over Virginia, everything that’s come out of Kizer’s mouth has been a really impressive display for a young kid seeing and doing things for the first time.

Now it’s time for him to parlay that into a heady afternoon on the football field, with Kelly’s continual reminder to simply stay within himself.

“He doesn’t need to come in here and put everybody on his shoulders and say I’m going to save the day for Notre Dame when Malik goes down,” Kelly said. “We have a system here in place. Just do exactly what we ask you to do and you’re going to be fine.”

 

THE OTHER SAFETIES (DRUE TRANQUILL & MATTHIAS FARLEY)

You thought we’d spend a few hundred more words on the play of Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate? (Believe me, I could…) No, the safeties that I’m most interested in are sophomore Drue Tranquill and graduate student Matthias Farley. Both will likely play critical roles in the defensive game plan, asked to make plays in space and tackle the pitch man on the edges of the defense.

Tranquill’s size and speed has quickly made him a useful cog in Notre Dame’s sub-packages, with Brian VanGorder utilizing Tranquill in dime packages and as a blitzer. On Saturday, expect to see Tranquill around the line of scrimmage, asked to come up and tackle from the edge, a 225-pounder who should be able to run with Georgia Tech’s backfield.

Farley’s role might come at the expense of Redfield’s, with the veteran a nearly forgotten part of the defensive scheme last season against Navy. But when he got his chances, Farley did some serious damage, notching two sacks of Keenan Reynolds (the only two of the game) and five tackles in limited minutes.

Notre Dame’s secondary needs to tackle better. They need to do their jobs better. And while Farley doesn’t have the athleticism that Redfield does, he has two working hands and a head on his shoulders that should help keep missed tackles—and mental mistakes—down.

That’s a critical piece of the puzzle for the secondary this week, with everybody tasked with a different objective. And the game plan demands excellence from this group if the Irish are going to pull out a win on Saturday.

“They’re all going to play a role in our success. And they’re all going to have to tackle well and they’re all going to have to be so locked in on their keys,” Kelly said, when asked about the back-end of his defense.

After a tough weekend at the office against Virginia, can this group rally to stop a Georgia Tech offense that was 76 spots better in scoring offense in 2014?

“The answer to that question will not be evident until Saturday around seven o’clock,” Kelly said with a smile.

 

SHELDON DAY

Notre Dame’s returning captain on the defensive line needs to wreak havoc and lead from the front. Against an offensive line that’s done a dominant job run blocking and controlling the point of attack, Day needs to fill the stat sheet, but also drag along with him Isaac Rochell, Daniel Cage, Jerry Tillery and defensive ends Romeo Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti.

There are so many factors that’ll determine whether this game is won or lost. But it’s hard to find a position group more important than the defensive line. After looking like a unit that wore down last week against Virginia’s offensive line, how Keith Gilmore’s position group handles the non-stop challenge of the Yellow Jacket’s ground game will be fascinating.

Day will shift inside and out, asked to do everything from tackle the dive, stop Justin Thomas and destroy blockers to free up the linebackers behind him. And just as important, he’ll have to stay healthy against an offensive line that utilizes a cut-blocking scheme to trigger some elements of its ground attack.

(Before you say it, let’s get this out of the way: It’s legal. Get over it.)

Day is four years into his college football career, one that started in Dublin against a Navy offense running a similar scheme. As he plays his two final games against the triple-option, taking all his acquired knowledge and leading his position group with a big afternoon is a key to victory.

 

NICK MARTIN

Color me unimpressed by the short-yardage performance of Harry Hiestand’s group last week. And while the Irish are averaging a robust 5.4 yards per carry and 233 yards a game running the football, none of it will matter if the offense can’t convert on 3rd-and-short.

Martin is the leader of the unit and triggers the point of attack. Earlier this week, he made it clear that he understands that the problems the Irish had up front and knows they need to be corrected by Saturday afternoon.

“As an offensive line we talk about where to find the obvious run and the obvious pass,” Martin said Wednesday, when asked about the struggles on third down and in short yardage situations. “And plain and simple we haven’t been good enough in that situation. Good thing is every week’s new, every week’s different. You can’t dwell in the past, you can only learn from it and move on from there.”

There will be opportunities to exploit Georgia Tech’s defensive line. The Yellow Jackets gave up a shade over five yards a carry last season, a dreadful 105th in the country in that category. And while defensive coordinator Ted Roof returns most of his defense, they are still susceptible up front, as long as the Irish offensive line puts together a complete game.

There is a lot on Martin’s shoulders this week. Communication with a first-time starting quarterback. Making sure the chains move and protections get picked up. But as a fifth-year player and a returning captain, that’s part of the gig.

Everybody inside Notre Dame Stadium knows it’ll be important for the Irish ground game to hold its own. It’s Martin’s job to make sure the offensive line imposes its will.

 

BRIAN KELLY

Enough about the subplot between Paul Johnson and Brian VanGorder. This game will come down to the head of the Irish football program getting the most out of his team and out-coaching Johnson.

That means finding solutions on defense. It’ll mean orchestrating a better offensive game plan than the one in Charlottesville. And it also requires a victory on special teams.

“We don’t have big margins for error in any one of those three areas. Guys need to be locked in,” Kelly said on Thursday. “The challenge this week was to be a smarter football team. A more efficient football team. And then (have) a great will to win. We need to bring that as well.”

Kelly has shown an ability to rally his team. And in many ways entering Notre Dame Stadium as an underdog will be helpful, though it’s hard to think anybody in the Irish locker room needs added incentive to play well.

Contrary to public opinion, Notre Dame doesn’t need to be perfect to beat Georgia Tech. But they need to be very good and very efficient.

As we look back on past victories, this game calls to mind the Irish’s impressive Shamrock Series win over Arizona State in 2013. The defense held their own against the Sun Devils’ high-powered attack. Tommy Rees engineered an efficient day in Dallas. And the special teams executed, with Kyle Brindza making three second-half field goals, including a 53-yarder.

A victory over Georgia Tech will go a long way toward providing a road map to the lofty places the Irish want to go. A defeat? Well it could very well do irreparable harm to mission objectives that still stand intact, even after five dispiriting injuries.

Kelly is viewed as an elite coach in college football circles. Days like Saturday are where he’ll earn that reputation. So if the Irish are going to win against the Yellow Jackets, the troops aren’t the only ones who’ll have to do a great job. The man leading the charge needs to push all the right buttons, too.

 

 

 

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.