Pregame Six Pack: Moving on to UMass

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After starting the season with three “Power Five” conference opponents, the Irish get in on some rare MACtion this weekend, welcoming Massachusetts to South Bend for their very first meeting on the gridiron. In a game that was initially scheduled to reunite (it’s hard to call this match-up a reward) ex-Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar with his former employer, Molnar only lasted two seasons at UMass he took the Minutemen to the FBS level, notching just two victories total before he was replaced by Mark Whipple.

In his second tour of duty in Amherst, Whipple has made incremental progress. But sitting at a disappointing 0-2, he heads to Notre Dame trying to earn his first victory of the season as a nearly 30-point underdog.

With the Yellow Jackets in the rearview mirror and a date in Death Valley just around the corner, human nature could turn this weekend into a perfect trap. But even if the Irish step in one or two of those on Saturday, Brian Kelly and the Irish staff should be able to win comfortably and give their depth chart some work.

With a beautiful weekend forecast in South Bend, let’s get to the pregame six pack. Pregame show starts at 3:00 p.m on NBCSN. Game coverage starts at 3:30 on NBC. You can also stream it all here.

As summer turns to fall, we’ll take a closer look at some of the ingredients that’ll make for a satisfying victory this weekend.

 

Brian Kelly needs to get Brandon Wimbush on the field. And expect him to get it done early. 

When Brandon Wimbush ascended to the No. 2 quarterback job after Malik Zaire got hurt, Kelly said he was taking the redshirt off of his prized freshman. And while Georgia Tech managed to make things interesting and kept Wimbush from earning his first garbage time snaps last weekend, expect to see the blue-chip freshman this weekend. And early in the game.

“You usually try to get him in as quickly as possible. Try to get him in before the game gets in to a rhythm for the starting quarterback,” Kelly said on Thursday, before reminding everybody this isn’t a two-quarterback system.

“There’s no intention of trying to play two quarterbacks. This is just trying to get Brandon in the game and get him a little bit of playing time. Try to do it sooner rather than later. We’ll just try to pick our spot when to do that.”

On our Stay Gold podcast, Jac Collinsworth and I debated when you give Wimbush a look. I said get it done early. Jac thought give Wimbush the entire fourth quarter.

Kelly can’t say that he expects the fourth quarter to be garbage time, though he probably thinks that’s how this game should go if the Irish handle their business. But after activating Wimbush last week and likely serving him the offense through a fire hose, one thing seems certain—Kelly feels more comfortable having to play his freshman this week than last week.

“If he has to go in, I feel a whole lot better that if he has to go in we can win the game with him,” Kelly said.

 

In year two of his captaincy, Sheldon Day has elevated the play of the defensive linemen around him—and his leadership abilities. 

Sheldon Day may have had a ‘C’ on his jersey last season. But it’s taken until his senior year to grow into the job. For anybody who watched Tuesday night’s Showtime episode of “A Season with Notre Dame,” Day’s growing relationship with freshman Jerry Tillery is an early contender for “sitcom we want Fighting Irish Media to develop.”

Day has been able to show Tillery and sophomore Daniel Cage the ropes, while also demanding impressive play out of that duo. And if you ask Kelly what impresses him the most about Day as a senior, that’s it.

“I couldn’t be more proud of (Day) in the way that he’s matured and taken hold of his captainship in a manner that I didn’t know that he could,” Kelly said. “He’s able to bring all those personalities together, and he’s now not afraid to hold others accountable which is a huge step in being a great leader. His play has been really good, but what I’ve been most pleased with is the way that he’s practiced. He’s set a standard for practice and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

Both Day and Isaac Rochell have had a pretty lofty work volume through three games. While the Irish’s dominant performance against Texas kept their snap count down, Day played 126 snaps against Virginia and Georgia Tech while Rochell racked up 133. Those numbers feel unsustainable.

So on Saturday, look to see the Irish finally get to flex some of their depth along the defensive line, with Jonathan Bonner, Pete Mokwuah and Jacob Matuska getting some opportunities on the inside while Andrew Trumbetti will return to the field after spending the Georgia Tech game on the sideline.

With UMass passing early and often, it’s a good opportunity for the Irish defensive front to make some noise and gain some experience. And if Day has any say in things, his young teammates will produce.

 

After letting loose his frustration on Twitter late Wednesday night, one young defensive lineman who’s not going to play is Jay Hayes. (And that may have always been part of the plan.)

Social Media. It giveth, and it taketh away. And it appears to have taken away Jay Hayes’ opportunity to travel to the team hotel and dress with the team on Saturday. The sophomore defensive tackle may be one of the more lively Twitter follows on the team, with his free-wheeling personality coming out 140 characters at a time. But on Wednesday night, Hayes’ frustrations over playing time seemed to bubble over, and he fired off a few tweets that all but said as much.

Hayes deleted the tweets, but that didn’t make them disappear. And on Thursday Kelly acknowledged the situation, calling it a life lesson and one that Hayes will learn from.

“There has to be responsibility as it relates to social media. And you have to think before you hit send,” Kelly said. “What you have to do is come knock on my door instead of hitting the send button. These are good lessons to be learned. If he has a job at Google and he talks about his boss that way, he’s probably not going to have a job the next day.”

Kelly made it clear he wasn’t banning Hayes from social media or taking away Twitter from his players, as some coaches at the college level have done this season. Kelly called it a “life lesson.”

Hayes’ lack of playing time is also likely part of a plan to save a year of eligibility. After taking off his redshirt late last season, both Hayes and defensive end Grant Blankenship haven’t played this season. And if the defensive line stays healthy, that’s likely how Kelly plans on keeping things, preserving a fifth year for both players and fortifying the defensive front for an extra season.

“We have great faith in Jay. He’s going to play here. He’s still in the developmental stage,” Kelly said. We like Jay. Just like we like Blankenship. Just like we like Trumbetti, who didn’t play last week. These are guys chomping at the bit. They want to play.

“But we’ve got good players, and that’s a good problem to have. We’re okay with Jay Hayes. Jay’s going to be fine. But it’s a good life lesson.”

 

C.J. Prosise could run wild on Saturday afternoon. But getting Josh Adams and Dexter Williams comfortable might be a better plan. 

Colorado ran for 390 yards against UMass. With C.J. Prosise already sitting at No. 5 in the country with 451 rushing yards, Prosise could make it two-thirds of the way to 1,000 yards on the season with another day like last week.

But while the Irish will likely get the running game revved up, don’t expect to see another 20-carry day for Prosise. I think you’ll see the senior max out around 12 to 15 touches, and then hand over the reins to Josh Adams and Dexter Williams. Both freshmen need to get comfortable in the offense, and Saturday afternoon is a perfect time to do it.

Quarterback DeShone Kizer talked about the importance of setting up the running game, and how it might not even matter who’s running the football if the offensive line plays the way they’ve been playing.

“One good thing about this offense is we are starting to create an identity. Our offensive line is so powerful up front and our running backs are so good, there’s not much you can do to stop our run game,” Kizer said.

 

Entering week four, a freshman will have to do something impressive to take the redshirt off. 

Max Redfield is back in the starting lineup, broken thumb a week better after watching the Irish beat up Georgia Tech’s triple-option. And while the loss of Drue Tranquill had Kelly and the Irish’s defensive staff trying to decide what to do with the dwindling safety depth chart, it appears Notre Dame will try to get by without playing freshman Mykelti Williams.

Williams was elevated from the scout team this week in practice, but Nicky Baratti will be the next safety in if that’s needed. Kelly talked a little bit about the decision, acknowledging that it isn’t enough to take a redshirt off just for special teams contributions.

“We’re not going to play any freshman on special teams if they can’t impact offense or defense,” Kelly said. “If they haven’t played up until this point, they’re not going to play on special teams unless they can impact offense or defense.

“Once we feel they’re capable of impacting that side of the ball, then we’ll engage them in special teams.”

At this point, it’ll be interesting to see how Kelly handles the freshmen who have seen limited reps. Among them, Equanimeous St. Brown and Nicco Fertitta. St. Kelly could decide to keep both of them off the field for the remainder of the season, preserving a season of eligibility.

Freshman cornerback Nick Coleman has been dynamic on special teams, so he could be a candidate to slide into Tranquill’s dime back role, or don’t be surprised if Coleman challenges Devin Butler and Nick Watkins for the outside cornerback job in nickel.

At this time of year, roster management is critical. And after suffering three-straight weeks of bad luck early this season, the Irish deserve a chance to preserve some seasons.

 

After getting picked apart against Virginia, Notre Dame’s secondary gets a shot at redemption (before an even bigger game next weekend). 

Nobody will be quick to forget the pass defense against Virginia. The Irish made quarterback Matt Johns look like Johnny Unitas, with Johns scrambling and throwing the Cavaliers back into the football game in the second half, a surprise against a cover group that should’ve been one of the strengths of the team.

Kelly spoke briefly about the defensive breakdowns in the immediate aftermath of the closer Irish victory, though moved quickly on to game-planning for the Yellow Jackets. But a week later we’ll get to see the Irish secondary made any improvements as they get a chance to take on a prolific passing offense.

UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel is one of the country’s most underrated passers. The 6-foot-6 graduate transfer is in his second season piloting Whipple’s offense and he’s a returning All-MAC quarterback.

With a challenge ahead, Kelly is hopeful that his secondary will play better this time around.

“We’ll get tested. I’m not ready to say that we’ve corrected everything. We’re going to have to go out and play,” Kelly said. “I have confidence that they’re going to play much better than they did against Virginia, but they’re going to have to go out and do it now.”

Frohnapfel pairs with senior Tajae Sharpe, who Kelly paid a large compliment to earlier in the week when he said he might be one of the best receivers that the Irish see all year. Sharpe had 85 catches for 1,281 yards last season and has started this year with two 11 catch efforts for nearly 300 receiving yards. Sharpe will be a good challenge for KeiVarae Russell and Cole Luke a week before they travel to play against Clemson’s skill talent.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.