And in that corner… The Temple Owls

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A lot has changed since Temple visited South Bend to kick off the 2013 season. Head coach Matt Rhule had just taking over for Steve Addazio, who had jumped to Boston College after a few nice seasons in Philadelphia.

Rhule had returned to the Owls from the NFL, back to the place where he had coordinated Al Golden’s offense during Golden’s impressive build job that got him a chance in Miami.

Rhule’s work has been brick-by-brick. A two-win season first year built to last season’s 6-6 campaign. But 2015 has been a dream start, capitalizing on a veteran defense and a team that’s shown a champion’s mentality—with the Owls holding the inside track for an American Conference title, something most didn’t think possible just a few years ago.

With the college football world focused on the Owls’ evening in the spotlight on Saturday, Temple will be ready for its star turn. And getting us ready for what might be the biggest game in Temple program history is the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Marc Narducci.

Marc has been with the Inquirer for over 30 years, covering just about every sport the area has to offer. During one of the busiest weeks covering Temple football in a long, long time, he still found time to share his thoughts about the state of the Owls and this weekend’s big game.

Hope you enjoy.

Temple’s season-opening win over Penn State started 2015 with a bang. Since then, Matt Rhule’s team has done nothing but win. Before we getting into this weekend’s matchup, can you provide Notre Dame fans with some context for this 7-0 start? In your opinion, is this the high-water mark for Temple football?

It is only the high water mark because the program has never been 7-0 to start a season. So in that aspect it is, but the team feels there is so much more to accomplish. Many felt that the Penn State win, the first over the Nittany Lions in 74 years, would be the high water mark, but then the next week Temple had no letdown and beat the preseason American Athletic Conference favorite Cincinnati on the road.

I really believe in Temple’s mind, the actual high water mark hasn’t been accomplished. The goal has always been to win the AAC title and Temple is clearly in the driver’s seat to at least represent its division in the title game.

 

The Owls are getting it done with defense. They’re 8th in the country in scoring defense and No. 6 against the run. What’s been the secret to their success?

I think the biggest factor is experience. This is a unit that allowed 17.5 points per game last year and has improved, while playing a more difficult schedule. Temple is allowing 14.6 points per game and the team has great senior leadership. Linebacker Tyler Matakevich is the only FBS player to lead his team in tackles in every game this season. He has 420 tackles for his career and could become the seventh player in NCAA history to record 100 or more tackles each season (He has 65 this year).

DT Matt Ioannidis doesn’t have big stats, but he has been a load to move up front. And the best pure pass rusher is Praise Martin-Oguike, who at 6-2, and 255 is a little undersized, but quick. He has been hampered by injuries, but has shown great flashes. And he made the biggest defensive play of the year – blocking an extra point against UMass that was returned for a two-point defensive score by Will Hayes in a 25-23 last-minute win. The Owls also have a strong secondary, led by the corners, sophomore Sean Chandler and senior Tavon Young. Chandler has been the best one-on-one defender this year.

 

This still feels very much like an offense that’s a work in progress. P.J. Walker played big down the stretch in the comeback victory over East Carolina, but nationally the Owls are 93rd in the country running the football and 92nd throwing it. What’s the secret for Temple’s offensive success on Saturday night? And is Walker the most important piece of the puzzle?

You are right that the offense is a work in progress. The Owls have had trouble getting started in games. Walker separated his shoulder in the opening win over Penn State, but he is a tough kid and didn’t miss any time. He says now he is feeling much better. Walker hasn’t been much of a running threat, which would really open things up. He has been inconsistent, but has shown great composure when it was needed during fourth quarter comebacks against UMass and East Carolina. Plus, he is taking care of the ball. Last year he threw 13 TDs and 15 interceptions. This year he has nine TD passes and three interceptions.

An underrated aspect of the offense’s success is the improved play of the offensive line, led by Rimington candidate, senior Kyle Friend, who at 6-2, 305 is considered undersized, but he is one of the strongest players, if not the strongest on the team. The OL has only allowed seven sacks and junior running back Jahad Thomas leads the AAC in rushing with 117.4 yards per game. He has rushed for 822 yards (5.0 avg.) and 12 TDs.

 

It’s hard to get caught up on the Owls and not notice the season Tyler Matakevich is having. He’s been a tackling machine and has a team-high four interceptions. But the core of the Temple defense is playing equally impressive defense—Matt Ioannidis and Haason Reddick have been great up front and Nate D. Smith has been incredibly disruptive as well, especially in limited snaps. Is that a testament to veteran defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s system? Rhule’s player development? Good recruiting?

It is all of the above. As for recruiting, none of these players was highly recruited, but Temple has a penchant for developing these type of players. For instance, Temple was Matakevich’s only Division I offer. Temple never worries about what the 5-star or 4-star lists say. More than many staffs, the coaches look inside a player and see what he is all about.

If you look, many of these guys are below the height/weight standards people are looking for. Matakevich is 6-1, 232. Nate D. Smith is a converted linebacker who is 6-0, 236. Yet all these players have toughness that is off the chart, something that Rhule looks for in recruiting.

 

Staying on the topic of Rhule, he’s likely to get a long look from a number of major programs that’ll be hiring a new head coach. In your mind, what are the odds that he’s coaching the Owls at this time next season? What has made him so successful at Temple in such a short period of time.

I would place the odds of 50-50 that Rhule stays. He really like Philadelphia, likes Temple and counting his years as an assistant has been there nine years. I think it appeals to him working in a pro city, where his every move isn’t scrutinized. Temple realized what an outstanding coach he could be when they extended his contract before this year, despite having a 8-16 record his first two years. Unlike his predecessor, Steve Addazio, Rhule never looked at this job as a place to climb the ladder. Remember, he left the pros as an assistant to come back here. That all said, if a big program offers him four times the salary, it would be hard to turn down. So we will see.

 

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be following Temple football. A sold out Lincoln Financial Stadium. A national TV broadcast with the weekend’s only game featuring ranked opponents. (ESPN’s College GameDay, too.)

With a long dormant stadium project potentially back to life, what has this season meant for the football program and the university? And is it possible to quantify what a win over Notre Dame on Saturday would mean?

This season has meant everything to football. The fact that Temple is making a strong push now for a football stadium, is a way of capitalizing on all the success. The win over Penn State meant a lot in terms of recruiting and national publicity. Just multiply that by 10 if the Owls are able to beat Notre Dame.

It would help in recruiting, fund raising and more importantly, would give the Owls a chance to earn a New Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve bowl bid. Even if Temple loses but accredits itself well, being on GameDay and ABC is invaluable publicity.

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.