Pregame Six Pack: Another tough goodbye

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Notre Dame will recognize the accomplishments of 27 seniors and graduate students on Saturday, the final home game for a group that has won a lot of games. Sitting at 37-11 since the recruiting class of 2012 arrived on campus, winning three more games this season will mean this group averaged 10 wins a season—no small feat.

When asked about this group’s legacy, Brian Kelly acknowledged the foundation they built, especially turning Notre Dame Stadium into a dominant home-field advantage.

“They can feel proud of a solid foundation and consistency of winning,” Kelly said Thursday evening.

That accomplishment is impressive, especially when you dig deeper into this group. Set aside the graduate students. The 2012 recruiting class still managed to pack a punch, especially considering the star-crossed group that emerged.

The Irish signed only 17 players on that first Wednesday in February of 2012, the biggest news the fax that never came, when four-star receiver Deontay Greenberry picked Houston over Notre Dame. So while the cornerstones of the No. 4 team in the country reside in this group, it’s also easily the most star-crossed recruiting class that Kelly signed.

Five of the 17 signees are gone. Transferred away are wide receivers Justin Ferguson and Davonte Neal. Running back Will Mahone exited Notre Dame after an off-field incident in his hometown. Crown jewels of the class, cornerback Tee Shepard and quarterback Gunner Kiel, never played a down for the Irish.

But 12 remain, and along with a handful of walk-ons and graduate students, they’ll be celebrated on Saturday. And rightfully so. In a game that should likely allow the benches to empty if Notre Dame handles their business, it could be a special day in South Bend.

So let’s get on to the Six Pack.

 

C.J. Prosise practiced Thursday. But if you’re playing hunches, expect to see Josh Adams in the starting lineup. 

Senior running back C.J. Prosise was back on the field today, taking part in football activities for the first time since leaving the Pitt game in the first half. And while he’s making progress in his return to the field, Kelly said Prosise’s status is still up in the air.

“We still haven’t made a decision,” Kelly said, while acknowledging that Prosise is still in the concussion protocol. “But he had a good day today…It’s not my decision to make really. It’s still in the hands of the doctors. But he looked good to me.”

For anybody that’s followed Kelly’s injury updates over the past few years, this seems like a dead giveaway that Prosise will only be available in an emergency situation, one that doesn’t necessarily exist this weekend.

So Josh Adams will likely carry the load this weekend, the freshman taking over for the senior who deserves a hug from mom and dad… and then a weekend off. We’ll also see fellow freshman Dexter Williams, who Kelly said had a nice week of practice.

 

Will Fuller may have declared his intention to return for his senior season. But that doesn’t mean Brian Kelly won’t go through the process with him. 

Wednesday’s big news that Will Fuller planned to return for his senior season sent shockwaves through the college football world. But Brian Kelly’s response was more measured.

Kelly has seen seniors return (Te’o, Eifert, Floyd and Martin) and seen them go (Rudolph, Tuitt and Niklas). But you can’t help but think the head coach learned from his offseason work last year with Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day, two seniors that evaluated the pros and cons and both ended up back in South Bend.

So while Fuller sounded emphatic that he’ll be terrorizing defensive backs in South Bend for another season, Kelly sounded like a coach who wasn’t taking any chances with any of his veterans with the option to head to the NFL after this year.

“I’ve told all the guys I’ll sit down with them. I’ve put together folders for each one of these guys and obviously each one of these kids have different circumstances and as to why they would come back or entertain looking at the draft,” Kelly explained. “I think Will’s got some factors we have to talk about relative to staying or going that I need to communicate with him. I’d love to see him come back, but we’ve got to see where it all shakes out at the end of the year.”

Not quite the reaction you were looking for? Me neither. But Kelly was quick to square things away after his initial comments.

“I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t want him back. Very pleased to have him back,” Kelly said with a large grin. “It’s just important that each one of these guys go through the process.”

Kelly’s message isn’t just for Fuller. But likely for Jaylon Smith, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise, three guys who could go either way.

 

Let’s tip a cap to one of the more impressive seniors in recent memory: Jarrett Grace. 

It’ll be an emotional day at Notre Dame Stadium for Jarrett Grace and his family. The senior linebacker is in all likelihood playing his final college football game (a petition for a sixth year is still up in the air). And while these five seasons haven’t gone the way he planned them, the one-time heir to Manti Te’o’s inside linebacker job has much to be proud of, especially making it all the way back from a devastating leg injury that required multiple surgeries.

“To even be able to make it back was really my goal,” Grace said. “I didn’t know if I could play at all. I didn’t know how my body was going hold up and if I would be able to play in every single game.

“I have been able to contribute and I am more than happy with that. I am preparing each and every week…. I have embraced it and enjoyed every second of it.”

Grace joined the Jack Swarbrick radio show, and Swarbrick and his co-host, linebacker Joe Schmidt, had a tremendous conversation. Schmidt and Grace, two very close friends, talk about basically everything—and what you can’t help but take away is how much they love Notre Dame, and how great they are as shining examples of the university’s student-athletes.

 

The difficult task of slowing down Notre Dame’s offense just got tougher for the Demon Deacons. 

Already a 27-point underdog, Wake Forest didn’t need any additional handicaps. Yet Josh Banks, the Demon Deacon’s top defensive tackle, was suspended for the final three games of the season this week, taking one of the defense’s most important players off the field this weekend.

Wake Forest head coach Dave Clawson wasn’t clear about the issue, only stating that Banks violated team rules.

“I am disappointed this has occured,” Clawson said in a statement. “Hopefully this becomes a teachable moment for Josh and the other players in our program who will  benefit  in the long run.

That turns his job over to a redshirt freshman, with Willie Yarbary stepping into the lineup. And while the strength of Dave Clawson’s roster is a front seven that features some of the best linebackers in the ACC, losing a guy who was supposed to eat up blockers and had started 21-straight games isn’t what this defense needs.

 

With the hype train at full steam, DeShone Kizer continues to be the calming presence this offense needs. 

DeShone Kizer… Heisman Trophy candidate?

Sounds silly, but ESPN’s Mike Wilbon went out and said it on Sportscenter Thursday, bunching Kizer with LSU’s Leonard Fournette in the front pack of the Heisman race. It may be an unofficial ballot, and isn’t anything more than a talking point, but Kizer is picking up fans everywhere he goes. College Football Playoff committee chair Jeff Long pointed out the stellar play of the young quarterback as well.

Don’t expect it to impact Kizer, though. Wonder if Kizer’s busy comparing stats as he awaits his invite to New York? Think again.

“I couldn’t tell you how many touchdowns I even have on the season. I have no idea where I’m at,” Kizer said Wednesday.

Kizer’s ability to stay in the moment will likely be tested in a different way this weekend. With the Irish understanding the benefit of a beauty pageant win, the need to be flashy could bring some unforced errors to an offense that did a nice job eradicating them against Pitt.

The young quarterback credited his position coach and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. He also talked about the evolution of the offense. But most impressively, any wonder how he’s staying grounded can be answered by his response to the same question.

“Just watch my film. There’s way too many opportunities that I don’t come up successful that keep me down there,” Kizer said. “There are way too many mistakes that I’ve made from week to week. Last week was a pretty successful game for the offense, but there’s still a couple balls that need to be caught. There are a couple passes that were caught that were spectacular catches that should have been pitch and catches.

“I believe that as a quarterback, the only way to ground yourself is to evaluate your performance. I’m not even near where I should be, and there is still so much room to develop and so much room to get better and mature.”

 

Take the time and tip your cap not just to the senior class, but to the wonderful profiles written by The Observer. 

You know Sheldon Day, Ronnie Stanley, Nick Martin and Joe Schmidt. But how about Travis Allen, Josh Anderson, Eamon McOsker and Nick Ossello?

Every senior class member got a profile in The Observer, with Notre Dame’s excellent student newspaper putting together a staggering amount of work in anticipation of the final home game. Do yourself a favor and read them all.

Youcan enjoy the great profile on the decision Ronnie Stanley made to return. But you can also take the time to read about Cam Bryan, a walk-on who dreamed of going to Notre Dame, got in after being wait-listed, then taught himself how to play football after beginning his life on the gridiron on Stanford’s interhall football team—and stuck around for a graduate semester because he knew this football team was going to be good.

(That’s dedication.)

It’ll be a special Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium. And even if it’s expected to be a lopsided Senior Day, it could be a wonderful salute to a group that’s battled through quite a journey to get here—and has an important mission still to be accomplished.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’

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Notre Dame’s next offensive coordinator will not matter; whomever Irish head coach Marcus Freeman hires to replace Tommy Rees, he will lean on his running backs.

Notre Dame’s running backs room looks the same as it did a year ago, but oh so different. The order has been drastically reshuffled, though through no one’s failure, only youngsters’ successes.

Any new offensive coordinator will know he has three proven backs to lean on with an intriguing youngster joining a promising one slowly recovering from injury. Oh, and the No. 8 running back in the class of 2023.

They will once again be coached by Deland McCullough. Some further coaching turnover could occur yet this offseason, but McCullough looks secure at Notre Dame.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
This space’s running depth chart — running as in ever-evolving, not as in running backs — still has Chris Tyree atop the running backs listing. In-season, the “ever-evolving” depth chart is not updated as much given the week’s prior game lingers in memory and informs more than anything else.

But even in the season opener, Tyree was not the Irish starter. Audric Estimé got that honor at Ohio State. His preseason was strong enough to vault Estimé to the top of the depth chart, a spot he should not relinquish until he heads to the NFL.

Fellow rising junior Logan Diggs also ended up with more carries than Tyree, creating the type of running-back depth needed to be a viable contender in modern college football.

Some Notre Dame fans insist Tyree is a failure. A former four-star running back who has never taken over a season, they argue. But that overlooks a few realities:

First of all, Tyree backed up an All-American for two years. Complementing Kyren Williams’ all-around game with a speed element was vital for the Irish to make the Playoff in 2020 and threaten it in 2021.

Secondly, if the floor of every four-star recruit is to become a four-year contributor with 13-and-counting touchdowns, recruiting would be far easier. Many “can’t miss prospects” fall quite short of that.

Lastly, Tyree’s kickoff return touchdown against Wisconsin in 2021 is now overlooked because of Graham Mertz’s subsequent fourth-quarter meltdown, but if Tyree had not given Notre Dame that lead — flipping a 13-10 deficit to a 17-13 lead — then Mertz never would have needed to get so desperate. There is a very real chance the Irish do not come within a yard of the 2021 Playoff if Tyree does not break that 96-yard kickoff return touchdown.

All of which is to say, Estimé and Diggs leapfrogged Tyree because of their strengths and improvements, not because of any of Tyree’s supposed struggles.

2022 STATS
Estimé: 13 games; 156 carries for 920 yards, a 5.9 yards per rush average, with 11 touchdowns. 9 catches for 135 yards and another score.
Diggs: 12 games; 165 carries for 921 yards, a 5.0 yards per rush average, with four touchdowns. 10 catches for 211 yards and two more scores.
Tyree: 13 games; 100 carries for 444 yards, a 4.4 yards per rush average, with three touchdowns. 24 catches for 138 yards and two more scores.

Of particular note looking at those three running backs, they combined for only 50 yards lost on their 421 carries last season. In the throttling upset of No. 5 Clemson to start November, just two of Notre Dame’s 45 rushes were stopped behind the line of scrimmage.

More notably, the three Irish backs carried the ball 32 times in the Gator Bowl win against No. 19 South Carolina for 205 yards. None of those rushes lost yardage.

After Diggs found full health (an April shoulder injury slowed him into the season) and Notre Dame fully committed to the running backs after quarterback Tyler Buchner was lost for 10 games, the trio averaged 230.5 yards from scrimmage each week.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Make no mistake, the Irish running backs were as disappointed as anyone when Rees left for Alabama last week. They knew, without a doubt, his offense would feature them. After all, Rees has said he wishes he had grown up as an offensive guard rather than a quarterback if he could choose body type.

They also understood Rees’s decision.

Nonetheless, the trio knows it will be a key piece of Notre Dame’s offense in 2023 for two reasons. One, they are that proven. Two, with Sam Hartman at quarterback, the Irish offense should be more prolific for a change. More snaps and more scoring opportunities will benefit all the skill position players.

The proven “three-headed monster,” as Freeman described them in the 2022 season, should not need to show too much this spring. Estimé needs to hold onto the ball, Diggs needs to find a bit more comfort running between the tackles, and Tyree may spend even more time split wide as a slot receiver, something that was not needed significantly last season because that was often where Michael Mayer aligned.

But those improvements will be on the edges. The three are already known. They will be the most reliable collective piece of Notre Dame’s offense.

The change this spring will be from freshman Gi’Bran Payne. He was the rare delayed signee, de-commiting from Indiana after McCullough left the Hoosiers for South Bend and then eventually following McCullough, committing in mid-April.

Without a spring to impress and behind three stout running backs, Payne never had a viable chance to contribute in 2022. That could change this spring, particularly since classmate Jadarian Price will still be recovering from an Achilles injury, something that usually takes a full year. Price may end up a midseason option, but until then, Payne is Notre Dame’s No. 4 running back, and an injury to any of the leading trio would push No. 4 into a Saturday role.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame adds former four-star Indiana signee, RB Gi’Bran Payne, to incoming freshman class
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 13 Gi’Bran Payne, freshman running back, late recruit

FUTURE DEPTH
He may not factor in this season — again, the Irish have three proven and reliable, and largely durable, running backs — but consensus four-star Jeremiyah Love will almost assuredly draw some notice in the preseason.

At every step of his decade at Notre Dame, Tommy Rees provided stability otherwise lacking

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He was a three-star quarterback coming from a Chicago suburb with scholarship offers from only two other Power-Five programs. The head coach who recruited him had been fired.

And then Notre Dame needed the freshman quarterback to start against a top-15 team and try to redeem a sub-.500 season. Tommy Rees threw three touchdown passes to upset No. 15 Utah. He completed 13-of-20 passes to avoid any distinct mistakes, an immediate 180-degree turn from how the previous week ended with Rees filling in as an injury replacement. The Irish did not want to lean on him too much, hence only 129 passing yards, but he delivered.

“Everything in our game plan was you’ve got to run the football, we’ve got to be high-percentage in our throws and not put Tommy in too many positions where we could turn the ball over,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in November 2010. “I wasn’t going to put this game on Tommy Rees.”

Kelly would, in time, put many games on Tommy Rees. At the outset, though, he continued to rely on the Irish ground game to rattle off a four-game win streak and turn a 4-5 debut season into an 8-5 finish with resounding momentum. Notre Dame ran the ball 144 times in those four games compared to 106 pass dropbacks (sacks adjusted).

RELATED READING: 30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated

Most memorably, the game-winning drive at USC featured five rushes and only two passes, taking a lead with just two minutes left to snag the first Irish win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 2000.

Kelly turned back to Danye Crist to start the 2011 season and quickly flipped to Rees after only a half. In 2012, Kelly called on Rees in the most critical of moments to steady freshman quarterback Everett Golson. Then when Golson was suspended for the 2013 season, Rees was again thrown into the chaos and dragged Notre Dame to a respectable season rather than one lost in all sorts of ways.

At every step of his playing career, Rees provided the Irish stability when it was otherwise absent. He would do that again these past six years as an assistant coach.

First, he showed up expecting to be the 10th assistant coach only for the NCAA to delay that implementation, forcing Rees to become a graduate assistant, both adding coursework to his workload and removing his ability to coach the Irish quarterbacks in practices.

Then he threaded the delicate needle of a midseason quarterback change in 2018 even though Notre Dame had not lost a game. Keeping both Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book engaged with the team and moving forward propelled the Irish to the College Football Playoff, a direct counter to the quarterback debacle that torpedoed the 2016 season. Doing that while under an abrasive offensive coordinator who has continued to burn his way out of subsequent coaching jobs makes the player relations that much more impressive.

When Chip Long was fired following the 2019 season, Rees took over the offense for a resounding — and decently unexpected — throttling of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.

Obviously, 2020 brought instability to everyone in every industry, including college football. Rees’s offense averaged 6.2 yards per play, the No. 4 most explosive offense of Kelly’s 11 years at Notre Dame.

In 2021, Rees worked with three quarterbacks to keep the Irish in Playoff contention. Again, his ability to prop up the psyche of the most important position in college football was the key to Notre Dame’s success, particularly as the head coach was apparently actively planning his exit from South Bend. Of course, Kelly’s abrupt departure gave Rees the biggest platform in his Irish career to buttress the program, to provide stability, to secure its future.

When Rees turned down Kelly’s LSU overtures — “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees told his offense — he eased Freeman’s first-year learning curve by magnitudes. The former defensive coordinator knew what offense would be run in 2022 and that he did not need to worry about it much. For the second consecutive Irish head coach’s maiden voyage, Rees led a late-season surge, potentially setting the tone for his first few seasons.

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

In literally every one of his 10 years at Notre Dame, Rees navigated choppy waters.

He turned Ian Book into an NFL quarterback who could win a Super Bowl ring this weekend. He won eight games with Drew Pyne as his starter. Those may not be the accolades of a “quarterback whisperer,” but finding success with talent as questioned as he once was proved Rees’s bona fides enough that the greatest coach in college football history came calling.

Rees owed Notre Dame nothing.

That is not, “Rees no longer owed Notre Dame anything.” It is that he never did.

He played four strong seasons as a quarterback in undesirable situations at every turn. Whatever debt a player owes his school, Rees paid then.

There is no further loyalty or obligation owed to an alma mater. The expectation of one says more about those conjuring those expectations than anyone else.

Coaching for Nick Saban is a clear step forward in a young coach’s career, no matter what transfer quarterback has arrived in South Bend this winter.

For that matter, by recruiting Sam Hartman, Rees provided Notre Dame some stability for an 11th year, rather notable for someone who spent only a decade at the university.

RELATED READING: Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

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.