Five things we’ll learn: Countdown to spring practice

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With the university’s spring break in its final days, football will return to South Bend next week. But before Brian Kelly addresses the media to discuss the state of the program as the Irish embark on spring practice, let’s dig into five things we’ll learn before the Blue-Gold game on April 16.

 

What’s the identity of Harry Hiestand’s new-look offensive line? 

Quenton Nelson seemed to spill the beans on one of the biggest questions heading into spring, tagging Mike McGlinchey as his partner on the left side of the offensive line. That leaves three vacancies across the line, with spring likely dedicated to finding the best men for the job.

The health of Alex Bars seems to be one of the first storylines to follow. If Bars is full-go for spring after suffering a broken ankle against USC, he’ll likely seize a starting job. Whether that’s at guard or tackle remains to be seen. Bars saw limited time at guard in 2015, though he certainly has the length and athleticism to take over at right tackle.

The center battle focuses on Sam Mustipher and Tristen Hoge. Mustipher filled in rather capably behind Nick Martin last year, another interior lineman developed into a center under Hiestand. Hoge is the only true center on the roster, a young player who earned kudos from Kelly throughout his redshirt campaign, largely for the work he put in developing his strength.

If Kelly and Hiestand believe both Mustipher and Hoge are among the five best offensive linemen on the roster, they’ll both play. We saw that with Matt Hegarty and Mike Golic, two versatile interior players who cross-trained. But that was before the Irish built up a treasure chest through recruiting, with former blue-chip recruits like Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus entering their fourth years in the program (Montelus is a candidate for cross-training, spotted with the defensive linemen in offseason workouts).

There’s no urgency to find a starting five this spring—especially with Tommy Kraemer getting to campus this summer and potentially throwing his hat in the ring for a job. But with an offense that might be best suited for a rough and tumble style of play, building that identity through the men up front starts now.

 

Will a simplified defense be rolled out this spring? 

Joe Schmidt? Gone. Jaylon Smith and Sheldon Day? The NFL awaits. Take away long-time contributors Elijah Shumate, KeiVarae Russell and Romeo Okwara and the Irish defense will rely on a new group of young, talented and inexperienced players to fill the gaps.

Awaiting that group is defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense. A complex, multiple, attacking scheme, the third-year defensive coordinator’s system demands a level of preparation and understanding that—put kindly—wasn’t always met by his players.

Athletically, there were growing pains and legacy issues. A veteran roster built for Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme certainly wasn’t a good fit. But this spring will likely showcase players brought in by VanGorder, athletes capable of executing the vision that Kelly and his coordinator have for this unit.

But they can’t do that without proper comprehension.

With Schmidt gone, junior Nyles Morgan is the presumptive starter at middle linebacker. A productive player as a freshman (even through significant growing pains), grasping the plethora of responsibilities that come with the position is Job One this spring.

But that responsibility doesn’t fall on Morgan alone. The offseason was likely spent at 30,000 feet, with VanGorder and the defensive staff hopefully evaluating big picture items like communication and core philosophy. These fifteen practices give the staff a chance to implement some of their findings before the broken coverages and blown assignments start counting for real.

While he’s turning into a whipping boy in some circles, VanGorder deserves credit for fixing last offseason’s two major challenges: up-tempo offenses and the triple option. This offseason the focus should be strictly internal—how to optimize a defense that too often was its own worse enemy.

Don’t expect a lot of explanation from Kelly or VanGorder when asked for updates on their progress. But that doesn’t mean the wheels aren’t already in motion.

 

Can Max Redfield lead the secondary? 

Notre Dame’s senior safety ended last season on an immensely disappointing note—sent home from the Fiesta Bowl for a rules violation. Redfield’s response to the discipline was also a head-shaker, a tweet and extended explanation that looked inward, but delivered mostly empty words when action is what’s desperately needed.

It’s Redfield’s final season in South Bend, a journey that’s taken some twists and turns but still could end with the senior safety maximizing his talents and leading the secondary. He’s got all the tools necessary to succeed in the Irish defense. Now he needs to also take on leadership, a steadying voice as the last line of defense in Todd Lyght’s secondary.

Finding a starter next to Redfield is the next step. Avery Sebastian returns for a sixth year. Drue Tranquill recovers from another ACL tear. A slew of young and untested safeties will have their chance as well.

But it all starts with Redfield. The Irish desperately need a stabilizing force at safety, a struggle since Harrison Smith and Zeke Motta headed to the NFL.

 

What should we expect from the upcoming quarterback battle? 

The Irish have three quarterbacks capable of leading a major D-I program. In Malik Zaire, DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush, Mike Sanford’s position room is crowded with talent, a second consecutive offseason with a major position battle primed to become a national story.

That’s about where the similarities to last spring end.

In many ways, the Golson-Zaire spring battle gave the Irish coaching staff the blueprint on how not to handle this spring. Granted, Golson’s impending free agency added a wrinkle that this spring won’t have. Not to mention the buy-in of the candidates involved—all three quarterbacks, Wimbush included, seem happy to be in South Bend, at least through 2016.

For those looking for clarity leaving spring, they’ll likely be disappointed. Assuming Wimbush redshirts (a plan Kelly acknowledged), both Kizer and Zaire have room for improvement in their respective games. They’ll be getting to know a rebuilt offensive line and a wide receiving corps short three leading receivers, including one of the nation’s best in Will Fuller.

Expect to hear the term “skill development” from Kelly next Tuesday, taking the spotlight off any perceived position battle. It’s likely more than just lip service, as the bar has been raised for both starting candidates, with the internal expectations driving this battle all the way to fall camp.

 

Team 127 had an identity. What will Team 128 look like? 

There was no shortage of leadership on the 2015 football team. The Irish could’ve easily trotted out six captains (and would have, had Ronnie Stanley not run afoul with those pesky Notre Dame meter maids.)

Contrast that with this year’s football team. Finding and developing leadership on the current roster may be one of the most important parts of spring practice.

Senior wide receiver Corey Robinson won the right to lead the entire student body. You have to assume he’ll manage to get a ‘C’ on his chest. But to do that, Robinson’s buy-in as a football player needs to be absolute. Notre Dame’s renaissance man very well could be college football’s most impressive student-athlete, but he’ll need to lead from the front, finding his voice as one of the tenured members of this football team.

From there, looking at resumes won’t necessarily lead you to team leaders. The fifth-year options are limited. Role players like James Onwualu may be candidates to ascend, though Kelly has often talked about the benefit of having your best players also be your best leaders.

That could mean Isaac Rochell is ready. Same with Mike McGlinchey along the offensive line. While they lack the fanfare of former teammates like Sheldon Day and Ronnie Stanley, they will be frontline players on a very talented roster.  There’s no shortage of leadership at quarterback either, though navigating those tricky dynamics will test even the most capable coaching staff.

This is Kelly’s seventh spring practice since he took over a program in desperate need of a reboot. He’s done that, elevating not just the talent on the roster but the infrastructure that surrounds the program. That blueprint will come into play this spring as another team with great expectations begins to form its identity.

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

Clemson v 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.