Pregame Six Pack: Return of the Spartans

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It’s a return to the familiar this weekend, with Michigan State and Notre Dame back together again on the football field. A rivalry that’s one of Notre Dame’s oldest and most established returns after a few seasons away, and brings with it plenty of tradition—and even more intrigue—with Saturday night’s kickoff just around the corner.

Fifty years after waging war in a 10-10 tie that’s among the sports most talked about games, Mark Dantonio and Brian Kelly return to battle, a big game that should reveal plenty about both teams.

With a 7:30 primetime kickoff on NBC ahead, let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack.

As with every game against Michigan State, a physical battle is expected. But so Kelly’s young team keeping its poise.

Don’t tell Brian Kelly that Michigan State plans to bully the Irish around. Because he expects his team to hold up quite well in a matchup that should test the Irish’s physicality.  

“Our entire offensive line are all physical guys. Josh Adams is a physical player. Drue Tranquill is a physical player, Te’von Coney,” Kelly said. “All of our guys like the physical contact. They’ll rise to the occasion of what the game calls for and the mental toughness to match what Michigan State is all about.”

Michigan State is usually about running the football, and LJ Scott is certainly capable. They’re about a stout defense, a unit that’ll be led by All-American candidate Malik McDowell and defensive captains Riley Bullough and Demetrious Cox.

But Kelly knows matching the Spartans strength and toughness is only one piece of the puzzle. Doing that while keeping your wits about you is the other.

“This is not a boxing match,” Kelly said. “This is not UFC. We’ve got to execute. We’ve got to catch the football. What we can’t get caught up in is the emotion of a game like this. Where words turn into poor actions.

“I’ve talked to our guys about being poised and doing their job. If they do that, our team is strong enough and physical enough to match up with anybody.”

Torii Hunter Jr. may be a little bit rusty. But he’ll be ready to go against a Michigan State secondary that will challenge the Irish. 

After taking the week off against Nevada, Notre Dame’s senior captain Torii Hunter Jr. will be back out leading a young receiving corps. And while the team’s medical staff played things safe last week, Kelly said Hunter is ready to go, though he needed to play a little bit of catch-up this week to get ready for a critical match-up against the Spartans’ physical secondary.

“You take a week off in our offense where there’s so much volume for those wide receivers, you lose a little bit,” Kelly said. “So it was kind of getting the kinks out. Today he looked pretty much back to where he had been.”

That return makes things much easier for DeShone Kizer—and the entire Irish receiving rotation. Because with Equanimeous St. Brown locked in at the W and C.J. Sanders doing very nice things in the slot, bringing Hunter back to the wide side of the field and allowing Kevin Stepherson and Corey Holmes to play supporting roles will get Mike Denbrock’s young position group back in sync.

It’ll also allow us to see if Hunter is capable of attacking an opponent down the field, something we’ve seen in pieces (like the Blue-Gold game), but yet to see in a big-time match-up.

“They’re going to see if their DBs are tougher than our wide receivers,” Hunter said this week. “So it’s going to be that type of game. We’re going to have to make plays and they’re good at what they do.”

While Brian Kelly has expressed confidence in Nick Coleman and his young secondary, he’s pushing to get junior Nick Watkins back from injury. 

With Shaun Crawford’s season finished after an achilles tear, Nick Coleman will once again be given a chance to rebound from a tough first few weeks. Even as freshmen like Donte Vaughn and Julian Love find their footing, Kelly is hoping that junior Nick Watkins can make some progress as he continues to recover from a broken arm.

“He practiced very hard this week. He was in a lot of football this week,” Kelly said.

Watkins looked like the frontrunner to be the team’s starter at cornerback before a broken forearm took him out of commission. And while Kelly mentioned that a medical redshirt is potentially in the cards for Watkins if his training staff can’t stimulate enough bone growth, the fact that the team is practicing him hard enough to monitoring him with their GPS tracking system points to the hope of getting him back to buoy a questionable position during a stretch run.

“He’s a kid who started for us and played pretty good in the Bowl game. He’s in pretty good shape, his volume was really good in practice,” Kelly explained. “We just need to get a green light that we’re not putting him in a position to hurt himself.”

Not much is known about Michigan State’s fifth-year quarterback Tyler O’Connor. But he’s already won a pretty big football game. 

No, the win over Furman doesn’t count—even if O’Connor’s 13 of 18 performance and three touchdown passes was a nice 2016 debut.

It was O’Connor’s work behind center when the Spartans took down Ohio State last year, pulling off a 17-14 victory that nobody saw coming. A windy and rainy Saturday (not to mention Ohio State’s defense) made it tough to show muche statistically, but O’Connor completed 7 of his 12 throws, adding a touchdown and no turnovers. He also carried the ball eight times—including a few critical 4th down conversions on a game-tying touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter.

So after going into Columbus and leaving with a victory, don’t expect the stage to be too big for O’Connor in South Bend. Named a team captain (something Connor Cook never did) even though it’s only his first season starting, the 6-foot-3, 228-pounder comes to Notre Dame with a lot of confidence.

“We can go out there and do anything that we decide to do and what we put our minds to as long as we go as one,” O’Connor told the Detroit Free Press. “When we have that chemistry and mind-set that we’re not going to be defeated and we’re not going to be stopped, we do feel unstoppable.”

Six years later, Mark Dantonio breaks down Little Giants. 

In a rivalry that’s seen plenty of drama, Mark Dantonio broke down perhaps the most dramatic finish of the Michigan State-Notre Dame rivalry, sketching for ESPN the overtime, fake field goal that the Spartans pulled off to win 34-31 in East Lansing back in 2010.

A game that sent Dantonio to the hospital after—he suffered a minor heart attack—remains a sore spot for Irish fans, many convinced that the play clock had hit zero before Michigan State got the snap off.

That win might have kickstarted the Michigan State’s program. Because the 2010 season began a historic run for the Spartans, with Dantonio going a ridiculous 64-16 since then, winning at least 11 games in all but one season.

But he hasn’t beaten Notre Dame since.

Brian Kelly isn’t worried about the lack of sacks. But he does need to figure out how the Irish will make Tyler O’Connor uncomfortable on Saturday night. 

Brian Kelly did his best to tell us that he thinks sacks are overrated. And even if that’s a tough one to believe, the Irish head coach expanded on what his pass rush needs to do to impact Tyler O’Connor. Because if Brian VanGorder’s front seven is going to protect his young secondary, the Irish need to find a way to make things difficult for the Michigan State passing attack.

“You saw how quickly the balls come out the last couple weeks. We’ve harassed the quarterback the last week, forced him into some bad throws,” Kelly said. “What you want to do is, you want the quarterback to feel uncomfortable back there and to be pressured into making some poor decisions and poor throws.”

That happened against Nevada, with the Wolf Pack’s quick passing game ineffective with Tyler Stewart connecting on just 10 of his 23 throws. And while allowing a team to get the ball out quickly and earn their way down the field feels like a great problem for Notre Dame’s defense to have, getting more defenders in the mix who can impact the pass rush is certainly also a priority.

Kelly talked about working junior Jay Hayes and freshman Daelin Hayes into the mix. He also mentioned true freshmen Julian Okwara and Jamir Jones.

So far the weakside defensive end job has been Andrew Trumbetti’s. A high ankle sprain has slowed Jay down, while Daelin is still learning on the job—though he should be motivated to make an impact against a team he once committed to as a recruit.

Kelly’s confident that’ll happen.

“Before it’s all said and done, both those guys will play a role in our defense,” Kelly said. “I’m very confident that you’re going to see both the Hayes play more football.”

***

For your listening pleasure, John Walters and I talk about this weekends game and if a win against Michigan State can serve as a launch point. 

 

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

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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.