And in that corner… The Duke Blue Devils

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Notre Dame needs to turn the page. Desperate to get a win on Saturday and even their record at 2-2, a struggling Duke team might be just the answer.

Yet David Cutcliffe’s program is far from the doormat it once was. And even with a slow start to the 2015 season, the veteran head coach has won at least eight games in each of the last three seasons, including a Pinstripe Bowl win last year against Indiana.

But with the season seemingly derailed this August when returning starting quarterback Thomas Sirk suffered a torn achilles, Cutcliffe had to adapt. And to get us up to speed on that reboot is Amrith Ramkumar.

Ramukmar is a senior at Duke from Norman, Oklahoma. He’s the editor-in-chief emeritus on the school’s newspaper, The Chronicle, and now serves as the sports editor when he’s not studying political science.

Amrith went deep to get us up to speed on Saturday afternoon’s game.

 

 

Did the trajectory of this season change when Thomas Sirk went down in late August? How have David Cutcliffe and offensive coordinator Zac Roper adapted with Daniel Jones at the helm?

This is a difficult question to answer because no one really knows how healthy Sirk was before the season-ending injury—he was still recovering from the February Achilles tear when he suffered a partial tear that knocked him out of the season in August. With that said, all indications were that Sirk was recovering well and would have been available around this time of the season, so I would say the August injury still did change the trajectory of the season.

Not only was Sirk Duke’s leading passer and rusher last season, he was also the team’s undisputed leader and gave the offense an identity as a power-running team—something it has largely lacked through three games. With Jones at the helm, Duke is running its quarterback much less, which has made life easier for opposing defenses. Sirk averaged 4.9 yards per carry last year on a combination of both designed runs and heady scrambles when the pocket broke down, an element of the offense the Blue Devils could desperately use this year with a shaky offensive line.

Although it seems like Jones might be a better pure passer than Sirk, he does not have the offensive line or weapons on the outside to consistently make defenses pay for crowding the line of scrimmage. The result has been that Duke is forced to rely almost solely on its short passing game to move the football, and too often turnovers and penalties are making that strategy backfire.

 

After an early-season win in the opener, the Blue Devils have followed that with two tough losses, the first to Wake Forest and last Saturday to Northwestern. For Notre Dame fans who have been too busy wallowing in misery after their own team’s 1-2 start, can you quickly diagnose any of the major issues that have led to two somewhat surprising losses?

Cutcliffe said it best after the Northwestern game—Duke has been consistently inconsistent in every aspect of the game. Offensively, the Blue Devil offensive line has struggled to open holes for two of Duke’s most talented players in running backs Jela Duncan and Shaun Wilson, which is putting too much pressure on Jones to carry the load with his arm. The Blue Devils have been one of the most disciplined teams in the nation the past four years, but so far in 2016 are beating themselves with 10 turnovers through three games and more than seven penalties per contest.

Duke’s defense has had several bright spots, shutting Wake Forest down early in that game then eventually slowing down Northwestern’s running game. But when the offense starts floundering, the defense is easily worn down, and in the second half of both games the Blue Devils gave up several explosive plays that decided the game.

The major issues extend to the kicking game as well. The Blue Devils had two four-time All-ACC kickers in kicker Ross Martin and punter Will Monday graduate last spring, and their replacements have again taken away a critical part of the team’s identity. True freshman kicker A.J. Reed has missed three field goals inside 40 yards and redshirt freshman punter Austin Parker has also looked uncomfortable, dropping a perfect snap against Northwestern to set up the Wildcats’ go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.

All of that uncertainty in all three phases has compounded, and the result is that Duke has just 27 points in its last 10 quarters.

 

Defensively, Jim Knowles unit has held up thus far — though it struggled to stop the run against Wake Forest and then gave up big plays through the air against Northwestern. Offensive hasn’t necessarily been the problem for DeShone Kizer and Notre Dame. How should they attack the Blue Devils’ defense?

As you mentioned, Duke’s defense has been solid in the first half this season, but once the Blue Devils get worn down, they begin to crack. Notre Dame should use Kizer’s mobility and its strength up front to force Duke to commit extra bodies near the line of scrimmage and shut down the running game. That should open up big-play opportunities through the air as the game wears on, and if Notre Dame can keep its early drives alive and make the Duke defense tire, the Fighting Irish offense should have another big game.

 

Conversely, Notre Dame’s defense has struggled from Day One, though held up against Nevada just fine. With a slow start to the season, is Duke’s offense poised to break out this Saturday? And if so, who are your candidates for a big weekend?

Duke’s offense doesn’t look like it’s poised to break out, simply because it keeps getting in its own way after crossing midfield. The Blue Devils do have talent on that side of the ball at skill positions, though, and if they can protect Jones, I would expect Duke to try to get Wilson and wideout Chris Taylor the ball in space.

Wilson is one of the Blue Devils’ fastest players and has nice hands coming out of the backfield—his 39-yard reception against Northwestern set up Duke’s only touchdown. I could see Cutcliffe and Roper coming up with some creative ways to get Wilson involved just to see if they can jump-start the offense, and the same can be said for Taylor.

Taylor is one of the few Blue Devil receivers with the speed to get behind the defense. Against Wake Forest, that resulted in one of the Blue Devil’s longest passes of the season, and against Northwestern he broke free again but Jones could not complete the pass. When protected, Jones has shown he can throw a nice deep ball, so if Notre Dame gives the redshirt freshman enough time, I could see Taylor having a breakout game with the Fighting Irish likely focusing on starters T.J. Rahming and Anthony Nash.

 

David Cutcliffe is becoming too well-recognized to retain his title as the country’s most under-appreciated head coach. But can you help explain what a good job he’s done at Duke? And while it was well before your time following the team, can you let Irish fans know what they missed out on when Cutcliffe had to leave Charlie Weis’ first coaching staff because of health issues?

The stat that I still struggle to wrap my head around is that in the eight years before Duke hired Cutcliffe, the Blue Devils won 10 football games. In places like South Bend and my hometown of Norman, Okla., 10 is considered about par for the course in a season. The fact that Duke went 10-2 in the 2013 regular season and won 48 games in Cutcliffe’s first eight years is pretty remarkable.

The Blue Devils are in a tough spot this season, but the overall talent level has increased immeasurably since he arrived. It’s becoming common for Duke fans to turn on NFL games and see former Duke players like Laken Tomlinson, Jamison Crowder and Ross Cockrell playing on Sundays. It’s no longer a shock when recruits at quarterback and running back are turning down the nation’s best programs to come to Durham, and the team’s facilities and talent level are starting to reflect that. The way Cutcliffe has prioritized bringing in the right type of players and coaches for Duke’s program has drawn comparisons to what Coach K did for the basketball team during his first 10 years, and up to this point the results have backed it up. Cutcliffe has simply transformed the football culture at the school.

As far as what Notre Dame missed out on, I have just been struck with how Cutcliffe has managed to adapt his system to different personnel so far at Duke. He is known as a quarterback guru, but actually has not had top-tier recruits to work with at that position. Yet he still got amazing production out of Sean Renfree, Anthony Boone and Sirk last year. Whether it was finding more ways to get Crowder the ball in space or using the quarterback more as a designed runner, he always seems to work out the right formula to get the job done. It has not come together yet so far this season, but I’ll be shocked if the Blue Devils don’t make major strides by the time the year is finished.

 

Notre Dame opens up as pretty heavy favorites — 17 points. What’s the perfect recipe for a Duke upset?

The recipe for Duke is simple—the Blue Devils have to run the ball to shorten the game and win the turnover battle for the first time this season. Whether it’s using Jones or backup Parker Boehme, Duncan, Wilson or even another running back, Duke has almost no chance if it lets Notre Dame tee off on Jones. If the Blue Devils can keep the Fighting Irish defense honest and avoid the mistakes that have haunted them lately, they could give themselves a chance.

Duke’s defense has come up with some big plays this year and has been much more effective rushing the passer. If it can force Kizer into some mistakes and finally capitalize on offense and special teams, the Blue Devils could keep this one close. Ultimately, I see Notre Dame’s superior talent in the trenches wearing Duke down once again, but if the Blue Devils can finally get their offensive line comfortable, they could surprise the home team.

 

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.