Pregame Six Pack: Looking for a win

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Perhaps the least controversial place for Brian Kelly to be this week is on the sidelines. Because after creating a stir in front of a post-game microphone, and with media speculation ramping up from all the predictable places, Kelly—Notre Dame’s seventh-year head coach and the owner of a contract extension that is set to keep him in South Bend until 2021—is ready to get back to football.

And more importantly, he thinks his team is, too.

“They’re ready. They just have to break through,” Kelly said Thursday. “They’re doing all the things I’m asking. They’ve just got to go win. It’s going to happen. I would have liked it to happen a few weeks ago, and they would have as well.”

That it didn’t is why we’re in this 2-4 mess. And it’s why there are storm clouds amidst the pleasant weekend forecast, a slew of unhappy fans forcing a head coach’s approval rating to sink like a major party presidential candidate.

So let’s get to the Pregame Six Pack. With a a big game under the lights and two football teams in desperate need of a win, it’s another big weekend for football in South Bend.

With or without Christian McCaffrey, the objective on defense will be the same. 

There’s still no word on if Christian McCaffrey, Stanford’s heart and soul, will take the field this weekend. But even if he’s a scratch, Brian Kelly doesn’t believe the defensive objective changes for Notre Dame.

“It’s like anything else. It’s not that we had an hex on him and he fell down. We controlled the line of scrimmage,” Kelly explained Tuesday. “We will have to control the line of scrimmage again, and if you can control the line of scrimmage and win the match-ups up front you can definitely slow him down. Teams have shown that.”

There’s progress being made up front, with Jarron Jones playing better football, Jerry Tillery ascending and Daniel Cage finding his rhythm as the Irish play more of a three-man front.

And even if Stanford is 102nd in the country in yards per play, this will be a stern test.

Getting the offense back on track will be key as well. 

Nobody wants to forget NC State faster than Notre Dame’s offense. Because a group that was averaging 40 points and 500 yards a game looked terrible—maybe (gasp!) even worse than the game plan. (On second thought, maybe not that bad.)

But there’s plenty of confidence in this unit. It didn’t just disappear in a week. And assuming nobody’s aiming a firehose at DeShone Kizer, he should have time to pick apart a Stanford defense that’s really struggled the past few weeks.

Kizer talked about the challenge ahead and raising the bar for the offense.

“We need to be a team that goes out, starts strong, maintains that same strong start throughout the whole game, and then finish as strong as we started,” Kizer said. “We go out and we show great spurts. We have athletes all over the field. We have a great offensive line. We’re completely sound across the board and very skilled.

“But with that, we haven’t done a good job of going out and keeping our pedal to the floor the whole game. We hit lapses, and that’s the truth. That’s the reality of how this season has started and those lapses have come back and ended up with four losses.”

Those lapses have included uneven play from Notre Dame’s rising star at quarterback. While Kizer’s three-game stretch of passing against Michigan State, Syracuse and Duke was the second-highest total in school history, his consistency disappeared at times, plagued by accuracy issues and decision-making that feel spurred on by a quarterback pressing to do too much.

But Kizer sees improvement coming. And he thinks it’s just around the corner.

“The confidence I have is because we haven’t had a full game. We have so much more to move forward on,” Kizer said. “We have so much more out there, and as an offense we can still put so many more points and move them forward. That potential makes me excited for what this offense can do.”

Playing great offense means playing better on first down. 

The Irish haven’t just been plagued by defensive struggles. The offense has also had a hard time digging itself out of early holes. And while some have focused on the team’s third-down struggles, Kelly mentioned that the team’s self-scout has pegged the problems on first down production.

“Our self-scout shows that we need to be better on first down. There is a trickle down affect into our third-down manageability, if you will,” Kelly explained. “So what we have looked at since Monday is why we were in the numbers that we were in and our self-scout shows some negative plays that we’ve got to get out of our offense. It’s really the negative plays, and that has got to be cleaned up for us to have a better third down efficiency.”

Those negative plays have often been because of some inconsistency along the offensive line. And those struggles were on full display against NC State, an Irish front that struggled in the trenches against the Wolfpack defensive line.

Left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey talked about the line’s need to take a step forward. And he pegged it not to anything having to do with technique or scheme, but rather the groups attention to detail.

“I think it is a mindset, and it’s a mindset about execution. And that’s all really offense comes down to is executing your job,” McGlinchey said. “I think it just comes down to a mindset of, yes, I’m going to get my job done, and I’m going to execute to the best of my ability on each and every play. And as soon as we can do that as consistently as we want to do that, I think we’ll be a lot better off.”

With very little fanfare, Stanford has become a wonderful rivalry. 

Maybe it’s the fact that the two schools are institutional peers. Maybe it’s because the rivalry has featured some wonderfully exciting games these past few years.

But it’s worth taking a look at the Notre Dame-Stanford rivalry through a different lens, because after some questioned the decision to keep Stanford among the yearly rivals when games with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue all went to part-time opponents, the decision to go all-in with Stanford has been paid in full by the Cardinal, who have played elite football since Jim Harbaugh revived the program, turning this battle into something players look forward to.

“As much as you don’t want to say it’s just another game, but it’s not. It’s Stanford. It’s our rival,” McGlinchey said. “They’re a traditional powerhouse. They’re a phenomenally coached football team just as we are. And it’s just one of those things that you get up for certain games and this is one of them.”

Nobody was calling Stanford a traditional powerhouse when Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris were running the program into the ground. But with David Shaw building a program that has some Irish fans wishing it was the one in South Bend, it’s worth tipping your cap to Jack Swarbrick for making sure the Irish and Cardinal battle each year.

No time like Saturday night to get the pass rush rolling. 

The Irish ended their sack drought. They ended their forced-fumble streak against NC State. But getting off the schneid is one thing. Now it’s time for the Irish defensive line to make some forward progress—especially getting after the passer.

Because Stanford’s offensive line looks fragile. A unit that was viewed as one of the best in the country is now looking at a two-week run where they’ve given up 15 TFLs, including 11 sacks.

PFF College’s grading system tells the story. Only one of Stanford’s five starters up front has a positive grade this season. Last year? Four of five, with Joshua Garnett playing at an All-American level and Johnny Caspers not far off.

The strength of Notre Dame’s defense has been the front seven. Very quietly, Jarron Jones has been thriving—the team’s highest-graded defender on PFF. Isaac Rochell is right behind him. Jon Bonner has been impressive in his limited snaps. Jerry Tillery followed  his worst performance of the season with his best. Daelin Hayes and Jay Hayes are finally earning snaps along with Andrew Trumbetti.

The opportunities are there for the taking. And winning the line of scrimmage in the run game shouldn’t be the only goal.

Even at the bottom, Brian Kelly believes this team has the ingredients of something special. 

Notre Dame’s head coach wasn’t in the mood to go big-picture on Thursday. But prodded into thinking back to other struggles he’s had over his 27 years as a head coach, Kelly made an interesting comparison for this football team—looking back to when some of his players were in diapers.

“It reminds me of my Grand Valley State team in 1999. We went 5-5-1, and then we went 50-3 or 50-4,” Kelly said, before joking that even this quote will be taken out of context. “It reminds me of a team that once they gain their confidence and once they break through, they’re going to have some success for a while.”

That’s the goal from here on out. Find that confidence. Find that momentum. And realize that this roster, even if it feels frustrating and difficult now, will be the one that’s tasked with winning football games in the very near future.

“[We] played a lot of young players. Let them experience it. Held them to high standards,” Kelly said of that Grand Valley team. “We’ve heard that before and really didn’t make any excuses. They were young, but [we] pushed them pretty hard, knowing that they were going to be successful.”

Kelly might be selling hope, a valuable commodity for a head coach on the lookout for hard-to-find wins. But he’s likely to get the benefit of the doubt from his bosses, a season that looks like an outlier during a career that’s seen Kelly win clips at a rate among the best in the game.

But that doesn’t buy him unlimited time. And after four losses by 21 points, Kelly knows that his team needs to break through.

“We’re going to be in close games. We’ve just got to finish them,” Kelly said. “That’s the will, the single-minded focus. I think they clearly understand that. They’re ready to win.”

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

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

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A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.

The lull of National Signing Day underscores need to move the early signing period

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The early-morning chaos of today’s National Signing Day did not disappear with the implementation of the December “early” signing period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. It just moved six weeks earlier.

In 2014, waking up at 6:45 a.m. ET to be logged on and publishing at 7 a.m. led to noticing one expected recruit had not yet signed with Notre Dame by 8 a.m. Pointing that out and reminding the world Michigan State was making a late push led to an Irish media relations staffer reaching out to quietly say something to the extent of, “Just letting the young man have his moment at school.”

In 2017, less than two weeks after taking over this gig, waking up at 3 a.m. CT to churn through 2,000 words before signings could begin becoming official eventually led to napping through Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference.

Nothing changed 10 months later. That December, the afternoon of Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, was spent waiting for receiver Braden Lenzy to officially choose Notre Dame over Oregon. Sitting at your parents’ kitchen table not helping your niece make a gingerbread house because recruiting-obsessed fans harassed a player through two de-commitments is not a strong way to conjure up holiday spirit.

Coaches across the country advocated for the earlier signing period, claiming it would allow high-school seniors to make their collegiate decisions official earlier on in their senior years, particularly when the prospects had already made up their minds on where to play football at the next level. That was all optics, if even that.

These high schoolers now make their decision official just six weeks earlier. In the preps football calendar, those six weeks are meaningless. Both the December signing period and today, the traditional National Signing Day, come well after the high-school seasons have ended.

The truth was, coaches across the country did not want to tend to their solid commitments over Christmas and New Year’s, particularly not amid bowl prep. It was self-serving at best and short-sighted at worst.

First of all, when the December signing period became reality in 2017, one-time transfers were not yet allowed without losing eligibility the following season. Secondly, no one predicted the early signing period would lead to the coaching carousel beginning earlier and earlier in the season. September firings used to be the result of only off-field scandals, not outright expected from half a dozen programs each fall. Athletic directors now want that headstart on hiring a new coach so he can have time before the December signing period commences.

Exhibit A: Notre Dame may have ended up with Marcus Freeman as its head coach after Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure following the 2021 season, but if the primary signing date had not been lingering just a few weeks away, Kelly likely would not have jumped to LSU before the College Football Playoff field was set, and Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick would have taken more time in choosing his next head coach, more than the 48 hours he used last December. After all, Swarbrick took 10 days in hiring Kelly in 2009.

Lastly, with a 12-team Playoff coming in 2025, December will become only more hectic.

Those head coaches who wanted a little less stress over the holidays will then have to deal with, in chronological order:

— Keeping their own jobs.
— Securing their recruiting classes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
— Preparing their teams for bowl games.
— Preparing their teams for up to four games if in the Playoff.
— Re-recruiting any players considering entering the transfer portal before the winter window closes.
— Winning a bowl game.
— Retaining their coaching staffs.
— Oh, and celebrate the holidays with their families, as was their want when they hollered for the early signing period.

Most of those tasks are immutable and inherent to the sport.

But one can move. It already has once.

The logic is too clear. Nothing was gained in moving up the primary signing date by six weeks. And sanity was lost.

This is, of course, a sport that prefers to ignore logic, but usually that is charming. A mustard bottle on the field is quirky; lacking a worthwhile voice of authority is stubbornly stupid.

So the early signing period may not move as soon as it should (now), but it will move. There are no anti-trust worries tied to it, fortunately.

And aside from the logic, cramming more content into December costs the media, too. Spreading out that context through the vacuum of mid-January to mid-March will be much appreciated.

Leftovers & Links: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

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The traditional National Signing Day is this Wednesday, and for yet another year, Notre Dame has no intentions of inking any high-school recruits on the first Wednesday of February. The recruiting calendar has so changed that the Irish have not signed a recruit in February since 2021, when running back Logan Diggs pondered a late LSU push before doubling down on his Notre Dame commitment. Before that, not since 2019, when defensive end Isaiah Foskey publicly did so in order to be a part of his high school’s ceremonies.

Notre Dame turned its focus entirely onto the class of 2024 following December’s early signing period, when it inked a class of 24 players that ranks No. 9 in the country, per rivals.com.

Now with nearly 10 months to go before the next decision day to influence the narrative around Irish head coach Marcus Freeman’s recruiting focus, he already has pledges from seven players in the class of 2024. Class rankings this early in the cycle are rather meaningless, but for the sake of thoroughness, the Notre Dame class of 2024 is currently ranked No. 2 in the country, behind only Georgia with nine recruits pledged to date.

One player stands out among the early Irish seven. He stands out to such a degree this space broke from usual form when he committed in early June. To pull from that opening,

“This space has a general rule to not report on recruiting developments classes ahead of time. Worrying about the thoughts of high school seniors is enough of an oddity; focusing on juniors and underclassmen is outright absurd.

“But exceptions exist to prove rules, and Notre Dame landing the commitment of the No. 3 quarterback in the class of 2024 — prospects entering their junior years of high school — is such an exception.”

Consensus four-star quarterback CJ Carr is now only the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the class and the No. 14 recruit overall, but he is the kind of key piece to a recruiting class that the Irish lacked in 2023, despite Freeman’s continued excellence hauling in defensive prospects. Carr has been an active and vocal recruiter on his own for Notre Dame, not an unusual occurrence from an early commit but a habit the Irish have not garnered out of a quarterback in quite some time. Even Tyler Buchner, due to both the pandemic and his own soft-spoken nature, was not the loudest campaigner among his peers.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame beats out Michigan for Lloyd Carr’s grandson, QB CJ Carr

At 6-foot-3, Carr looks the part of a prototypical quarterback, and his arm strength fits in line with that thought. He has downfield touch that would open up Notre Dame’s playbook in a way entirely unseen in 2022.

The other six early commitments to the Irish in the class of 2024 …

Consensus four-star running back Aneyas Williams (Hannibal High School; Mo.), ranked as the No. 1 all-purpose running back and No. 106 recruit in the class, per rivals.com: There will be many comparisons to former Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams when Aneyas Williams arrives on campus, and though they are from the same state, there is no relation. The younger Williams can do a bit of everything while his 5-foot-10 frame carries plenty of punch. He lacks truly elite speed, as Kyren did, but obviously that did not kept the elder Williams from cracking 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.

Consensus four-star receiver Cam Williams (Glenbard South H.S.; Glen Ellyn, Ill.), ranked as the No. 11 receiver and No. 102 recruit in the class: The Chicagoland product visited Iowa a handful of times and took looks at Michigan and Wisconsin, seemingly intent on staying in the Midwest. Williams has all the fundamentals wanted of a receiver, 6-foot-2 size combined with a comfort catching the ball. Time will reveal what part of his game, if any, develops into his specialty.

Consensus four-star tight end Jack Larsen (Charlotte Catholic; N.C.), ranked as the No. 7 tight end and No. 187 recruit in the class: Whether Larsen will be the next piece of “Tight End U” or not is a premature thought, but at 6-foot-3 and an ability to snag passes downfield over defenders, Larsen already looks the part. Credit a basketball background for that aerial ability.

Four-star offensive guard Peter Jones (Malvern Prep; Penn.), ranked as the No. 4 offensive guard and No. 99 recruit in the class: Jones plays tackle in high school, nearly an absolute requirement for any offensive line prospect chased by Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, but his playing style suggests a future on the inside of the line.

Consensus four-star defensive tackle Owen Wafle (Hun School; Princeton, N.J.), ranked as the No. 10 defensive tackle in the class: Pronounced like playful, not waffle, Wafle should add weight to his 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame as he grows from a high-school junior into a college player. That may seem obvious, but the quality of that weight he adds in the next 20 months will be what most determines how quickly he can contribute in South Bend.

Consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati): Anyone committed right now has made a decision relatively early in the recruiting cycle, yet Hobbs was committed to South Carolina for three months before he flipped to Notre Dame in early November. Seeking out a committed three-star more than a year before he can officially sign may strike one as foolish, but Irish cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens has earned some leeway in his evaluations, given the early impacts of Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey in 2022.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Ohio State, Clemson & Pittsburgh hurt most by early NFL draft entrants among Notre Dame’s opponents
40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part I: Notre Dame’s rushing offense hid many early struggles
Part II: Notre Dame’s upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach
Part III: Notre Dame’s November far from the expected disappointment
Part IV: Notre Dame’s 2022 ended where it was always expected to

OUTSIDE READING
How QB Sam Hartman found trouble with turnovers in 2022
College QB Austin Reed got transfer portal offers comparable to late-round NFL draft picks
I requested my Notre Dame admissions file
Boston College, offensive coordinator John McNulty parting ways after 2022 struggles
Hamlin’s injury highlights precarious position of many young N.F.L. players
On the Broncos’ head-coaching finalists
Bally Sports RSNs headed for bankruptcy
Auditor: LSU overpaid Brian Kelly by more than $1M in 2022