Things To Learn: Can Notre Dame retain its focus against a “letdown” opponent

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It is a concern too-often cited by fans. Very rarely does one Division I team actually look past another. The coaches have spent decades studying film, finding strengths on any opponent. Even the players — even the freshmen — have played football long enough to know there is plenty of talent on each team to have a seemingly-surprisingly good day.

If nothing else, current freshmen were eight-years-old when Appalachian State won at No. 5 Michigan. They remember that legend as the fact it is. If they don’t, the 10-year anniversary was certainly discussed enough at this season’s beginning to remind them.

The opening week of this season, in fact, provided an even more historical example of the talent to spare across Division I college football — it extends to the Football Championship Series, too. A 45-point underdog, Howard University stuck it to not only the Vegas bookmakers but also to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, upsetting the Rebels 43-40.

Notre Dame is not overlooking Miami, no matter if it is the Ohio version rather than the Florida foe waiting in November.

The question is not will the Irish be ready for the RedHawks. The question is, will Notre Dame stay focused on the RedHawks? Focus has yet to be an issue early in the season. For example:

— Through four games, the Irish have committed 23 penalties for an average of 48.2 yards per game. Aside from a borderline personal foul on sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara against Georgia, none of those penalties jump to mind as screaming a lapse in judgement. Even that mistake by Okwara was steeped in football instinct and was within the pace of play, though he still should not have given the referee the opportunity to make the call.

— Notre Dame has turned the ball over five times. Admittedly, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has lucked out of a few more interceptions, but those, along with the two he has thrown, speak more to a developing passing game than any version of sloppiness.

— The Irish defense has given up a total of five plays of 30 yards or more, four of them coming in the 20-19 loss to Georgia. If granting the premise the Bulldogs might be pretty good at the football thing, then letting Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke spring a quarterback sneak for 52 yards may be the only real moment of Mike Elko’s charges letting one get by them, literally and figuratively.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has now spent months repeating the catchphrases he considers the traits Notre Dame should emulate at all times. “Attention to detail” may not get the same headlines as “grit” or “trust the process,”, but it is among them all the same.

Showing that attention to detail is most telling when favored by 20-plus points facing a Group of Five opponent who has already suffered two losses to fellow Group of Five teams. If the Irish do that, they will be making it clear this fall has no motions to simply go through. Rather, each action will be deliberate and with purpose.

If Notre Dame commits repeated false starts, carries the ball a bit more loosely or blows an additional coverage or two, that will not mean it assumed a victory over Miami was a sure thing. It will, however, mean the mental consistency needed to be a top-tier team has not yet arrived.

Speaking of giving up big plays, can the Irish secondary, specifically its safeties, hold its own against a genuine passing attack?

No disrespect to Georgia freshman Jake Fromm, Notre Dame has yet to face a dangerous arm this season. Fromm has one, and it will show itself more with time, but in his first career start, he was not asked to do much.

Miami coach Chuck Martin will ask his senior quarterback, Gus Ragland, to do a lot against the Irish. For that matter, Ragland has the targets available to put the Irish defensive backs in compromised positions. Take a look at a 24-yard RedHawks touchdown against Cincinnati.

If the secondary does not work as a unit, does not stick to each and every assignment, does not exceed preseason expectations, then Ragland will be able to exploit it for a score or two. At the least, Miami could add to that listing of plays allowed of 30 yards or more. Martin’s playbook creates a number of options for such an impact.

This does not mean Ragland’s deep shots could be enough to beat the Irish. Rather, if he finds success, it bodes poorly for future encounters with the likes of USC’s Sam Darnold, North Carolina State’s Ryan Finley and the other Miami’s Malik Rosier.

What about the Notre Dame passing attack? Will Chase Claypool be a consistent No. 2 option?

Consistency is the next hurdle for Irish sophomore receiver Chase Claypool to clear in establishing himself as the second option, behind junior Equanimeous St. Brown, among Notre Dames’ receivers. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

The sophomore receiver caught four passes for 56 yards against Michigan State. The way he has been praised since then, including by this space, one might think Claypool caught 14 passes for 256 yards. It was a solid performance, but there is more room to grow.

“We think he’s capable of being a very nice piece to putting our wide receiver corps together,” Kelly said Tuesday. “He’s big, he’s athletic, he can catch the football. We can get some nice matchups with him.

“But he’s a young player that, quite frankly, the game is still evolving for him.”

If Claypool continues to keep piece with that evolution, he will remain the primary complement to junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. If Claypool is an “up one week, down the next” type of commodity, Wimbush may be better served finding another second read.

Could that, in time, be Kevin Stepherson?
Originally, that question was going to read, “Where will Kevin Stepherson line up?” Kelly preemptively answered that Thursday, pointing toward the boundary position. There, the sophomore receiver should be able to use his speed to blow the top off a secondary and distract a safety from other assignments in doing so.

That does not mean Stepherson will immediately challenge Claypool for the targets on the boundary.

“He has to work his way up the depth chart, too,” Kelly said. “We’re not going to accelerate that. He has to earn that. That’s going to take time.”

Sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson has many physical gifts, but he does not display them consistently. And that is just when he can get himself onto the field. (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)

Much like Claypool, holes in Stepherson’s game may restrain his impact from the outset. Whereas Claypool is still learning the game, Stepherson is learning to pay attention to the game.

“He’s got to work on his concentration skills and his focus,” Kelly said. “He’ll drop a ball here or there just because he’s not locked in the way we need him to be.”

If Stepherson can be locked in enough to make any form of an impact in his first week back in action, it should be only a matter of time before he gets those chances consistently. For now, those opportunities will likely come primarily once the Irish have a sizeable lead.

Might other members of the second unit get a chance to impress?
Stepherson should not be the only substitute to have multiple opportunities. If and when Notre Dame goes up by three possessions in the second half, Kelly and his coaching staff should start to view the remaining time as a trial-and-error session.

Sophomore quarterback Ian Book attempted three passes against Boston College, all falling incomplete. It would be beneficial for all involved to get Book a few completions of confidence before he has to step in for Wimbush in any competitive situation.

The same could be said for freshman safety Jordan Genmark-Heath on the opposite side of the ball. Kelly does not expect Genmark-Heath to be only a special teams maven this season.

“He’s attached to coach Elko at the hip at practice, so he’s learning the safety position,” Kelly said. “… We have to continue to train Jordan to be prepared to play this year, so that training will continue, but as that training is going on, we want to keep playing because we think he’s got some nice skill sets.”

In other words, Genmark-Heath might be needed at safety should so much as one injury occur. In order to keep him physically dialed in, some hits on special teams hold merit. In order to keep him mentally ready, some fourth-quarter snaps may be necessary.

When it comes to freshman kicker Jonathan Doerer, some fourth-quarter kickoffs could help boost his confidence. Recruited specifically to take over kickoff duties, a below average performance at Boston College relegated Doerer back to the bench.

“We’d like for him to continue working toward kicking off, but I think that’s a process right now that we’re evaluating each week,” Kelly said. “… We’ll see if there’s an opportunity that we could get him into the game. We would.”

Those opportunities are the building blocks for future success needed for sustained progress. In order to get them, the Irish cannot mess around against the RedHawks. Notre Dame is not, by any means, looking past a collection of players coached by the familiar Chuck Martin. That does not mean Notre Dame will pay the needed attention to detail.

Oh, and does your cable package get NBC Sports Network?
Consider this your daily reminder this weekend’s game is on NBCSN at 5 p.m. ET.

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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

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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.