Monday Morning Leftovers: Notre Dame’s defensive depth and youth bodes well for the future

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Despite featuring a rout settled by the end of the first quarter, this weekend produced some thoughts which did not quite fit into the immediate coverage of Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH). Wait, that’s the whole point of this weekly piece. Funny the way that works.

The sophomore defensive ends keep coming.
The spring and preseason buzz focused on Daelin Hayes, justifiably so. Hayes has totaled 12 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack and two fumbles recovered already this season. His athleticism has shown through time and time again, but he is not alone as an up-and-coming sophomore defensive end.

First came Julian Okwara, earning some notice in the season’s initial third with five tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and a forced fumble in the first four weeks. He did not have an extensive chance to add to those numbers this weekend, because the Irish coaching staff turned to the reserves earlier than usual. Even Hayes notched only one tackle, though it was two yards into the RedHawks backfield.

“We were able to get up big and so a lot of our developmental guys were able to get reps and that really shows the direction of our program,” junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery said. “I’m so excited watching guys who have been through it all with us get in and get reps.”

Irish sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem (53) has emerged as a genuine option in the Notre Dame rotation at the position, providing unexpected depth at what was supposedly a weak spot entering the season. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

In this instance, the reserve who made the most of his reps was Khalid Kareem, making two tackles, including an eight-yard sack toward the end of the third quarter.

“Khalid is really emerging in so many ways,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “Physically in the weight room, his numbers are off the charts in terms of what he’s been doing. He’s just physically coming into his own. Very trustworthy in terms of what he’s doing day-to-day with [defensive line coach Mike Elston]. He’s earned his playing time.”

Kareem looked every bit the part of a Division I pass-rusher. With seniors Andrew Trumbetti and Jay Hayes (no relation) still large factors in the defensive end rotation, Kareem’s chances this season may be limited to blowouts and occasional pass-specific situations. Entering the season, though, the idea of a rotation so deep a viable contributor would see only sporadic chances would have been a concept completely foreign to Irish expectations.

Te’von Coney may “break out” next season, but don’t be fooled. It has already happened.
Junior linebacker Te’von Coney made only four tackles against Miami, three coming in the first half.

Watching the first few RedHawks drives, this scribe made a note of Coney’s performance, entirely expecting to include a mention of Coney’s evening in postgame coverage. The final stats sheet, however, showed him tied for fifth in tackles Saturday. Two of those ahead of him are the two senior linebackers with whom Coney both splits time and exchanges the season lead in tackles on a week-to-week basis.

Nyles Morgan made seven tackles Saturday, raising his total through five games to 41 to lead Notre Dame. Greer Martini had five takedowns, now with 34 on the year. Coney’s four this weekend brought his tally to 36, including two tackles for loss and one sack.

Coney catching the eye early yet not necessarily getting the statistical shine goes to show how much of an effect he is having overall. With both Morgan and Martini in their final season of eligibility, next year likely will be referred to as Coney’s “breakout season.” That will be too easy of a description, and short-sighted, at that. He has already broken out, even if only in shared playing time.

Chuck Martin’s return to Notre Dame did not go as the Miami coach may have hoped on the field, but he was pleased with everything off the field surrounding both programs. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Chuck Martin on Campus Crossroads
The former Irish assistant took the head coaching job at Miami long before any construction began at Notre Dame Stadium. His return to campus thus not only included reunions with friends all around — he specifically mentioned seeing 40 ushers he used to interact with daily or weekly — but also a look at a venue with some pretty thorough changes.

“I love what they did with the renovations,” Martin said. “I hadn’t been in it until yesterday. Totally different.

“They obviously hit a home run. Inside, outside, the whole deal. That part is cool.”

Continuing the Justin Yoon record watch
The junior kicker went 1-of-2 on field goal attempts Saturday. If Yoon makes three of his next seven attempts, he will set the Irish record for career percentage. Seven more attempts will be needed, no matter if he sends his next three kicks through the uprights, to officially reach the record’s minimum of 50 attempts.

Small, but unusual, gesture from Kelly to McGraw
Between the first and second quarters Saturday, Notre Dame recognized women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw for her induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. McGraw and her team took the field toward one of the end zones.

Kelly left the Irish sideline to spend a moment congratulating McGraw in person. It was a small thing that would go largely unnoticed, but it is also unexpected to see any football coach tend to something non-football in the middle of a game.

Georgia’s defense is good at the football thing.
Per the SEC Network’s Cole Cubelic, the Bulldogs have forced 26 three-and-outs this season, second-most in the country.

Seven of those came against Notre Dame. An eighth does not count toward that total, but it was in fact more impressive. That would be the final Irish drive of that 20-19 loss, when Georgia forced a Brandon Wimbush fumble on the third play of the drive, a different version of a three-and-out, if you will.

Bryce Love is also good at the football thing.
The Stanford junior running back ran for more than 1,000 yards before it came time to turn on Green Day’s fall anthem.

Sure, it was a quirk of the calendar that allowed Love’s first grand to come within September, but to run for 1,088 yards in five games is absurd, no matter what month or months those games come in.

UPDATE: Fighting Amish tossed a question into the comments regarding Love’s running rampant.

“I know Bryce Love has been racking up the yards but I haven’t seen anything overly impressive. I’m not saying that he isn’t a talented back but … is there any way of checking how he did in the two losses vs. how good those defenses rank nationally against the run?”

Yes, yes there is a way. It just takes some time spent with Stanford’s box scores and the NCAA statistics page.

Against Rice, Love gained 180 yards on 13 carries. The Owls rank No. 35 in the country in rush defense, giving up 122.2 yards per game. If removing the Stanford game, Rice has given up 81 yards per game, which would be No. 7 in the country.
USC — 160 yards on 17 carries — No. 67 rush defense with 147.2 yards allowed per game. Removing the Stanford game, the Trojans defense has given up 141.5 yards per game, which would be No. 62 in the country.
San Diego State — 184 yards on 13 carries — No. 47 rush defense with 131.0 yards allowed per game. Removing Stanford, the Aztecs have given up 120.25 yards per game, which would be No. 33 in the country.
UCLA —263 yards on 30 carries — No. 125 rush defense with 284.2 yards allowed per game. Removing Stanford, the Bruins have given up 254 yards per game, which would be No. 122.
Arizona State — 301 yards on 25 carries —No. 96 rush defense with 190.9 yards allowed per game. Removing Stanford, the Sun Devils have given up 155.5 yards per game, which would be No. 74 in the country.

Fighting Amish included, “Everyone scores big points on Rice and UCLA. Has he even played a legit defense?”

No one else runs against Rice, and San Diego State and Arizona State have average to better-than-average defenses. Love is doing this against genuine competition as often as not.

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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But one can move. It already has once.

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

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

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

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