And In That Corner … The injured Tar Heels of North Carolina

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Notre Dame’s trip to North Carolina may never have been the most-daunting road trip on the 2017 schedule (that’s likely to be Nov. 11 at Miami), but few expected the Tar Heels to be slogging along at 1-4 come the first week of October. That is the case, nonetheless. To figure out how and why North Carolina has struggled so much thus far, let’s pepper Andrew Carter of The Charlotte Observer with some questions …

DF: First off, thanks for taking the time to help Irish fans know what to expect this weekend. How long have you been covering the Tar Heels?
AC: Since November of 2011. This is my sixth full football season.

From this distance, two storylines seem to sum up North Carolina’s year. One of those actually points to last year — all that was lost from the offensive side of the ball. Obviously, quarterback Mitch Trubisky went No. 2 in the NFL Draft, but much more talent went out the door, as well. By my count, four of last year’s top-five receivers departed and all four of the Tar Heels’ top-four rushers left (if including Trubisky). Just to toss out a few more names Notre Dame fans will remember, Ryan Switzer led those receivers and Elijah Hood played a key role in that rushing game.

Is that exodus to fault for North Carolina struggling to score the last two weeks, with 17 points against Duke and seven at Georgia Tech? What underlying issues are handicapping the Tar Heel attack?
There are two primary reasons why the Tar Heel offense is struggling. The first is all the departures you mentioned. North Carolina lost its starting quarterback, its top three receivers, its top three rushers and two of its best offensive linemen from last season. Several of those players were among the best in school history at their positions: Trubisky at quarterback, Switzer at receiver, Hood at running back, and the list goes on. Secondly, the Tar Heels have been decimated by injuries.

Even if North Carolina remained healthy, its offense would have faced a difficult rebuilding year. But, the Tar Heels have not been healthy. They have been anything but healthy. The offensive line has been a bit of a patchwork mess during the first month of the season. The best lineman there, senior left tackle Bentley Spain, missed all of one game with a hand injury and most of another, and he’s probably still not at full strength. Several others have been banged up, as well.

Then-junior receiver Austin Proehl caught 43 passes for 597 yards and three touchdowns last season, but a left arm/shoulder injury ended his 2017 after only four games with 16 catches, 270 yards and one touchdown. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Injuries at receiver have become comically absurd (as much as injuries can be). North Carolina lost its top three receivers off last year’s team … and then it lost three of its best receivers during the first four games this season. Among them are senior Austin Proehl, the only returning receiver who played a large role last year, and junior Thomas Jackson, the only other returning receiver with double-digit catches last season. And then sophomore Rontavius Groves, arguably the Tar Heels’ most-talented young receiver, suffered a season-ending knee injury in his first collegiate game, after recovering from … a different knee injury.

It’s not difficult to surmise the hows and whys of North Carolina’s failures on offense. It lost a ton of production from last season, and since then it has endured hard-to-believe misfortune with injuries. With the injuries up front and at receiver, it has been difficult for the Tar Heels to establish any kind of rhythm.

Despite those issues, sophomore quarterback Chazz Surratt has put together some decent numbers, throwing for 988 yards and five touchdowns with a completion rate of 63.3 percent, seemingly ending LSU transfer Brandon Harris’ career. Is that latter assumption a safe one?
I think that’s probably fair. I’d be surprised if Brandon Harris spent any significant time at quarterback the rest of the season, barring a Surratt injury (which, the way things are going on that front …).

North Carolina sophomore quarterback Chazz Surratt has rushed for four touchdowns to complement his five scores through the air. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora won’t come out and say this — not yet, anyway — but at some point it becomes common sense to start planning for the future and do what’s best for down the road as opposed to what might lead to relatively minimal improvement this season. The Tar Heels have probably already arrived at that point. I do think Harris could help North Carolina in the short term, but how much would that really be worth? An extra win, maybe?

The Tar Heels are not going to win their division this season. An upper-tier bowl game is already out of the question. Harris will be gone after this season, while Surratt will have three more years of eligibility remaining. It would not make much sense to play Harris, while Surratt could use this time as an opportunity to develop and gain some valuable experience.

With that in mind, what kind of future does Surratt project to have in Fedora’s system?
A pretty good one, assuming he improves his arm strength. Surratt is plenty mobile and he seems pretty durable, but the offense is a bit limited with him right now because he doesn’t have the ability to stretch a defense vertically with his arm, not that he necessarily has healthy receivers to target downfield, anyway.

North Carolina has kept its playbook pretty basic with Surratt, which is understandable given he’s seeing his first playing time. Another offseason or two in the weight room adding strength could do wonders for Surratt, because all the other skills and intangibles are there.

The other storyline would be the Tar Heels’ struggling defense. Perhaps I am being overly harsh, but then again, North Carolina has given up 35.5 points per game against four FBS-level opponents. Is it really that, uhhh, bad?
The defense has actually improved the past two weeks, though the numbers don’t bear it out. Against Duke, the defense kept the Tar Heels in it and gave North Carolina a chance until Surratt threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Another interception in the third quarter turned the game Saturday during the Tar Heels’ loss at Georgia Tech.

Player attrition and injuries have affected the defense, as well. It lost its best lineman from last season, Naz Jones, now with the Seattle Seahawks. One of the team’s best cornerbacks, Des Lawrence, was a senior.

This season, already, North Carolina has lost starting middle linebacker junior Andre Smith for the season, and one of its most talented defensive lineman, junior Jalen Dalton, hasn’t played in three weeks.

So no, the defense hasn’t been especially good, but it’s kind of a less dramatic version of the offense in terms of the injury situation. Exacerbating the defensive issues, when the Tar Heels’ offense is bad, it puts a huge strain on the defense — even more so than what a “normal” team could expect, given how abnormally quickly North Carolina attempts to operate its offense.

The Tar Heels use an up-tempo spread. When it’s going three-and-out several times per game, the defense has no time to rest. Eventually that adds up, and in the fourth quarters of all four North Carolina losses, the defense was exhausted. That’s the defense’s fault, in part, for not getting off the field on third down earlier in the game (and that’s been a huge problem), but the offensive woes certainly play a role, too.

Again, removing the statistics from the Tar Heels’ 53-23 victory over FCS-level Old Dominion, opponents have had equal success rushing and passing against North Carolina, averaging 251.75 rushing yards per game and 252.75 passing yards per game. Presuming the Irish rely on the run as common sense and recent history would indicate, do the Tar Heels have the personnel to sell out to stop Josh Adams & Co.?
Probably not, honestly. I’d expect this game to follow a similar script as North Carolina’s losses against Louisville and Duke. I think the Tar Heels can keep it close for a while, maybe for a half, even three quarters. Then their inability to sustain offensive success — combined with the lack of depth and inability to generate stops on third down on defense — will take its toll. If the fourth quarter does not completely belong to Notre Dame, it would be a surprise, based on everything UNC has shown to this point.

It will likely take more heroic efforts like this for the Tar Heels to challenge Notre Dame this weekend. Plus, this is just a cool photo. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Presuming the spread closes around 16 or 17 in Notre Dame’s favor (or even 13 or 14 if Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush is ruled out), can North Carolina realistically keep it that close? I imply a blowout largely because of the Notre Dame rush offense vs. the Tar Heels rush defense. Perhaps I am very much off-base.
I don’t think you’re off-base.

I appreciate the agreement. While we’re at it, how about a score prediction?
I think something in the 40ish to 20ish range sounds about right.
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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.