Things To Learn: Notre Dame will need the year’s best rushing performance vs. NC State

36 Comments

It is an age-old rule of college football: Nobody has played anybody.

As soon as a team is beaten, it is proof that squad was overrated. It is never evidence the victor was just a better team beating its scheduled opponents, the only objective at hand.

Alabama could be the next opponent and a diehard would insist, “The Tide hasn’t played anybody. Florida State isn’t any good this year. That’s the only win of note.” This would be ignoring the fact that the Seminoles have given up only 22.5 points per game this season despite playing Alabama and five ACC opponents in a season disjointed by Hurricane Irma.

Florida State is good this year, just not as good as years past. That was a high bar to start with. Only Nick Saban has found such sustained success in the last two decades, and let’s remember, he once described himself as not Attila the Hun. That’s a pretty easy bar to get underneath, in its own right.

Another mark difficult to replicate is any Heisman-winning campaign. Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson was going to be deemed a disappointment this year unless he threw for 4,000 yards, rushed for 2,000 and accounted for 60 total touchdowns. (His 2016 marks: 3,543 passing yards, 1,571 rushing and 51 total scores.) Does any of that seem realistic? Of course not. Instead, Jackson is merely on pace for 4,027 passing yards, 1,411 rushing yards and 46 touchdowns.

Thus, while he may appear to be having a subpar season, it is only in comparison to his hardly-comparable 2016. When North Carolina State held him to 97 yards on 15 rushes (sacks adjusted) and an inefficient 55.3 completion percentage on his way to 354 passing yards, that was the Wolfpack defense limiting an offensive dynamo, not Jackson falling short again this season. (Jackson’s completion percentage on the year is 60.3.) He averaged 7.53 yards per attempt, more than a yard short of his season figure of 8.79.

When NC State scored 27 points against the Seminoles — none coming from short fields — that was the Wolfpack succeeding against one of the country’s better defenses, not a sign of Florida State’s demise.

These distinctions need to be made when discussing a conference as deep as the ACC appears to be this season. Reeling off four consecutive wins in that conference earns notice, hence why North Carolina State is up to No. 14 in the AP top-25.

Its rise further will hinge on that defense.

Can Notre Dame run against a genuinely good defense? It hasn’t yet.
Let’s use yards gained per carry as the metric for rushing offense and yards allowed per carry for rushing defense. By that measurement, the Irish have the second-best rushing attack in the country, gaining 7.06 yards per attempt, trailing only Stanford’s 7.74. North Carolina State has the No. 14 rush defense, giving up 3.04 yards per carry. (Note: For all rushing statistics in this section, they are not sacks adjusted. Unusual for this space, but making that alteration to the numbers would put the national figures out of context.)

Only one Wolfpack foe has ranked in the top half of the country as a rushing offense, Louisville at No. 8, gaining 6.13 yards per rush. How did the Cardinals, including Jackson, fare against NC State? They gained 116 yards on 29 carries, an average of 4.0 yards per carry.

Meanwhile, only two Notre Dame opponents rank in the top half of 129 FBS teams in rushing defense. You know the two. Georgia comes in at No. 7, giving up 2.82 yards per rush, and Michigan State is at No. 8 with 2.89 yards per carry. How did the Irish do on the ground in those two games? A combined 237 yards on 77 carries, an average of 3.08 yards per carry.

Clearly, the Wolfpack’s veteran-laden defensive front seven is more in line with the Bulldogs and the Spartans than it is with North Carolina (No. 98) and USC (No. 96). It has already limited one of the country’s most-potent rush attacks.

Notre Dame’s running game has improved since struggling against Georgia and Michigan State. The offensive line has developed as more of a unit. The running back stable has found a better semblance of health. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has become particularly apt at finding eight or 10 yards with his legs on any given passing play.

Has it improved enough to plow through North Carolina State’s defense? This answer may be the key to the remainder of the season. The next two Irish opponents also tilt more toward the top of the rushing defense spectrum than the bottom. (Wake Forest: No. 55, 4.14 yards per carry; Miami (FL): No. 57, 4.19 yards per carry.)

Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has yet to lead a successful in-game two-minute drill. Admittedly, that is primarily because the Irish have typically had such large leads this season. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

It has been awhile since Notre Dame won a close game. A close game often hinges on an offense’s ability to score at the end of a half. Can Wimbush run a successful two-minute drill?
In the first half of the season, the junior quarterback was asked to execute in short-order only once, the final minutes in the 20-19 loss to Georgia. Twice the Irish had the ball in the final minutes, yet the Bulldogs still came out ahead.

Wimbush had a chance to show his command of the offense at the end of the first half against the Trojans, but drops by junior tight end Alizé Mack and junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown cut short a drive at the USC 40-yard line.

Heading into that game, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Wimbush had started to find success in practice in two-minute drills.

“We couldn’t even get a first down [in those drills] throughout the entire camp and into the first five weeks,” Kelly said. “We were three-and-out. We move the ball down the field now and that’s a huge accomplishment.”

Some of that progress has come at the expense of the Irish defense. Senior linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill said Wednesday he has noticed the differences.

“Those were the moments last year when we weren’t successful,” Tranquill said. “We lost a lot of games in the two-minute scenario at the end of the games.

“So it’s a big point of emphasis for us, and I think Brandon’s comfort in the pocket, his ability to deliver the ball downfield to the receivers just continues to grow. … When you have a quarterback who is as dynamic as he is to get out of the pocket and extend plays, but he continues to develop himself through the air, it becomes more of a challenge for the defense.”

It is not Wimbush’s fault Notre Dame has blown out its last five opponents and he has thus not needed to showcase this supposedly-developing skill. He may have that opportunity against North Carolina State, though.

Can the Irish defense stand strong for an entire game without the benefit of a forced turnover?
Notre Dame very well may take away the ball from the Wolfpack. It just seems unlikely. North Carolina State has lost three fumbles this entire season. There is no need to mention interceptions. Senior quarterback Ryan Finley hasn’t thrown any.

The Irish have forced 17 turnovers.

For this exercise, let’s grant the premise giving away just three turnovers in seven games is more impressive than forcing 17 in seven games. (This is debatable, hence the granting of the premise.) If removing those 17 possessions, Notre Dame has given up scoring opportunities (touchdowns or field goals attempted) 24 of 77 times. With an average of about 13 possessions per team per game, that rate would grant the Wolfpack four scoring opportunities this weekend.

Obviously, the Irish would rather take away the ball, but that might not happen against an offense this disciplined. In that case, the defense will need to hold its own 10 times or more.

Notre Dame senior linebacker Drue Tranquill could be the key piece to stopping North Carolina State’s offensive do-everything, Jaylen Samuels, this weekend when the No. 9 Irish host the No. 14 Wolfpack. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

To do that, who will keep senior Jaylen Samuels in check?
He isn’t quite a receiver. He is more than a running back. He seems far too talented to be a tight end. Samuels does a bit of everything.

This may be the assignment Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko envisioned when he first created the rover, his preferred schematic wrinkle. Tranquill can certainly match Samuels’ physicality, but Tranquill’s greatest lacking as a safety was his top-end speed. Samuels may test that.

Listed at 5-foot-11 and 228 pounds, Samuels may also be too much for Irish junior cornerback Shaun Crawford to handle. Crawford is listed at 5-foot-9 and 176 pounds.

This is why the Wolfpack features Samuels. No one defender can mitigate him. It is also why Elko has the safety/linebacker hybrid of the rover.
[protected-iframe id="4322d87b3e2eb4d11caa19723fa3b36c-15933026-22035394" info="//platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" class="twitter-follow-button"]

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

1 Comment

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
Getty Images
24 Comments

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
Getty Images
3 Comments

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

Getty Images
45 Comments

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.