And In That Corner … The Wake Forest Demon Deacons and a very familiar defense

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In the offseason, Wake Forest visiting Notre Dame seemed nothing but a ho-hum November afternoon. Now the game has taken on unexpected importance, with the Irish risking Playoff-contention each and every week. Yet, the Demon Deacons remain largely an unknown in these parts.

To help educate, “Inside the Irish” turned to Conor O’Neill of the Winston-Salem Journal.

DF: Conor, I appreciate you taking the time to educate some Notre Dame fans. Wake Forest’s season somewhat reminds me of Boston College’s, even though the Deacons cruised past the Eagles 34-10 in week two. Wake Frest notched some wins against a few non-descript opponents before enduring close losses both against Florida State (26-19) and at Clemson (28-14). Then the Deacons finally broke through last week, notching a 42-32 win over Louisville. Was there some version of frustration building around the program before topping the Cardinals?

CO: There was some frustration for Wake Forest in the aftermath of the Florida State and Georgia Tech losses because the Deacons felt like they were positioned to win those games, only to have brief lapses cost them marquee wins. Playing from ahead for the entirety of the Louisville game was a huge step in the right direction and a confidence-booster for them.

How much momentum does that win give Wake Forest? I could envision it being a lot, but I could also understand if it was hardly any, just because Notre Dame awaits so quickly to possibly stem any growing confidence.

Along the same lines, getting a win against Louisville lifts Wake Forest’s confidence level. They are still one of the three teams that has been atop the Atlantic Division in the past three seasons, along with Clemson and Florida State, and the Deacons, along with N.C. State, Syracuse and BC, have to beat those teams to overthrow the established hierarchy of the division. Taking a 5-3 record to South Bend is a much better position than 4-4, and even a possible loss means taking a 5-4 record to Syracuse next weekend, as opposed to a possible 4-5 record after a 4-0 start.

If you’ll allow a quick tangent to chime in on an ongoing debate … You have taken better looks at Florida State and Louisville then anyone around here has. Are their struggles this season more a sign of the ACC’s top-to-bottom strength or are they simply bad teams?

I’ll say this: If you put Florida State’s defense, or maybe even just safety Derwin James, cornerback Tarvarus McFadden and tackle Derrick Nnadi, on Louisville, they might have one loss. FSU’s defense is the most talented unit I’ve seen outside of Clemson’s defense this season. They’re just missing their quarterback and most of their offensive line. Louisville’s defense is terrible and Lamar Jackson’s surrounding cast is OK, but Jackson is good enough to beat teams by himself. I think the ACC really is a deep league — not as strong at the top as the past couple of years, but just as deep, if not deeper.

John Wolford leads the Deacons offense, finally getting protection for the first time in his career. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Thanks for that. Back to the matter at hand. Senior quarterback John Wolford leads Wake Forest and he does so quite efficiently, completing 65.7 percent of his passes and throwing 15 touchdowns compared to only two interceptions. What makes him so, well, so effective?

Wolford really hasn’t improved much from year-to-year, it’s just that for the first time in his career he has protection and receivers who can get open. He was sacked 103 times in his first three seasons — he’s been sacked 13 times this year, and that number might get dropped to 12 because of a technical issue from last week’s game. Wolford has always had a strong arm, he’s tough as nails and is fiercely competitive. Now he’s reaping the rewards of a developing program.

If discussing the Deacons passing game, here is where we probably pour some out for sophomore receiver Greg Dortch. For those who don’t know, Dortch led Wake Forest with 53 catches for 722 yards and nine touchdowns before suffering a season-ending injury this week. Before we get to the ramifications of that, do you care to describe his Saturday against Louisville? Most around here undoubtedly missed it, but I get the sense it still deserves some appreciation and recognition.

Notre Dame should count its blessings it will not need to attempt to check Wake Forest sophomore receiver Greg Dortch. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Greg Dortch was a huge part of Wolford’s success and Saturday was obviously his best game of a stellar season. They got him the ball in space on screens and he’s got the shiftiness to make moves in small windows. He did that and also burned a safety in one-on-one coverage for his third touchdown. He had a fifth touchdown, a 30-yarder on a screen in which he bounced off two Louisville tacklers without hitting the ground, negated because he fumbled through the end zone reaching for the pylon.

Now without Dortch, what viable options can Wolford turn to? How much will losing the 5-foot-9 speedster diminish the Deacons’ passing attack?

Wake Forest turns to Tabari Hines, who has started in the slot for the past two seasons and was the starter for the first two games this year. He had a minor shoulder injury which allowed Dortch more plays in the second and third games of the season, and Dortch capitalized. Now it’s a matter of whether Hines can step back into that role. It’ll also be a measure of senior tight end Cam Serigne entering the passing attack more often. He was able to be used as a blocker more often because of Dortch’s emergence, so he’ll likely be used more as a receiver — as was the case in his freshman and sophomore seasons.

Let’s turn to the defense. Obviously, Notre Dame hired away defensive coordinator Mike Elko. He has been a fundamental and foundational part of the Irish turnaround this season. Is there any feeling at Wake Forest of playing to beat him this weekend? Perhaps it isn’t revenge or even payback, but some less drastic version of those sentiments?

There are not hard feelings for Mike Elko here, at least none that I can tell. He was given a great opportunity and has seemingly seized it from the start. Clawson said he and Elko have texted good luck, good game-type sentiments pretty much every week this season (but that that would stop this week).

How much of Elko’s defensive designs remain there? Did Jay Sawvel, formerly of Minnesota, change most of the concepts?

Sawvel hasn’t changed much, it’s still a 4-2-5 with a “rover” position that’s a hybrid safety-linebacker. The difference is that Elko is more of a tactician, in kind of the same light we see offensive coordinators, whereas Sawvel is more of a hands-on coach. Sawvel works directly with the cornerbacks, and sophomore corners Amari Henderson and Essang Bassey have both taken large strides after coming into the season as really the only question marks of the defense.

Senior defensive end Duke Ejiofor leads Wake Forest’s defense with 6.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss this season. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Sawvel’s defense has given up 183.8 rushing yards per game. Are there legitimate hopes of shutting down Notre Dame’s rather impressive running game?

I wouldn’t use the term “shut down” for what Wake Forest hopes to do against Notre Dame’s rushing attack, but at least slow down. That average is a bit misleading, as the Deacons’ run defense has largely been feast-or-famine. They lead the country with 9.3 tackles for loss per game, but have also been susceptible to giving up big runs. Oftentimes, that happens when their linebackers and safeties fail to fill holes.

Sticking with the coaches, this is head coach Dave Clawson’s fourth season at Wake Forest. He followed two 3-9 campaigns with a 7-6 finish last year. At 5-3 now, the Deacons have at least two more eminently-winnable games remaining to get bowl eligible. What is Clawson’s long-term view? He should still be at Wake Forest in 2018, right?

Barring something crazy like five straight wins to end the season, Clawson certainly should be at Wake Forest next year. He’s maintained he’s building a program and he enjoys coaching and being around the type of players Wake Forest recruits, and he repeatedly praises his working relationship with athletics director Ron Wellman. Wake Forest only starts seven seniors this season, so while some of those are key players (Wolford, Ejiofor, Serigne, both linebackers), next season lines up as one that could see the Deacons make a jump into the eight- or nine-win category.

Personally, I expected the Irish to be favored by much more than two touchdowns, but the spread opened at only 13, and I have seen it thus far rise to 13.5. Perhaps I am putting too much value on beating two top-15 opponents by a combined 56 points in two weeks. Including a possible score prediction, what do you expect to unfold come Saturday?

I think Wake Forest stood a much better chance in this game until the 36 hours after the Louisville win, in which we learned Dortch would be out for the season and safety Jessie Bates III (team-best 64 tackles) and starting running back Cade Carney wouldn’t play this weekend. Those are three players tough to replace. I think Notre Dame wins 30-10.

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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.