Things We Learned from the season: 10-3 Notre Dame is two glaring holes from being much more

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How do you turn 4-8 into 10-3? Start with better coaching. Add in thought-out offensive scheming to hide an inexperienced quarterback’s deficiencies. Then rely on defensive strengths to compensate for undeniable weaknesses.

It also helps to have been more talented than that 4-8 reflected in the first place.

Now, how do you turn 10-3 into a College Football Playoff spot? That is the question facing Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly this offseason, a much less drastic task than dealt with a year ago, but a no less pressing one.

The change in direction after 2016 focused on staff changes, program overhauls and a general change in philosophy. Each of those maneuvers hit the right note.

Brian Kelly (Getty Images)

Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko found a worthwhile defense where a vacuum had been last September. Notre Dame may have tired by the end of the season, but the physical benefits created by a new strength and conditioning staff were apparent, nonetheless. Kelly’s relationship with the players appeared more genuine than it had in at least five years, most notably when senior left guard and captain Quenton Nelson didn’t think twice about wrapping his head coach in a spine-crushing bear hug from behind after the victory at Michigan State.

Building on those foundational blocks will be an equally-difficult task. That will need to come from a more tangible category, the players on the field. Specifically, success in 2018 — scoring against a top-flight Michigan defense in the season opener on Sept. 1, avoiding any mistakes in a raucous environment at Virginia Tech in early October, limiting what could be a potent USC offense to close the season — will hinge on two positions that underperformed in 2017: quarterback and safety.

Obviously, Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and the rest involved in that starting competition will get the headlines. That was guaranteed as soon as Kelly dodged a question on the topic after Notre Dame beat No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Monday, 21-17.

“I don’t think I’m ready to get into all of those things,” Kelly said. “We just won a football game, and then we’ll make all those decisions later.”

That postgame was not the time for Kelly to begin prognosticating the futures of sophomore Ian Book and freshman Avery Davis. Nor was Orlando, Fla., the place. The time will be in early March at the beginning of spring practice, the place being the practice fields with “FIGHTING IRISH” plastered two stories high across its edge.

Sophomore quarterback Ian Book performed well enough leading Notre Dame to a Citrus Bowl victory, he will be right in the middle of a quarterback competition moving forward. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

When Kelly gave Book a lengthy leash throughout the Citrus second half, he immediately established there would be a chance for the season-long backup to wrest away first-string job before kicking off against the Wolverines. It may have happened anyway, even if Kelly pulled Book after an avoidable mistake of a red-zone interception. In fact, it should have either way.

That is not to say Book should have taken over as a starter earlier in the season. The scheme deployed by offensive coordinator Chip Long relied on the Irish offensive line and its running game. Wimbush made that aspect much more dangerous. His struggles with accuracy and passing progressions, however, limited the offense from any greater performances.

If Notre Dame wants to become more than an impressive 10-3, an arm cannot be tied behind its back like that. If Book doesn’t break loose, by offering him that opportunity in the spring, Kelly also inherently cracks the door open a bit to Davis. Come summer, incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec will have his chance, as well. Any coaching staff aversion to change has been dismissed already.

The Irish know they need to find a quarterback. He may already be around. He may have started 11 games this year and merely needs an offseason focused on his throwing motion.

He may be playing in the U.S. Army All-American Game on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET (NBC). If that is the case, Jurkovec will not shy from the challenge.

“I have no expectations for myself,” Jurkovec told ND Insider’s Tyler James while in San Antonio. “I’m going in, I’m competing. Nothing’s going to be given to me, so I’ll earn whatever I get.”

Let’s reiterate this: Jurkovec may not be 2018’s answer. This season only showed he could be.

Similarly, Notre Dame may need to turn to an incoming freshman to solve its greatest weakness — perhaps 2017’s only — on defense. The Irish safeties could not have impacted games much less. The three relied upon, senior Nick Coleman and sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill, combined for 105 tackles, one tackle for loss and five pass breakups. The leading tackler of the trio, Coleman with 44 tackles, finished behind six other defenders.

Sophomore safety Jalen Elliott simply did not make enough plays in 2017 to warrant assured playing time in 2018. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

An argument could be made safeties not making many tackles is a sign of strong play from the front seven. It is not an inaccurate argument. This season, strong play up front kept the pressure off the safeties, lest their ineffectiveness manifest itself in more dramatic ramifications. For Elko’s defense to grow even further, a playmaker on the backline will be necessary.

And to be clear, Elko expects his unit to be even better next season.

“Year two really allows you to attack the details of what you’re trying to get accomplished,” he said Friday. “You get to a point where so much [of] year one is broad stroke because you’ve got to get it all in and you’ve got to be able to run and that clock is coming to start the first game.

“Now that the kids have a really solid base, you can really go back and refine everything you’re trying to do and you’ll see a group that understands the details of what we want to accomplish a lot better.”

Nine positions were ready by the time that first game came around in Elko’s debut campaign at Notre Dame. They had the solid base. Adding details at those spots is a tantalizing thought for 2018.

The safeties had not reached such a point even by the season’s end. When Tigers quarterback Danny Etling completed a 30-yard pass to a sliding receiver on a third-and-16 in Monday’s second quarter, it was more indicative of a safety’s failing than of anyone else’s blown coverage. In a third-and-long, the safety’s entire purpose is to prevent a big play, a break downfield.

Elko will need to refocus his efforts on the broad strokes at safety, if nowhere else, heading into year two, but he may not need to with both openings. Current sophomore Alohi Gilman would have started for the Irish this season if the NCAA had granted him a waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy. There is every reason to think that will still be the case in 2018.

A move may be in the cards for Irish sophomore cornerback Julian Love, but only because he has proven he is that good. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Elko will have three options to place alongside Gilman. Stick with Coleman, move sophomore cornerback Julian Love or turn to incoming freshman Derrik Allen.

The late-season emergence of sophomore cornerback Troy Pride makes the thought of Love at safety tenable. Notre Dame has a number of viable options at cornerback in Pride, senior-expected-to-return Nick Watkins, junior Shaun Crawford and sophomore Donte Vaughn. Love is the best of the bunch, but he is presumably and likely the best of the safeties, as well. His instincts for the ball border on unteachable, as evidenced by his thirst for one final interception this season during LSU’s final, desperate drive.

As for Allen, Kelly pointed to his playmaking ability as a primary reason he was such a priority in recruiting.

“He was the first guy that we saw that had the ability to cover man-to-man, play the ball in the air and get the ball down on the ground with his size,” Kelly said on Dec. 20, the early signing day. “That was the trait that we had to have in this class. It was a must, must, must. It was underlined five times. We have to find this player.”

The Irish needed to find that player because he wasn’t around at safety this season. While the trio there tallied three pass breakups, Love managed 20 with three interceptions.

Aside from the two holes, Notre Dame looked to be a viable contender in 2017. Special teams need improvement, but they never cost a game and junior kicker Justin Yoon was as excellent as always. Long and Elko showed an acumen for their personnel, most obvious in outcoaching LSU’s rightfully-heralded coordinators. Statement wins over USC and North Carolina State, not to mention the at-the-time under-the-radar victory at Michigan State, proved the Irish had the talent to compete.

Except, quarterback and safety — neither performed nor showed ready potential necessary to push Notre Dame to the next level. In different ways, each of the three losses made that clear. Safety’s solutions are somewhat clear, and it is likely none of this year’s starters have that honor next season. That would be a step forward for the defense.

Quarterback may be a bit trickier. It may rely on development, it may come down to a phenom, it may not happen.

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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.