Friday at 4: Things Notre Dame has learned thus far into preseason

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When a Sunday baptism precedes a Saturday wedding, you end up at a rescheduled Notre Dame practice Thursday. It only makes sense. Even if it didn’t, it fits the supposed job description.

Though only the sixth practice of the Irish preseason, and coming more than three full weeks yet before Michigan arrives in town, Thursday marked just a few days short of halfway through preseason practice. (Prep for the Wolverines will begin about Aug. 26, 23 days after the first practice. Splitting that difference puts the midway point actually on Aug. 14, otherwise known as this coming Tuesday.)

Thus, it is not too soon to recap some things learned, both from that specific practice and from Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s post-practice comments thus far.

RELATED READING: Things To Learn — Notre Dame’s preseason dotted by questions at complementary positions

— This space pondered a backup quarterback competition entering the preseason. End that wondering. Freshman Phil Jurkovec is not in the mix with junior Ian Book to back up senior Brandon Wimbush. That is, quite frankly, how it should be at this point. Book played well when needed last year, and it will take some time for Jurkovec to get up to speed. His lack of early enrollment sticks out in that regard, but fauting an 18-year-old for enjoying his final year of high school is to miss the point of much of this entire premise.

— Avery Davis will play this season, a lot. The former quarterback already appears to excel in his newfound running back and receiver duties, expanding offensive coordinator Chip Long’s playbook exponentially. Sophomore receiver-turned-back Jafar Armstrong offers a similar boost, though slightly less noteworthy this week.

“It’s really a tandem package where we want to be able to personnel the defense,” Kelly said of the duo. “… Some of it has to be Jafar has to continue to improve, which he has.”

Davis, in particular, seems to fit into the role like a natural. It may have been an overreaction in the moment, but this particular set of scribbled notes included the thought, “Avery Davis could have 400 total yards with three touchdowns.” If memory serves, a catch amid traffic in the end zone prompted the thought.

— As such, Davis seems to be the backup running back to junior Tony Jones, with Armstrong offering relief and amplification when needed. Thursday was not an ideal day to determine which of the two freshmen had established himself, if either, as both were limited in action. Senior Dexter Williams essentially practiced with the fourth-string, if there were such a thing. *Insert obvious drawn conclusion here*

— Regarding Williams, though, when Davis was getting that red-zone work with the first-string, Williams was working through some drills more than 60 yards away. He still stepped away to yell encouragement, “I see you AD! I see you AD!” He continued until Davis offered some form of acknowledgement, the gridiron version of the Bleacher Creatures’ roll call.

— To answer the third question from a week ago’s “Things to Learn” … Senior Asmar Biilal will start at rover, though he is still not stellar in coverage. His physical abilities are clear, especially when greeting a member of the offense. During a special teams drill working on shedding blocks, he was the first one to receive genuine praise, even though the linebackers had gone through the line two or three times. Bilal is quick and strong, just not quick at reading a route and beating the receiver to the necessary spots. In other words, Wake Forest sophomore receiver Greg Dortch desperately hopes to line up against Bilal a few times Sept. 22.

— Senior Nick Coleman intercepted a Wimbush pass Thursday, confirming what Kelly would later state: Coleman remains in the mix at safety despite the apparent separation from juniors Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott and freshman Houston Griffith.

“[Coleman is] a guy who was fighting for reps in the spring,” Kelly said. “He’s come into this camp with just a better presence in everything that he does. Tackling, awareness, playing the ball in the air.”

Coleman may not start at safety, but having four to rely upon would bolster defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s confidence.

Davis has been discussed. Keys and McKinley are only similar in that they are receivers. McKinley’s legs are as thick as Jones’, despite being listed as a full three inches taller than the running back. If senior Miles Boykin is producing, it is hard to know when McKinley will get a chance to finally play, but he certainly looked ready.

Keys (rivals.com)

The 170-pound Keys may not have the same difficulty finding playing time. Sophomore Michael Young works primarily on the field sideline, backing up junior Chase Claypool. Keys then fills out the second unit in the slot behind senior Chris Finke, the least-accomplished of the three starters.

Keys may not yet have all of Wimbush’s trust, but if he continues to shake and slice past defenders as he did Thursday, he should earn it. He already has the attention of Kelly and receivers coach Del Alexander, who spent much of practice focused on Keys, coaching him up on details.

“[Keys] doesn’t blink,” Kelly said. “Nothing’s too big for him. The game of football comes really easy, functional intelligence of the game. … He’s a guy as well that when he gets the ball in his hands, he finds a way to make something happen.

“We’re not going to shy away from playing guys that we think can help, even if it’s in a part-time position.”

18stripes.com contributor Michael Bryan recently asked on Twitter, who would be receivers Nos. 3-5 in terms of yards come season’s end.

Finke is among the obvious possibilities, along with Young and either senior tight end Alizé Mack or sophomore tight end Cole Kmet. Consider this speculation that either Keys and/or McKinley make the cut, most likely Keys. Ignoring the obvious off-field issues and focusing on his freshman season, Keys is more reminiscent of Kevin Stepherson than freshman speedster Braden Lenzy is. Keys makes plays, while Lenzy simply tries to run away from defenders.

Until he adds some technique and muscle, Lenzy will get knocked off his route with any contact. That said, if he can get free, he will track down the ball, no matter how far it is thrown (figuratively speaking, of course).

Bo Bauer (rivals.com)

— As for Bauer, the crumpled notebook states it most simply, “Bauer is going to have himself a career.” With two captains and at least one All-American candidate in front of him, that probably will not begin in earnest this season.

“Bo Bauer is a pretty smooth operator,” Kelly said. “He knows what he’s doing. He has good football instincts. He’s physically put himself in a better position to compete.”

In other words, Bauer may single-handedly be the linebacker depth Notre Dame has sought.

— Those few names (Love, Pride, Boykin, Wimbush) were expected to be noted positively and frequently, and they were. The lack of surprise leads to a lack of verbose expansion.

Wimbush was not perfect, throwing two interceptions as well as scrambling on the first play of one-vs-one scrimmaging when he had a bit more time to scan for a receiver. But he played confidently and quickly.

— Looking at a piece of scrap paper with a more informal “Things To Learn” specific to Thursday morning, the only remaining questions to answer are: “Could the second-unit OL genuinely fill in?” and “Same old Mack?”

To the first, let’s go with a partial yes. Fifth-year center Sam Mustipher may be irreplaceable, and there are not four backup linemen ready to step in, but there are at least two. As long as Notre Dame maintains decent health up front, that depth should not be a concern.

As for Mack, the senior tight end made an early grab across the middle and ran it out to the end zone, but his play still feels inconsistent more than anything else.

— Only three more open Saturdays until push comes to shove. Get outside. Enjoy yourself, and remember, it counts as only one drink if it fits in one glass.

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Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But one can move. It already has once.

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

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

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

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