Notre Dame’s Opponents: Syracuse

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It has been over-discussed already. There is no longer a need to rehash it at any point between now and Nov. 17. … Notre Dame will “host” Syracuse at Yankee Stadium this year while wearing somewhat-distinctive jerseys as part of the Shamrock Series.

The Orange put together a down, then up, and finally down again season. Getting embarrassed at home by Middle Tennessee State is never anyone’s preference. Nonetheless, Syracuse did just that in the season’s second week, falling 30-23 and sending former head coach Scott Shafer, now the Blue Raiders defensive coordinator, skipping down the Carrier Dome staircases with a cigar between his teeth.

From there, though, the Orange rallied to a 4-3 record, highlighted by an upset of No. 2 Clemson. The Tigers may have been without their starting quarterback in the second half, but a win is a win is a win, and Syracuse looked primed to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2013.

The next two weeks included two trips to Florida and two close losses to No. 8 Miami (27-19) and Florida State (27-24). Even then, 4-5 kept a bowl game in reach. Unfortunately, quarterback Eric Dungey had an ankle injury that kept him limited against the Seminoles and then sidelined him for the rest of the year. Without him, things went downhill fast.

The Orange lost two at home (Wake Forest, Boston College) and one on the road (Louisville) by a combined score of 162-67. That is not a typo: Syracuse gave up 54 points per game to dash any bowl hopes or any lingering memories of that Clemson delight. Even with Dungey healthy and moving the offense, it was unlikely the Orange could match those point totals.

Dungey will need to find new targets, now without his top-two receivers in Steve Ishmael (105 receptions for 1,347 yards and seven touchdowns) and Ervin Phillips (89 for 904 and four). Otherwise, the offense returns pretty much intact.

The other side of the ball was not as fortunate. All three starting linebackers are gone, including leading tacklers Parris Bennett (115 tackles with 11 for loss) and Zaire Franklin (85 tackles with 5.5 for loss). In fact, only two of Syracuse’s top-seven tacklers return.

Just one base package defensive back departed, two-year starter Rodney Williams (46 tackles last season with two pass breakups). Of note to Irish fans, former Notre Dame cornerback Devin Butler finished his career with the Orange with 20 tackles in 2017. His departure is one of a few that will hurt Syracuse’s secondary depth.

Even further down that listing, defensive tackle Kayton Samuel transferred to Indiana. His 12 tackles may not stand out, but he had started two dozen games in his three years and provided depth at a critical position.

Here is a cursory mention of four-star defensive back Atrilleon Williams, a recruit rating rarely heard in upstate New York.

Now let’s get to the more complicated additions.

Orange quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Sean Lewis left to become the head coach at Kent State, an understandable career decision in every regard. In part to replace him and in part to fill the newly-added 10th assistant position, Syracuse brought in a high school coach from Texas to be quarterbacks coach, Kirk Martin.

Kirk has a son, Koda, a starting tackle from Texas A&M looking to transfer as a graduate student. Whether or not Kirk joined Syracuse, Koda likely would have. Why? Koda is married to the daughter of his new head coach.

It’s all in the family.

That head coach, Dino Babers, is entering his third season needing to improve on consecutive 4-8 campaigns. With that 8-16 drag, Babers’ career record still stands at 26-25, which does not even include his 19-7 record at FCS-level Eastern Illinois before moving to Bowling Green.

Babers has stirred the roster turnover most new coaches want; it just has not yet shown in the production.

Well, it hasn’t aside from two games. In each of his seasons, Babers has orchestrated a Carrier Dome highlight, topping second-ranked Clemson last year and No. 17 Virginia Tech (31-17) in 2016.

He may be a three-year starter, but Syracuse senior quarterback Eric Dungey has not finished any of those seasons healthy. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Dungey may be all that is needed, if he can stay healthy. Consider his stats from a year ago in only nine games: 2,495 passing yards and 14 touchdowns with nine interceptions and a 59.7 percent completion rate; a team-leading 595 rushing yards and nine more touchdowns. Factor in sacks and that jumps to 764 yards on 118 rushes, an average of 6.47 yards per carry.

Now Dungey will be operating behind a line returning five past starters plus Koda Martin. His arrival will play a role in reshuffling the unit, but it is a veteran group no matter how it aligns.

Two actual running backs will help share Dungey’s burden:
Junior Moe Neal: 92 carries for 488 yards and one touchdown.
Senior Dontae Strickland: 128 carries for 482 yards and four touchdowns, including 105 yards on 14 carries at Miami. Dungey added 125 (sacks adjusted), as well. For context: Notre Dame, as a team, rushed for 130 yards (sacks adjusted) against the Hurricanes.

Babers prefers a fast-paced offense. That does not mean it cannot rely on the run. Instead, it means he wants the next handoff to occur as soon as possible. With a four-year starter at quarterback, he should get his wish this year.

Four of Syracuse junior defensive end Kendall Coleman’s 57 career tackles came against Notre Dame back in 2016, the last time the two teams met. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Syracuse has a strong defensive line and a secondary returning three starters sandwiching a second-level returning a total of one career start. If the linebackers can catch up, the Orange should be ready to continue a trend toward defensive competency.

That trend fell apart in last season’s last month, but if looking at the year’s first nine weeks, Syracuse held opponents to 24.9 points per game. Comparing that to the 38.6 of the year before led to defensive coordinator Brian Ward being nominated for the Broyles Award, recognizing the best assistant coach in the country.

The following three weeks torpedoed both Ward’s chances and that scoring average, jumping to 32.2 per game for the season. Even that compares well against that previous figure, though.

A similar effect shows up in the yards per game considerations. In 2016, the Orange allowed 501 yards per game. By the end of 2017, it gave up 444 yards on average. In the season’s first nine games, that was as low as 365 yards per game.

Ward had the defense ready last year. It just fell apart as the season got away from the team as a whole without Dungey.

The rotation of divisional crossover opponents alone should boost Syracuse’s win tally by one, trading a trip to Miami for a visit from North Carolina. If looking at that as a likely win, the Orange have three to be thankful for, also considering visits from Wagner and Connecticut. Even a season-opening trip in seven days to Western Michigan is not too daunting.

The rest of the schedule is not as favorable, hence a win total over/under mark of 5.5.

This does not fit into any of the usual categories. When Dungey was hurt last year, in stepped Rex Culpepper, finishing the season with 518 passing yards and two touchdowns and three interceptions.

In March, Culpepper was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He partook in spring practices despite undergoing 10 weeks of chemotherapy. He has since been declared cancer-free.

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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.