Things We Learned: Not yet ‘great,’ Notre Dame’s ground game and safety play emerge

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There was no more insisting Notre Dame simply needs to put everything together, even if an argument could be made that is yet the case. Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has shown his peak abilities in the past, if not this season. Notre Dame’s defense is coalescing into a dominant unit. For once, the Irish special teams contributed in a positive manner during Saturday’s 22-17 victory against Vanderbilt.

But head coach Brian Kelly did not try to put those distant and separate occurrences alongside each other. Instead, he acknowledged a plain reality.

“There’s things we’ve got to work on,” Kelly said. “It’s the third game of the season. If you’re a finished product after game three, you’re destined for greatness. We’re not there yet.”

Notre Dame is not there yet. While it has yet to trail this season, it has also yet to cruise, and at some point the latter will beget a change in the former. For now, though, the idea of greatness can remain a possible destination on the horizon. As long as the Irish land on the winning side of each week’s binary result, there is a road to that figurative resort. It just is not a path one can see clearly at the moment, given Notre Dame’s overall struggles with focus and consistency.

An easy response would be to wonder if the first step to getting to that northern California vista is recognizing where the Irish are currently. Some metaphor exists about in order to get to a destination, directions can be offered only when knowing the present location. Let’s skip that reach and instead turn to what Kelly apparently expected at the start of preseason practice in August, as it compares to now.

“I thought we’d have some growing pains on offense in terms of young running backs,” Kelly said. “I think the pieces are there, but it was going to take some time, especially knowing what the schedule looked like early.

“We were going to have to really play physical and play hard and play every play.”

Notre Dame did indeed need to play every play against the Commodores, although the final snap’s couple of laterals never presented a realistic threat.

Combined, Brandon Wimbush (left) and Tony Jones rushed for 202 yards and a touchdown in Notre Dame’s 22-17 victory against Vanderbilt on Saturday. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

The Irish could claim a lead largely because of the run, and that came in no small part courtesy of senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. While it was junior running back Tony Jones who began the ground attack with 27 yards on two carries, it was more noteworthy when Wimbush took the fourth snap of the afternoon for nine yards. That came approximately one whole half sooner than his first designed run did during last week’s slog against Ball State.

“I had to use my feet more than I did last week,” Wimbush said after taking 19 carries for 84 yards. “It’s one of my weapons and it’s deemed effective when we’re playing teams. Running lanes were there for me, and I had to take advantage of that.”

Those lanes were there for Wimbush and Jones and, to a lesser extent, sophomore Jafar Armstrong because Notre Dame’s offensive line showed up. The Irish averaged 5.1 yards per carry. Wimbush was not sacked. Notre Dame’s first two drives covered 74 yards in 10 plays and 94 in 15 while converting 4-of-5 third downs and controlling the ball for 9:19 of the first quarter.

At that point, the Irish control of the trenches was set, and Vanderbilt’s persistence never outright changed that. The improved offensive line led to a resurgent rushing attack, finishing with 245 yards, a high for the season by triple digits.

“[The running game] opens up a lot more,” Wimbush said. “Obviously, it’s a cliché answer, but the run game opens up play-action, opens up regular passes.

“They’ll stock the box, and I think things on the perimeter become more viable for us to attack, and we’ll keep improving and getting better at the run game.”

If those growing pains yield more days like Saturday from the Irish rushing game, then Wimbush’s life becomes easier as a passer, too. For now, that remains somewhat conceptual, even after he finished with a 56.5 percent completion rate against Vanderbilt. But a theoretical possibility is still a possibility, and one more likely with the groundwork of a ground game.

Notre Dame’s defense needs no growing pains. And it forces opposing offenses into unwelcome ones.
Vanderbilt frequently trailed by large margins in 2017, yet only twice did quarterback Kyle Shurmur attempt more passes than he did in Saturday’s tight contest with 43. As the Irish defensive front held the Commodores to a lousy 3.96 yards per carry, Shurmur and Vanderbilt took to the air as the only available means to move the ball.

That worked, except for when it very much didn’t. Two turnovers in the passing game counteracted the benefits of Shurmur’s 60.5 percent completion rate and 7.58 yards per attempt, both quite representative of his marks over the previous season plus two games (59.0 percent; 7.58 yards per attempt). However, those 43 attempts are an anomaly. Shurmur averaged 30.64 attempts per game across those 14 games.

Vanderbilt was not trailing by such a margin it needed to rely on the throw to catch up. Rather, the ‘Dores needed to rely on the throw to function at all.

Further context: Ball State’s Riley Neal has averaged 27 attempts per game with a 64.8 percent completion rate and 6.93 yards per attempt in two other games this season. Against Notre Dame, Neal threw 50 times with a completion rate of 46 percent and an average of 3.6 yards per attempt.

Neither Vanderbilt nor the Cardinals were behind by enough to justify heaving as early and often as they did. If they wanted to run to come back, they could have given it an honest effort, but they knew the Irish front-seven was not going to allow as much. That becomes a tricky proposition for the Neals and Shurmurs of the world because …

Notre Dame junior safety Jalen Elliott’s tight coverage of Vanderbilt receiver Kalija Lipscomb proved to the be the difference Saturday. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Notre Dame has genuine safety play, maybe even outright good.
The preseason hype went to junior Alohi Gilman, who has delivered with a nose for the ball and 22 tackles to date. The headlines go to junior Jalen Elliott, now with two interceptions, a game-sealing pass defense and 18 tackles. Freshman Houston Griffith joined the fray Saturday, making four tackles while contributing mostly in a nickel back role.

“It’s definitely a group effort,” Gilman said. “[Safeties coach Terry] Joseph prepares us well. He trains us hard. He pushes our limits during the week of practice and it’s a combined effort.”

A year ago, no one was praising Elliott. If that sounds harsh, it is also true. He finished with 13 starts and only 43 tackles and two pass breakups. Extrapolate his current production across just 12 games and it equals 72 tackles with two for loss, eight interceptions and four pass breakups. That is more than improvement. That is worthy of national notice.

Don’t consider that hyperbolic. Elliott has made the defensive difference in consecutive weeks, making the choice to rely on the pass a curious one by both Vanderbilt and Ball State.

“We’ve got a lot more experience back there on the back end,” Gilman said. “Second of all, just confidence. We come out to practice and we know how hard we work and we put confidence in each other. Jalen puts confidence in me, I put confidence in Jalen. When you do that, you play with an edge.

“… He’s been locked into his craft, what he can do better. From man and zone concepts to communication to everything.”

The duo have improved the single-greatest Irish weakness to the extent it is now a pertinent strength. Without lacking safety play, Notre Dame’s defense has no obvious holes (aside from linebacker depth). The team as a whole may still struggle with focus, consistency and 60 minutes of dedicated effort, not to mention experience and comprehensive scheming, but the pieces are there.

Whether or not they all show up at the same time later in the schedule is a different discussion altogether.

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Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024


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.