Leftovers & Links: When Notre Dame’s ‘Everest’ is greater than the sum of its parts

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Let’s presume Mount Everest was offered simply as a phrase. It is far catchier than Denali (formerly Mount McKinley) and certainly more so than Mount Mitchell (in North Carolina, the highest point east of the Mississippi). Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly did not mean to literally compare the Irish schedule to scaling Mount Everest. That might be ever-so-slightly hyperbolic.

“I told our team, I’m proud of what you accomplished tonight,” Kelly said after now-No. 6 Notre Dame’s 38-17 victory against then-No. 7 Stanford. “But if we don’t embrace how hard this is going to be, we’re climbing Mount Everest with this schedule. So take one step at a time and get ready for a tough opponent in Virginia Tech.”

Granting the premise that Everest was not meant genuinely, Kelly’s broad point holds merit. The whole of the remaining Irish opponents is far greater than the sum of its parts. None of the seven are directional schools (at least, by the practical definition, considering … Northwestern) or lacking in talent. For all its restrictions, Navy inarguably finds a way to field a competitive team each year under head coach Ken Niumatalolo. The “any given Saturday” way of thinking applies to all seven in ways it did not inherently to Ball State.

Before getting to points in the clouds, Kelly pinpointed a few of those specific opponents, working chronologically.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Kelly said. “We’re going to go to Blacksburg, Va., and play in a tough environment. And then we have to play Pittsburgh, who is tough to play. Oh, then we’ve got to play Navy, by the way. Northwestern, who just beat Duke.”

Talking up each Notre Dame opponent is an inane exercise when done accurately, and this comes from a space that every Tuesday publishes a piece titled … Notre Dame’s Opponents. Kelly should stay away from trying to hype each of the remaining seven. The material will be in short supply, and he may make a bigger mistake than thinking Pat Fitzgerald coached the Wildcats past Duke. (The Blue Devils won 21-7 on Sept. 8.) Imagine:

“Pittsburgh gave up 38 points to Larry Fedora’s last North Carolina team …”
“Northwestern, if they lose to No. 20 Michigan State this week will be in the midst of a four-game losing streak, sure, but the Wildcats can then snap it against Nebraska!”
“Florida State, they just scored 28 points against Louisville. That is tough to do against a … Brian VanGorder-led defense.”

At least USC beat Arizona.

This is not the Irish schedule anticipated before the season when the quintet of Stanford, Michigan, USC, Florida State and Virginia Tech were all ranked between Nos. 13 and 20 in the AP polling. This is a schedule that many would have considered pitifully easy before the year, front-loaded with two top-15 opponents, not back-loaded with travel.

Yet, it is still back-loaded with travel, and the catalyst of those complaints now looks like a tough opponent no matter where the game would be played. Syracuse very well may be 9-1 when playing Notre Dame at Yankee Stadium on Nov. 17. The Orange would need to survive a two-week stretch featuring a home game against N.C. State and a trip to Wake Forest, two high-powered offenses, but neither should be able to outscore Syracuse.

That is to the point: Any schedule looking at the Orange as its remaining peak does not deserve looking at the individual parts. The two months ahead in aggregate, though, warrant climbing analogies, even ones using the most obvious of references.

ON ALEX BARS’ INJURY and 2017’s relative health
Not enough can be said about losing a fifth-year left guard and captain with experience at three offensive line positions. Bars was a preseason All-American in some listings and his play through five games was going to put him in the thick of that postseason conversation, too. He actively sought out his captainship, making it his driving motivation throughout the spring.

Such a loss somewhat underscores the good Irish fortune last season. Of Notre Dame’s 22 starters in any given week, only cornerback Nick Watkins suffered an injury that kept him out of more than one starting lineup, with Troy Pride taking that role four times. As much as that tied to Watkins’ tendinitis, it also spoke to Pride’s progress. Any other shifts in starter were scheme- or personnel-driven.

That kind of season is rare in football, exceptionally so. Losing someone in the preseason is a bit of a norm. Following that with a defensive tackle here, an inside linebacker there and an offensive lineman now is hardly out of the ordinary, as frustrating as it may be when it happens to someone of Bars’ standing in his final year of eligibility.

One more note: Some have speculated it was a dirty play that injured Bars. Check the replay. It was not. At all. Stanford linebacker Joey Alfieri was diving to make a tackle and he caught Bars’ leg at an odd angle. It was that simple.

Bars was engaged with Cardinal defensive tackle Michael Williams, and Williams had no way of knowing what had knocked Bars off balance, so while the visual of Williams bending Bars backward may be irksome, it was both unintentional and after the damage was already done.

Notre Dame senior receiver Miles Boykin set career highs with 11 catches and 144 yards against Stanford, including this 8-yard touchdown reception. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

ON MILES BOYKIN’S PRE-SNAP READS
File this away as a credit to receivers coach Del Alexander, as a sign of a senior receiver coming into his own and as something to perhaps watch for in the next seven games.

Boykin caught four passes for 64 yards on a pivotal touchdown drive Saturday. Junior quarterback Ian Book seemed to be coming back to Boykin over and over and over again. By the end of the day, the duo had connected 11 times for 144 yards and a score.

Apparently, Boykin was not surprised by any of those passes, or even the three other targets he did not pull in.

“I can tell when it is coming to me, when it is not coming to me just by looking off the coverage,” Boykin said. “I know before the ball is even snapped when the ball is coming to me. So most of the time I’m thinking, I know I’m going to get the ball.”

ON JULIAN LOVE’S PASS BREAKUP RECORD
The junior cornerback broke the Notre Dame career record for passes broken up, now with 33 in only 30 games. (Clarence Ellis, 1969-71, 32 breakups.) Love getting to the record so quickly is largely a result of the era of college football, but it seems safe to presume he would have snapped Ellis’ record at some point or another no matter what type of offenses the Irish faced, considering Love may have another 21 games to now build a cushion.

If looking nationally, Love is tied for second with 10 breakups this season, trailing only Stanford’s Paulson Adebo and his 12. Love is also tied for second among the active career leaders in passes defended (breakups + interceptions) with 37, two behind Iowa State’s Brian Peavy.

Given Love’s talent and aggressive coverage preferences, it seems pertinent to note the Notre Dame career mark for interceptions returned for touchdowns is three, held by a number of players including the likes of Shane Walton (1999-2002) and Allen Rossum (1994-97). Love notched two last year.

ON BRYCE LOVE’S ONE LONG RUSH
The Stanford senior running back broke loose just once, scoring the first Cardinal touchdown from 39 yards out. Aside from that, Love took carries for more than four yards just three times on 17 total attempts, never again reaching even 10 yards. For one of the country’s preeminent big-play threats, Love was kept in check by Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s scheme.

Then what happened on the one touchdown run?

“That was an error up front,” Kelly said. “We had a structural error there. It was the only one we had all night. It was kind of disappointing.”

Looking at the clip, it appears sophomore defensive tackle Kurt Hinish left his gap, opening a lane for Love.

INSIDE THE IRISH READING
A (flawed and underestimating) look at Notre Dame’s running backs and distribution without Jafar Armstrong
Notre Dame rushes through top-10 matchup with 38-17 victory over No. 7 Stanford
Things We Learned: Book, Williams make Notre Dame’s offense a real threat and its dreams closer to reality
Torn ACL, MCL knock Notre Dame LG and captain Alex Bars out for season

OUTSIDE READING
Notre Dame’s path to the College Football Playoff is clear. And easy.
September ends with Irish in contention
Notre Dame is officially your Chaos Candidate.
Notre Dame playoff hype is real.

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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.

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

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The traditional National Signing Day is this Wednesday, and for yet another year, Notre Dame has no intentions of inking any high-school recruits on the first Wednesday of February. The recruiting calendar has so changed that the Irish have not signed a recruit in February since 2021, when running back Logan Diggs pondered a late LSU push before doubling down on his Notre Dame commitment. Before that, not since 2019, when defensive end Isaiah Foskey publicly did so in order to be a part of his high school’s ceremonies.

Notre Dame turned its focus entirely onto the class of 2024 following December’s early signing period, when it inked a class of 24 players that ranks No. 9 in the country, per rivals.com.

Now with nearly 10 months to go before the next decision day to influence the narrative around Irish head coach Marcus Freeman’s recruiting focus, he already has pledges from seven players in the class of 2024. Class rankings this early in the cycle are rather meaningless, but for the sake of thoroughness, the Notre Dame class of 2024 is currently ranked No. 2 in the country, behind only Georgia with nine recruits pledged to date.

One player stands out among the early Irish seven. He stands out to such a degree this space broke from usual form when he committed in early June. To pull from that opening,

“This space has a general rule to not report on recruiting developments classes ahead of time. Worrying about the thoughts of high school seniors is enough of an oddity; focusing on juniors and underclassmen is outright absurd.

“But exceptions exist to prove rules, and Notre Dame landing the commitment of the No. 3 quarterback in the class of 2024 — prospects entering their junior years of high school — is such an exception.”

Consensus four-star quarterback CJ Carr is now only the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the class and the No. 14 recruit overall, but he is the kind of key piece to a recruiting class that the Irish lacked in 2023, despite Freeman’s continued excellence hauling in defensive prospects. Carr has been an active and vocal recruiter on his own for Notre Dame, not an unusual occurrence from an early commit but a habit the Irish have not garnered out of a quarterback in quite some time. Even Tyler Buchner, due to both the pandemic and his own soft-spoken nature, was not the loudest campaigner among his peers.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame beats out Michigan for Lloyd Carr’s grandson, QB CJ Carr

At 6-foot-3, Carr looks the part of a prototypical quarterback, and his arm strength fits in line with that thought. He has downfield touch that would open up Notre Dame’s playbook in a way entirely unseen in 2022.

The other six early commitments to the Irish in the class of 2024 …

Consensus four-star running back Aneyas Williams (Hannibal High School; Mo.), ranked as the No. 1 all-purpose running back and No. 106 recruit in the class, per rivals.com: There will be many comparisons to former Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams when Aneyas Williams arrives on campus, and though they are from the same state, there is no relation. The younger Williams can do a bit of everything while his 5-foot-10 frame carries plenty of punch. He lacks truly elite speed, as Kyren did, but obviously that did not kept the elder Williams from cracking 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.

Consensus four-star receiver Cam Williams (Glenbard South H.S.; Glen Ellyn, Ill.), ranked as the No. 11 receiver and No. 102 recruit in the class: The Chicagoland product visited Iowa a handful of times and took looks at Michigan and Wisconsin, seemingly intent on staying in the Midwest. Williams has all the fundamentals wanted of a receiver, 6-foot-2 size combined with a comfort catching the ball. Time will reveal what part of his game, if any, develops into his specialty.

Consensus four-star tight end Jack Larsen (Charlotte Catholic; N.C.), ranked as the No. 7 tight end and No. 187 recruit in the class: Whether Larsen will be the next piece of “Tight End U” or not is a premature thought, but at 6-foot-3 and an ability to snag passes downfield over defenders, Larsen already looks the part. Credit a basketball background for that aerial ability.

Four-star offensive guard Peter Jones (Malvern Prep; Penn.), ranked as the No. 4 offensive guard and No. 99 recruit in the class: Jones plays tackle in high school, nearly an absolute requirement for any offensive line prospect chased by Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, but his playing style suggests a future on the inside of the line.

Consensus four-star defensive tackle Owen Wafle (Hun School; Princeton, N.J.), ranked as the No. 10 defensive tackle in the class: Pronounced like playful, not waffle, Wafle should add weight to his 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame as he grows from a high-school junior into a college player. That may seem obvious, but the quality of that weight he adds in the next 20 months will be what most determines how quickly he can contribute in South Bend.

Consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati): Anyone committed right now has made a decision relatively early in the recruiting cycle, yet Hobbs was committed to South Carolina for three months before he flipped to Notre Dame in early November. Seeking out a committed three-star more than a year before he can officially sign may strike one as foolish, but Irish cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens has earned some leeway in his evaluations, given the early impacts of Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey in 2022.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Ohio State, Clemson & Pittsburgh hurt most by early NFL draft entrants among Notre Dame’s opponents
40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part I: Notre Dame’s rushing offense hid many early struggles
Part II: Notre Dame’s upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach
Part III: Notre Dame’s November far from the expected disappointment
Part IV: Notre Dame’s 2022 ended where it was always expected to

OUTSIDE READING
How QB Sam Hartman found trouble with turnovers in 2022
College QB Austin Reed got transfer portal offers comparable to late-round NFL draft picks
I requested my Notre Dame admissions file
Boston College, offensive coordinator John McNulty parting ways after 2022 struggles
Hamlin’s injury highlights precarious position of many young N.F.L. players
On the Broncos’ head-coaching finalists
Bally Sports RSNs headed for bankruptcy
Auditor: LSU overpaid Brian Kelly by more than $1M in 2022