And In That Corner … The No. 24 Virginia Tech Hokies and Lane Stadium


A backup quarterback transferred in from the Charlie Weis-created debacle known as Kansas, playing in an atmosphere supporting him, a crowd at the least much more formidable than No. 6 Notre Dame is used to.

A defense burned for 632 yards by Old Dominion, but led by a Hall of Fame defensive coordinator.

No. 24 Virginia Tech (3-1) is something of an enigma thus far this season. To help explain the Hokies, we turn to Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

DF: I appreciate you taking some time to educate Notre Dame fans, Mike. Otherwise the only thought in many heads may be, “Virginia Tech lost to Old Dominion. This should be easy.” We will certainly get to that. I know you told me you have been at the Richmond Times-Dispatch since 2012. Have you been on the Hokies beat for that whole stretch?

MB: Yep, started in Feb. 2012, so this is my sixth football season covering the Hokies. In 2016, I started also cover U.Va.

Before diving in to that massive upset of two weeks ago, let’s take care of the proverbial housekeeping. Virginia Tech has lost so many expected defensive contributors over the last few months, keeping track of them from afar is somewhat difficult. Looking through my notes, I have senior cornerback Adonis Alexander, senior nickel back Mook Reynolds and junior college transfer cornerback Jeremy Webb as all gone, and all were possible starters. Then the day after that Old Dominion loss, head coach Justin Fuente dismissed defensive end Trevon Hill, despite Hill’s leading the Hokies in sacks. Am I missing anybody? Have I mischaracterized the importance of any of these losses? Was this all a coincidence? Of these names, I think only Webb’s was injury-related.

That’s a good list. Tech lost three senior starters last year – linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka and cornerbacks Greg Stroman and Brandon Facyson – then had defensive tackle Tim Settle, linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and safety Terrell Edmunds leave early for the NFL draft. Alexander wasn’t going to be academically eligible, so he went to the NFL supplemental draft. Reynolds had a drug arrest and was dismissed. Webb, a junior college transfer and the expected replacement for Alexander at corner, injured his Achilles working out his first day on campus. Then the day after the Old Dominion loss, Tech booted Hill.

So, at kickoff Saturday night, the Hokies will be without 10 players who either started last season or were expected to start this year. (Editor’s context: Notre Dame is without six players who fit those parameters, but five were part-time starters at best, if not less this season. No position was left completely bare with the closest spot being the situational nickel back without senior Shaun Crawford.)

Hokies head coach Justin Fuente is 22-9 in two-plus seasons at Virginia Tech. (Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images)

Without Hill, how viable is Virginia Tech’s remaining defensive line? Senior tackle Ricky Walker earned third-team All-ACC honors last year, while junior defensive end Houshon Gaines managed 2.5 sacks at Duke last week (splitting that third one with Walker). The Irish offensive line is going to be adjusting this week without fifth-year left guard Alex Bars. Can the Hokies take advantage of that?

The defensive line is the strength of the defense this year, even without Hill. A week ago, in an effort to protect the young secondary that got exploited by Old Dominion, coordinator Bud Foster rushed three and dropped eight players in coverage. Still, Tech was able to get a ton of pressure on Duke quarterback Daniel Jones, led by Walker and Gaines.

Foster dubs Walker the “bell cow” of the defense and Gaines is an up-and-coming star. Gaines will be playing with a heavy heart. His mother passed away Monday. Emmanuel Belmar is playing in Hill’s spot, with a trio of redshirt freshmen also rotating in there.

For Tech to be successful against the Irish, the defensive line will have to play well.

RELATED READING: Virginia Tech anticipating Houshun Gaines to play against Ntore Dame following death of his mother

Sticking with Virginia Tech’s defense, and looking back at that loss to Old Dominion — the Hokies gave up 632 yards. The offense did its part, scoring 35 points, but Foster’s defense just got gashed. What happened?

In short, everything we predicted might happen in the season opener against Florida State reared its head in Norfolk against the Monarchs two weeks ago. Virginia Tech’s rookie corners got beat one-on-one, losing battles for the ball when passes were in the air. The two rookie inside linebackers got out of their gaps and missed tackles. Whip linebacker Khalil Ladler, playing back at safety in place of Divine Deablo (who is back this week), was not comfortable in that position and struggled.

Maybe most of all, when Foster attempted to make in-game adjustments to combat Old Dominion’s game plan of testing the young corners, his inexperienced defensive personnel struggled to take that coaching on the fly and put it into action. Again, many of us thought this would happen in Tallahassee in the opener, but the Seminoles’ offensive game plan that night never really stressed the defense enough to force in-game adjustments.

By the end of the season,  I expect this to be a fairly decent defensive team. It certainly looked dominant against Florida State and very good against Duke. The problem, being so young, is consistency.

Flipping to offense, how is the Hokies offensive line? Notre Dame’s defensive line has come on strong this season, now with 10.5 sacks among 20.5 tackles for loss. It often feels like those numbers do not do proper service to the consistent pressure provided by the front, headlined by senior tackle Jerry Tillery and junior end Khalid Kareem. Will Virginia Tech be able to slow them down?

The offensive line is much improved this season over recent years. It brought back three starters and honestly, the lineup itself has been a week-to-week, sometimes series-to-series, rotation of change. But Tech has the pieces to play well up front. Left tackle is maybe the most interesting spot. Redshirt freshman Silas Dzansi missed last week but is expected back against Notre Dame. True freshman Christian Darrisaw started last week and likely will again, even with Dzansi’s return.

Sixth-year senior Kyle Chung can play – has played – all five positions on the line, so his versatility allows line coach Vance Vice some freedom moving his pieces around.

The results, at least so far, have been mixed. Tech is averaging a respectable but not amazing 4.6 yards per rush. Its allowed eight sacks in four games. This is the best defensive line the Hokies have faced this season and I expect them to have some trouble controlling Notre Dame’s front.

Ryan Willis started in two seasons at Kansas before transferring to Virginia Tech. He struggled with turnovers while with the Jayhawks, throwing 17 interceptions against only 12 touchdowns. In his first Hokies start and his emergency action the week before, Willis has thrown four touchdowns and no interceptions. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

What could be gleaned from junior quarterback Ryan Willis in his start against Duke in place of injured sophomore Josh Jackson? Looking at things like completion percentage and yards per attempt, it takes a logical leap to say Willis is a significant improvement over Jackson in the passing game, but his 332 yards top all but one of Jackson’s 15 single-game efforts, and Willis did it against a strong Devils defense.

Willis, a transfer from Kansas, had big game against Duke, moving the offense with his passing. He threw for 332 yards and three touchdowns and had five different receivers catch passes for more than 24 yards. All that earned him ACC quarterback of the week honors.

Duke didn’t get much pressure on Willis. I expect that to change this week.

Willis might have a stronger arm for deep balls than Jackson. Overall, I’d say there’s not much change for Tech since Jackson broke his leg. Jackson was a steady, productive player behind center, but not a superstar. I expect the same from Willis.

He’s a very good passer and a more-than-capable runner in the sense of getting yards when the yards are there. If he keeps the ball on an RPO play and there’s 12 yards there to gain, he’ll gain them. He won’t turn that into a 65-yard touchdown. Neither would Jackson.

Before getting to some version of a vague prediction, let’s close with the most important question: Is the “Enter Sandman” entrance as enjoyable as it is hyped to be? I have high hopes. Start preparing me now to be let down if need be.

I remember the first time I experienced it, I was still in college at Rutgers, covering a game at Lane Stadium. I was blown away. Over the years, the novelty has worn off some for me – but not when it’s a night game. I expect Saturday night to be one of the times when all the ESPN gushing about what a great venue Lane Stadium is holds up. And yeah, I think you’ll like “Enter Sandman.”

Notre Dame is currently favored by 5.5 points. What do you expect from Saturday night? Have I missed anything notable that may factor in, aside from Frank Beamer’s bronze statue?

Virginia Tech is way better than it looked in the Old Dominion loss and it showed that against Duke last time out. The offense is going to have a fine season, even without Jackson, and the defense is rounding into form, even after losing Hill. I expect the Hokies to end up competing for the ACC Coastal Division title with Miami. (The Hurricanes visit Blacksburg on Nov. 17.)

That said, I don’t expect them to be able to compete with Notre Dame on Saturday night. I expect a decent game in the first half, as the team’s feel each other out. But I expect the Irish to exploit mistakes by Tech’s defense in the second half as young players again struggle with in-game adjustments.

I have Notre Dame winning this game by a touchdown.

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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.