Things To Learn: Can Notre Dame maintain focus, consistency through hype, success and road atmosphere?

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The public perception of Notre Dame could not be much better than it is right now. At 3-0, the Irish were viewed as barely getting by thanks to a defense just good enough to enjoy mediocre wins. A quarterback change and two blowouts later, No. 6 Notre Dame is now discussed as one of the most-likely Playoff entrants and a complete team.

Some of that talk ties to the Irish schedule. Not only is it a much easier slate the rest of the way than was expected in the preseason, but it is also a topic begging to be debated this week, just as Notre Dame (5-0) visits No. 24 Virginia Tech (3-1), arguably its toughest remaining game. Thus, the talk has been more than flattering; it has been much and it has been loud.

“They know if they prepare the right way and eliminate distractions, they are a good football team,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “I am okay with that. We’ve worked hard on that.”

When dealing with 18- to 23-year-olds, it is natural for some of that hype to go their heads. Eliminating distractions is easier said than done. To some degree, though, Kelly does not want Notre Dame to tune it all out. The outside view can reinforce what the locker room is already thinking, enforce focus on the task at hand. If to the right extent — a fine line to toe, to be sure — then that swagger can benefit the Irish.

“I’d rather have a confident football team as long as it is not a cocky and overconfident football team,” Kelly said. “… As long as it is not too far out there, I’d rather have a confident team.”

Maintaining the “consistency in performance” seen against No. 7 Stanford will make that confidence warranted, confidence already showing itself in a quote with language not fit for the dinner table.

For all the applause following the 38-17 victory against the Cardinal, stringing together back-to-back such performances serves as a truer litmus test for the Notre Dame season. Of course, it also includes two ranked opponents typically known for their own consistency. Gauging validity and the appearances of quality opponents tend to go hand-in-hand.

That is where some degree of measured reaction comes in — an unpopular tactic in these hot-take times. A common handicapping mantra is, “No team is as good as its most recent win, and no one is as bad as their most recent loss.” Frankly, the Irish were not as bad as two of their first wins, either.

Applying this to the Hokies supports the argument of this being a genuine ranked opponent, a tough game, Notre Dame’s greatest remaining challenge. (Statistical analyses give a nod to the season finale at USC, but the Trojans could well be knocked out of Pac-12 contention after their next two games and just playing out the string … or firmly in the Pac-12 title game by the time the Irish arrive in Los Angeles and already looking ahead to a rematch with North division winner Stanford.)

Virginia Tech is not as bad as it showed in the 49-35 loss at Old Dominion two weeks ago. Imagine a world where that had not happened, where Hurricane Florence had not given the Hokies an extra week to look past the regional rival, where the young Virginia Tech defense had not lost all semblance of focus … then what would the outlook on this weekend be?

As of the hours before Friday’s sunrise, Notre Dame is favored by 6.5 points. In that hypothetical, might that line be 3.5? Will that Old Dominion-caused change in perception lead to less focus or concern from the Irish?

“If we can’t prepare the right way this week because we’re distracted because everybody’s telling us how great we are, then we’ll be in big trouble,” Kelly said Tuesday. “This team has shown an ability to prepare the right way, a maturity to stay away from the distractions.”

It cannot be argued junior quarterback Ian Book has played very well in his three career starts. It also cannot be argued neither of his two road starts were in front of adverse crowds. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

The unavoidable distraction is that of the road environment. The Hokies are not the giant-slayers of Iowa or Auburn when at home, but some things still cannot be denied regarding Lane Stadium:

— It will be much louder than Notre Dame Stadium ever/usually is.
— It will not be a welcoming place for the Irish, a first this year if being sincere.
— It will be junior quarterback Ian Book’s first road start in front of a real crowd. Larry Fedora’s incompetence reduced last year’s North Carolina showing and Wake Forest’s general considerations of football diminished that atmosphere two weeks ago.
— Oh, and has it been mentioned Lane Stadium features an exciting entrance from Virginia Tech that will make it worthwhile to tune into ABC at 8 ET on Saturday even if kickoff will not come for another 21 minutes? It has? Great. Just making sure.

The last time Notre Dame entered a stadium glad to jeer it, Miami temporarily changed the answer to “Is The U back?” The memories of that night are stark and have informed Irish practices for at least seven months, plausibly 11.

“[We] haven’t talked about the Miami situation since we left Miami,” Kelly said. “It’s been much more about environmentally handling the situations that will come before us. We certainly use that situation to create the situations that will come before us.”

To create those situations, Notre Dame turned the speakers at its practice fields up to 115 decibels this week. “Enter Sandman” most certainly played. The offensive line has prepared to work without verbal communications, a greater worry without fifth-year left guard Alex Bars.

“I was public [after Miami] in saying that I don’t think even I handled it the right way in giving them enough information about the situation,” Kelly said. “I can’t be caught off-guard, and maybe I was the one that was caught off-guard because I didn’t prepare them the right way.

“We won’t be caught off-guard going into Lane Stadium.”

Hyped and praised entering a true road game against a team quite-possibly overlooked because of a fluke upset — if the Irish can disregard all those factors and come out of the weekend with bowl eligibility, then few big-picture questions will remain, if any.

Notre Dame senior running back Dexter Williams very much made his presence felt in his season debut last week against Stanford, more than doubling his career-high of eight carries with 21. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

A more micro view … blitz pickup may be a concern.
Senior running back Dexter Williams has never been good at it. Though Kelly expects junior running back Tony Jones (sprained ankle) to be fully available, that could always change quickly, once again putting the entire onus on Williams.

How he fares in pass protection may be the only hindrance left to Williams’ overall usage after his 161-yard explosion last week.

“I was counting on if we could get eight, 10 (carries) max, we’d be in great shape,” Kelly said of his expectations for Williams last week, when he had 21 rushes. “To his credit, he really worked hard to be in the best possible condition to go in there and impact.

“I don’t think there’s any restrictions in terms of what he could do for us moving forward now.:”

Similarly, how senior Trevor Ruhland fares at left guard will illustrate how Notre Dame’s offensive line will manage without Bars for the second half of the season. Kelly said sophomore Aaron Banks will play Saturday as well.

“He’s a big and athletic kid that has gained confidence in his ability, to put it bluntly,” Kelly said Thursday. “What we like about him most is that he’s adapted well to go from tackle to guard this week. Kind of excited to watch him play.”

As it pertains to Ruhland (on right of top picture), these seven games afford the Irish coaching staff a chance to gauge his fifth-year possibilities. Including four commitments in the recruiting class of 2019 and defensive tackle-turned-offensive guard sophomore Darnell Ewell, Notre Dame will have 16 rostered offensive linemen in 2019 if it offers one more year to Ruhland. The sheer numbers make it something to think twice about before doing, unless he removes any doubt from the equation in the coming weeks.

ON DRUE TRANQUILL
The fifth-year linebacker will have to deal with the expected frustrations of a casted broken hand.

“It doesn’t limit his grasp,” Kelly said. “We don’t see any issues. Now, he won’t be able to go out there and grab them with one hand. There are some limitations there, but none to the point where it would not be in our best interest to have him on the field.”

SOME SCORING NUMBERS FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON
The math is scribbled on a nearby legal pad. No harm in placing it here for anyone curious.

The Irish averaged 34.2 points last season, the most of the Kelly era. Despite opening with 24-, 24- and 22-point showings this year, they currently average 32.8 points per game.

Notre Dame gave up 21.5 points per game in 2017. It currently ranks tied for No. 26 in the country by allowing only 18.8 points per game this season. If removing any games involving FCS teams, the Irish jump to tied for No. 16 in the nation with LSU (four qualifying FBS games) and Ohio State (five).

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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.