Friday at 4: A never-ending Notre Dame mailbag to end the quiet idle week

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If you boldly and publicly promise to answer every mailbag question received, you do so, even if they come via direct message from a Twitter account you muted, even if it is Navy week and just thinking about the triple-option this much dulls the senses, even if it was a week spent in recovery and not in writing.

Notre Dame fans are relentless, after all, or maybe this was all a long setup for a later reveal …

Anyway, a few somewhat repetitive inquiries about the No. 3 Irish, answered:

With Pitt showing that press coverage throws off our passing game, what do we do to stop other teams from doing the same? — @sgodeaux

Is it just me or does it seem like Chip Long calls an abundance of stretch runs or bubble screens to the short side of the field? Common sense would say those plays should almost always be called to the weakside. — Jason V.

What is your favorite play the Irish have called on offense and why? What does that tell you about the team thus far? — Daniel M.

These all fold into each other, so let’s address them together. The answers to the third are ready issues for a pressing defense, like mentioned in the first, and they actually include the screens referenced in the second.

To those screens first off, the point of such a screen or even a stretch run is to get the ball to the perimeter as quickly as possible, where there is a better chance of finding a seam for a vertical gain. Why a better chance? There are fewer defenders along the sidelines than in the middle of the field.

Sending those plays toward the boundary side of the field simply means the ball is on the perimeter that tenth of a second quicker. If executed well, no one coming from the middle of the field should be able to crash that vertical seam, even if the ball is thrown to the near sideline. If throwing to the field side, the far sideline, then the defenders there have that tenth of a second more to ready for the quick action.

The goal is to eliminate as much of that time as possible, so the short side of the field actually makes common sense.

Those are not “my favorite play” thus far, but they fall into a similar category. Whether aligned with three receivers and one tight end or two and two, a standard set of route trees include a finite number of variations. Finding ways to grow those possibilities exponentially is when an offense can put a defense into an unavoidable bind.

With that in mind, Long dialing up two wheel routes to junior running back Tony Jones against Vanderbilt led to 56 yards on just two plays. This is a piece of the offense Jones offers that few running backs do. He was natural in catching those passes and smooth in running the routes. The chunk plays left the Commodores somewhat short-handed. They could either focus on Notre Dame’s receivers or devote a safety to Jones, but not both.

Factoring in the tight ends leads to similar results. A few times this year, two tight ends have lined up on one side of the line and run parallel routes to different levels. If a safety is not devoted to helping on one of those tight ends from the outset, then a linebacker has to choose to cover either the short route or the deeper route. Book simply throws to the other. If a safety is committed to helping on that deeper route, then that just means there is one less defender to help over the top on senior receiver Miles Boykin or junior counterpart Chase Claypool. (This can cut against the Irish. It was this type of alignment criticized this morning for a fourth-and-short failure against Pittsburgh. An over-reliance on anything renders it ineffective.)

This is where football is often referred to as chess, and anything thinking a few moves ahead is what an acknowledged Process Truther always prefers.

Why does ND refuse to throw the ball in the middle of the field? I can count on one hand the passes that have been thrown in the middle? Doesn’t matter zone or man, they seem like there is no plan even with the big receivers they have. Everything is an out pattern or a wide receiver screen out of a bunch formation or a go route down the sideline. Finally threw a couple late in the Pitt game scoring a touchdown to win the game. — Paul L.

Well, hyperbole aside … The sidelines are where large receivers are at their best. They can use they size to outduel one defender, rather than run the route toward the safety. It really is that simple.

Those out routes and back shoulder throws have been nothing but efficient since the quarterback change. They are a large reason Book leads the country in completion percentage.

And that late touchdown against Pittsburgh that came down the middle? That was not down the middle. It was, in fact, a go route down the sideline that Boykin naturally broke in a few yards on his first move as the coverage allowed, yet he never crossed the hash marks. And it remains a picture-perfect throw from Book …

Love your work on this site. Can always count on you to give an unbiased opinion, no matter what transpires on Saturdays. My question is about Alizé Mack. Am I the only one who notices that he never breaks tackles? Outside of the beginning of the Pittsburgh game, he normally is a catch-and-go down guy. For someone his size and ability, that is certainly unexpected. — Thomas W.

First off, thanks for the kind words, Thomas. While this was submitted last week, it was nice to reread them after this long week. As for Mack, I am one to give the benefit of the doubt. That is, at least in part, because that has not stood out to me all that much. Have any of Notre Dame’s receivers broken a plethora of tackles this year? Their primary concern is catching the ball and then turning up field, and Mack has improved in those regards this year. My oh my has he improved in those regards.

Coming into the year, his career totals were 32 catches for 356 yards and a score. He should match them this season alone, already with 25 receptions for 240 yards and a touchdown.

Some of this issue seems to be expectations, something Mack has struggled with on his own, as well.

In the midst of a career season, does Alizé Mack really deserve criticism for not doing more? (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)

“I think maybe Alizé came in here with the sense of, ‘I’m one and done,’” Kelly said Thursday. “Certainly Notre Dame is not that. You can’t function here unless you really get your feet on the ground and commit to what Notre Dame is all about. … It was a process of him figuring out why he was here and what he needed to do to make it work and that’s why he’s starting to have the success he is.”

On a different note, it has been telling this season to hear Kelly discuss Mack, senior running back Dexter Williams and senior linebacker Te’von Coney. All have had disciplinary issues in the past, and oftentimes a nuanced ear can hear the struggles remaining in those regards when Kelly either tiptoes around a question or outright mentions “traits.” With those three this season, he has referenced their missteps, and in doing so he makes it clear they have moved past them.

As another example, regarding Coney:

“He’s had to make some good choices after making some not-so-good choices. A lot of the credit goes to him in making good choices along the way here in the last few years …”

There have been particular players in the past about whom Kelly would have avoided mentioning those “not-so-good choices” and in doing so seem to indicate those might still be concerns. These three seniors, given time and multiple chances, appear to have born out the good faith.

What do you think of Clark Lea this far into the season? Do you think his success is more a holdover of what Mike Elko did last year to set the foundation or do you think he has contributed significantly? Further, a large part of the success of a good defensive coordinator is his ability to recruit well. Any reports on how Lea is doing on the recruiting front? — Daniel M.

What is your favorite play the Irish have called on defense? — Daniel M.

Daniel M. brought questions. To the recruiting wondering, 10 defensive prospects have committed in this class, and that includes 4 four-star defensive linemen and 3 four-star defensive backs. Let’s not worry about recruiting.

Lea has been excellent, and some gratitude is certainly due to Elko, who is doing impressive things at Texas A&M to this point, but if anyone is not getting enough credit, it is defensive line coach Mike Elston. That front is making Lea look brilliant. My favorite play call? Every single stunt the defensive line has run, giving its athleticism and speed a moment’s head start against a hesitating offensive lineman. Junior end Khalid Kareem’s game-clinching sack against Pittsburgh was hardly a great rush from him. The offensive line was just that confounded by a stunt with junior end Daelin Hayes. Daniel, you could have chased quarterback Kenny Pickett in that moment.

Those calls trace to Lea, but they are possible because of Elston’s work.

Moral dilemma. Goin’ to the BC-Miami game tonight. Don’t know who to root against more.” — Pat K.

Conceivably, Virginia Tech can still win the ACC Coastal, despite last night’s mistake against Georgia Tech. In that regard, a Miami loss could behoove Notre Dame. As discussed with Northwestern this morning, it is hard to dismiss any Power Five divisional champion, even if it comes from the chaotic Coastal where it remains possible every team finishes 4-4 in ACC play.

The Irish schedule still has hopes for Stanford and Michigan in this regard, as well, while USC’s divisional chances no longer need much be discussed.

Also, tonight is Boston College’s Red Bandanna game. You can’t cheer against the Eagles at the Red Bandanna game.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MWKPjSirbcU

What alternate topics did you consider for today’s “Friday at 4”? — Douglas F.

“Why to never host a bachelor party during football season, even if it is during Notre Dame’s off week.”
“I need new friends.”
“I’m baaaaaaaaaaaaaaack.”

Now then, what time is it? That’s right, it’s well past 4 if you made it this far. Hope that is a glass in your hand. Enjoy the evening, folks.

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Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Notre Dame v South Carolina
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Notre Dame’s next offensive coordinator will not matter; whomever Irish head coach Marcus Freeman hires to replace Tommy Rees, he will lean on his running backs.

Notre Dame’s running backs room looks the same as it did a year ago, but oh so different. The order has been drastically reshuffled, though through no one’s failure, only youngsters’ successes.

Any new offensive coordinator will know he has three proven backs to lean on with an intriguing youngster joining a promising one slowly recovering from injury. Oh, and the No. 8 running back in the class of 2023.

They will once again be coached by Deland McCullough. Some further coaching turnover could occur yet this offseason, but McCullough looks secure at Notre Dame.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
This space’s running depth chart — running as in ever-evolving, not as in running backs — still has Chris Tyree atop the running backs listing. In-season, the “ever-evolving” depth chart is not updated as much given the week’s prior game lingers in memory and informs more than anything else.

But even in the season opener, Tyree was not the Irish starter. Audric Estimé got that honor at Ohio State. His preseason was strong enough to vault Estimé to the top of the depth chart, a spot he should not relinquish until he heads to the NFL.

Fellow rising junior Logan Diggs also ended up with more carries than Tyree, creating the type of running-back depth needed to be a viable contender in modern college football.

Some Notre Dame fans insist Tyree is a failure. A former four-star running back who has never taken over a season, they argue. But that overlooks a few realities:

First of all, Tyree backed up an All-American for two years. Complementing Kyren Williams’ all-around game with a speed element was vital for the Irish to make the Playoff in 2020 and threaten it in 2021.

Secondly, if the floor of every four-star recruit is to become a four-year contributor with 13-and-counting touchdowns, recruiting would be far easier. Many “can’t miss prospects” fall quite short of that.

Lastly, Tyree’s kickoff return touchdown against Wisconsin in 2021 is now overlooked because of Graham Mertz’s subsequent fourth-quarter meltdown, but if Tyree had not given Notre Dame that lead — flipping a 13-10 deficit to a 17-13 lead — then Mertz never would have needed to get so desperate. There is a very real chance the Irish do not come within a yard of the 2021 Playoff if Tyree does not break that 96-yard kickoff return touchdown.

All of which is to say, Estimé and Diggs leapfrogged Tyree because of their strengths and improvements, not because of any of Tyree’s supposed struggles.

2022 STATS
Estimé: 13 games; 156 carries for 920 yards, a 5.9 yards per rush average, with 11 touchdowns. 9 catches for 135 yards and another score.
Diggs: 12 games; 165 carries for 921 yards, a 5.0 yards per rush average, with four touchdowns. 10 catches for 211 yards and two more scores.
Tyree: 13 games; 100 carries for 444 yards, a 4.4 yards per rush average, with three touchdowns. 24 catches for 138 yards and two more scores.

Of particular note looking at those three running backs, they combined for only 50 yards lost on their 421 carries last season. In the throttling upset of No. 5 Clemson to start November, just two of Notre Dame’s 45 rushes were stopped behind the line of scrimmage.

More notably, the three Irish backs carried the ball 32 times in the Gator Bowl win against No. 19 South Carolina for 205 yards. None of those rushes lost yardage.

After Diggs found full health (an April shoulder injury slowed him into the season) and Notre Dame fully committed to the running backs after quarterback Tyler Buchner was lost for 10 games, the trio averaged 230.5 yards from scrimmage each week.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Make no mistake, the Irish running backs were as disappointed as anyone when Rees left for Alabama last week. They knew, without a doubt, his offense would feature them. After all, Rees has said he wishes he had grown up as an offensive guard rather than a quarterback if he could choose body type.

They also understood Rees’s decision.

Nonetheless, the trio knows it will be a key piece of Notre Dame’s offense in 2023 for two reasons. One, they are that proven. Two, with Sam Hartman at quarterback, the Irish offense should be more prolific for a change. More snaps and more scoring opportunities will benefit all the skill position players.

The proven “three-headed monster,” as Freeman described them in the 2022 season, should not need to show too much this spring. Estimé needs to hold onto the ball, Diggs needs to find a bit more comfort running between the tackles, and Tyree may spend even more time split wide as a slot receiver, something that was not needed significantly last season because that was often where Michael Mayer aligned.

But those improvements will be on the edges. The three are already known. They will be the most reliable collective piece of Notre Dame’s offense.

The change this spring will be from freshman Gi’Bran Payne. He was the rare delayed signee, de-commiting from Indiana after McCullough left the Hoosiers for South Bend and then eventually following McCullough, committing in mid-April.

Without a spring to impress and behind three stout running backs, Payne never had a viable chance to contribute in 2022. That could change this spring, particularly since classmate Jadarian Price will still be recovering from an Achilles injury, something that usually takes a full year. Price may end up a midseason option, but until then, Payne is Notre Dame’s No. 4 running back, and an injury to any of the leading trio would push No. 4 into a Saturday role.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame adds former four-star Indiana signee, RB Gi’Bran Payne, to incoming freshman class
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 13 Gi’Bran Payne, freshman running back, late recruit

FUTURE DEPTH
He may not factor in this season — again, the Irish have three proven and reliable, and largely durable, running backs — but consensus four-star Jeremiyah Love will almost assuredly draw some notice in the preseason.

At every step of his decade at Notre Dame, Tommy Rees provided stability otherwise lacking

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Rutgers v Notre Dame
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He was a three-star quarterback coming from a Chicago suburb with scholarship offers from only two other Power-Five programs. The head coach who recruited him had been fired.

And then Notre Dame needed the freshman quarterback to start against a top-15 team and try to redeem a sub-.500 season. Tommy Rees threw three touchdown passes to upset No. 15 Utah. He completed 13-of-20 passes to avoid any distinct mistakes, an immediate 180-degree turn from how the previous week ended with Rees filling in as an injury replacement. The Irish did not want to lean on him too much, hence only 129 passing yards, but he delivered.

“Everything in our game plan was you’ve got to run the football, we’ve got to be high-percentage in our throws and not put Tommy in too many positions where we could turn the ball over,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said in November 2010. “I wasn’t going to put this game on Tommy Rees.”

Kelly would, in time, put many games on Tommy Rees. At the outset, though, he continued to rely on the Irish ground game to rattle off a four-game win streak and turn a 4-5 debut season into an 8-5 finish with resounding momentum. Notre Dame ran the ball 144 times in those four games compared to 106 pass dropbacks (sacks adjusted).

RELATED READING: 30 Years of Notre Dame on NBC: Tommy Rees’ first career start, an upset exaggerated

Most memorably, the game-winning drive at USC featured five rushes and only two passes, taking a lead with just two minutes left to snag the first Irish win at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum since 2000.

Kelly turned back to Danye Crist to start the 2011 season and quickly flipped to Rees after only a half. In 2012, Kelly called on Rees in the most critical of moments to steady freshman quarterback Everett Golson. Then when Golson was suspended for the 2013 season, Rees was again thrown into the chaos and dragged Notre Dame to a respectable season rather than one lost in all sorts of ways.

At every step of his playing career, Rees provided the Irish stability when it was otherwise absent. He would do that again these past six years as an assistant coach.

First, he showed up expecting to be the 10th assistant coach only for the NCAA to delay that implementation, forcing Rees to become a graduate assistant, both adding coursework to his workload and removing his ability to coach the Irish quarterbacks in practices.

Then he threaded the delicate needle of a midseason quarterback change in 2018 even though Notre Dame had not lost a game. Keeping both Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book engaged with the team and moving forward propelled the Irish to the College Football Playoff, a direct counter to the quarterback debacle that torpedoed the 2016 season. Doing that while under an abrasive offensive coordinator who has continued to burn his way out of subsequent coaching jobs makes the player relations that much more impressive.

When Chip Long was fired following the 2019 season, Rees took over the offense for a resounding — and decently unexpected — throttling of Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl.

Obviously, 2020 brought instability to everyone in every industry, including college football. Rees’s offense averaged 6.2 yards per play, the No. 4 most explosive offense of Kelly’s 11 years at Notre Dame.

In 2021, Rees worked with three quarterbacks to keep the Irish in Playoff contention. Again, his ability to prop up the psyche of the most important position in college football was the key to Notre Dame’s success, particularly as the head coach was apparently actively planning his exit from South Bend. Of course, Kelly’s abrupt departure gave Rees the biggest platform in his Irish career to buttress the program, to provide stability, to secure its future.

When Rees turned down Kelly’s LSU overtures — “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees told his offense — he eased Freeman’s first-year learning curve by magnitudes. The former defensive coordinator knew what offense would be run in 2022 and that he did not need to worry about it much. For the second consecutive Irish head coach’s maiden voyage, Rees led a late-season surge, potentially setting the tone for his first few seasons.

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

In literally every one of his 10 years at Notre Dame, Rees navigated choppy waters.

He turned Ian Book into an NFL quarterback who could win a Super Bowl ring this weekend. He won eight games with Drew Pyne as his starter. Those may not be the accolades of a “quarterback whisperer,” but finding success with talent as questioned as he once was proved Rees’s bona fides enough that the greatest coach in college football history came calling.

Rees owed Notre Dame nothing.

That is not, “Rees no longer owed Notre Dame anything.” It is that he never did.

He played four strong seasons as a quarterback in undesirable situations at every turn. Whatever debt a player owes his school, Rees paid then.

There is no further loyalty or obligation owed to an alma mater. The expectation of one says more about those conjuring those expectations than anyone else.

Coaching for Nick Saban is a clear step forward in a young coach’s career, no matter what transfer quarterback has arrived in South Bend this winter.

For that matter, by recruiting Sam Hartman, Rees provided Notre Dame some stability for an 11th year, rather notable for someone who spent only a decade at the university.

RELATED READING: Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

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.