Notre Dame gets what it expected with Clemson matchup

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If anybody was not worried about making the College Football Playoff, it was Notre Dame itself. Julian Love and many of his teammates spent Saturday night at WeishFest, a charitable music festival organized by fifth-year tight end Nic Weishar’s family in a Chicago suburb. If they kept an eye on a football game, it was Northwestern against Ohio State, not Clemson beating Pittsburgh.

“I thought we deserved to be in,” Love said Sunday. “You’ve just got to be confident in that.”

Irish head coach Brian Kelly spent part of his Saturday moving snow-covered patio furniture, not fretting over the optics of the SEC championship game and their effects on the Playoff discussion. In doing so, he apparently spent a few moments crafting a tongue-in-cheek response if Notre Dame was somehow left out of the Playoff; he would follow Central Florida’s lead from a year ago and lay claim to a national championship, nonetheless.

“I had already talked to somebody about a statue, a Brian Kelly statue,” he said. “We would be the national champs, so a statue, and I would get on the ‘Play Like A Champion’ sign, 12-0, and that would be fine with me.

“I had already convinced myself that if we didn’t get in, that would be fine, too.”

Clearly, it was a joke, one to show how confident the No. 3 Irish were about landing in the field of four, now set to face No. 2 Clemson in the Cotton Bowl on Dec. 29 (4 ET; ESPN). Given the quality of the Tigers’ defensive front, its matchup against Notre Dame’s offensive line will warrant more concern over the next month than any Playoff berth did.

The Irish line is among the country’s best — hence its nomination as a finalist for the Joe Moore Award again — but it has also been inconsistent for much of the year. That will happen when two top-10 draft picks depart the left side of the line and a heralded coach also heads to the NFL. A first-year starter at left tackle battling a high ankle sprain will not help the cause, and that has apparently been the case for junior Liam Eichenberg of late.

Getting that ankle healthy will be just a piece of potential betterment brought by a month of practices.

“You have four guys that are getting better each and every week, so there’s improvement there,” Kelly said. “[Fifth-year center Sam Mustipher] is the veteran of the group, and so I see it each and every week as improvement as a group.

“We expect to see that through these next few weeks, as well, that they will continue to grow together. … I see that continues to evolve as an offensive line unit that continues to get better.”

It will need to. While Notre Dame gave up only 19 sacks this year — and that includes one of senior receiver Chris Finke at USC because statistics are absurd — the Irish ground game never found the type of consistency that may be needed to beat Clemson. It averaged 200 rushing yards per game this season (sacks adjusted) but gained 132 yards or fewer three times in the last six games, only one of which was against a respectable rush defense (Northwestern). For context, Clemson has the No. 1 rushing defense in the country per advanced metrics, while the Wildcats rank No. 19.

“Big, fast, physical,” Mustipher said of the Tigers’ defensive line when asked what nuances make them so good. Those broad strokes may actually count as nuances in this instance. “They’re athletic, great ends, great interior linemen, great linebackers. [Defensive coordinator Brent] Venables has those guys with their ears pinned back at all times.”

Further health updates
Aside from Eichenberg’s ankle, Notre Dame will use the first week or so of time off to get junior quarterback Ian Book fully healthy, though he will not admit he may not be so already.

“Once I was cleared by the doctors, everything was good,” Book said. “… Obviously, another week of rest definitely helped. I’m feeling good. Got no problems right now.”

Fifth-year linebacker Drue Tranquill has done away with the cast protecting his broken hand, but he still has his own ankle issues to work through.

“It’s just day-to-day,” Tranquill said. “After playing on it for a few weeks, there’s going to be some soreness and tightness and we’re going to have to work on the mobility piece of it.”

Sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa could make an appearance against the Tigers for his first action since suffering a broken foot in the season opener. Kelly said Tagovailoa-Amosa has been cleared for full activity, though he has yet to take part in any football-related items.

Wimbush more probable now, though a role still difficult to find
There was little logic to trotting out senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush in a different role since switching to Book nine games ago. The risk :: reward ratio simply made poor sense. But the need for a healthy backup quarterback is much less at this point, so Kelly may be more prone to getting an additional playmaker into the mix.

“If we can get him in and not disrupt the rhythm of the offense, we’re going to play him and not worry about, we’ve got to keep our No. 2 safe,” Kelly said.

But that rhythm aspect can be difficult to navigate. Either Book has to yo-yo between the bench and the game or the Irish need to pull another playmaker off the field.

“We’d like to see Brandon be more involved in the game because we think he can impact it,” Kelly said. “It’s just trying to get him into the flow of the game without disrupting what you’re doing.”

A 2015 rematch in name only
A total of eight current players from the Notre Dame roster took the field at Clemson three years ago for a 24-22 defeat. (That does not include fifth-year offensive lineman Alex Bars, sidelined for the year by a torn ACL.) Those eight totaled six tackles, four by current senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, and 13 swings of the leg from either Tyler Newsome or Justin Yoon.

That’s it.

“I don’t think that there’s much motivation there,” Kelly said. “We’re familiar with a lot of the things that they do, and they are familiar with structurally some of the things that we do. We have two new coordinators. They don’t, so I think we are a little bit more familiar with what they are doing offensively and defensively.”

For that matter, the two programs watch film of each other frequently, having had four common opponents this season. The Tigers are assuredly already quite familiar with all Irish tendencies.

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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.