And In That Corner … The No. 2 Clemson Tigers in the Cotton Bowl

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Shake off the Christmas snooze. The holiday is in the past. Notre Dame faces Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal in just two days. Grace Raynor of The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., has been in Dallas for nearly that long already, and it certainly felt much longer as lightning gave North Texas a new understanding of a “white Christmas”, albeit technically a day tardy. As Grace readies to watch the Cotton Bowl in JerryWorld on Saturday (4 ET; ESPN), she took some time to ponder Irish wonderings …

DF: For you this is all old hat. For the Notre Dame side of the Cotton Bowl, calling this a new experience would not suffice. Somehow the Playoff makes the entire experience feel bigger than the BCS title game in 2012 did. Maybe that is an indication the Irish might have a chance, but that feels like an ambitious generalization. I suppose we’re about to get to that. But first … How long have you been covering Clemson?

GR: I started getting my feet wet on the Clemson beat in October 2016 and people always crack up when I tell them that the fourth Clemson football game I covered was the 2016 national championship game the Tigers won with Deshaun Watson and Hunter Renfrow. Since then, I have been on the beat full time since January 2017.

Let’s stick with the long-term view here for a moment, the macro. This is Clemson’s fourth Playoff appearance in a row. If not for that little operation known as Alabama, the Tigers would be the talk of the sporting world, the budding dynasty, etc. What has allowed this long-term success? Obviously the answer starts with head coach Dabo Swinney.

You’re correct in that it all starts with Dabo. This is a coach who has a very specific vision of what he wants his program to look like and he’s incredibly intentional when it comes to making sure that vision is carried out. When he first got the job as the interim coach in 2008, he started putting the pieces together with the people he trusted and the types of players he thought would fit the culture of the program he wanted to create. Swinney has been very up front over the years in his belief that Clemson is not a place every high school recruit in America would be drawn to or thrive in consistently. He has a unique vision and his players have picked up on that. He also has mastered how to balance work with fun, which might be the best tool he offers when it comes to convincing 18-year-old kids to come play for him. Every high school prospect in America has heard of the slide in the indoor facility or has seen the zany videos of Swinney with his team.

In 11 seasons at Clemson, Dabo Swinney has gone 114-30, including double-digit wins in each of the last eight years and Playoff appearances in the last four. (Getty Images)

From a great distance, Dabo seems an intriguing character, certainly an interesting coach to cover. Is that accurate or just the allure from across the country?

That’s definitely accurate. With Dabo, you never quite know what he’s going to say, but you always know it’s going to be something worth your while. In addition to being very thoughtful and passionate, Dabo is also funny and entertaining. He’s not afraid at all to let loose and that makes covering him interesting. What you see on television is what he’s like behind closed doors, too.

His coordinators — co-offensive coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott and defensive coordinator Brent Venables — have all been in those positions for four years, with Venables tracing back to 2012. Obviously there is intention to that; Clemson pays a premium for such continuity. Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator Chip Long has been around for two seasons and defensive coordinator Clark Lea is in his first, but both have been excellent. Might they be best tandem Elliott, Scott and Venables have faced this year? Realizing coaching is a much harder thing to quantify than most other aspects of a game, can the Irish match up to Swinney’s top-notch staff?

I know Clemson’s entire staff has nothing but the utmost respect for Notre Dame’s and certainly the Irish are not in the College Football Playoff by coincidence. At this point in the game, the four teams in the Playoff are all elite talents with elite staffs. Jeff Scott was just talking Wednesday about how he has followed Clark Lea’s career. It is Scott’s responsibility each week to study the big plays relinquished by opposing defenses and he said that what he has noticed with Notre Dame is there really aren’t a lot of big plays the Irish relinquish. Venables, Scott and Elliott have been in place for a while, yes. But there’s no shortage of explosiveness or talent on the Notre Dame side, too.

This is a hypothetical. There is no way to ever know the answer. But it is an interesting conversation piece, nonetheless … Would Clemson have finished the season 13-0 if it did not change quarterbacks after four games? It is almost certain Notre Dame would not have gotten this far without its respective switch three games into September.

That’s the million-dollar question. The Tigers, however, were able to go 12-1 and earn a No. 1 College Football Playoff seed under Kelly Bryant just a season ago. It’s easy to forget that.

Less than a year removed from his high school days, Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence completed 65.0 percent of his passes this season and threw only four interceptions, compared to 24 touchdowns.

Can you elaborate on Trevor Lawrence? He is a true freshman. Notre Dame fans want to believe he might fray under the pressure inherent to the Playoff, to JerryWorld, to facing a very good defense. Does he present as a guy that could happen to? Is his physical skill set just too much for it to matter?

Trevor is one of the most even-keeled athletes I’ve been around. Nothing seems to rattle him and no moment is ever too big for him. In fact, I asked him earlier in the season if anything in his life made him nervous and he admitted he does have some nerves once pregame rolls around on a weekly basis, but by the time kickoff arrives, he just locks in. He has a poise about him that is incredibly unique for a true freshman. That’s what separates him from others and that’s what makes him dominant; no stage is too big.

My notes are headlined, “Both 3rd receivers.” Let’s start with Lawrence’s counterpart, which is probably Hunter Renfrow, specifically, but the real point is the Tigers have four contributing receivers in Tee Higgins, Amari Rodgers, Renfrow and Justyn Ross. How often do they line up together? Will Lea need four cornerbacks to keep up with them? That would be a tough ask. Might a safety suffice, or will that expose the back end? As you can tell, this is the part of Clemson’s offense I am most intrigued by; Notre Dame will not stop running back Travis Etienne (pictured at top) outright, but I do think it can slow him.

Clemson doesn’t do a ton of four-wide sets and prefers to have three wide receivers in with a tight end. But certainly all four of them are dangerous in their own ways. Higgins and Ross are the physical, athletic 6-4 stars that can go up and grab those 50/50 balls. Renfrow is obviously a machine on third down. Rodgers tends to fly under the radar but is a solid contributor. How Notre Dame chooses to defend these receivers could certainly help determine the outcome of this game. I’ll be interested to see what Lea does.

On the flip side, Chris Finke has emerged as a reliable option with Ian Book at quarterback. Does Venables have enough coverage defensive backs available to handle that three receiver look without overly-exposing anyone? I have heard whispers about some suspect safety play.

Clemson’s secondary has been the thinnest part of its defense all year and Venables even admitted as much when he talked about depth over the summer. Clemson’s corners are long, physical and athletic, but the safeties have had their problems. The safeties noticeably struggled when Clemson played South Carolina and Jake Bentley threw for 500-plus yards. Footwork has been poor at times and the Tigers safeties have not had their eyes in the right places at others. Venables has the personnel he believes in, it’s just a matter of consistently executing.

I’ll finish with two catch-alls: Clemson is 13-0 and in the midst of a run unparalleled aside from in Tuscaloosa. Are there weaknesses to speak of?

The secondary is the weakness people talk about the most, though it’s perhaps unfair the Tigers corners get lumped in with some safety struggles. Clemson has also noticeably struggled in the punting game.

And, have I missed anything else? Between the early signing period, this new experience of a Playoff and dreading the holiday week, I very well might have let something slip by me entirely. I realize I did not touch on Clemson’s vaunted defensive live. I know the praise of it is not hyperbolic. Quick routes to Finke strike me as the best chance to mitigate it a bit.

Clemson’s defensive line is the real deal, though obviously their impact could be complicated this week depending on what happens with Dexter Lawrence’s drug test.

Oh, and a prediction? Let’s, for now, presume the spread closes at Clemson by 13.5. (Note: Since this exchange, the line has fallen to Tigers by 12.5.)

Clemson 35, Notre Dame 24

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Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

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

Clemson v Notre Dame
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A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.

The lull of National Signing Day underscores need to move the early signing period

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The early-morning chaos of today’s National Signing Day did not disappear with the implementation of the December “early” signing period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. It just moved six weeks earlier.

In 2014, waking up at 6:45 a.m. ET to be logged on and publishing at 7 a.m. led to noticing one expected recruit had not yet signed with Notre Dame by 8 a.m. Pointing that out and reminding the world Michigan State was making a late push led to an Irish media relations staffer reaching out to quietly say something to the extent of, “Just letting the young man have his moment at school.”

In 2017, less than two weeks after taking over this gig, waking up at 3 a.m. CT to churn through 2,000 words before signings could begin becoming official eventually led to napping through Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference.

Nothing changed 10 months later. That December, the afternoon of Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, was spent waiting for receiver Braden Lenzy to officially choose Notre Dame over Oregon. Sitting at your parents’ kitchen table not helping your niece make a gingerbread house because recruiting-obsessed fans harassed a player through two de-commitments is not a strong way to conjure up holiday spirit.

Coaches across the country advocated for the earlier signing period, claiming it would allow high-school seniors to make their collegiate decisions official earlier on in their senior years, particularly when the prospects had already made up their minds on where to play football at the next level. That was all optics, if even that.

These high schoolers now make their decision official just six weeks earlier. In the preps football calendar, those six weeks are meaningless. Both the December signing period and today, the traditional National Signing Day, come well after the high-school seasons have ended.

The truth was, coaches across the country did not want to tend to their solid commitments over Christmas and New Year’s, particularly not amid bowl prep. It was self-serving at best and short-sighted at worst.

First of all, when the December signing period became reality in 2017, one-time transfers were not yet allowed without losing eligibility the following season. Secondly, no one predicted the early signing period would lead to the coaching carousel beginning earlier and earlier in the season. September firings used to be the result of only off-field scandals, not outright expected from half a dozen programs each fall. Athletic directors now want that headstart on hiring a new coach so he can have time before the December signing period commences.

Exhibit A: Notre Dame may have ended up with Marcus Freeman as its head coach after Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure following the 2021 season, but if the primary signing date had not been lingering just a few weeks away, Kelly likely would not have jumped to LSU before the College Football Playoff field was set, and Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick would have taken more time in choosing his next head coach, more than the 48 hours he used last December. After all, Swarbrick took 10 days in hiring Kelly in 2009.

Lastly, with a 12-team Playoff coming in 2025, December will become only more hectic.

Those head coaches who wanted a little less stress over the holidays will then have to deal with, in chronological order:

— Keeping their own jobs.
— Securing their recruiting classes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
— Preparing their teams for bowl games.
— Preparing their teams for up to four games if in the Playoff.
— Re-recruiting any players considering entering the transfer portal before the winter window closes.
— Winning a bowl game.
— Retaining their coaching staffs.
— Oh, and celebrate the holidays with their families, as was their want when they hollered for the early signing period.

Most of those tasks are immutable and inherent to the sport.

But one can move. It already has once.

The logic is too clear. Nothing was gained in moving up the primary signing date by six weeks. And sanity was lost.

This is, of course, a sport that prefers to ignore logic, but usually that is charming. A mustard bottle on the field is quirky; lacking a worthwhile voice of authority is stubbornly stupid.

So the early signing period may not move as soon as it should (now), but it will move. There are no anti-trust worries tied to it, fortunately.

And aside from the logic, cramming more content into December costs the media, too. Spreading out that context through the vacuum of mid-January to mid-March will be much appreciated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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