And In That Corner … A Thor-ough look at Notre Dame’s defensive draft hopefuls


Notre Dame has a number of draft prospects expecting to hear their names this weekend, so many it makes sense to break the discussion into defense and offense. While this space always has some thoughts about these players individually, draft analysis requires a different angle, one trying to project how these players will fit in at the next level rather than looking back on their college careers.

For that, and for a better understanding of the broader draft picture, let’s turn to Rotoworld’s lead college football writer and NFL draft analyst, Thor Nystrom. And let’s begin with former Irish defenders, as a couple hold genuine first-round hopes.

DF: Thor, if there is anything you like more than college football, it is the puzzle of the NFL draft. As you and I have discussed throughout the last few months, my insights into someone’s past and proven abilities, like Jerry Tillery’s as an example, provide only so much value this time of year. Thanks for helping fill in those gaps.

Let’s start with Tillery, as I believe the defensive tackle almost certainly will be the first Notre Dame player called this weekend, right? It took him a long time to grow into someone the Irish could rely upon, but by the end he was a defensive force that played a key role in propelling them to the Playoff.

About where do you see him going and why? What sets Tillery apart?

TN: Tillery will be the first of these names off the board, absolutely, followed by Julian Love (with the dark horse being Miles Boykin).

Where Tillery is going to go is up in the air. I have not seen him going in the first round in many mock drafts, but I have a gut feeling he will wind up in the first on Thursday.

Perhaps I am saying that because I love Tillery. I rank him as the No. 11 overall prospect in the class. But I also think he is the kind of the guy front offices are hush-hush about when talking with the media. He was very under the radar coming into this year because he played out of position in a role he was miscast for and had a petulant reputation that preceded him, the 2016 USC incident being the most public.

Then this fall Brian Kelly finally unshackled the kid and moved him to the position Tillery was put on this earth to play, three-technique, and he went thermonuclear.

The counting stats —  eight sacks and 10.5 TFL — don’t tell the story. This is a Notre Dame crowd, so I’m probably preaching to the choir, but I have three crazy Tillery stats from Pro Football Focus and a crazy Tillery contextual M. Night Shyamalan-twist to offer.

PFF Fact No. 1: Tillery tied Alabama’s Quinnen Williams (whom I consider the best player in this draft class) for the highest pass-rushing grade of interior defenders in college football last season.

PFF Fact No. 2:  Tillery created 48 total pressures (No. 3 among all interior defenders), with an additional 32 pass-rushing wins that didn’t result in a pressure. In other words, he whipped his man 32 times from the interior on passing downs and didn’t get credited with a pressure. He led college football in wins that didn’t result in a pressure — that’s just rotten luck. (DF Note: And probably a testament to some of the defensive ends Notre Dame returns in 2019.) Nonetheless, Tillery still finished in the top-three of interior in pressures.

PFF Fact No. 3: Tillery won nearly twenty percent of his pass-rushing snaps last year.

Shyamalan Twist: Tillery played the final eight games with a torn right labrum that was injured in late September. It’s not just that he played through it without a complaint — nobody even knew he had a torn labrum until he was home on vacation before the Playoff and his mother, a nurse, sent him in to get it looked at.

Thor’s complete DT rankings

And then Tillery went out and played Clemson, and then he went out and did full athletic testing. He didn’t duck the bowl or the combine with a phantom injury, like many of his contemporaries. He was willing to play compromised. And in 2018, he DOMINATED while not at 100 percent.

Tillery is a freak athlete with a perfect frame.  Interior penetration in the NFL is gold — like his old helmet — and that is Tillery’s calling card. I think he’s just getting started.

DF: Next up should be Julian Love. He has never tested all that well — how excited can an NFL front office get about him improving to a 4.45-second 40-yard dash at Notre Dame’s Pro Day after struggling to a 4.54 at the NFL combine? I am not sure any of his numbers set him apart, which is why many mock drafts have dropped him a round or two this spring.

Not all mock drafts, though. You, Josh Norris and Chris Simms did a mock draft last week in which Josh took Love at No. 29, to the Kansas City Chiefs. You did not speak against the pick (I am pretty sure you were too busy failing to find someone to pick at No. 30), while Chris went so far as to compare Love to his former teammate and five-time Pro Bowler Ronde Barber. That kind of thought process is more in line with what Irish fans expect after watching Love for three seasons.

Which end of the spectrum do you lean toward?

TN: That mock draft was a trip! NFL teams have 10 minutes to pick. We did it on the spot, and I had to contend throughout with the distraction of Simms’ banter, a challenge no NFL front office will face this weekend.

And yeah, I’m with him on Love.

He’s bigger than former Washington cornerback Byron Murphy, more athletic than Byron Murphy — and he had a career almost as good as Byron Murphy. (Murphy had PFF grades of 86.6 in 2017 and 92.0 in 2018; Love had grades of 81.8 in 2017 and 90.4 in 2018.)

Love is a natural cover corner. He’s agile, technically-elite and super smart. Oh, and he’s got loosey-goosey hips that help him swivel like a chair and flow with the receiver. He shares Murphy’s deep speed concerns, but that is the biggest knock.

Thor’s complete CB rankings

I don’t think Love is quite at Murphy’s level as a player, but he’s not far off. There are a lot of similarities in coverage (Murphy is better against the run). Love has the brains, the body and athleticism. I’m bullish. (DF Note: Thor compares Love to Murphy because the two are competing to be the second cornerback drafted behind former LSU cornerback Greedy Williams.)

DF: I am not sure who to go with next. How about Notre Dame’s leading tackler each of the last two seasons, Te’von Coney? Another player who does not test as well by the clock or the weight as many others, no matter how solidly he plays. Since Clark Lea began coaching the Irish linebackers in 2017, Coney progressed by leaps and bounds. He went from recognizing a play about as quickly as I do to instinctively filling a hole before the hole even opened. That is how you rack up 239 tackles the last two seasons, including 33 between two bowl games against LSU and Clemson.

How much can Coney’s production make up for his lack of elite athleticism?

TN: I fear Coney Island is going to suffer in translation to the next level. He measured  in at only 6-foot and 234 pounds at the NFL Combine, and then he tested in the fifth-percentile of SPARQ, a database correlating a player’s athleticism tests to historic marks at his position.

His RAS score — a metric out of 10 rating your size-adjusted athletic test scores which weights the tests by importance — was 2.56. Ten would be the most athletic linebacker to ever test while zero equates to an inanimate trash can set up behind the nose tackle. Scoring a 2.56 further confirms Coney enters the NFL out-gunned athletically.

The kid is a warrior, though. Loved him in college. A reliable, tone-setting All-American. Very smart player, great instincts. I just think he’s going to be a negative in coverage at the next level.

He’s always going to be on the wrong end of size/athleticism encounters, and want-to and heart only go so far when you’re on a playing field with 21 NFL-caliber athletes. In the modern NFL, you have to cover well. That’s why unathletic linebackers are going the way of the immobile seven-foot center in the NBA.

I rank Coney as LB14. I know I’m lower on him than others, but I do think he’s a high-floor prospect who can help against the run. I just don’t think he’ll ever be more than a replaceable starter in the NFL because of the coverage concerns. Good depth piece, if nothing else. I grade him in the late-round 5/early-round 6 neighborhood.

DF: And that brings us to Drue Tranquill. Talk about a college career. From maligned safety to injured safety to rover and finally to inside linebacker, one could argue it took five years for Tranquill to land at his best position. Before getting into his current draft stock, I have to ask — Do you think he would have been drafted last year?

TN: Last year, yeah, I do, I think he made a big enough leap in 2017 to justify a flier. But he really struggled in 2016, and your point about his journey to this point is well taken.

DF: And what about nowadays? There are Irish fans who laugh at the thought of Tranquill being drafted at all. If it was in the realm of possibility a year ago, his work at Buck in 2018 should make it a certainty in my mind. He’ll never be a top-flight NFL player, maybe not even more than a situational player, but in those situations he could provide the hybrid second-tier skill set the NFL is skewing toward as it becomes more and more like college football. That, combined with his physicality, is what allowed him to excel under Lea these last two seasons.

How does the NFL view a Drue Tranquill, a 23-year-old with absolutely no character issues, but two torn ACLs in his past? An athlete who struggled in coverage while at safety but excelled in it at linebacker?

TN: To me, Tranquill is the opposite case of Coney.

Hear me out, Irish fans — Coney was the better college player, better player by far.

My appreciation for Tranquill stems from loving linebackers who can cover. And that’s what he is: A 6-foot-2 former safety with an 88th percentile SPARQ score and a 9.87 (!) RAS. Tranquill is an ace in coverage, and I think he’s only going to get better as he learns his new position.

Thor’s complete LB rankings

As we talked about in the Coney section, coverage ability is so valuable in the modern NFL. If you want to break what’s important in a linebacker evaluation into a simple pie chart with pass defense and run defense, pass defense value swallows the run game piece.

In a nutshell, that’s why I am high on Tranquill and low on Coney. The red flag with Tranquill is his medical history. My love is contingent on my doctors giving the thumbs up. Assuming they do, I think he’s a top-100 prospect based on the value of his best skill and the ceiling it gives him. I rank him LB7, the No. 87 player in the class.

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.