Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s ‘persistence’

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — In retrospect, it was not the safest tactic taken by Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. Coming off an oh-so-close loss at No. 3 Georgia, he essentially told the No. 10 Irish that game did not matter. After they had nearly pulled off an upset that would have launched them into the upper echelon of the sport, after nearly surviving all that was Sanford Stadium a week ago, after coming a play away from a win to remember, Kelly diminished that entire weekend.

That may be an oversimplification of his approach this week, but only to a degree.

“It was not an easy week,” Kelly said after Notre Dame beat No. 18 Virginia. “Challenged our football team, right after the Georgia game — this would be a defining game. That’s hard to do after playing a very emotional game against Georgia to come out as the head coach and tell your team this week will be a defining game.

“In some instances, that’s not very fair, but we challenged them. They accepted the challenge.”

For a half Saturday, accepting that challenge took the form of doing just enough to hang with the Cavaliers, perhaps not a blue-blood program but inarguably a strong foe this season and one on the rise in the long-term. In previous years, that recipe would equal not only an ending with poor Saturday evening taste for the Irish but also an ending to any big-picture dreams in 2019.

Those years are not that far in the rearview mirror. Kelly remembers them and acknowledged as much.

“Maybe teams earlier that I’ve had here would not have found a way to win that game,” he said. “But this is a group that has really developed a persistence about them in the way they do things on a day-to-day basis.”

Kelly used persistent exactly a week ago, as well, shortly after that 23-17 defeat between the hedges. It is not a word he has used often in his 10 years at Notre Dame, immediate memory lacking any recall of it. To repeat it in back-to-back weeks is surely no coincidence.

“We’re a physical team, we’re a fast team, we’re a team that is persistent that will play for four quarters,” he said in Athens.

“They were exactly what I wanted them to be,” he said this weekend. “They were determined, they were persistent, they didn’t panic.”

While not a flattering compliment, those words may help identify the Irish floor, one set by a ferocious and deep defensive line, one set by a quarterback who does not turn a mediocre showing into a costly one, a floor once again threatened by injuries.

It will always help to have a defensive line like Notre Dame enjoys this season. While a coach might call a bad game, a quarterback might make a few bad decisions or a crowd might shake a roster, a talented defensive front will always pin its ears back and pressure the opposition.

Even if that had not yet resulted in sacks for the Irish — going without any the last two weeks — it undoubtedly impacted opposing game plans. Julian Okwara and Co. broke through against Virginia to the tune of eight sacks and 11 tackles for loss with five more quarterback hurries.

“In the second half we were able to get to [Cavaliers senior quarterback Bryce Perkins] quickly and he had to get the ball out of his hand quickly and that was really the difference in the game for us,” Kelly said. “They could not run the ball between the tackles when they wanted to run the football with a five-and-a-half man box. If they could, that would have required us to do other things.”

Look at that defensive front’s impact in the simplest of ways: Virginia ran 72 plays. On more than a fifth of them, a Notre Dame defensive lineman made a play behind the line of scrimmage. Producing at that rate against a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback like Perkins makes it all the more impressive.

“I don’t think anything really changed (from previous weeks),” said senior end Khalid Kareem, who had 2.5 sacks. “We just kept coming, didn’t back down. We understand the d-line, we’re the tip of the spear and everything starts with us so we just kept coming and sacks came.”

It is again an oversimplification to suggest sacks were inevitable, but something to that effect should be offered out of deference to the depth of the line. Seven different linemen made plays behind the line. If healthy (more on that at the end), senior end Daelin Hayes would have likely made it eight.

That is the type of defensive line presence previously unseen in Irish uniforms, the type hyped in the preseason, the type that makes persistence a more natural trait to the team as a whole.

A week after one of the better performances of his career, Irish senior quarterback Ian Book did not exactly impress against No. 18 Virginia during No. 10 Notre Dame’s 35-20 victory Saturday. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Similarly, senior quarterback Ian Book’s version of a poor showing made a 35-20 victory possible.

There is no way to paint Book’s 17-of-25 for 165 yards as a strong performance. Charitably, he completed 68 percent of his passes and avoided a turnover while adding 12 rushing yards. He also averaged 6.6 yards per attempt, went 2-of-9 when asked to convert a third down and never put pressure on the Cavaliers defense. (The two third-down conversions? The first two.)

“I’m not standing up here and telling you we have found ourselves offensively,” Kelly said. “We have not.”

Yet, Book did not do too much. His every play was needed a week ago. Attempting 47 passes for 275 yards at Georgia was the only chance the Irish had against the title contender. He did not need to be so aggressive against Virginia, and he thus kept things in check.

Is that an endorsement? No, but it is also not an indictment. Book’s lack of mistake kept the Irish afloat long enough for that persistence to take hold and do the rest.

Now that persistence can look forward, specifically to the return of junior running back Jafar Armstrong. Kelly has pointed to the Oct. 12 matchup with USC as Armstrong’s likely return.

In the interim, Notre Dame relied upon senior Tony Jones while activating sophomores Jahmir Smith and, more so, C’Bo Flemister. The latter finished with 27 yards and a touchdown on six carries. That may not seem like much, but six of 28 carries from running backs is a notable workload.

“He is a dog,” Jones said of Flemister. “He grinds. He is always in the film room. He’s always out there late after practice doing something. It showed today.”

Flemister may best serve as relief to Armstrong, just as Smith shines as a pile-driver at the goal line and Jones fits as a workhorse in all aspects. Each is currently putting in time one rung further up the ladder than those designations. A strong rushing performance — 190 yards on 33 carries (sacks adjusted) for a 5.76 yards per attempt average — in such circumstances, especially against a stout rush defense, helped the Irish persist past Book’s middling Saturday.

In Kelly’s past, one factor lagging may have doomed the whole. Beating a feisty top-20 opponent with one hand tied behind the back is a step toward greater consistency, a standard where three consecutive 10-win seasons is not considered a surprise. That possibility looks to be an utter likelihood at this point for Notre Dame, a mark earlier Kelly teams reached only twice in his first seven seasons.

A defensive front, a quarterback with an understanding of his role and unexpected performances show the differences between these Irish and those of the past.

Despite working with an injured ankle, Irish senior receiver Chase Claypool caught six passes for 30 yards in No. 10 Notre Dame’s 35-20 victory against No. 18 Virginia on Saturday. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

ON INJURIES
Kelly did not have much in the way of updates on Notre Dame’s injury concerns immediately after Saturday’s victory. Hayes injured his shoulder, fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford suffered an elbow injury and senior receiver Chase Claypool tweaked his ankle.

“Claypool rolled up his ankle, so he was fighting through that, did the best he could,” Kelly said. “Crawford, elbow. We’ll get an MRI on that, see where he is. Daelin Hayes is a shoulder and we’ll get that looked at here tomorrow.

None of those are good situations — Claypool’s absence may be magnified by senior receiver Javon McKinley’s two drops Saturday — but the Irish worked through those worries for one weekend, a nod toward depth they have long hoped for and rarely enjoyed.

Kelly should have further updates on Crawford and Hayes mid-Sunday afternoon.

 

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

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

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From December of 2021:

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

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

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

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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.