Mailbag: On Notre Dame’s QBs and other idle week wonderings

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‘Tis inevitable. No matter how a football season may be going, the quarterback could be playing better. Thus, when filling Notre Dame’s idle week with a mailbag, it should have been expected the majority of the questions would tie to Irish senior quarterback Ian Book. Fortunately, reasonable minds did not go too far overboard in fretting about Book …

It’s almost as if Book has not been at the helm for 14 wins in 16 starts, with the two losses coming to a national champion and a possible Playoff team. (Georgia’s loss to South Carolina aside, the Bulldogs still control their own path to the College Football Playoff.) Book was not the reason Notre Dame lost at Georgia or back in December against Clemson, yet these conversations continue to come back to him.

To answer the question offered by our resident “The League” fan (excellent deep cut, by the way), sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec’s first start will come when Book is injured. Just as Book stepped in for Brandon Wimbush in 2017 at North Carolina and Wimbush returned the favor last year against Florida State, at some point Book will take a hit that keeps him out for a week. These are the realities of the game.

Which is to say, when Tim Murray of NBC Sports’ “The Daily Line” asked … “If you had to put money on it right now, does Ian Book start vs. Navy in Ireland?” I replied yes.

Being a gambling personality on a gambling show, Tim then provided hypothetical odds of Book -140, Jurkovec +120. (Bet $140 to win $100 if Book starts; bet $100 to win $120 if Jurkovec does.)

The longer version of Tim’s question is, “Will Book jump into the NFL draft or take a graduate transfer elsewhere?” Because if Book is at Notre Dame and healthy, he will start across the Atlantic. Record-setting quarterbacks who led the Irish to the Playoff and have kept Notre Dame winning through a 13-2 stretch do not get benched.

The sign of health around Notre Dame is its 26-4 record since first falling to Georgia in 2017’s second week, a true tally of 27-5 since the debacle known as 2016. The sign of Book’s worthiness as a starter is his 13 wins in 15 starts as the true starting quarterback (discounting that spot start at North Carolina in 2017) and the current scoring average of 39.2 points per game.

While Wimbush did not lead the Irish offense efficiently and thus put Notre Dame in jeopardy against even Ball State and Vanderbilt, Book has kept things humming well enough, despite his struggles with the deep ball. The Irish opted for ball control against USC not because of any concern about Book, but because that was the best strategy to further limit the Trojans’ receivers.

Yet that deep ball deficiency should be enough to keep Book out of the NFL draft until 2021, and it is hard to fathom anyone transferring away from being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.

That should lead to Book becoming the fourth three-year Irish starting quarterback of the last quarter-century, joining Ron Powlus (‘94-’97), Brady Quinn (‘03-’06) and Jimmy Clausen (‘07-’09).

When his time comes, Irish sophomore quarterback Phil Jurkovec should excel leading Notre Dame’s offense, but his time is not yet pressing and he knows as much. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)

This possibility, an arguable likelihood, naturally spurs some concern about Notre Dame’s future quarterbacks … “If Book returns next year, ND will have four QBs on the roster with another highly-ranked recruit committed for the 2021 class. Who would be most likely to transfer due to a lack of playing time?” — Jules from Joliet, Ill.

Jules did not mention Jurkovec by name, but the undertone was there. To date, Jurkovec has not bucked his backup role, in part because his spring was so humbling. His dismal Blue-Gold Game showing was a public moment of worrisome performance, and he knew it as he sat in the interview room afterward.

“I just need to put in a lot more work, a lot more film,” Jurkovec said forlornly in April. “The more reps I get, it’ll help.”

No matter how much improvement he has shown in the past six months, Jurkovec is grounded enough to know he was never going to jump from that spring showing to surpassing Book by now, nor is Jurkovec ready to. That underlying understanding may be one of his best long-term assets.

Obviously, these things change with time, especially among 18- to 22-year-olds, but there is no reason to speculate about Jurkovec jettisoning because Book returns in 2020.

While the coaching staff is high on current freshman Brandon Clark, and everyone is high on 2020 consensus four-star commit Drew Pyne, it is too soon to fret over either.

Just because there is a depth chart is not reason to wonder about transfers. While that is the world created by the transfer portal, four games of free eligibility and the graduate transfer loophole, there is still logic to having four quarterbacks on the roster. Injuries happen (see above) and players do not pan out (see Avery Davis). A fifth-year passer may change some of that calculus, but the luxury of a third-year starter is worth navigating that situation.

“Who do you think will be on the 2020 ‘Watch Lists’? That also includes guesswork on who goes and stays, naturally”  — Mark H.

Mark had previously wondered if the Irish would have any offensive linemen among the All-Americans this season, specifically junior right tackle Robert Hainsey. While one midseason list included senior right guard Tommy Kraemer, do not anticipate any such acknowledgements to come at year-end. The line has not been consistent enough to warrant them, despite its excellent pass protection.

This space will not dabble much in pondering next season’s watch lists, because watch lists on the whole are inane. Sophomore Jarrett Patterson made the Rimington Trophy Watch List this summer, even though he had never played a single snap at center at that point.

Wondering who will stay, though, is a pertinent conversation. Hainsey may have the technical skill for the next level already, but everything about him screams two-year captain and four-year starter. At that point, Notre Dame should return its entire offensive line, its quarterback, its starting running back and junior receiver Michael Young. The offensive question will be junior tight end Cole Kmet. He probably should jump to the NFL, but could return if he really does want to pitch for the Irish baseball team this spring, as he has said.

Defensively, there is only one “Will he or won’t he” question, and that is senior safety Alohi Gilman. Considering Gilman transferred from Navy specifically because of professional aspirations, there is little reason to expect him to put that off.

Is this a trick question? Next weekend at 7:30 ET on ABC. Virginia Tech has reached a level of mediocrity about to be illustrated by North Carolina. David Cutcliffe keeps Duke from becoming the wreck it was before his tenure, but its offense still struggles and will be shut down by Clark Lea’s defense. Navy is better than expected before the season, but Lea has figured out how to handle the triple-option in his two years with the Irish. Boston College just lost its quarterback for the season. And Stanford did not gain even 200 yards against UCLA on Thursday.

Michigan, Michigan should scare Notre Dame fans the most.

“How many games has Jordan Genmark Heath appeared in? I was surprised that we didn’t see him on the run teams Saturday night.” — nebraskairish

Genmark Heath has played in all six games, making five tackles. His role remains so small as a result of the emergence of fifth-year linebacker Asmar Bilal, a price Irish fans should be happy to pay due to Bilal’s increasingly stellar work in his final season.

Genmark Heath was not on the coverage unit for the opening kickoff against USC because Notre Dame’s A-Team was. Many of these names only handle those duties in pivotal moments against the toughest of foes: Pride, Owusu-Koramoah, Gilman, Moala, Elliott, Bilal, Jamir Jones, Bauer, Claypool, Kmet.

Don’t be shocked to see a similar opening set in Ann Arbor because, again, that is the toughest remaining game.

A fun exercise, it is surprisingly simple when looking at the current Irish starters. Let’s start with recent defensive departures:

The Irish miss cornerback Julian Love. Adding him to this secondary in place of the question marks that are senior Donte Vaughn and sophomore TaRiq Bracy would give Lea the best defensive backfield in the country.

As laudatory as that statement was, it pales in comparison to the defensive upgrade that Jaylon Smith would bring to the linebacker group. Let’s get flexible and move Bilal to the middle and put Smith at Buck, but let’s also create a nickel-heavy base package with Smith and Owusu-Koramoah the second tier, often buttressed by Gilman approaching the line with freshman safety Kyle Hamilton working deep. Lea’s defense is already strong. Adding Smith, and to a lesser extent Love, would be akin to cheating.

Notre Dame’s offense needs more help, and while considering complementing Kmet with Tyler Eifert, that is getting greedy and could be a bit superfluous. It is more important to develop a running game and combine it with a deep threat. The latter part is obvious: Will Fuller.

The ground game could come via C.J. Prosise in an advanced version of the role Armstrong was presumed to play this season, but Prosise may still need some help. Notre Dame’s offensive line has played well, but a generational talent would undeniably make it better. Add Quenton Nelson to the mix.

That team could legitimately win the national championship. Its defense would keep things low-scoring, the ground game could lead the way on a touchdown drive or two, and Book would need to step into one deep throw to Fuller to provide the final cushion. He should have the time to wind up with the current offensive line’s pass protection buoyed by Nelson.

I know Peter, and I strongly suspect this was a question from his lovely wife, Kate. She is poking fun at my conviction that anyone born after 1985 does not properly appreciate the artist behind “Tupelo Honey.” She is doubling her glee by wondering why I was so surprised to hear Notre Dame Stadium play “Cecilia” by Simon & Garfunkel last weekend. It was an odd pregame choice, but a delightful song to hear at any point, nonetheless.

In the spirit of playing along with Kate’s glibness, I considered some newer choices (Bishop Briggs, Welshly Arms, Judah & The Lion), being sure neither their lyrics nor topics would be overly inappropriate. I debated an old favorite, “Black Water” by The Doobie Brothers.

But the answer is Beck, because the musical genius has a song for any mood or atmosphere, something Peter and Kate would have done well to remember on their wedding day, four years ago Thursday. Yes, they are the type of people to get married during football season. I had to prop a cell phone up against a butter dish to watch Michigan State block a Wolverines punt and return it for a touchdown as time expired.

Speaking of which, “Have you ever connected with the illustrious Claire from previous year’s posts?” — rbmat

Claire is more proverbial than illustrious, but let’s see how the wedding I am required at this weekend goes. At least this couple chose an Irish idle week.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rees owed Notre Dame nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From December of 2021:

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

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

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.