And In That Corner … The No. 19 Michigan Wolverines coming off a stinging loss

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Notre Dame does not simply have a rivalry game this weekend. The No. 8 Irish have a top-20 challenge awaiting them at a venue where they have not won since 2005. Going back further than that, Notre Dame has gone 1-7 at Ann Arbor since Lou Holtz left.

Those added stakes means it is appropriate to double-up on Michigan expertise. Orion Sang of the Detroit Free Press and Austin Meek of The Athletic both came in clutch. It’s been a short week on their end.

DF: I appreciate you both making some time. I know these are plum gigs we have and there is no reason to gripe, but I also suspect the back-to-back primetime, top-10 games have you pressed for both time and sleep. With that in mind, I’ll try to keep this brief.

In Brian Kelly’s Monday press conference, I was struck by him specifically praising Michigan’s offensive line improvements. I know about the receivers (we’ll get to them) and the defense (ditto), but that line has been an issue for the better part of two seasons. It was only one sentence, but “obviously playing much better as a unit than they did earlier in the season” hardly served as hedging. Was Kelly simply going out of his way to compliment every piece of the Wolverines roster, or has that line genuinely gotten better of late?

OS: I do think Michigan’s offensive line is playing much better lately. There were some issues earlier in the season; I think lack of cohesion might have played a bit of a role, as fifth-year senior left tackle Jon Runyan Jr. (first-team All-Big Ten in 2018) missed some time, while redshirt freshman right tackle Jalen Mayfield acclimated to his new role as a starter. They played a very good game against Penn State, which is tied for fourth-best in the nation in sacks.

AM: Michigan’s offensive line has gotten progressively better since early in the season. That’s partly health-related, but I think it’s also a matter of the linemen getting more comfortable with the new offense and going back to some concepts that worked for them last year. With four starters back, there was an expectation Michigan’s offensive line would be able to pick up right where it left off last season. We saw some hiccups early related to the new scheme, but the pass protection and the run blocking have improved significantly since the Wisconsin loss.

If Wolverines receiver Ronnie Bell (middle, on the ground) had held onto this pass, Michigan would have presumably tied Penn State. Instead, Bell’s breakout season was marred by the drop, (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Four receivers come to mind whenever discussing Michigan, led by sophomore Ronnie Bell (25 catches for 443 yards). Aside from dropping the potential tying score at Penn State, how has he broken out this year?

AM: The idea of Collins, Black and Peoples-Jones complementing Ronnie Bell probably would have sent some Michigan fans into hysterics before the season. A big emphasis with Josh Gattis and the new offense was getting the ball to these three NFL-caliber receivers, and Bell was kind of an afterthought in that. He was an under-the-radar recruit who was headed to Missouri State on a basketball scholarship before Michigan got involved. But he had a great preseason camp, and the coaches love his attitude. He’s turned himself into a really nice player who finds ways to get open. 

How do the other receivers — Nico Collins, Tarik Black and Donovan Peoples-Jones — complement Bell? Kelly focused on their physicality as a group.

OS: Those are the bigger outside options, whereas Bell is mostly used in the slot, though Peoples-Jones can also play in the slot, too. Collins is their preferred option on deep balls downfield, as he can use his large frame to box out smaller defensive backs, or simply run right past the secondary. Peoples-Jones was hurt earlier this season and still looks like he’s finding his footing. He had a tough game at Penn State with several crucial drops.

Wolverines senior quarterback Shea Patterson had a season-high 11 carries for 45 yards at Penn State, keeping Michigan’s offense moving at points when the Nittany Lions otherwise stymied it. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

I am not one to spend much time on senior quarterback Shea Patterson. He is what he is — good, not great. Unless you think I am missing something, I am going to jump to the defense …

OS: The stats might not be very gaudy, but I think he played his best game of the season at Penn State. He made plays in the pocket, stepping up on multiple occasions to deliver nice throws. He also made plays with his feet, which we haven’t seen too often this season; he got out of the pocket or evaded pressure using his feet, which kept quite a few plays alive and from turning into negative plays. I saw it as a clear step forward in what has mostly been an uneven senior campaign.

My question on defense is a broad-ranging one: Don Brown’s unit has given up 14 points per game since the debacle in Madison. I don’t care who you are playing, holding four conference opponents to 14 points per game is notable, especially when two Group of Five teams got into the 20s to start the season. What has changed in the Wolverines’ defense?

AM: Michigan had a bad day against Wisconsin. If you take that game out, the Wolverines have been pretty dominant on defense. Of course, that’s been the rap on Don Brown’s defenses: They tend to have one or two of those bad days every season, usually against the best competition. 

One factor has been the emergence of linebacker Cameron McGrone. He started the season playing behind Josh Ross in the middle, but Ross got hurt and McGrone has played great since getting his opportunity. Michigan has gotten a little healthier on the interior defensive line, which was a weak spot against the Badgers, and I think Brown has tweaked a few things to put the Wolverines in a better position. What we’re seeing now is pretty much what we expected before the season: A defense that’s fast, can get to the quarterback, but is prone to giving up some big plays.

OS: I think Wisconsin might’ve been an outlier (although we’ll see how they fare against Notre Dame and Ohio State). The Badgers just play such a different style of offense from basically any other team in the nation. Michigan has tightened up its run defense and is having more success getting into the backfield. One of the bigger changes this season is Brown’s usage of zone coverage — the Wolverines are playing a lot more zone than they have in previous years. They’re still somewhat susceptible to the occasional big play, but the unit is playing much better than I expected following the offseason departures.

Let’s now move to the macro … Did I read Jim Harbaugh spoke of reviving/continuing this series earlier this week? What sense do you get of that being a likelihood? I know it was him and Kelly that cleared the way for this two-game return.

AM: He gave kind of a generic endorsement of playing Notre Dame but didn’t offer any specifics. Michigan’s non-conference schedule is pretty full for the next seven or eight years with home-and-homes against Washington, UCLA, Oklahoma and Texas. I’d be surprised if the Wolverines want to move any of those games to add Notre Dame, but who knows.

OS: It was hard to get a read on how likely that would be. Harbaugh was asked if he would like to see it renewed, and I’m not sure a weekly news conference would be the place to properly express how he feels about the series. It really depends on how badly the Wolverines want to get it done, as it did with this two-year renewal. (They bought out a series with Arkansas for a hefty price.) I’ve always gotten the sense that Michigan wanted this series more; the last game in 2014 was at Notre Dame, and the series resumed at Notre Dame in the season opener; this year’s matchup is taking place at a weird place in the schedule (right in the middle of the Big Ten slate) and Notre Dame is coming off an idle week.

Michigan has fallen short of double-digit wins just once in Jim Harbaugh’s four seasons as head coach, going 43-16 (including this year), yet many Wolverines fans would not mind seeing Harbaugh depart Ann Arbor. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Speaking of Harbaugh, let’s say Michigan loses both this weekend and against Ohio State in late November. At 8-4, what are Harbaugh’s job prospects moving forward? Would 9-3 quell those concerns, or does he probably need to win both?

AM: Harbaugh’s future is obviously a big topic around here, but I don’t get the sense his job is in jeopardy. Whether the final record is 8-4 or 9-3, people are going to be disappointed. This was supposed to be the year Michigan finally beat Ohio State and won the Big Ten, and neither of those looks very likely right now. That being said, you can do a lot worse than 8-4 or 9-3 with the schedule Michigan’s playing. Unless things completely go off the rails, I would expect Michigan to stay the course and hope there’s a Brian Kelly-like breakthrough somewhere in Harbaugh’s future.

OS: I don’t think there are any ultimatums. I think his job is safe, as it should be. He hasn’t delivered the big wins, but he has stabilized the program and has put together some pretty good teams, with one off year in 2017 (we’ll see how the rest of this season shakes out, but it’s headed that way). Who else would Michigan hire?

On that note, this game is pretty much pegged as a toss-up by the bookmakers. What do you anticipate Saturday night?

OS: I think it’ll be a close game. At home, Michigan’s much less susceptible to spotting an opponent a double-digit lead like they did at Notre Dame last year and at Penn State this past week (off the top of my head, I believe the Wolverines haven’t done that at home since Colorado in 2016, which they eventually won). I don’t really see a marked difference between these two teams, based on the statistical profiles. Really, the home-field difference seems like it could be the biggest difference-maker.

AM: It feels to me like Michigan is backed into a corner and may come out with some fire Saturday night. The Wolverines have heard a lot about their big-game failures, and even though the stakes have been diminished, I think they’re eager to put some of that to rest. If I had to pick it, I’d probably go with the Wolverines in a tight one.

 

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

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.