Things To Learn: What does Notre Dame look like these days? On and off the field …

Shaun Crawford Duke
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I was wrong. On July 1, I came to the conclusion there would not be college football this fall. Not for the Ivy League, not for the Big Ten, not for Notre Dame. I was wrong.

But still, is there really going to be a Notre Dame game tomorrow? A bit after 2:30 ET, will the Irish really kick off on NBC against Duke? Given Notre Dame still had no players in quarantine or isolation as of early Thursday afternoon, per Irish head coach Brian Kelly, one can only assume this is actually going to happen.

With all due respect to the on-field product, the tantalizing possibilities of a starting safety duo of sophomore Kyle Hamilton and sixth-year Shaun Crawford, and the potential uncomfortable comedy created by a shortened and stuttering preseason, the sensory deprivation aspects of the entire endeavor will be what we remember most.

Only 15,525 fans in the stands, if that? Those fans not congregated in a few sections, but rather extending all the way up to the top row with the best view of Touchdown Jesus? Separated celebrations led by a socially-distanced band in the stands?

This might take some getting used to.

“Of course it’ll be a little different,” senior Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said Tuesday. “Less fans, but mentally, I don’t think it’ll be different for any of us. You go back to high school, you go back to little league football, and you look at how much energy it was then. It’s still exciting, it was still power-packed. It was still a good experience.”

The possible first-round draft pick is not wrong. Few things bring more joy than watching a 9-year-old nephew snag a flag off a kick returner, but there is a distinct difference between joy and delirium, between happiness and rowdiness, between a Friday night atop the bleachers and a Saturday afternoon in the stands at Notre Dame.

This is not to make the younger forms of football sound only wholesome. They have their flaws just as college football does. Their virtues, however, derive from their small-time qualities, whereas college football’s best parts come from the chaos immediately off the field. When we discuss life “between the hedges,” it is really an allusion to all of Athens, Ga. “Death Valley” is more an acknowledgement of the fans than of either Tigers. Even if one wants to get wry and compare this coming atmosphere to an average Saturday at The Farm, Notre Dame Stadium will be lacking the picturesque landscapes and tailgates-in-Teslas frivolity usually surrounding the Stanford campus.

Maybe there really will not be that much of an adjustment, ACC logo on the field notwithstanding. Maybe 15,000 stir crazy fans can provide enough ambience to carry the day until a few Irish touchdowns do the rest. Maybe an event, any event, will be so welcome after the last six months to overcome the memories of what these occasions used to be like.

“There was a time this year where we didn’t even know if we were playing football,” senior right tackle and two-time captain Robert Hainsey said Tuesday. “… I don’t care if there’s no fans or if it’s like a scrimmage. The fact that we get to play football is such a blessing this year, and anyone who is upset about the fans, I don’t know where they’re coming from. It’s just so exciting that we get to play football this year.”

Reasonable minds still wonder how tenable that football will be, particularly this first week. Usually, Kelly spends the week of the opener worrying a broad stroke may not have taken hold in preseason practice.

“If we were living in a vacuum, my concerns would be like they have been for 30 years,” he said. “How’s your team going to respond when it’s now game day? How do they handle going from practice to competitive mindset?”

Instead, this season, Kelly only hopes those instincts kick in, knowing he did not quite have the chance to be as physical with the 2020 Irish in practice as he would have liked, he has not tested their fitness as much as would be preferable, a few packages may not have been rehearsed as much as necessary.

When Notre Dame went to remote-learning for two weeks early in the semester, the football team missed a few practices. All in all, the Irish have logged only 22 of their desired 25 practices heading into this opener. Kelly has fallen short of the maximum allotted practices in a few of his 30 years as a head coach, but that was always by choice.

“I’ve had teams that were prepared to play after 20-21, with strong spring balls and where we had, in years past, double sessions where I knew our team was fit and ready to play,” he said. “You get that sense when they’re banging each other and you’re like, ‘Alright, we’ve had enough of hitting each other.’”

None of that applies to 2020, through no fault of Notre Dame’s or Kelly’s. It is simply our present reality.

“We could have used another week or so. I’m sure Duke is going to feel the same way. No excuses. We will be ready to play.”

Of course, being ready to play will require some attention paid to a few particular positions. The discovery of Crawford at safety may be the most intriguing. If it works out, and there is little reason to think anything Crawford sets his mind to will not work out, then the Irish could have the most savvy safety duo in the country.

Hamilton’s first career snap at Notre Dame Stadium displayed his nose for the ball, not to mention the end zone, while Crawford (when healthy) has made a career out of making big plays in big moments. A blocked PAT return at Texas and a forced fumble-into-fumble recovery in the end zone at Michigan State come to mind.

Setting both up to watch plays develop in front of them could lead to misery for opposing offensive play-callers, beginning with Duke head coach David Cutcliffe.

“I got comfortable [at safety], I started making some plays, I was communicating the defense,” the former cornerback said. “I was just being a vocal leader back there. I kind of felt at home back there. The coaches saw the same thing, so with just my playmaking ability and my ability to tackle, I think we all thought it was a great opportunity for me.”

If there is reason to worry about Crawford at safety, it has less to do with him and more to do with his former position. Notre Dame will lean on North Carolina State graduate transfer Nick McCloud on the boundary side of the field with either junior Tariq Bracy or freshman Clarence Lewis lining up on the wide side. Despite Kelly’s praise for McCloud’s physicality and comparing Lewis to KeiVarae Russell, they are unknown commodities.

Clemson graduate transfer quarterback Chase Brice, under Cutcliffe’s tutelage and scheming, should test them, despite the Irish strengths at defensive end putting him under pressure and experienced linebackers filling his gaps. If McCloud and Lewis or McCloud and Bracy cannot prove adept at cornerback, that alone could threaten the tease of Crawford along the defense’s backline.

Bennett Skowronek Northwestern
Notre Dame has done nothing but rave about Northwestern graduate transfer receiver Bennett Skowronek since his arrival on campus two months ago, as that stretch was enough to earn him a starting role. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Flipping to offense, skill position rotations will be offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ priority to start the season. Between some practice absences, a notable injury and general youth, Notre Dame’s starting lineup against Duke could look much different than it does against Florida State in a month. Building into that more refined form will require plenty of reps for a myriad of players. Simply for reference’s sake, the skill position depth chart as released for this week is as follows:

Running back: Kyren Williams; Chris Tyree or Jahmir Smith or C’Bo Flemister or Jafar Armstrong.
Boundary receiver: Ben Skowronek; Joe Wilkins.
Field receiver: Javon McKinley; Braden Lenzy.
Slot receiver: Avery Davis; Lawrence Keys.
Tight end: Brock Wright; Tommy Tremble or George Takacs or Michael Mayer.

Perhaps with the exception of Skowronek in light of junior receiver Kevin Austin’s broken foot, one could be forgiven for not expecting any of those starters to top the depth chart. It is possible in a month none of them will. Sorting out that morass will necessitate hockey line-style shifts from Rees in the coaching box and orchestrated by receivers coach Del Alexander along the sideline.

Worrying about a backup tight end in Rees’ presumed multiple tight end sets should be welcome respite after the last six months, for both the Irish and their fans.

“It just feels so great to actually get to game week,” fifth-year quarterback and two-time captain Ian Book said. “… We finally get the opportunity to play. It’s actually here, so let’s go make the most of it.”

It’s actually here.

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.