Things to Learn: Will Notre Dame, Ian Book pass slow start worries?

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Notre Dame had not played an opponent in nearly nine months. The Irish barely played against themselves in the preseason. Full tilt had been as rare as close quarters. A slow start in week one was logical if not expected.

A bashful beginning in week two would be a bit more foreboding for No. 7 Notre Dame’s Playoff hopes.

“We have to get off to a better start,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday. “We talked about four quarters of football, for us it is to get off to a good start, have an attention to detail. Our attention to detail wasn’t great at times, especially defensively. We gave up some uncharacteristically big plays, which was about attention to detail.”

As much as Kelly’s point about Notre Dame’s initial defense against Duke is valid — the first play from scrimmage was a 22-yard Blue Devils completion, after all — it was the Irish offense that gained all of seven yards in the first quarter of the 27-13 victory. Worse than that, the opening frame featured Notre Dame rushing seven times for a loss of three yards.

“Our practices have been really good, very purposeful, guys have been locked in,” Kelly said. “Flipping from a practice mindset to a competition mindset is a big difference, so I’d like to get sharper there.”

Eventually, the Irish ground game found its footing against Duke, finishing with 192 yards (sacks adjusted), but the passing attack never established a rhythm. Fifth-year quarterback Ian Book finished 19-of-31 for 263 passing yards, including 75 on a screen pass to sophomore running back Kyren Williams. While it is not fair to remove that successful play without going line-by-line in discussing the other 30 pass attempts, the basic math is simple: Without that screen, Book went 18-of-30 for 188 yards, a scuffling showing to say the least.

That will happen with a new set of receivers replacing the expected new set of receivers after an offseason robbed of most reps to build chemistry. It will also happen with a quarterback aware of the expectations of a three-year starter at Notre Dame.

“More than anything else, probably just a little too amped up and just needed to settle him down a little bit this week,” Kelly said. “A little bit more patience in the pocket. Maybe a little too anxious to make some plays. …

“Watching him this week, he fully understands how some of those smaller plays turn into big ones. He’s got to make those for us.”

Smaller plays like that screen pass, which is why it is not fair to remove it from the stat line, but I digress over a trivial argument.

Book will again be throwing to names unexpected a week ago. A hamstring injury will sideline graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek this weekend, elevating junior Braden Lenzy into the starting lineup along with classmate Joe Wilkins Jr. A hamstring injury benched Lenzy last weekend unbeknownst to anyone outside the program until it was occurring, but Kelly expects him back in action against South Florida (2:30 ET; USA Network).

“Hamstring injuries are such, especially the skilled players, they have to feel comfortable and they have to feel a sense of being able to run out and do the things necessary at that position,” Kelly said. “A big thing for [Lenzy] is his speed, his ability to really push at the top end and get out of breaks. I think he feels that way now.”

If so, then Book’s offensive arsenal can begin to resemble what he worked with throughout August, including Wilkins, who estimates he took about half the first-team snaps in preseason practices. Those built enough confidence to make his first career catch with 50 seconds remaining in the first half last week, finishing with four receptions for 44 yards.

Wilkins has long shined in practice, only to have minor injuries keep him from converting that into weekend production. That was presumably part of why the Irish pursued Skowronek in the first place. Frankly, Wilkins’ estimate of splitting first-team reps 50/50 might be generous, but even if he physically took only a quarter of those practice snaps, he mentally took each one of them, tracking Skowronek’s movements, working through the play’s steps in his head.

That built trust in Wilkins for the coaching staff. It paid off.

“Coach applauded me in our meeting because one of the plays, I didn’t take one rep at that play all week,” Wilkins said Tuesday. “But my mental reps, I’m always watching. I’m always paying attention, so when I got in the game, I knew exactly what I was supposed to do.”

As much as a quarterback’s chemistry with a receiver is contingent on timing built on practice rep after practice rep, it is also built on trusting that receiver to make the right break at the right distance at the right pace. If Wilkins has proven that to Book in a game setting, then Notre Dame might not need to grasp for another receiver to step forward just yet.

Of course, another young receiver stepping forward would be a nice luxury to have.

“Somebody’s got to step up now and accelerate their growth,” Kelly said Monday. “… Somebody’s got to continue to grow.”

Just a few moments earlier, though, Kelly had been asked about the readiness of freshman receiver Jordan Johnson, and he did not indicate the former five-star recruit is on the verge of pushing Wilkins or Lenzy.

“Physically, he’s coming along quite well,” Kelly said. “He’s still finding himself as a student-athlete here. There’s a lot on his plate. … This isn’t just about football. He’s got football talent. We’ve got to continue to work on his attention to detail and his focus and we’re getting better there.”

Presuming Johnson does not crack the rotation this weekend, another freshman could continue to establish himself there all the same.

Book found tight end Michael Mayer three times in the opener for 38 yards, including this seven-yard completion that kept a touchdown drive alive.

“He’s been doing that all camp, as well, so I wasn’t surprised, but he’s just physical, and everybody saw that tonight,” Book said after Notre Dame’s first-ever conference victory. “He’s not going to go down the first time he’s touched. As a quarterback, that’s huge.

“It almost feels like you might check the ball down to him, but he’s going to get more than where he catches it at.”

Uncovering these developing players one by one, Wilkins by Mayer by whoever is next, should give Book more comfort to get off to a strong start moving forward.

Defensively that could be a bit tougher against the Bulls. That opening 22-yard completion Duke enjoyed a week ago? Irish sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton made the tackle, as he would three more times on the opening drive before breaking up a fourth-down pass to end it.

Not too much later he sprained his ankle, an injury that has Hamilton day-to-day currently, in the “PPT” program as Kelly called it, “prayers and personal thoughts are welcome.”

There should be little risk in playing South Florida without Hamilton, even if he is arguably Notre Dame’s best defender. There could be a small gain in doing so, given Kelly recognizes the need to build a backline rotation.

Sixth-year senior Shaun Crawford played well a week ago, but junior DJ Brown missed a few tackles and dropped an interception, while junior Houston Griffith and graduate transfer Isaiah Pryor did not see meaningful defensive time.

“We’ve got to be able to begin to see a lot more of those guys on the back end of our defense,” Kelly said. “… There are roles for all these guys. Whether it is in a sub-package or first and second down, and even in a rotation, so I expect to see [defensive coordinator Clark Lea] really working to get them involved in more of a rotation.”

Pryor may have been the fifth safety deployed last week, but he still made the most memorable play, non-Hamilton category.

Broadly speaking, backups may not see as much time in a possible blowout as they would in any other year. This is largely speculation, but it applies now more than ever, as South Florida is the only non-ACC (read: likely worst, pending Syracuse) opponent on the Irish schedule. If there is a true blowout to be had this year, it is most likely this weekend.

But given the practice time the first- and second-strings have lost this spring and preseason, given the need for Book to develop trust and timing with his receivers, given the new blocking scheme the offensive line is adjusting to, it could be prudent to give them run in garbage time.

Even at quarterback, rather than lean on sophomore Brendon Clark to carry the offense if needed, Kelly would prefer to have Clark lean on the offense to carry him.

“A very good offensive line, skill players, they don’t have to go in and win the game on their own,” Kelly said. “They just can’t lose it.”

To use that safety net strategy, first the offensive line and skill players have to be humming on all cylinders themselves. That takes time. More than a first quarter in the opener, but too much more than that could teeter toward costly.

Oh, and do you know what channel the USA Network is in your cable listings?

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.