Notre Dame’s Opponents: ACC tiers develop before Clemson’s first test

Trevor Lawrence
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Notre Dame spent Saturday conditioning and weight training while mentally preparing for a Sunday scrimmage. After two full weeks without a game, the Irish (2-0, 1-0 ACC) needed a chance to get physical before readying for Florida State (1-2, 0-2).

“I’m no expert on preparing a football team after two weeks off after playing two games,” head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “It’s the first time I’ve done it, but I think I have enough sense to know that you have to duplicate the speed of the game. You’ve got to tackle, you’ve got to be able to do some of those things leading up in your preparation. That was a big day for us yesterday where we’re able to get in a lot of individual work, technique, get some of the rust off.”

The rest of us spent the weekend watching the ACC sort itself out into tiers. A one-point loss dropped Pittsburgh from the lead pack, while Virginia Tech continued to set a precedent for Kelly to follow in how to come back from an outbreak-induced hiatus.

But just like it is convenient to track only the ACC as a driving metric to Notre Dame’s season, it is a bit different for the Irish film review this season.

RELATED READING: ACC-or-bust
Virginia Tech provides Notre Dame a flexible roadmap

“Our schedules are usually scattered throughout various conferences,” Kelly acknowledged. “So life’s a little bit easier when you know your opponents and lining them up in one conference.”

That said, Kelly did not spend much time this weekend watching the Panthers fall to North Carolina State or No. 1 Clemson handle Virginia. Figuring out how to avoid another outbreak takes up the crux of Kelly’s time.

“As much as I would have loved to sit around and watch a lot of these ACC games, we were with our team over the weekend, getting back to practices and getting them back to where they need to be.”

Kelly certainly will not be able to sit around and watch the ACC Game of the Week this weekend, since No. 1 Clemson hosts No. 7 Miami at the same time as the Irish face Florida State, but it will be a key moment in the conference race all the same.


Duke (0-4, 0-4 ACC): Duke fell to the bottom of the conference despite playing Virginia Tech tougher than anticipated. If the Blue Devils had managed to hold Hokies running back Khalil Herbert in check at all, they may have fared better than the 38-31 loss, but instead he ran for 208 yards and two touchdowns on just 20 carries.

Now Duke gets perhaps its last best chance at a win, as 2.5-point favorites at Syracuse (12:30 ET). The 49.5 combined point total over/under suggests a 26-24 result, something that may test quarterback Chase Brice’s mettle.

South Florida (1-2): The Bulls returned to action with a 28-7 loss at No. 15 Cincinnati that went about exactly as expected, falling behind 21-0 before trading touchdowns late in the third quarter. Life will get significantly easier for South Florida against East Carolina (7 ET; ESPN+), favored by 4.5 points with a 58-point over/under equaling a 31-27 hypothetical final.

Florida State (1-2, 1-2): If not for junior quarterback Jordan Travis coming off the bench, the Seminoles may have lost to FCS-level Jacksonville State. Trailing 21-7, head coach Mike Norvell turned to the mobile Travis and subsequently enjoyed five touchdowns on five drives to produce the 41-24 win.

Travis threw for 210 yards and ran for 48 more in an option-based attack, a wrinkle that is now Notre Dame’s joy to plan for.

Louisville (1-2, 0-2): After an idle week to lick its wounds after two consecutive losses, the Cardinals should not have too much trouble at Georgia Tech (Friday 7 ET; ESPN) despite being favored by only 4.5 points. If the over/under of 62’s indication of a 33-29 score is correct, then Louisville’s aspirational hopes in Scott Satterfield’s second season may need to be tempered even more than losing to Miami and Pittsburgh already did.

Pittsburgh’s defense was exposed all afternoon against North Carolina State, not just on the game-winning, last-minute touchdown drive. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Pittsburgh (3-1, 2-1): The Panthers became the hipster dark horse to cause problems in the ACC as their defense exerted its will early in the season, but giving up 30 points in a loss to North Carolina State ruined that reputation as quickly as it had developed. Pittsburgh still outgained the Wolfpack 503 yards to 398, but 13 penalties eliminated that margin of error.

The Panthers now need help to find their way into the thick of the ACC’s top tier, but they can still cause problems for their next opponent: Boston College and Irish quarterback transfer Phil Jurkovec (4 ET; ACCN). Pittsburgh is favored by six points against its native son, with an over/under of 43 points arguing for a 24-18 Panthers victory.

Georgia Tech (1-2, 1-1): Coming off an idle week to face an opponent in the same position is nothing if not fair. Well done, impromptu ACC schedulers.

Clemson (3-0, 2-0): A 24-10 halftime lead and a 41-23 victory hardly seem like underperforming scores, but the fact of the matter is, the Tigers were expected to show much more against Virginia. These are the hurdles we create for Trevor Lawrence & Co.

Now they face No. 7 Miami (7:30 ET; ABC) and are merely two-touchdown favorites. Somehow, 38-24 would be entertaining, though the Hurricanes may put up more than that.

Boston College (2-1, 1-1): Jurkoevc tried to play the last-minute hero for a second week in a row, but his two-point conversion attempt with 45 seconds remaining was intercepted and returned to seal North Carolina’s 26-22 victory. Jurkovec finished with 313 yards and two touchdowns on 37-of-56 passing, as the Tar Heels effectively eliminated any Eagles’ rushing attack, but he needed two more yards to force overtime.

Pittsburgh’s passing efficiency defense ranks No. 10 in the country, but to be fair, North Carolina’s ranks No. 7.

North Carolina (2-0, 2-0): More baffling than the No. 8 Tar Heels allowing Jurkovec to throw for more than 300 yards, sophomore quarterback Sam Howell managed only 225 on 14-of-26 passing, mixing an interception in with two touchdowns. More than that will be expected from Mack Brown’s star passer to get past Virginia Tech (12 ET; ABC), even with North Carolina favored by 5.5 points. An over/under of 58.5 makes for a 32-27 theoretical conclusion, which would at least set up the ACC for bookends of excitement on broadcast television.

Syracuse (1-2, 1-2): The Orange beating Georgia Tech before its idle week could set up for a letdown effect in what is already a strained season for Syracuse.

Wake Forest (1-2, 0-2): The Demon Deacons broke up their extended layoff, courtesy of Notre Dame’s coronavirus outbreak, by moving their non-conference matchup against FCS-level Campbell up a week, and they then made the most of it with a 66-14 walloping. Back to idle time Wake Forest goes.

CURRENT ACC STANDINGS:
Miami, Clemson: 3-0, 2-0 ACC
North Carolina, Virginia Tech: 2-0, 2-0
Notre Dame: 2-0, 1-0
Pittsburgh: 3-1, 2-1
North Carolina State: 2-1, 2-1
Boston College: 2-1, 1-1
Virginia: 1-1
Georgia Tech: 1-2, 1-2
Syracuse: 1-2, 1-2
Florida State, Louisville, Wake Forest: 1-2, 0-2
Duke: 0-4, 0-4

Friday 7 ET — Louisville at Georgia Tech, ESPN.
Saturday 12 ET — Virginia Tech at No. 8 North Carolina, ABC.
12:30 ET — Duke at Syracuse.
4 ET — Pittsburgh at Boston College, ACCN.
7 ET — South Florida vs. East Carolina, ESPN+.
7:30 ET — Clemson vs. Miami, ABC.

Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, led by a familiar ‘three-headed monster’

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Notre Dame v South Carolina
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Notre Dame’s next offensive coordinator will not matter; whomever Irish head coach Marcus Freeman hires to replace Tommy Rees, he will lean on his running backs.

Notre Dame’s running backs room looks the same as it did a year ago, but oh so different. The order has been drastically reshuffled, though through no one’s failure, only youngsters’ successes.

Any new offensive coordinator will know he has three proven backs to lean on with an intriguing youngster joining a promising one slowly recovering from injury. Oh, and the No. 8 running back in the class of 2023.

They will once again be coached by Deland McCullough. Some further coaching turnover could occur yet this offseason, but McCullough looks secure at Notre Dame.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS
This space’s running depth chart — running as in ever-evolving, not as in running backs — still has Chris Tyree atop the running backs listing. In-season, the “ever-evolving” depth chart is not updated as much given the week’s prior game lingers in memory and informs more than anything else.

But even in the season opener, Tyree was not the Irish starter. Audric Estimé got that honor at Ohio State. His preseason was strong enough to vault Estimé to the top of the depth chart, a spot he should not relinquish until he heads to the NFL.

Fellow rising junior Logan Diggs also ended up with more carries than Tyree, creating the type of running-back depth needed to be a viable contender in modern college football.

Some Notre Dame fans insist Tyree is a failure. A former four-star running back who has never taken over a season, they argue. But that overlooks a few realities:

First of all, Tyree backed up an All-American for two years. Complementing Kyren Williams’ all-around game with a speed element was vital for the Irish to make the Playoff in 2020 and threaten it in 2021.

Secondly, if the floor of every four-star recruit is to become a four-year contributor with 13-and-counting touchdowns, recruiting would be far easier. Many “can’t miss prospects” fall quite short of that.

Lastly, Tyree’s kickoff return touchdown against Wisconsin in 2021 is now overlooked because of Graham Mertz’s subsequent fourth-quarter meltdown, but if Tyree had not given Notre Dame that lead — flipping a 13-10 deficit to a 17-13 lead — then Mertz never would have needed to get so desperate. There is a very real chance the Irish do not come within a yard of the 2021 Playoff if Tyree does not break that 96-yard kickoff return touchdown.

All of which is to say, Estimé and Diggs leapfrogged Tyree because of their strengths and improvements, not because of any of Tyree’s supposed struggles.

2022 STATS
Estimé: 13 games; 156 carries for 920 yards, a 5.9 yards per rush average, with 11 touchdowns. 9 catches for 135 yards and another score.
Diggs: 12 games; 165 carries for 921 yards, a 5.0 yards per rush average, with four touchdowns. 10 catches for 211 yards and two more scores.
Tyree: 13 games; 100 carries for 444 yards, a 4.4 yards per rush average, with three touchdowns. 24 catches for 138 yards and two more scores.

Of particular note looking at those three running backs, they combined for only 50 yards lost on their 421 carries last season. In the throttling upset of No. 5 Clemson to start November, just two of Notre Dame’s 45 rushes were stopped behind the line of scrimmage.

More notably, the three Irish backs carried the ball 32 times in the Gator Bowl win against No. 19 South Carolina for 205 yards. None of those rushes lost yardage.

After Diggs found full health (an April shoulder injury slowed him into the season) and Notre Dame fully committed to the running backs after quarterback Tyler Buchner was lost for 10 games, the trio averaged 230.5 yards from scrimmage each week.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS
Make no mistake, the Irish running backs were as disappointed as anyone when Rees left for Alabama last week. They knew, without a doubt, his offense would feature them. After all, Rees has said he wishes he had grown up as an offensive guard rather than a quarterback if he could choose body type.

They also understood Rees’s decision.

Nonetheless, the trio knows it will be a key piece of Notre Dame’s offense in 2023 for two reasons. One, they are that proven. Two, with Sam Hartman at quarterback, the Irish offense should be more prolific for a change. More snaps and more scoring opportunities will benefit all the skill position players.

The proven “three-headed monster,” as Freeman described them in the 2022 season, should not need to show too much this spring. Estimé needs to hold onto the ball, Diggs needs to find a bit more comfort running between the tackles, and Tyree may spend even more time split wide as a slot receiver, something that was not needed significantly last season because that was often where Michael Mayer aligned.

But those improvements will be on the edges. The three are already known. They will be the most reliable collective piece of Notre Dame’s offense.

The change this spring will be from freshman Gi’Bran Payne. He was the rare delayed signee, de-commiting from Indiana after McCullough left the Hoosiers for South Bend and then eventually following McCullough, committing in mid-April.

Without a spring to impress and behind three stout running backs, Payne never had a viable chance to contribute in 2022. That could change this spring, particularly since classmate Jadarian Price will still be recovering from an Achilles injury, something that usually takes a full year. Price may end up a midseason option, but until then, Payne is Notre Dame’s No. 4 running back, and an injury to any of the leading trio would push No. 4 into a Saturday role.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame adds former four-star Indiana signee, RB Gi’Bran Payne, to incoming freshman class
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 13 Gi’Bran Payne, freshman running back, late recruit

FUTURE DEPTH
He may not factor in this season — again, the Irish have three proven and reliable, and largely durable, running backs — but consensus four-star Jeremiyah Love will almost assuredly draw some notice in the preseason.

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.