And In That Corner … No. 19 North Carolina poses biggest road challenge of Notre Dame’s season

Sam Howell
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North Carolina no longer has a viable route to the ACC title game, but the No. 19 Tar Heels still pose the greatest threat to No. 2 Notre Dame’s momentum on that path. A prolific offense compensates for a sporadic defense to make Mack Brown’s team nothing if not entertaining. To give an idea of what version of that dynamic the Irish should expect Friday, let’s turn to C.L. Brown of The News & Observer, who aptly summed up North Carolina with his opening thought.

“It’s a fun team to watch offensively. They’re still trying to figure it out defensively. They have some great skill players and, so far anyway, they can score on anybody.”

DF: A fun team to watch indeed. It’s been a run of games now when the Tar Heels have needed that offense to show off, giving up 53 points to Wake Forest and 44 to Virginia. Aside from falling just short against the Cavaliers, sophomore quarterback Sam Howell has conjured up the needed magic. What has allowed him to make those performances so routine?

CLB: It seems like somebody in some way, shape or form asks that question of Phil Longo, the offensive coordinator, every week. We talked to Longo [Monday], and he goes back to Howell’s poise. He’s just a pretty even-keeled kid. He never, even last year when he was a freshman starter, never really buys into the hype of himself. Never gets too high, doesn’t get too low.

His knowledge of the offense is what Longo says puts him over the top, because he’s well-prepared for not only their game plan but versed in how a defense is going to try to play them in certain concepts that they have.

Howell doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He still has yet to throw an interception in the fourth quarter, which I think is pretty remarkable, given that he started all of last season, too. He’s just somebody who is relentlessly going to keep coming. That’s what happened, they got down 21 points to Wake Forest. You knew the offense was going to score again. The question was only, could the defense get enough stops for that to matter. They pulled it out, 59-53.

There must be at least one flaw, one weakness in Howell. I am not trying to diminish his nearly 330 yards per game and 10.6 yards per attempt, or his 23 touchdowns against six interceptions. But aside from possibly Trevor Lawrence last year or Tua Tagovailoa in 2018, no sophomore quarterback is perfect. What is Howell’s shortcoming?

One of the major things that — he hasn’t said it publicly, but you can see it on the sideline sometimes — that drives Phil Longo crazy is Howell believes so much in himself that he will string out plays way longer than he should. A lot of times it will lead to a sack. He’s only now starting to throw the ball away as he should. He tends to hold the ball. There have been times when Longo, you can see on the sideline, has reacted. He probably wants to have those back. He has been pretty animated.

It didn’t happen as much in this last game against Wake Forest, but you see it happening in that loss at Virginia, the loss at Florida State. Howell tries to string it out too long, believes he can still make something happen, and then he gets dropped for 7-8 yards.

Tar Heels junior running back Javonte Williams leads a ground attack averaging 233.5 yards per game in a complementary role to Sam Howell’s passing attack. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Of course, Howell is not a one-man show, and North Carolina’s is not a one-dimensional offense. Both Javonte Williams and Michael Carter have rushed for more than 800 yards, with Williams finding the end zone 15 times. Do they set up the passing game or vice versa? Which aspect should Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea make his priority?

They’re independent. Now, there are times where certainly the ground game gets going and then they are impossible to stop off play-action. It gets to be video game quality when the running game is going, because it’s hard for a defense to key in on something and know what’s coming, but I kind of feel like, in the Wake Forest game again as an example, they weren’t running the ball well, plus being behind 21, Sam Howell just starts chucking the ball. That’s how he ends up with his career highs.

I do think that in this game on Friday, they definitely need both. If Notre Dame can make the Tar Heels one-dimensional on offense, the Irish are going to win easily. They’ll need to keep Notre Dame off-balance to be productive.

Honestly, I think the first drive of the game that Carolina has the ball will tell a lot, because it has taken the opening drive for a touchdown in every game except at Florida State and Wake Forest. All the rest of the games, the Heels have scored a touchdown on their opening possession. I think we’ll have a tell for if it’s going to be, maybe not necessarily a long game, but we’ll see if maybe the Irish have their number early on just because of the success North Carolina has in scripting out the first drive and executing that first drive in all of these games.

We focus so much on Howell and the offense because the Heels defense is, to be charitable, not good. To quantify that charity, North Carolina gives up 30.8 points per game, including 35.5 in the last four, and more than 400 yards per game. It’s lazy to ask, “Why is the defense so bad?” but, this is a short week and I need to get a pound of duck wings into a marinade, so why is the defense so bad?

It has to do with them still trying to develop depth. Especially in the front seven, on the defensive line, they have their starter, an experienced guy, and then they get to young and freshmen backups at just about every position.

When that goes well, it can turn the game, as it did at Wake Forest, because they ended up going with some of their younger guys late in the game, and it helped on the defensive line, helped get some of the starters fresh for later in the fourth quarter.

Tar Heels freshman cornerback Tony Grimes saw crucial action once North Carolina was trailing at Wake Forest, even though he is of the age as most high school seniors. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

At corner, the youngsters played better that game than the guys who were experienced. Tony Grimes is a true freshman from Virginia who reclassified to enroll in school this year; he should be a senior in high school. He was rated by some as the No. 1 overall corner in the nation in that class. He’s played special teams and spot duty on defense, but they basically threw him to the fire once they were down 21 to Wake Forest, because they weren’t getting the kind of coverage that they needed.

He played solid. He ended up giving up a big play late once they got up 14, and Wake Forest scored on their final drive of the game, but outside of that he was solid. They also have a true freshman nickel back/safety, Ja’Qurious Conley, who they also just threw out there, too. Same thing, same time against Wake Forest, and he came through.

The secondary in general went from being what they thought was going to be a strength back in August in fall camp to having three guys opt out before the season, and their two starting corners — Kyler McMichael and Storm Duck — have been injured. Now Storm Duck only played two games, he was injured against Boston College, late in the fourth quarter of the second game, and hasn’t played at all, but he’s being cleared for practice and will be a game-time decision to actually play. He’s probably considered their No. 1 cover corner when healthy.

Kyler McMichael is a Clemson transfer who started every game except the last two. He will play, it’s just a matter of how much. We don’t really know if he’ll make the start. I feel like if he’s even 75 percent, no matter how rusty he is, he’ll start, because that’s where they are at corner right now.

Just the attrition they’ve had. They’ve had Myles Wolfolk, a graduate safety, ended up being academically ineligible. He played the first game and then was academically ineligible. They’ve had basically — it went from being a place where they thought they were going to have all this experience to getting younger and younger and now it’s patchwork in the secondary.

If they get both Duck and McMichael back, that’s definitely a big step for them to getting back to actually being a better defense and a defense that doesn’t have to rely on the offense to score 40 a game.

We are looking at a 5-point spread currently. Who knows if there will be holiday movement or a Black Friday discount. That is not so much meant as a forced reference to Thanksgiving as it is an acknowledgment that the line movement could come at an unorthodox time during this short week. What do you expect Friday (3:30 ET; ABC)?

Wow, that’s all? I’m not a betting person, but I would expect the Irish to cover that. I don’t want to say it like it’s going to be a cakewalk for Notre Dame to come here and win. You see the glimpses that this North Carolina can be a great team, but you also see the losses at Florida State and at Virginia. The Heels are not there yet. They can play tough, they show glimpses, especially with the offense that they have; this can be a special team, but they fall short.

They are definitely looking at this game as a barometer game to measure where they are nationally. When North Carolina got up to No. 5 before it lost to Florida State, at the time [Heels head coach] Mack Brown even said, that’s too high. Part of that was the season we’re in and the pandemic and everything — teams weren’t playing at that time.

I do think North Carolina is a top-25 team, and this game will show how far or how short they have to go to be a consistent team that is respected and feared even.

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.