Notre Dame crushes Syracuse to finish unbeaten regular season, ACC title game next

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Ian Book made sure he would end his career as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback without ever losing at home. The Irish did not need every one of his five total touchdowns, but they needed more from the three-year starter than expected in a 45-21 win against Syracuse on Saturday.

Book led a Notre Dame flurry at the end of the first half to turn a 7-3 deficit into a 24-7 lead and ease any unnecessary tension in both the Irish locker room and the sparsely-attended stands. The two-time captain began the surge with a 28-yard scramble into the end zone before finding fifth-year receiver Javon McKinley on the next drive for the first of McKinley’s three touchdown catches. The two would connect once more before the half, a leaping touchdown seconds before the break, to seal the game’s result even if the Orange (1-10, 1-9 ACC) seemingly hung around a bit longer.

Book finishes his career at Notre Dame Stadium at 15-0 as the starter, leading the crux of a 24-game home winning streak and a 16-game overall winning streak, both active. A 285-yard passing performance, in a way matched by his 53 rushing yards on eight carries, put the finishing touches on his last afternoon in South Bend and pushed the senior class’ record at home to 25-1.

“He just continues to get better,” head coach Brian Kelly said. “He’ll probably tell you it wasn’t his ‘A’ game. It was probably a game where he played good, he wants to play better, but that’s the great thing about him.

“He hasn’t played his best game yet in his eyes, but he still accounted for five touchdowns and threw some great balls.”

The turnover-riddled contest — even usually ball-secure Book lost a fumble and threw an interception, both plays involved in moments of immediate reciprocity between the two teams — also featured dropped passes and more penalties than would normally be expected from the No. 2 team in the country with a berth in the ACC championship game already secured.

But perhaps that ACC assurance played a part in the Irish (10-0, 9-0 ACC) starting slowly against undermanned Syracuse. In due time, though, talent shined through. McKinley more than made up for his dropped touchdown pass on the first drive. Sophomore running back Kyren Williams eventually found enough running space to break loose for 110 yards on the day to reach 1,011 yards on the season. Freshman running back Chris Tyree broke loose for a 94-yard score late in the fourth quarter when Notre Dame actually intended to simply milk the clock, placing him third all-time in longest Irish rushes, behind only Josh Adams’ 98-yard score in 2015 and Dexter Williams’ 98-yarder in 2018.

Though the defense gave up two long runs, and one blown pass coverage, for scores, the underlying stats indicated Notre Dame dominated throughout the day. Even the halftime score of 24-7 was misleading, given the Irish had outgained Syracuse 311 yards to 174 at that point, had controlled possession and averaged 8.4 yards per first down. In the end, Notre Dame outgained the Orange 568 yards to 414, while continuing a season trend of ball control with 33:50 time of possession, and averaged 6.4 yards per first down, two more than Syracuse managed, not to mention 7.4 yards per play, one more than the Orange did.

The play was sloppy, but once the mistakes were in the rearview mirror (such as McKinley’s recurring case of the drops), the Irish cruised to their second unbeaten regular season in the last three years and fourth consecutive 10-win season.

“If we look at the entire season, this was obviously special,” Kelly said to NBC. “Our guys and what they overcame this season to go undefeated, and over four years to go 25-1, is just an incredibly consistent performance week-in and week-out.”

Notre Dame has next week off after the ACC canceled the makeup trip to Wake Forest. The Irish will face Clemson in the conference championship game on Dec. 19 after the No. 3 Tigers topped Virginia Tech on Saturday to seal their half of the rematch of the Nov. 7 double-overtime classic Notre Dame victory.

STAT OF THE GAME
Whether or not Book gets the national credit he should, he will be recognized in the Irish record books for a long time to come. He has now won more games as the Notre Dame starting quarterback than any other passer in history. Reaching 30 is more than a testament to having more games on the schedule than Ron Powlus (29), Tom Clements (29) and Tony Rice (28), hence why Book also currently sits at No. 2 in all-time winning percentage (.909), behind only Johnny Lujack (20-1-1, .932).

“To be able to have this be my last home game and step back for a second and to never have lost at home, it is really a team award, though, rather than an individual award,” Book said of both marks. “I’m just really thankful to be part of this special team. …

“I couldn’t have done it by myself. There’s a lot of people who have helped get me to this point. When I got here, all I wanted to do was just play quarterback. I wasn’t thinking about breaking any records, or never losing at home. Again, it’s just a special, special night.”

To put the 30-win accomplishment in forward-thinking terms, even if the Irish lose their next two games, it would take a three-year starter, remaining healthy, rattling off two 10-win seasons and then an 11-win year to top Book’s record. Considering Notre Dame has won 10-plus games in three straight seasons only twice in its history (1991-93 and 2017-2020), that would be quite an ask for a future quarterback.

Some may argue there are more games these days, so it will happen eventually. Yes, it will happen eventually, all records do fall (except perhaps Lujack’s), but it took 46 years for someone to break Clements’ record of 29 career wins. Book will hold this for some time, quite some time.

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
At some point Notre Dame was going to break open this home finale. The talent differential between the Irish and the Orange was too vast to remain close for long, particularly given Syracuse’s roster management issues.

But that exact point came on a 3rd-and-10 late in the second quarter when Book threw wide of sophomore running back Kyren Williams. What appeared to be yet another stalled drive, the root of Notre Dame’s problem as it trailed 7-3, and a chance for Syracuse to then build its lead before receiving the second-half kickoff, changed when a flag flew. Orange defensive end Kingsley Jonathan had roughed Book, granting the Irish a first down.

It took three quick chunk gains of 18 yards (pass to Tommy Tremble), 11 yards (pass to McKinley) and 28 yards (Book’s scamper) for Notre Dame to take a lead it would not relinquish.

Rather than Syracuse ball with the lead and five minutes before halftime, the Irish tacked on two more touchdowns before the break to kickstart the trouncing. The last of those may have been the most surprising, a downfield shot to McKinley with only six seconds remaining in the quarter that illustrated just how much his body control has developed this season, as has Book’s understanding of it. Describing McKinley’s catch as Claypool-esque would be generous but not altogether inaccurate.

“If they were in man, we were going to throw the fade to McKinley in the corner,” Kelly said. “McKinley went up, made a great catch and a touchdown. As Ian came running back off the field, he says, ‘I can’t believe they pressed him and gave us that touchdown.’

“We’re at that stage now where Ian doesn’t believe that if you press McKinley, that anybody can defend him and he’s going to put the ball where it needs to be.”

EMBELLISHED STAT OF THE GAME
Despite only allowing faculty and staff and their families to attend, and many of them not relishing a cloudy day with mid-30 degree temperatures, Notre Dame Stadium avoided a record-low attendance figure, at least officially. It would not have taken much longer than the quick first quarter (34 minutes) to count enough of the heads spattered across the stadium’s lower bowl to logically disprove the announced crowd of 6,831 fans.

But that is the number that will be put just above the 1932 Drake game’s 6,663 fans.

The lack of students on campus also meant there were no band or cheerleaders around, a reality that jarring than expected when a recorded national anthem preceded the Irish coming out of the tunnel.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
9:32 — Notre Dame field goal. Jonathan Doerer 25 yards. Notre Dame 3, Syracuse 0. (12 plays, 73 yards, 5:28)

Second Quarter
9:55 — Syracuse touchdown. Anthony Queeley 18-yard pass from Rex Culpepper. Andre Szmyt PAT good. Syracuse 7, Notre Dame 3. (10 plays, 62 yards, 4:07)
3:18 — Notre Dame touchdown. Ian Book 28-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 10, Syracuse 7. (5 plays, 72 yards, 2:18)
1:30 — Notre Dame touchdown. Javon McKinley 21-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 17, Syracuse 7. (1 play, 21 yards, 0:08)
0:06 — Notre Dame touchdown. McKinley 28-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Syracuse 7. (6 plays, 68 yards, 0:32)

Third Quarter
11:20 — Syracuse touchdown. Sean Tucker 40-yard rush. Szmyt PAT good. Notre Dame 24, Syracuse 14. (5 plays, 57 yards, 2:14)
6:32 — Notre Dame touchdown. Book 18-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 31, Syracuse 14. (8 plays, 53 yards, 3:23)
1:07 — Notre Dame touchdown. McKinley 26-yard pass from Book. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 38, Syracuse 14. (3 plays, 68 yards, 1:03)

Fourth Quarter
6:25 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 94-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 14. (2 plays, 87 yards, 0:52)
5:33 — Syracuse touchdown. Cooper Lutz 80-yard touchdown rush. Szmyt PAT good. Notre Dame 45, Syracuse 21. (2 plays, 81 yards, 0:52)

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

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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.