Notre Dame again set to enjoy a quiet National Signing Day thanks to active December

Audric Estime
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If this is an eventful week for Notre Dame, it will add a grand total of one player to the recruiting class of 2021. Somehow, despite a pandemic crippling all usual recruiting tactics, the Irish signed their other 23 commitments and three surprises during December’s early signing period, leaving only consensus three-star running back Logan Diggs (Rummel High School; Metairie, La.) as a possibility tomorrow, National Signing Day.

But even if Diggs flips his commitment to LSU at the last minute, Notre Dame put together a complete class. Weighing its merits, with pandemic qualifiers or not, can wait until Diggs makes his decision, but until then, let’s refresh how thorough this class already is, hence the lack of consternation as this chaotic recruiting cycle concludes.

The 23 commitments were headlined by consensus four-star quarterback Tyler Buchner, already enrolled and beginning classes tomorrow. Little more needs to be discussed about Buchner until he takes college reps, preferably in front of at least a small audience, but given the nature of the insatiable content machine, much more will be discussed about him before then. Those reps will be vital, given Buchner did not get a senior season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Spring football, learning the strength and conditioning program and getting all those things, the transition to college, they all get that,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said during December’s signing period. “They’re very well-versed in understanding that.

“What are they giving up? Are they giving up a spring season? … They’re looking for that next challenge.”

Buchner’s decision to enroll early, much like the other 13 early enrollees including the other four who were deprived of senior seasons, is more about embracing that next challenge than about what he will miss. The possible regret, though, will dissipate the sooner he can get onto a practice field, something that may wait until as late as the end of April.

The three surprises were nominally (literally) headlined by quarterback Ron Powlus III and in a more pertinent respect, consensus four-star running back Audric Estime (pictured at top) and consensus four-star safety Khari Gee.

Both Estime and Gee signed after the early period’s initial flurry, adding to some of the drama and also giving Kelly a chance to be a bit of a prognosticator.

“We anticipate to bring in two more running backs in this class,” he said. “Within this class, we expect to sign a couple more running backs, and we expect to sign somebody that is going to help us in the back end of the defense, as well.”

If Diggs does indeed join Notre Dame, Kelly’s predictions will have gone 3-for-3.

If he does not, the Irish still wrapped up their pandemic signings by adding a legendary name, the No. 6 running back in the class and the No. 29 safety, the latter pulled away from LSU, unexpectedly unless trading on the inside info Kelly apparently had. They raised this Notre Dame class to No. 9 in the country, per rivals.com, maybe not good enough to immediately knock off Alabama or Clemson, but of enough quality to keep that thought on the table with continued development.

A class with a five-star tackle (Blake Fisher) and 11 four-star prospects, with Estime right in the middle of them even as the No. 132 recruit in the country, is not one to ever scoff at. A class with a trio of four-star defenders going right up the middle — defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio, linebacker Prince Kollie and safety Gee — is not one to ever scoff at. A class with a trio of four-star receivers is not one to ever scoff at.

To pull in such a class while not able to show off gameday festivities or the campus as a whole is all the more impressive.

“Everybody had to deal with it in their own way,” Kelly said. “We are geographically in an area that makes it more difficult certainly. You want to use those opportunities to get them to gameday and things of that nature because it is so dynamic here. The pandemic definitely affected it in some regards, but I’m really happy with what we were able to do and construct because we have a great story to tell.”

This class will always be known as the one that signed during a pandemic, just as in Irish terms, the seniors who finished up their careers in the Rose Bowl — Robert Hainsey, Aaron Banks and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, along with their classmates lengthening their careers such as Kurt Hinish, Josh Lugg and Avery Davis — will forever be known as the class that signed with Notre Dame following the 2016 debacle. In time, it may be that the stressful stretch created a class bonded together, as it did four years ago.

For now, this grouping remains defined by its current No. 9 ranking and the various stars applied, as well as a few quotes from Kelly and recruiting coordinator Brian Polian on specific players …

Kelly on Kollie, primarily recruited by former defensive coordinator Clark Lea to be the next in line among Notre Dame’s playmaking rovers: “People always talk in terms of playmakers on offense. He’s a playmaker on defense. He wrecks your day on offense. We saw so many similarities with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Prince in terms of the way they play. The suddenness, just the natural fit at the rover position for us, which we’ll continue to employ in our defensive structure. To add a playmaker of his capabilities was so attractive to us and it was a natural fit.”

Kelly on the unexpected addition of Powlus, notably made before the Irish signed Wisconsin graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan: “Ron was somebody we were recruiting from the very beginning. He was an early take for us and we wanted him part of our program from day one. We felt we needed two quarterbacks. We were transparent with all of our quarterbacks. They knew we were taking two quarterbacks, so that wasn’t a mystery. We were pretty upfront with that and very clear with the fact we were taking a second quarterback. We felt like we needed a second quarterback. We like the fact there was a connection with the program with Ronnie. We’ve seen him quite a bit. It was an easy take for us.”

Polian on the addition of Powlus: “We could not go into next season with three scholarship quarterbacks. It’s just irresponsible. To set your roster up the right way, you got to have at least four scholarship guys, and we thought that Ronnie would be an ideal second quarterback in this class. He’s been snake-bitten a little bit. His junior year, he suffered an injury, not his fault, and then his senior year, they’re going in and out of COVID. It was just a crazy year. But we feel very confident in who we’re getting as a guy and as a player and we’re excited about it.”

Polian on underrated/under-recruited prospects: “I love (cornerback) JoJo Johnson. I know he’s not prototypical height, but he’s a feisty, feisty competitor, he’s physical and we know for a fact he can run because he’s put really good times on record here in our camp.

“I think (Hawaiian linebacker) Kahanu Kia, had he had the chance to play a senior year, would have had more than some of the Pac-12. I think (defensive end) Devin Aupiu, who was 205 at one point in his junior year, is now 6-4-plus, 225-ish edge-rusher athlete.

I think certainly (offensive tackle) Joe Alt, who in our own data that we were going to put out to the media today, at one point we had listed at 240 and was playing tight end as a junior. Now you see he’s up 40 pounds, he’s 280, he moves great.”

Polian on defensive tackle Gabriel Rubio with a quote this space will use frequently moving forward: “The first thing you notice about Gabe is that he’s as wide as a Volkswagen. He’s a big, big man and he’s really, really light on his feet. For a big man, he plays really hard. Sometimes those big guys can go two and three plays and then they tap out because they’re worn down. He works really, really hard.”

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.