Notre Dame’s search for explosive plays begins near the line of scrimmage, not 55 yards downfield

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The popular idea is 55 yards downfield. Tommy Rees’ hope for Notre Dame’s passing game might be 53.3 yards the other direction.

The Irish offensive coordinator had a successful first season in the role, Notre Dame averaging 33.4 points and 448.5 yards per game, but when it mattered most, the differences between the Irish and the country’s best were clear. For the most part, those differences could be boiled down to two synonyms: speed and explosiveness.

As Rees looks to fix that deficiency, he is not consumed with downfield threats.

“The biggest farce going is that to create explosive (plays), every throw has to be 55 yards,” he said Thursday. “You can watch whoever you want, a lot of those explosive plays come in creating opportunities for your best players to have space and to be in a one-on-one opportunity. If we can create space using the width of the field to create opportunity, if we can also then attack vertically with the speed we have, that’s what leads to explosives.”

A football field is 53.3 yards wide, with the hash marks 13.3 yards apart. Thus, on most snaps, the ball is snapped with 33.3 yards to one side and only 20 yards to the other. There is space to work with on that wider side, if a quarterback can get the ball to the far sideline and if he has a receiver with the speed and agility to make moves in space out there.

In Wisconsin graduate transfer quarterback Jack Coan, Rees feels he has that arm strength.

“I’ll say it, he came in, there were some unknowns there,” Rees said. “The first time we had the opportunity to throw together, I was extremely impressed. Here’s a guy that can drive the ball to the width of the field, can stretch the field vertically, has accuracy to go along with it.”

 

And in Notre Dame’s senior receivers, Rees feels he has that speed. It is  more accurate to refer to the quartet as seniors rather than as veterans, just given the relative lack of experience they have thanks to a myriad of injuries, a suspension and the worthwhile receivers in years past that kept them on the sideline. In 2020 in particular, injuries and coronavirus protocols limited Kevin Austin (broken foot), Braden Lenzy (nagging hamstring) and Lawrence Keys. Of the rising seniors, only Joe Wilkins appeared in more than eight games, not uncoincidentally leading them with seven catches for 63 yards and a touchdown last year.

Those injuries forced the Irish to lean even more on towering options in Javon McKinley and Bennett Skowronek, and that worked well for a ball-control offense focused on its running game and an offensive line featuring up to four All-Americans. But now that offensive line is replacing four starters with the fifth (senior center-turned-TBD Jarrett Patterson) currently sidelined by a foot injury, meaning the running game may depend on the passing game to keep defenses honest in 2021, and that will require speed and explosiveness on display.

“The one thing I will say about our receiver group is we have speed there,” Rees said. “We have a bunch of guys that can stretch the field, a bunch of guys that can run, so when we can pair some of those packages together to get the ball down the field and then to create space the width of the field to get them into open field and one-on-one opportunities.”

Rees specifically praised Keys, adding Lenzy has come on in recent practices, Wilkins has been “pretty steady throughout spring” and fifth-year Avery Davis remains “dependable” and “extremely steady.” The youngsters remain a step behind, though that is to be expected to some degree.

“(Sophomore) Jordan Johnson missed a couple practices, that’s going to slow his development down,” Rees said. “(Early-enrolled freshman) Lorenzo Styles has certainly done some good things, but just like any (high school) senior, there’s a new speed, there’s new expectations, there’s a level of detail that goes into playing at this level that those guys just need to learn.”

Thus, the focus turns to the upperclassmen, though Austin remains sidelined recovering from his twice-broken foot. Well, the upperclassmen and the returning proven skill players that elevated the 2020 offense. When asked how junior running back Kyren Williams or sophomore tight end Michael Mayer could possibly improve on their respective breakout seasons, Rees again brought up the concept of space.

Breaking Williams out wide, given his “innate ability in the pass game,” not only allows Notre Dame to get sophomore running back Chris Tyree and/or senior running back C’Bo Flemister into the game, but it also gives Williams more space to work with.

Finding any way for Mayer to be in a one-on-one matchup creates a similar mismatch, even if that means lining him up along the sideline against a cornerback rather than attached at the line.

These are not ground-breaking offensive ideas. Rees used to routinely find tight end Tyler Eifert for first down fades along the sideline back at the start of head coach Brian Kelly’s tenure. Part of the allure of moving receivers like Theo Riddick and CJ Prosise into the backfield was to simply move them around all 53.3 yards to worry defenses. Alabama thrashed both Notre Dame and Ohio State in the College Football Playoff by getting the ball to Heisman-winning receiver DeVonta Smith near the line of scrimmage, but also near the sideline.

Smith just made those look like downfield passes.

In 2020, the Irish neither had that speed on the field nor focused its offense on it. That worked for the most part, hence those 33.4 points per game and a Playoff berth. In 2021, Rees intends to use the whole field, specifically, all 53.3 yards of its width.

ON Drew Pyne
Rees echoed the party line that Notre Dame still has a quarterback competition in practices. Coan is splitting first-team reps with sophomore Drew Pyne.

“From the moment he stepped in here last year to now, (Drew) has been an absolute burst of energy for the group,” Rees said. “He sets the tone in terms of the way he is vocal, brings energy not only to the quarterback group but to the rest of the offense. They joy to play this game is evident every time you watch Drew.

“He’s a steady player. He understands the most important thing to do as a quarterback is to put the offense in godo plays and to move the ball, and that’s his strength right now. That’s something we’re going to continue to build on. It feels like he’s a veteran, but he’s only been here a year.”

ON Tyler Buchner
Rees voluntarily acknowledged the general want to hear about early-enrolled freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner. His praise was backhanded, though that is more a matter of the circumstances of the pandemic than a reflection of Buchner.

“He had not played football in over a year; that rust is starting to wear off pretty nicely here,” Rees said. “His raw talent and ability has shown up, his ability to make quick decisions has shown up. The ball comes out of his hand as quickly as anybody we have.”

Buchner also has that one trait Rees’ developing offense looks for, the same one he lauded Coan for having.

“He’s able to drive the ball to different areas of the field, which allows us to stretch it not only vertically, but also the width. The added bonus there is he’s an elite athlete. There have been some opportunities to get him out in space, and that’s really been exciting to watch.”

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.

Leftovers & Links: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

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The traditional National Signing Day is this Wednesday, and for yet another year, Notre Dame has no intentions of inking any high-school recruits on the first Wednesday of February. The recruiting calendar has so changed that the Irish have not signed a recruit in February since 2021, when running back Logan Diggs pondered a late LSU push before doubling down on his Notre Dame commitment. Before that, not since 2019, when defensive end Isaiah Foskey publicly did so in order to be a part of his high school’s ceremonies.

Notre Dame turned its focus entirely onto the class of 2024 following December’s early signing period, when it inked a class of 24 players that ranks No. 9 in the country, per rivals.com.

Now with nearly 10 months to go before the next decision day to influence the narrative around Irish head coach Marcus Freeman’s recruiting focus, he already has pledges from seven players in the class of 2024. Class rankings this early in the cycle are rather meaningless, but for the sake of thoroughness, the Notre Dame class of 2024 is currently ranked No. 2 in the country, behind only Georgia with nine recruits pledged to date.

One player stands out among the early Irish seven. He stands out to such a degree this space broke from usual form when he committed in early June. To pull from that opening,

“This space has a general rule to not report on recruiting developments classes ahead of time. Worrying about the thoughts of high school seniors is enough of an oddity; focusing on juniors and underclassmen is outright absurd.

“But exceptions exist to prove rules, and Notre Dame landing the commitment of the No. 3 quarterback in the class of 2024 — prospects entering their junior years of high school — is such an exception.”

Consensus four-star quarterback CJ Carr is now only the No. 4 pro-style quarterback in the class and the No. 14 recruit overall, but he is the kind of key piece to a recruiting class that the Irish lacked in 2023, despite Freeman’s continued excellence hauling in defensive prospects. Carr has been an active and vocal recruiter on his own for Notre Dame, not an unusual occurrence from an early commit but a habit the Irish have not garnered out of a quarterback in quite some time. Even Tyler Buchner, due to both the pandemic and his own soft-spoken nature, was not the loudest campaigner among his peers.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame beats out Michigan for Lloyd Carr’s grandson, QB CJ Carr

At 6-foot-3, Carr looks the part of a prototypical quarterback, and his arm strength fits in line with that thought. He has downfield touch that would open up Notre Dame’s playbook in a way entirely unseen in 2022.

The other six early commitments to the Irish in the class of 2024 …

Consensus four-star running back Aneyas Williams (Hannibal High School; Mo.), ranked as the No. 1 all-purpose running back and No. 106 recruit in the class, per rivals.com: There will be many comparisons to former Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams when Aneyas Williams arrives on campus, and though they are from the same state, there is no relation. The younger Williams can do a bit of everything while his 5-foot-10 frame carries plenty of punch. He lacks truly elite speed, as Kyren did, but obviously that did not kept the elder Williams from cracking 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons.

Consensus four-star receiver Cam Williams (Glenbard South H.S.; Glen Ellyn, Ill.), ranked as the No. 11 receiver and No. 102 recruit in the class: The Chicagoland product visited Iowa a handful of times and took looks at Michigan and Wisconsin, seemingly intent on staying in the Midwest. Williams has all the fundamentals wanted of a receiver, 6-foot-2 size combined with a comfort catching the ball. Time will reveal what part of his game, if any, develops into his specialty.

Consensus four-star tight end Jack Larsen (Charlotte Catholic; N.C.), ranked as the No. 7 tight end and No. 187 recruit in the class: Whether Larsen will be the next piece of “Tight End U” or not is a premature thought, but at 6-foot-3 and an ability to snag passes downfield over defenders, Larsen already looks the part. Credit a basketball background for that aerial ability.

Four-star offensive guard Peter Jones (Malvern Prep; Penn.), ranked as the No. 4 offensive guard and No. 99 recruit in the class: Jones plays tackle in high school, nearly an absolute requirement for any offensive line prospect chased by Irish offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, but his playing style suggests a future on the inside of the line.

Consensus four-star defensive tackle Owen Wafle (Hun School; Princeton, N.J.), ranked as the No. 10 defensive tackle in the class: Pronounced like playful, not waffle, Wafle should add weight to his 6-foot-3, 235-pound frame as he grows from a high-school junior into a college player. That may seem obvious, but the quality of that weight he adds in the next 20 months will be what most determines how quickly he can contribute in South Bend.

Consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati): Anyone committed right now has made a decision relatively early in the recruiting cycle, yet Hobbs was committed to South Carolina for three months before he flipped to Notre Dame in early November. Seeking out a committed three-star more than a year before he can officially sign may strike one as foolish, but Irish cornerbacks coach Mike Mickens has earned some leeway in his evaluations, given the early impacts of Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey in 2022.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Ohio State, Clemson & Pittsburgh hurt most by early NFL draft entrants among Notre Dame’s opponents
40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part I: Notre Dame’s rushing offense hid many early struggles
Part II: Notre Dame’s upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach
Part III: Notre Dame’s November far from the expected disappointment
Part IV: Notre Dame’s 2022 ended where it was always expected to

OUTSIDE READING
How QB Sam Hartman found trouble with turnovers in 2022
College QB Austin Reed got transfer portal offers comparable to late-round NFL draft picks
I requested my Notre Dame admissions file
Boston College, offensive coordinator John McNulty parting ways after 2022 struggles
Hamlin’s injury highlights precarious position of many young N.F.L. players
On the Broncos’ head-coaching finalists
Bally Sports RSNs headed for bankruptcy
Auditor: LSU overpaid Brian Kelly by more than $1M in 2022

40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part IV: Notre Dame’s 2022 ended where it was always expected to

TaxSlayer Gator Bowl - Notre Dame v South Carolina
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Notre Dame did not get there in any way expected, but the Irish season ended about where anticipated in the preseason. Psychological studies could spend hours disagreeing if it would have been better for Notre Dame to go 10-3 with its three losses coming to three top-10 teams or if a 9-4 season with a top-10 upset is better for Marcus Freeman’s program in the long-term.

But either scenario was going to end with the Irish in the Gator Bowl, a likelihood as far back as August.

To finish this recap of 40 preseason predictions

32) “A freshman defensive back will intercept a pass this season, becoming just the second freshman to do so” since 2017. Notre Dame’s defensive backfields have been far from liabilities during this resurgence since the 2016 faceplant, but they have lacked young playmakers, Kyle Hamilton aside.

Enter Benjamin Morrison and not one, not two, not three … but six interceptions in his freshman season. Unfortunately for your prognosticator, that does not equal six correct predictions. (15.5/32)

33) “The spread when the Irish visit the Trojans will be more than a field goal but less than a touchdown.” And indeed, USC was favored by four when Notre Dame visited the weekend after Thanksgiving, in what may have been the last visit the weekend after Thanksgiving. Logic says the Irish and Trojans will continue playing regularly, but USC’s joining the Big Ten in 2024 could change the timing of the meetings, and NCAA rule changes have removed Notre Dame’s want to be on the West Coast that particular week.

The Irish used to disperse their coaches from Washington to Arizona to recruit the Pacific time zone immediately after the season-ending game in California. In a literal sense, it saved those coaches 12-24 hours to not have to travel to Seattle or Phoenix from South Bend, particularly vital in a crucial recruiting window.

But now, the days after Thanksgiving are a dead period, so the coaches cannot make those visits. They flew back with the team this year.

Combine that with the Big Ten flux and perhaps Notre Dame starts heading to USC at a different point in the calendar in 2024. (16.5/33)

34) “USC will not make the College Football Playoff.”

Between this, suggesting Ohio State would make the Playoff and mistakenly thinking Clemson would, as well, these preseason predictions accurately predicted the season conclusions for two of the three biggest Irish opponents in 2022. Already suspect the 2023 version will include none of the three making the Playoff. (17.5/34)

35) Sophomore receiver Lorenzo Styles’ disappointing 2022 — 30 catches for 340 yards and one touchdown — cost him any semblance of NFL draft buzz a year before he is eligible for the draft. A breakout 2023 would obviously change that, but that was not the prediction. (17.5/35)

36) Blake Grupe fell two makes short of the predicted 80 percent field-goal rate, finishing at 73.7 percent on 14-of-19. A career 74.4 percent kicker before he arrived at Notre Dame, the Arkansas State graduate transfer’s 2022 fell in line with his career. (17.5/36)

37) Arguing Notre Dame would score fewer than 32.8 points per game in 2022 was based on the lack of depth at receiver, subsequently underscored by Styles’ struggles. Expecting the Irish to slow things down made a lower-scoring season a strong thought, though perhaps not as low as the 31.4 scored per game in 2018, the low of the last six years.

Notre Dame threaded that needle with 31.8 points per game, a number buoyed, though not shockingly, by the punt-block unit and Morrison’s contributions. (18.5/37)

38) The Irish had gone 54-10 in Brian Kelly’s final five years in South Bend, winning at least 10 games each year. Predicting a sixth season of double-digit wins was a mistake largely thanks to Audric Estimé’s fumble in the fourth quarter against Stanford. (18.5/38)

39) This final stretch of predictions focused on hitting a few tight windows. The spread against USC, the exact scoring average and … where Notre Dame would play in a bowl game.

“Notre Dame will play in Florida before New Year’s.”

As complicated as bowl scenarios get during the season and then even the week of selections with the Holiday Bowl in San Diego reportedly campaigning hard for the Irish, sticking with initial expectations would have been a smart travel-planning strategy. (19.5/39)

40) 

(20.5/40)

40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part I: Notre Dame’s rushing offense hid many early struggles
Part II: Notre Dame’s upset losses should have been expected from a first-year head coach
Part III: Notre Dame’s November far from the expected disappointment

40 Preseason Predictions Revisited, part III: Notre Dame’s November far from the expected disappointment

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Recapping these preseason predictions bit by bit has emphasized how much of a see-saw Notre Dame’s 2022 was. They expected decent Irish success at Ohio State to open the season, which was realized. They then plainly assumed Notre Dame would continue to wallop overmatched opponents as Brian Kelly made the default.

Instead, Marcus Freeman stubbed his toe twice as first-year head coaches are wont to do, rendering that stretch of predictions largely flawed.

Now, the predictions tilt into early November, expecting little from the Irish. Of course, that was exactly when Freeman delivered the defining moment of his debut campaign.

21) “Notre Dame will top last year’s 41 sacks, which was a Kelly Era high. The Ademilola twins, junior defensive end Rylie Mills and at least one linebacker will each make at least three sacks.”

The first part of that fell inarguably short, 38 clearly less than 41. But the next sentence held more merit. Defensive end Justin Ademiloa and twin brother tackle Jayson Ademilola each had three sacks while Mills added 3.5. No linebacker reached three unless willing to still count Jordan Botelho as a linebacker with his 4.5 sacks. Given two of those came in the Gator Bowl when Botelho was clearly a defensive end, that would be generous grading. Instead, this entire prediction should be considered wrong, alas. (12/21)

22) Did this space continue publishing as planned after the Minnesota Timberwolves home opener? The running content calendar says a “Leftovers & Links” column ran on Oct. 20, the day after. Take the wins where you can find them, especially as a Timberwolves fan. (13/22)

23) The Irish had won 25 straight regular-season games against ACC opponents entering the season. Predicting that would reach 27 meant predicting Notre Dame would beat North Carolina and Syracuse. Check and check. (14/23)

24) That did not push the Irish into the top 10 of the initial College Football Playoff rankings, as predicted, thanks to the mishaps against Marshall and Stanford. (14/24)

25) And here comes a stretch of predictions predicated in pessimism, focused on how Notre Dame would fare against Clemson. The Irish had won 16 straight games in November entering the 2022 season. Suggesting that would end at 16 was suggesting Notre Dame would lose to Clemson on the first weekend of November.

Rather, that was the win in Freeman’s first season that will be long remembered. (14/25)

26) That expected loss was based on Clemson’s defensive front holding Notre Dame’s ground game in check. There was no expectation the Irish would dominate there with 264 rushing yards on 46 carries after adjusting for a single one-yard sack. Logan Diggs ran for 114 yards on 17 carries while Audric Estimé took 18 rushes for 104 yards. (14/26)

27) That loss did not knock Clemson out of the College Football Playoff. The Tigers messing around and finding out against South Carolina did that. But regardless, predicting Clemson would return to the Playoff was ill-fated. (14/27)

28) Notre Dame was 30-1 in its last 31 home games entering the season. Predicting that would reach 35-2 in step with suggesting the Irish would lose to the Tigers was wrong in all sorts of ways, most notably in that the stretch is now 34-3 after Notre Dame went just 4-2 at home last season. Again, Marshall and Stanford. (14/28)

29) Boston College receiver Zay Flowers did not have the predicted 40-yard catch on Senior Day at Notre Dame Stadium. He had a long of 39 yards on a snow-covered field playing with a backup quarterback.

The spirit of the prognostication was valid, but alas. (14/29)

30) Former Irish tight end George Takacs did not catch a touchdown in his return with the Eagles. No one did. (14/30)

31) And former Notre Dame quarterback Phil Jurkovec did not have a “perfectly adequate day in his return to South Bend, not dramatic enough in any regard to confirm or deny anyone’s expectations for him that day.”

Jurkovec did not play at all, so let’s call this wager a push. He did, however, make some headlines from the sideline.

There is a strong chance this prediction is rerun in its entirety in 2023 with Jurkovec and Pittsburgh heading to South Bend on Oct. 28. (14.5/31)