And In That Corner … Purdue’s return to Notre Dame comes at key point in Jeff Brohm’s tenure

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 11 Purdue at UConn
Getty Images
9 Comments

Notre Dame may be a bit unfamiliar with Purdue at the moment; they last met in 2014 and the Boilermakers have switched coaches since then. Before that hiatus, the in-state rivals had met every year since World War II, 69 years in a row.

This unfamiliarity will not last through the decade. This weekend’s matchup (2:30 ET; NBC) is only the first of a six-game series, with the subsequent five rattling off from 2024 to 2028.

But for now, the No. 12 Irish (2-0) need to study someone unknown. Then again, they might need to in three years, as well, if Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm does not reverse his current trend lines soon.

To get a better idea of Brohm’s status and the Boilermakers’ best players, let’s chat with Mike Carmin, of Lafayette’s Journal & Courier.

DF: Thanks, Mike. To be honest, a few weeks ago I was hardly thinking much of this game, but given how Notre Dame’s season has started, this weekend suddenly carries some hefty intrigue.

Purdue, meanwhile, did not struggle too much with Oregon State and then shut out Connecticut this past weekend. One of those results tells me more than the other, no offense intended to the Huskies. The 30-21 season-opening win does not look dominant, and the Beavers were within two points late in the fourth quarter, but the Boilermakers did not trail after tying the game at seven and outgained Oregon State by 38 yards. Maybe more notably, they had a 24-15 advantage in first downs, one team able to sustain drives and the other not.

What surprised you in Purdue’s first two games, specifically in that opener? Again, anything revealed against Connecticut comes with a hefty disclaimer.

MC: Nothing surprised me but there were unknowns going into the first game. The No. 1 thing was the defense since Jeff Brohm made wholesale changes with four new coaches and a new scheme in the offseason. The defense is playing more aggressive, challenging routes and disrupting the running game. The Boilermakers gave up some big plays but stepped up when they needed to. Most of the starters played only a half against UConn.

On Monday, Brian Kelly argued Boilermakers defensive end George Karlaftis is the best pass rusher in the country. Whether the best or one of the best, he has no sacks and only half a tackle for loss this season. Sure, two games is a small sample size, and without checking the snap counts against Connecticut, he likely played only a part-time role in that exhibition, but I would have expected Karlaftis to start the season quickly against the Beavers. How has he been slowed down? Or am I reading too much into two games?

This is a situation where numbers don’t tell the story. Through two games, Purdue has one sack. Go back and watch the games and see how many times Karlaftis pressured Oregon State’s quarterback and again Saturday at UConn. Karlaftis has nine quarterback hurries (sportsinfosolutions.com) this season but no sacks. He’ll get there eventually, and it may not be this game. The point — I think Purdue has been close to dropping quarterbacks several times and has come up short for a variety of reasons. Last year, they barely got close to the quarterback and the numbers reflected the performance.

Kelly also mentioned junior receiver David Bell by name, deservedly so with 14 catches for 255 yards and three touchdowns in two weeks, but Kelly made it a point to say that offense is not only Bell (pictured at top). Most notably, junior tight end Payne Durham also has three touchdowns, along with 11 catches for 174 yards. (And given my shots at UConn, I’ll follow up with, both Bell and Durham did most of their work in the opener against Oregon State.) Those two make up the vast bulk of the passing offense. First of all, for Notre Dame fans who have not watched him, what sets Bell apart from so many other receivers?

Secondly, if the Irish focus coverage on Bell and Durham — conceivable with junior safety Kyle Hamilton always lurking — who from Purdue would be most likely to break yet another big play against Marcus Freeman’s defense?

Bell’s route running is smooth — think Jerry Rice — and his ability to win one-on-0ne battles. They’re called 50-50 balls but with Bell, they’re more like 80-20. He’s going to come down with most of those catches because of his strength and his athletic ability.

While attention should be on Bell and Durham, the Boilermakers have other weapons. Milton Wright can step up and Jackson Anthrop is more of a possession receiver, but you can’t ignore him. TJ Sheffield should see more time at the slot receiver and is dangerous in the open field. 

Maybe good news for Freeman, the Boilermakers have struggled running the ball, gaining only 96 yards on 32 carries (sacks adjusted) against the Beavers, an even 3.0 yards per carry. Even against the woeful Huskies (how many shots can I take at Connecticut in this Purdue-Notre Dame preview?), they ran for only 4.45 yards per rush. And now leading rusher senior Zander Horvath is out for the next month or two. Is there big-play ability in this ground game? The longest non-Horvath, non-Bell rush I am seeing was a 23-yard dash by junior King Doerue. Will he become the primary back?

Doerue is the No. 1 back during Horvath’s absence, which could be anywhere from 4-8 weeks for a broken fibula. Purdue doesn’t have a burner at running back and it will try to grind out its yards with Doerue and backup Dylan Downing. Don’t be surprised to see a receiver or two jump in the backfield and add some pop to the running game. The key, though, is the offensive line and the unit hasn’t asserted itself in the first two games, and I am not sure how much it will be able to do against the Irish. 

I suppose I am spending so much time on Purdue’s offense because at least I know what to expect from Notre Dame’s defense: Overall good play, a whole lot of havoc and a few big plays allowed. The Irish offense could go either run-heavy or pass-heavy this week, a week to determine its identity. Which would give the Boilermakers more trouble?

Run-heavy attack. Purdue’s defensive line is pretty good on the edges but up the middle is where it is vulnerable. If the Irish can establish a running game inside the tackles, they’ll control the game.

From a macro viewpoint, I have lost track of Jeff Brohm’s status. That 2018 upset of Ohio State was one to remember, and then he has pretty consistently struggled since then. I doubt this 2-0 start has restored complete faith in him. What does Brohm need to do in 2021 to once again be on firm ground in West Lafayette?

He’s accomplished two goals — win the first two games. Everyone outside the program expects a loss Saturday but the next two games are big. Illinois and Minnesota at home. If Purdue could be 4-1 heading into the open week, that sets up the Boilermakers for the second half of the season where there are some winnable games. To me, just getting back to a bowl game is the No. 1 objective for this season. 

Saturday could certainly help Brohm’s cause. As 7-point underdogs, beating that in-state behemoth would resonate around Purdue, no matter how Notre Dame has started 2021. What do you expect this weekend?

I think Purdue can stay in this game, but Brohm will have to scheme around the deficiencies on the offensive line to move the ball. The talent of the Irish should make enough plays to be the difference. Notre Dame has too many players who can take over while the Boilermakers have only a handful. The Irish have played two close games, but I see them pulling away down the stretch.

At every step of his decade at Notre Dame, Tommy Rees provided stability otherwise lacking

New Era Pinstripe Bowl - Rutgers v Notre Dame
Getty Images
23 Comments

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

3 Comments

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
Getty Images
25 Comments

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
Getty Images
3 Comments

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.