And In That Corner … The No. 7 Cincinnati Bearcats bring close, personal ties to Notre Dame

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Notre Dame has hosted two top-10 matchups since 2018, beating No. 7 Stanford then and No. 1 Clemson last year. Back in 2018, the thought that a top-10 tilt in South Bend would soon feature not only Cincinnati but a favored No. 7 Cincinnati (3-0) would have been nearly incomprehensible, even if the Bearcats went 11-2 in 2018 and finished the year in the top 25.

Cincinnati has won 34 of its last 40 games, not quite the pace of the Irish going 37-5 since the start of the 2018 season, but by no means have the Bearcats come out of nowhere in 2021. Head coach Luke Fickell has been building to this for a while.

To get a look at how Cincinnati has gotten to this point, let’s turn to Keith Jenkins of The Cincinnati Enquirer

DF: The Cincinnati hype is mixed around Notre Dame. Some fans insist the raw talent disparity should make this an Irish cakewalk, while the fatalists are convinced Notre Dame has no chance against a quality opponent not quarterbacked by Graham Mertz.

I’d like to try to find the reality between those two camps, so let’s start with the raw talent disparity. It does exist — My database shows the Irish roster, considering only transfers and recruiting, as the No. 10 most talented in the country, while the Bearcats come in at No. 48. Obviously, this does not factor in evaluation, development or scheme. When it comes to evaluation and/or development, what players quickly exceeded even Cincinnati’s expectations, suggesting they should have been more broadly recruited in the first place?

KJ: Development has arguably been the biggest key to Cincinnati’s success of late. Unlike Brian Kelly, Luke Fickell doesn’t have a roster full of four-star and five-star guys. But he does have a lot of three-star guys who he and his staff have developed into some of the top players in the country. Junior Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner is one of the top two cornerbacks in college football. It’s either Gardner or LSU’s Derek Stingley Jr. at No. 1 on many draft boards. Gardner was a skinny kid from Detroit that didn’t have a bunch of offers. Now, he’s a true shutdown corner.

Senior defensive end Myjai Sanders is one of the top edge rushers in the country. He’s another guy that wasn’t one of the blue-chip recruits coming out of Jacksonville. Marcus Freeman deserves a lot of credit for finding those guys and helping them develop into the players they are today.

Linebackers Darrian Beavers and Deshawn Pace, two more Freeman recruits, were two guys who had standout careers at Cincinnati’s Colerain High School but didn’t have a lot of huge offers. They’ve been the two top performers on Cincinnati’s defense this season.

The biggest example of development at Cincinnati is fifth-year quarterback Desmond Ridder. He was a tall, lanky athlete from Louisville that not a lot of programs wanted. Fickell didn’t find Ridder. Tommy Tuberville and Zac Taylor brought Ridder to Cincinnati, but Fickell honored Ridder’s scholarship and developed him from a run-first quarterback to a true dual-threat guy that will be in the NFL this time next year. Fickell also has gotten lucky with some big-time transfers like Michael Young Jr. (Notre Dame) and Jerome Ford (Alabama).

The development factor obviously best shows itself in fifth-year quarterback Desmond Ridder, once upon a time a two-star prospect who could have been a mid-round draft pick this past spring. What brought him back for one more year?

Ridder came back because he wanted to go down as one of the top players in program history. I think he’s already done that, but another great season will not only improve his draft stock but also help him claim a few more spots in the record books. He also wants his name on the Ring of Honor at Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium. That’s something that means a lot to him.

Ridder is averaging nine yards per attempt this season. While the Bearcats have a strong run game — averaging five yards per carry — I trust Notre Dame to hold up well against the ground attack, particularly after last week’s dominance against Wisconsin. At that point, the game will be in Ridder’s hands. Can I assume Cincinnati would be very comfortable trusting Ridder to win this? What would Ridder’s success look like — deliberate, methodical, waiting for a break or pushing the envelope downfield hoping for the big play or utilizing his mobility as much as his arm?

Like most quarterbacks, if Ridder can put a big play on the board early, his confidence will go through the roof. Notre Dame can’t let that happen. Ridder’s first throw of the season was an 81-yard touchdown. He had some big plays with his legs at Indiana that helped open up that game. Fickell has all the confidence in the world in Ridder.

That offensive line? Not so much. If they have a good game and give Ridder time to survey the field, he’ll have a big day. If the line struggles like it did in the first half against Indiana, it could get ugly early for the Bearcats.

Defensively, the example of Cincinnati’s development comes up front. Of the five Bearcats with at least two tackles for loss, only senior end Malik Vann was a blue-chip prospect, while two of the five were two-star recruits. Yet I am confident now at least a few of these players will have NFL careers. Does Notre Dame have any hope of running on this defense that has given up only 3.48 yards per rush? I try not to ask questions that can be answered with one word, but I won’t fault you if you simply say, “No.”

No.

It’s hard to run on Cincinnati. The Bearcats’ defensive line may be their biggest strength. It’s also tough to get the ball outside. Gardner and Coby Bryant may be the No. 1 cornerback tandem in college football. They both were first-team all-conference performers a season ago. Gardner was on near every All-American team. Bryant is back for a graduate season, and Gardner was an AP preseason first-team All-American (along with Stingley). The middle of the field is where Cincinnati could struggle. Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer is a legit talent. If he can exploit the middle of that Cincinnati defense, it could open up things for the Irish offensively.

Does the faulty Irish offensive line have hopes of holding off the Cincinnati pass rush? I am a bit shocked to see it has notched only four sacks so far this season. I did not think it changed that much from Marcus Freeman’s scheme, did it?

The sack numbers haven’t been there yet for the Cincinnati D-line, but the pressure and hits on the quarterback certainly have. Teams are just getting the ball out quickly against Cincinnati because that’s the recipe for success. That and being methodical. Slow down the pace, move the chains and keep Ridder and that offense off the field. That’s the key for Notre Dame. If that Irish O-line struggled against Wisconsin, it’s certainly going to struggle against Cincinnati if it hasn’t figured out some things.

Speaking of Freeman — How exhausting has that storyline been on that side of this coverage? In my mind, I would think the Bearcats are more focused on being a Playoff contender than on facing their old defensive coordinator.

Freeman has certainly been a storyline and talking point. Many of the players on Cincinnati’s defense are there because of Freeman. Period. They want to show Freeman that he made a mistake by choosing to leave. But ultimately, none of those emotions will matter much once the ball goes up.

Let’s touch on the other piece of that narrative before we finish up here: How does the Cincinnati fan base feel about Brian Kelly 12 years later? I know there was a well-received 10th anniversary for his 2009 team a couple years ago. That at least suggested to me all fences were mended and Kelly’s successes were solely celebrated.

Cincinnati fans hate Brian Kelly. And that’s putting it kindly. It’s not because he left, it’s how he left. But seeing Fickell take the program further than Kelly did helps.

Cincinnati fans want nothing more than for Fickell and the Bearcats to thump Kelly in South Bend and laugh on their way out.

What have I missed in this conversation? If I have come across as diminishing the Bearcats, my intention was the exact opposite. I recognize this is a really good team that returned a ton from its unbeaten 2020 regular season. Creating that kind of run at a Group of Five school is impressive, and I always think the development is the biggest contributing factor to it.

What do you see happening Saturday? Notre Dame has not lost at home since the second week of 2017, but it has been the underdog at home just twice in that run of 26 straight.

Fickell doesn’t use “Group of Five” or “Power Five” in his program. I think that has paid a lot of dividends in helping this team think it can play with anyone anywhere. The talent gap isn’t as wide as people may think. That Will Likely show on Saturday. I think it will be close. But if it’s close, Notre Dame will have the edge because it’s in South Bend.

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.