And In That Corner … The Virginia Tech Hokies again hope to send a Notre Dame season spiraling

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 25 Richmond at Virginia Tech
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For the third time in just four years and the fourth time in seven years, No. 14 Notre Dame (4-1) meets Virginia Tech (3-1). ACC opponents were originally expected to pop up on the schedule about once every three years, but the pandemic threw some of that planning out the window, and suddenly the Irish and the Hokies are becoming very familiar with each other.

To help understand this version of Virginia Tech, one that opened the year with a bang and has since slowly drifted from most national consciousness, let’s turn to Michael Barber of The Richmond Times-Dispatch, a regular contributor to this series at this point …

DF: Let’s abandon in-depth stats lampooning Virginia Tech’s passing game (190.8 yards per game) and even more so senior quarterback Braxton Burmeister (61.4 percent completion rate, 7.4 yards per attempt), and let’s skip doubting the Hokies running game that averages 3.6 yards per carry.

There is an unexpected and unique pattern with Virginia Tech when it comes to facing Notre Dame during this 2017-present resurgence. Somehow it seems whenever the Irish come to a proverbial fork in the road, it is against the Hokies. In 2018, Notre Dame had just beaten No. 7 Stanford, reaching 5-0. A road trip to Lane Stadium to face No. 24 Virginia Tech was the last great hurdle foreseen between the Irish and the Playoff. Dexter Williams silenced the crowd with his 97-yard touchdown run to spark a 45-23 win that wasn’t that close.

Then in 2019, fresh off getting walloped by Michigan, Notre Dame hosted the Hokies in the infamous Ian Book “shush” game, righting that season for the Irish.

Here we are again, Notre Dame pondering what direction its season will go. From the other sideline, do these tides resonate at all? Is there any sense of possibility in this chance to knock the Irish back when they are already teetering, either now or in 2019?

MB: I think the only part of those circumstances that mattered to Tech was — like last weekend’s loss to Cincinnati — they made Notre Dame appear more beatable. Whether it’s the history or the national ranking, there is something extra for teams playing the Irish. For younger teams, it can be intimidation, but even for more veteran clubs, there’s almost a distraction inherent in facing Notre Dame.

Tech’s recent “success” against Notre Dame probably resonates more — the 34-31 win in 2016, Justin Fuente’s first year with the Hokies, and the 21-20 near-miss in 2019 when Tech played with its backup quarterback.

The Hokies goal is to win the ACC Coastal. That is what, most likely, can save coach Justin Fuente’s job and make this season successful. To that end, Saturday’s game is virtually meaningless to Tech. But don’t tell that to the players, coaches or fans.

When it comes to Lane Stadium, does the fan base relish a chance to restore its noise after Williams so adamantly quieted it three years ago?

Since not being allowed in the building last year, Tech fans relish every chance to restore the feeling that Lane Stadium is a tough place to play. The atmosphere for the opener was down-right electric against North Carolina. I’d expect that same energy and volume, and maybe more, for Saturday night against Notre Dame. Night games at Lane Stadium are always special, but a big-name, ranked opponent ratchets that up a few notches.

The return of the “Enter Sandman” entrance (I still love it, too, even after all these years.) was the perfect start to a big win in the opener. There’s no denying, the Hokies feed off the crowd and that energy, so the Irish would be wise to strike early and take the crowd out of this one.

That place was rocking to start the season, and after 2020, it was a true joy to see. (We’ll also set aside my deep love for the “Enter Sandman” entrance.) That upset of then-No. 10 North Carolina changed some of the tunes around Virginia Tech, but there were two ways to view that 17-10 win: Sure, the Hokies shut down what has become an explosive offense, but they also could not score much against a poor defense. Despite facing FCS-level Richmond and the No. 109 defense in SP+ rankings in Middle Tennessee State, Virginia Tech is averaging just 23.5 points per game.

Where is the Hokies offense consistently falling short?

Certainly, there are issues all over for this offense. Fans have been calling for the scalp of offensive coordinator Brad Cornelsen for the past 3-4 years now, but, to me, play-calling isn’t the biggest problem. The offensive line hasn’t been as good as Tech had hoped and the right tackle position has been problematic. Silas Dzansi has been injured, as has his backup, Parker Clements. Veteran Tyrell Smith looked overmatched playing that position.

The running game has yet to get in gear. Jalen Holston and Raheem Blackshear have both had good moments, but have not been consistently productive. No one anticipated either player putting up the gaudy numbers Khalil Herbert did a year ago, but the hope was a combination of backs could make up for that production. That hasn’t been the case. And, despite touting its young wide receivers all season, Tech basically has thrown the ball to three wideouts this season — Tre Turner, Tayvion Robinson and Kaleb Smith. The lack of depth at that position has hurt, as has the season-ending injury to star tight end James Mitchell.

Still, to me, the biggest problem for the offense has been that quarterback Braxton Burmeister hasn’t lived up to the expectations. He’s been good at times, really good in a few spots, but wildly inconsistent. Tech needs Burmeister to play a steady and strong game to get the offense out of its funk.

I suppose in some respect, this is a vintage Virginia Tech team. Little offense, all defense. The strongest part of that defense is against the pass, but it does give up more than four yards per rush. Since I am pretty sure the answer is still “No” to “Is this the defense that Notre Dame can run against?” I will skip to, how is the Hokies coaching staff approaching the uncertain Irish quarterback situation?

Justin Fuente was asked about this Monday. He said that the offense doesn’t seem to change much whether it’s Jack Coan or Drew Pyne in the game. He said that when Tyler Buchner is playing, that’s when the offense looks like a different animal. Notre Dame appears to utilize Buchner’s running ability and athleticism more.

Fuente said, at the end of the day, the Hokies need to prepare for what Notre Dame has done the most and the best, and not “chase ghosts” trying to prepare for all the nuanced variations of each possible quarterback. In effect, it sounds like Tech will prepare for all three possible QBs but not overly focusing on that position.

And speaking of the Virginia Tech coaches (and program-wide referendums), what is the current temperature of head coach Justin Fuente’s seat? It was scorching before the season, then cooled off with that upset of the Tar Heels, but losing at West Virginia is never a good look for a Hokies head coach, and this season is still very ambiguous for those in Blacksburg.

His athletic director had to hold a press conference after last season to announce he wasn’t firing Fuente, so there’s no denying this is a make-or-break year for Fuente. After winning 10 and 9 games his first two seasons in Blacksburg, winning a division title in Year 1, things have been trending in an ugly direction.

Tech is 22-19 since the start of the 2018 season, with two losing campaigns mixed in there.

Still, Fuente took a major step toward coming back in 2022 by beating North Carolina in the opener. He burned up a lot of that goodwill with lackluster showings against Middle Tennessee State and Richmond and the loss at West Virginia. A loss to Notre Dame, especially a lopsided one, will crank the heat up on Fuente in a major way from fans. But as far as the administration, I still believe that winning the Coastal Division at 9-3 or 8-4, as long as that includes a win over rival Virginia, will be enough to save Fuente.

He has a very strong recruiting class lined up for 2022 and he has improved his public persona some.

It’s that kind of tipping point again for Notre Dame, somehow always against Virginia Tech. These Hokies are not ranked like they were in 2018, but really, what is the practical difference between No. 24 in the polls and six deep into the “others receiving votes” category? This feels like more of a challenge, and the line agrees. The Irish were favored by six on the road in 2018 (and by 17 for that 21-20 win in 2019), whereas they are just 1-point favorites this week. What do you expect to see Saturday? Can the Hokies finally send Notre Dame down the other side of a make-or-break moment?

I’ve been wrestling with this pick. Both teams have offensive issues and I don’t think either will get that straightened out this week. Both teams have strong defenses that I think will rise to the occasion in this one. The Hokies get a slight edge being at home, where, as mentioned, I think the crowd will be a factor.

But at the end of the day, even with its quarterback issues, it feels like Notre Dame has more players capable of making a game-breaking play than Tech does. Virginia native Chris Tyree immediately comes to mind. I think this game will be close and competitive all the way through, but I’m expecting a big play on offense, a pick-six on defense or a kick return for a score to be the difference in an Irish win. I like Notre Dame 28-24 in this one. 

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

Clemson v 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.