Things We Learned: ‘Not perfect’ Notre Dame’s resilience gives improvements time

Notre Dame v Virginia Tech
Getty Images
22 Comments

Nobody was about to accuse Notre Dame of being perfect, but it warranted reiterating, nonetheless. After putting those imperfections on repeated display throughout the season’s first month, the Irish (5-1) doubled down on them at Virginia Tech on Saturday in a 32-29 win.

And while this lede would have a much nicer bow if Notre Dame had not lost to Cincinnati two weeks ago — Yet, the Irish reached their idle week perfect in the only way that matters. — it should still be emphasized that Notre Dame’s imperfections did not cost it in Blacksburg. Instead, the players pushing through those struggles came out on top, as cheesy as that sounds.

“Just so many stories about players persevering,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “I’ll get off my soapbox, let you guys dig into the game because we’re not perfect. That’s okay with me.”

Those stories began and ended with quarterback Jack Coan, very literally so.

Saturday’s first quarter put Coan’s faults on full display, the offense not moving, three drives going nowhere with two of them losing yards. Notre Dame’s running backs took seven carries for 23 yards in the first quarter, hardly a sustainable offensive model.

Saturday’s fourth quarter put Coan’s strengths under an even brighter spotlight. The Coan that showed up after freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner appeared to turn his ankle is the Coan that Kelly raved about all preseason and the Coan that threw for four touchdowns and 366 yards at Florida State to open the season. Two drives expertly managed, gaining an average of 8.6 yards per play, completing 7-of-9 passes despite the Hokies knowing the Irish did not have enough time to rely on running the ball.

That was the Coan needed by Notre Dame not only Saturday, but all along in 2021, all the way back to January.

“I didn’t name him the starting quarterback because it came up on the Ouija board,” Kelly said. “That’s the way it is (when) we see him every day, that’s what he does. Yeah, it was uneven to start, but that’s why we pulled him.”

Coan needing to be benched was an embodiment of Irish imperfections. Shaking that off to lead a game-tying and then a game-winning drive was not only a dramatic example of resilience but also not something Coan did on his own. For that matter, struggling early was not solely Coan’s doing, either.

The offensive line did not protect Coan well or open many holes for the running backs, even with freshman Joe Alt becoming the fourth starter in six games at left tackle. (For comparison, Notre Dame started a total of four left tackles to cover all but two games in Kelly’s first 11 years in South Bend.) Then junior Andrew Kristofic stepped in at left guard, replacing junior Zeke Correll.

Kelly pointed to Kristofic’s size advantage as the reason for the substitution, outweighing Correll by some 20 pounds, but that is the second time that reasoning has led to the same change in the season’s first half.

“That size in there — I love the two kids that were in there, they were 285 and 286 on the left side — we got bigger,” Kelly said. “Alt is 306, Kristofic is 305, we’re bigger, more physical, and that’s where we got better.”

Again using Coan’s bookends as reference points, the difference in the line play was notable. In the first quarter, Coan was sacked twice for a combined loss of eight yards, was pressured another time though the play ended with him gaining one yard, and a false start from Correll cost a chance at a fourth-and-short conversion.

The pocket could not have been much cleaner for Coan in the closing two drives.

Not to be too selective with stats or to harp too much on the improvements that came soon after benching Correll — more naturally a center by trade, not to mention someone who has always been undersized so that should not exactly have been a surprise to the coaching staff this fall — but if simply removing those seven first-quarter running back carries and Coan’s one-yard gain evading a sack, rush attempts that never had much of a chance, then the Irish averaged 5.1 yards per rush at Virginia Tech, gaining 168 yards on 33 carries (sacks adjusted). Entering the weekend, Notre Dame had averaged 3.64 yards per rush (sacks adjusted).

“Today was like a coming-out party for us,” Kelly said. “The O-linemen in [the locker room] are pretty happy.

“[Junior running back Kyren Williams] ran with an edge today. You saw him run and breakthrough on that [third] touchdown. That was beast mode for him. He had an edge about him today.”

That edge coming from Williams is no surprise. The Irish so desperately needing that edge is a mild surprise. That edge, along with Coan’s resilience and a (finally) improving offensive line, should make for an intriguing second half of the year.

TOO YOUNG TO KNOW BETTER
Buchner first silenced Lane Stadium with his pair of efficient touchdown drives in the second quarter, but he cranked the bass back up with his pick-six gift to Hokies cornerback Jermaine Waller late in the third quarter.

When dialed in like that, Lane Stadium is a magnificent atmosphere and not somewhere for the young and inexperienced to expect to shine, but maybe Notre Dame’s freshmen simply did not know better.

“On the road in this environment, we were poised to get them this experience,” Kelly said. “We needed to get them — this is what we talked about this week. We’re reaching the halfway point. We’re gonna be who we are. We’ve got to get these guys in the game and get this experience if we want to win the rest of the games that we play.

“They have to get in this game, they have to feel it, they have to be part of it, they have to contribute.”

Contribute they did.

Alt started at left tackle and did not draw a single flag. Freshman running back Logan Diggs took six carries for 29 yards and did not hesitate to step into pass protection on Coan’s game-tying drive; the Irish had no other running back available if Diggs was not up to the task. Freshman tight end Mitchell Evans was elevated to the No. 2 tight end role, a common one in Tommy Rees’ offense, while junior Michael Mayer was sidelined by a groin injury, and Evans played well enough, misguided targeting penalty aside.

Freshman receivers Lorenzo Styles and Deion Colzie drew attention from defensive backs and spared a few routes from their upperclassman teammates’ legs. Not to mention, Buchner did lead three scoring drives before Virginia Tech’s disguised coverages made him look like someone who has not played a full game of football in two years.

‘WISH IT WASN’T THIS HARD’
Kelly said those freshmen playing, playing well and playing well in a hostile environment could be a key to Notre Dame winning the rest of its games this season. That sounds a lot like coming perfection.

It will not be that easy, not at all.

“I’m so proud of the guys that just hung in there,” Kelly said. “I wish it wasn’t this hard, but it is right now, and we’re battling through it.”

The charitable reading is that Kelly remembers what not battling through it feels like. The Irish very much did not battle in 2016. And since then, they have reeled off four consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins and gone 53-9.

Much of that stretch was easier than it has been for Notre Dame thus far in 2021, but continuing that stretch by any means necessary is a step in the right direction for the Irish, regardless.

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

0 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
18 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.

The lull of National Signing Day underscores need to move the early signing period

Getty Images
45 Comments

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.