Things We Learned: ‘Hurry-up Jack’ not just a two-minute drill for Notre Dame anymore

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It took an abysmal start, Notre Dame’s expected quarterback of the future suffering a sprained ankle and then an off week, but the closing two drives at Virginia Tech may have finally shown the Irish what offense they need to run this season, just in time to install the new approach during the idle week.

Notre Dame covered 130 yards on 14 plays in those game-tying and -winning drives against the Hokies, a bit better than opening with two drives totaling 144 yards on 24 plays in Saturday night’s 31-16 win against USC, but similar enough to make the comparison clear. When urgency sparks quickness, the Irish (6-1) can create offensively, something that was tougher to discern during the plodding affairs against Wisconsin and Cincinnati.

Why wait until dire moments spur urgency? They asked themselves that very question while self-scouting during the midseason break.

“We have it when we need it, so why go away from that,” junior running back Kyren Williams said Saturday after taking 31 offensive touches for 180 yards against the Trojans. “Having that tempo creates that sense of urgency as an offense that we have to go get things done.”

Notre Dame averaged 5.9 yards per play against USC before kneeling out the clock on the final drive, a tick up from the 5.81 at Virginia Tech and a callback to the first few weeks of offensive efficiency when the Irish topped 6.0 yards per play against both Florida State and Toledo. Then came the lulls, reaching a nadir of 3.5 yards per play against the Badgers.

The widespread assumptions were that sluggish look tied entirely to Wisconsin transfer quarterback Jack Coan’s weaknesses, but it may have been that Notre Dame was not properly capitalizing on his strengths.

“We’ve got an experienced guy that’s accurate throwing the ball,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “He has a live arm, he can make a lot of throws, you saw the throws he makes. He’s not afraid to put the ball in tight windows, and he can see the field very well.

“What we needed to do as coaches was we needed to put him in a position that makes him feel the most comfortable. It’s better that he doesn’t have a structured offense that slows him down. We needed to put him in shotgun. I know that sounds crazy because he kind of grew up with much more of a direct snap play-action, but that’s not the best version of him, at least that’s what we felt.”

It took Notre Dame longer than it would have liked to figure that out, but understandably so. Coan played in the prototypical Badgers offense, something has not varied for years no matter who the quarterback has been. The assumption was, that was the best version of Coan, a calm quarterback who could make the plays but wasn’t often asked to. With the Irish, at least given the model of success of the last few years, that version would fit. But when Notre Dame’s ground game proved ineffective this season, that design needed to change. Runs on first and second downs before a pass on third down played right into the opposition’s hands.

The quarterback needed to change, but, as it turns out, not necessarily by substitution.

“I would have liked to have been smarter and not have had to go through all this,” Kelly said in a moment ripe for being taken out of context. “At the end of the day, we didn’t have [Coan] here, we didn’t know really until we played games. If we had three (or) four exhibition games, maybe we could have figured it out. We really needed games to figure out where his sweet spot was.”

That ending at Virginia Tech made it clear. With time constraints forcing quick snaps and quicker reads, Coan excelled. Compared to his three drives of 17 yards on 13 plays in the first half, those final two drives were more different than night is from day. They were a look at a modern offense after weeks of 19th-century football.

Right out of the gates against the Trojans, that modern offense had gained speed after two weeks of downtime. Notre Dame regularly snapped the ball with 25 seconds left on the play clock. Coan did not often spend time scanning the field from the pocket, instead capitalizing on routes designed for quick reads. A five-yard out may not be inherently designed to turn into a chunk gain, but it still puts the defense on its heels and with the next snap only 15 seconds away, USC’s defense never truly reset.

“When we have five yards for a quick out, that’s five yards for second-and-five, right back on the ball, and now we run it, it’s third-and-two,” Williams said. “Having that tempo as an offense, being able to get set and snap the ball before the defense can get their call in — we need to keep working on and getting better at it.”

In the first half, Notre Dame threw 10 passes on 1st-and-10s and rushed the ball three times. In the first half two weeks ago, the Irish threw four such passes compared to nine rushes in the first half. Then in Coan’s tying and winning drives, those ratios flipped to four passes and two rushes.

The first four Irish plays against USC were all passes, Coan going 3-of-4 for 25 yards. The run-run-pass pattern had been thoroughly abandoned.

“We were in predictable third-down situations,” Kelly said. “We wanted to get out of the predictable situations with Jack. That was part of the self-scouting that allowed us to start thinking about let’s throw it on first down, let’s be a little bit more unpredictable with him.”

Coan finished Saturday night’s opening drive 6-of-9 for 49 yards and it would have been 7-of-9 for 66 yards and a touchdown if senior receiver Kevin Austin had not dropped a third-down crossing route in the red zone. Coan finished the first quarter 10-of-13 for 79 yards with a touchdown, a start reminiscent of that closing flurry at Virginia Tech and eerily similar to his week-one outburst at Florida State.

Those moments of efficiency remind Coan of a time before Wisconsin, a time he ran a hurry-up offense with enough success to earn scholarship offers from Michigan, Louisville and West Virginia.

“I haven’t really done that since high school, and I obviously had a lot of success in high school with it,” Coan said after he finished 20-of-28 for 189 yards. “It gets me into a little bit of a rhythm, a few quick completions, gets me rolling a little bit. Additionally, the defense sometimes has trouble subbing, getting lined up, so it helps us a little. …

“It’s something a little different, something we’ve had success with earlier in the year, so it was something I’m definitely in favor of and excited about.”

Stringing together five drives of at least 70 yards was a result of more than an offense testing the speed limit or the realities of field position allowing such a generalization in the first place. USC’s defense is the worst Notre Dame has faced to date and will remain such for at least another week. The surprise of the lead-footed Coan leading a quick-paced offense certainly compounded the Trojans’ defensive struggles.

“They weren’t expecting hurry-up Jack to be out there,” Kelly said. “He’s been less than that all year.”

Hurry-up Jack won’t catch North Carolina by surprise next weekend, but the Irish should still commit to the rapid snaps and quick reads, not just because Hurry-up Jack has a certain lyrical rhythm to it. The comeback at Virginia Tech showed the immediate impact of its on-field rhythm. Installing that full throttle during the October break revealed a level of offense Notre Dame has lacked for most of the year.

“It was just trying to find what we felt like was his niche,” Kelly said. “We’ve seen enough snapshots of what it was. This was one game, but it was a good snapshot of what we think he can be the rest of the year for us.”

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.