Notre Dame, Kyren Williams stiff arm North Carolina upset attempt, 44-34

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Kyren Williams should have been tackled in Notre Dame’s backfield. The Irish should have been pinned deep in their own territory with North Carolina relishing the momentum in a close game. The result should have been hanging in the balance.

Williams had other ideas. His footwork did not let him be taken down so easily in the backfield. His stiff arm sent Tar Heels linebacker Tomon Fox to the ground with such ferocity it would have fit in a Halloween horror movie. And his speed gave linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel a great view of North Carolina’s hopes slipping away, 91 yards at a time.

“I knew I was going to score as soon as I stiff-armed No. 12,” Williams said. “At first, it was very cloudy, for sure. The play was originally supposed to go right front-side, and something, I don’t even know what happened, something threw me off to where I looked backside and [saw] nothing but green and No. 12 there.

“I just knew at that point, when I turned the corner, I had to get going and there was no denying me getting in the end zone.”

Williams turned a precarious 31-27 lead into a dominant 38-27 one, the touchdown intangibly worth more than seven points, its dramatics dialing up its impact, providing the game-winning score in Notre Dame’s 44-34 win on Saturday night.

“It’s an improving football team,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We’ve got five Power Five wins, is that right? Six, we’ve got six Power Five wins. It’s an improving football team. I just like the position that we’re in, we’re getting better each and every week.”

Williams had help in his decisive moment. Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer cleared a path up the sideline, keeping Tar Heels cornerback Tony Grimes engaged and at an arm’s length until Williams was well past the defender. Fifth-year receiver Avery Davis stuck with the play, outrunning Williams actually, to cut off Gemmel’s chance at tripping up the junior running back.

“It means everything for me, I know what they do each and every week,” Williams said of his downfield help. “They’re there to catch balls, but when they need to block, they aren’t going to throw a fit about it and they’re going to execute to the highest level. I just remember, Avery coming down the field running with me stride for stride making sure no one comes from behind and gets me. I appreciate all my boys out there, everybody collectively working as a group.”

A group effort may have been needed, but the play will be remembered for Williams’ individual brilliance, his cutback, his stiff arm, his acceleration, all part of how he ended up with 199 rushing yards — that yard short of 200 visibly and admittedly bothering Williams after the game — to end any North Carolina upset hopes.

Williams’ was not the only shocking run of the night, just the most dramatic. Irish quarterback Jack Coan — note, that is not a typo, this is a running highlight featuring Coan and not freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner — found a seam in the Tar Heels defense early in the third quarter for a 21-yard touchdown, his surprising wheels a quick response to North Carolina’s only lead of the night.

The Tar Heels (4-4) had come out of halftime and quickly put Notre Dame (7-1) on its heels with a 53-yard touchdown run from Ty Chandler in which he simply was not touched as he outran senior safety DJ Brown. They led for 58 seconds before Coan lumbered into the end zone.

That kind of speed was to be expected from Chandler or Williams. From Coan, it came as more of a surprise, even to him. He said he did not believe he was actually going to reach the goal line until he actually did.

“I don’t take anything for granted when I’m running,” Coan said. “It was sort of like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m still going.’”

Coan nearly scored twice, finding a seam earlier in the game for an eight-yard gain, stumbling to the two-yard-line. Those moments were not by chance. The Irish saw an opportunity for Coan, even heavy-footed and self-deprecating Coan, to exploit North Carolina’s coverage schemes at points. They just didn’t see him breaking so loose and so close to the end zone.

“We’re picking our spot,” Kelly said. “They are a bracket-coverage team in certain situations, and it was a tendency that we felt like we would get Jack the opportunity to pick up some first downs. We weren’t looking for touchdowns or big plays, we were looking to move the chains.”

It was not a surprise that eventually North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell got in on the offensive explosion that at one point saw the two teams score on eight consecutive possessions and 10 of 11. Howell’s 31-yard scramble to the end zone halfway through the fourth quarter kept the Tar Heels nominally afloat after Williams’ stiff arm-and-dash.

“You can’t take away everything from Howell,” Kelly said. “If they were going to beat us with quarterback draw, it would be the first instance in my career that I would stand at this podium and say, ‘They beat us running quarterback draw.’

“I gotta tell you, we can’t take everything away.”

Howell finished with 115 rushing yards on 15 carries, a 7.7 yards per rush average, and 341 passing yards on 24-of-31, adding another score through the air.

His fourth-quarter scramble, a vintage piece of playmaking from the star junior, served only to alter the night’s optics. Williams had decided the game, not quite single-handedly but nearly, and he had done so in a way that will not be forgotten for a long time.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Coan said, and he may have had the best view of the entire sequence. “That was one of the best runs I’ve seen and in-person, playing. The look we got from the defense, it should have been stopped in the backfield. Somehow he nade a play and got around, just kept going and kept going. It was pretty crazy, an unbelievable play.”

Notre Dame began the scoring with a quick screen to fifth-year receiver Avery Davis from sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner. It was Buchner’s first appearance of the night, coming in to propel the Irish through the red zone, stepping to the sideline briefly, and then returning for one more snap, the touchdown. He played sporadically throughout the evening, most often appearing in the red zone.

Coan finished 16-of-24 with 213 passing yards and a touchdown, in addition to that ground-bound scamper, while Buchner went 2-of-2 for 17 yards and that touchdown to Lenzy, adding 16 yards on four carries.

Notre Dame senior receiver Braden Lenzy left the game in the first quarter entering the concussion protocol, but Kelly was more optimistic about Lenzy’s availability moving forward than usual with a player in the concussion protocol.

Sophomore running back Chris Tyree did line up as the kick returner, but he did not return any and never took an offensive snap, still limited due to the turf toe injury he suffered at Virginia Tech on Oct. 9. Even when Williams was briefly sidelined after a strong hit, it was freshman Logan Diggs who took the subsequent snaps, not Tyree. Diggs finished with 42 yards and a score on 11 carries.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
4:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Avery Davis 7-yard pass from Tyler Buchner. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, North Carolina 0. (7 plays, 41 yards, 3:19)

Second Quarter
14:55 — North Carolina touchdown. Ty Chandler 2-yard rush. Grayson Atkins PAT good. Notre Dame 7, North Carolina 7. (8 plays, 81 yards, 3:23)
10:01 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 31 yards. Notre Dame 10, North Carolina 7. (13 plays, 62 yards, 4:54)
3:22 — North Carolina field goal. Deandre Boykins 38 yards. Notre Dame 10, North Carolina 10. (13 plays, 62 yards, 6:34)
1:23 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Austin 21-yard pass from Jack Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 17, North Carolina 10. (6 plays, 75 yards, 1:59)
0:02 — North Carolina field goal. Atkins 26 yards. Notre Dame 17, North Carolina 13. (7 plays, 51 yards, 1:13)

Third Quarter
13:21 — North Carolina touchdown. Chandler 53-yard rush. Atkins PAT good. North Carolina 20, Notre Dame 17. (5 plays, 79 yards, 1:33)
12:23 Notre Dame touchdown. Coan 21-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, North Carolina 20. (3 plays, 75 yards, 0:58)
4:56 — Notre Dame touchdown. Logan Diggs 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 20. (11 plays, 81 yards, 5:24)
2:48 — North Carolina touchdown. Antoine Green 33-yard pass from Sam Howell. Atkins PAT good. Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 27. (6 plays, 75 yards, 2:08)

Fourth Quarter
14:27 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 91-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 38, North Carolina 27. (1 play, 91 yards, 0:17)
11:52 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 20 yards. Notre Dame 41, North Carolina 27. (5 plays, 13 yards, 2:28)
7:23 — North Carolina touchdown. Howell 31-yard rush. Atkins PAT good. Notre Dame 41, North Carolina 34. (10 plays, 75 yards, 4:29)
1:37 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 21 yards. Notre Dame 44, North Carolina 34. (13 plays, 73 yards, 5:46)

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.