And In That Corner … High-scoring Virginia looks to outpace Notre Dame’s newfound offense

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Notre Dame and Virginia do not have a long history like the No. 9 Irish (8-1) do with a few ACC teams, nor do they have an intriguing one a la Virginia Tech’s role in recent Notre Dame seasons. But that could change this weekend, with the Cavaliers (6-3) closing in on their third winning season in four years, the only exception being a 5-5 showing during 2020’s chaos.

Virginia boasts the country’s best offense in terms of total yards, No. 4 in yards per play and No. 11 in points per game. Irish head coach Brian Kelly wasted no time Monday before acknowledging the clear worries such an attack presents.

“Obviously, going on the road against an explosive offensive football team,” he said. “I don’t want to bore you with the facts other than it’s the number-one total offensive team in the country playing at home after a week off. It will be a great challenge for our football team, in particular, our defense.”

But offense is not exactly what Cavaliers head coach Bronco Mendenhall has made his career on, so to get a better idea of how this version of Virginia came to be, let’s turn to Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, before we get to Saturday’s 7:30 ET kickoff on ABC ...

DF: I don’t remember Bronco Mendenhall being an offensive wonder at BYU. His background is entirely defensive, tracing back to playing defensive back at Oregon State. But increasingly, his Virginia time seems marked by offenses. That has reached a new peak this year, averaging 38.9 points per game and 7.18 yards per play. Is this a result of personnel more than anything else, or has Mendenhall changed his approach given modern trends of college football?

MB: It’s a combination of both factors. Mendenhall has always had progressive ideas on offense. When Taysom Hill was his quarterback at BYU, he and offensive coordinator Robert Anae began developing some of what they’re running now at Virginia.

When they first got to Charlottesville, they installed a ridiculously up-tempo offense, a no-huddle attack designed to keep opposing defenses on their heels. Mendenhalleven had an assistant with a stopwatch keeping time between plays in practice to make sure the Cavaliers were always racing to the line. They scrapped that by Year 2.

Now, with the talent of Brennan Armstrong at quarterback and the weapons around him, especially the versatility of players like Keytaon Thompson, they’ve crafted an offense that has its roots in those Taysom Hill-BYU years. Mendenhall recognizes that high-scoring games are the trend in college football and he likes to stay at the head of trends.

Of course, he still prides himself on defense and I recently asked him if I was correct assuming, given his druthers, that he’d rather win games 13-7 then 48-42. His response? “I’d rather win 13-6.”

That offense this year hinges on junior quarterback Brennan Armstrong, he of 27 touchdown passes and wait, my math must be wrong, he’s averaging 395.2 passing yards per game?!?! Yeah, Mendenhall has leaned into his approach. The first question about Armstrong has to tie to if he will play after appearing to injure his ribs two weeks ago. I get the sense he will, or at least will start the game and go from there. You know better than I do. What sense do you get about Armstrong’s status on Saturday?

Really hard to tell. I think — and my opinion doesn’t matter one iota — that Virginia should shut Armstrong down this week to make sure he’s healthy for the “more important” games against Pittsburgh and rival Virginia Tech. (I say more important because the Cavaliers can win the ACC Coastal Division championship with wins in those games.) But that’s not the way Mendenhall or Armstrong is wired.

Even late in the fourth quarter of blowout losses to North Carolina and Wake Forest, Mendenhall left Armstrong in the game because he said it was important to send the message to the team that they never quit on a game. I thought he was nuts but then watching their comeback win at Louisville, I can at least see the mentality in action.

When I asked Mendenhall about it Monday, he said that he’s “planning” to have Armstrong at quarterback and that even if he can’t practice all week, the Cavaliers would still play him Saturday night if he’s able to go. So, while the smart play would be to rest him, I think there’s a good chance Armstrong tries to play Saturday night.

That ribs injury, how will it change Armstrong’s game? On one hand, a mere throwing motion could be aggravating, and he does that 45 times per game. On the other, scaling back his nine rushing attempts per game should be conceivable, though that could cut into red-zone efficiency.

Armstrong threw one pass after the injury in the BYU game. It was woefully underthrown and picked off. Of course, he’s coming off an open date and, I’m assuming, will be treated by the medical staff with something to limit his pain if he plays Saturday. If he can’t physically throw the ball the way he normally does, I don’t think he plays.

Running it is another story. He suffered a knee injury in Game 2 against Illinois and Virginia essentially took designed quarterback runs out of its playbook for a few weeks until he got healthy. I would think, if he plays, Virginia would be wise to avoid calling his number running the ball and that Armstrong would be coached to slide or get out of bounds quickly if he does scramble.

My greatest wonder with Armstrong’s injury is if he takes a hit and misses even just a series, will Virginia’s offense completely stall? Backup Jay Woolfolk has hardly seen any action. Brian Kelly suggested Monday that Notre Dame might prepare to face a Wildcat offense. First of all, I like good football, so I hope none of this comes to fruition. I hope Armstrong is 100 percent on Saturday night. But if not, what should I expect to see from the Cavaliers offense?

A year ago, Armstrong missed the Wake Forest game due to a concussion. Virginia used a quarterback-by-committee approach that never really had a chance once it fell behind. That game, the Cavaliers used Ira Armstead and Keytaon Thompson as Wildcat-style quarterbacks and veteran backup Lindell Stone in passing situations. The difference this year is, the coaches have a much higher level of confidence in Jay Woolfolk, despite his lack of experience. They consider him a true No. 2 quarterback who is capable of running essentially the same gameplan the team would prepare for Armstrong. Mendenhall mentioned Monday what a major advantage that is. The offense can prepare for the same plan and they don’t have to decide who is playing quarterback until just before kickoff. Thompson, Armstead and Jacob Rodriguez running the ball on direct snaps and sweeps has been a big part of the offense all year and figures to be again Saturday night.

 

Virginia gives up 30.8 points per game. Even if removing the 66 points given up to BYU two weeks ago, it gives up 26.4 points per game. To my eye, the Cavaliers defense is vulnerable to both the run and the pass, and at this point, the Irish may be competent in both regards, quite the shift from a month ago. Let’s assume Notre Dame will score at least 30 points, as it has in its last four games against defenses all better than Virginia’s, even if some of them were not necessarily good. How would you anticipate the Irish finding the bulk of that success?

Virginia’s defense, for the second year in a row, has been susceptible to big plays, by the run or the pass. The Cavaliers have even switched up scheme-wise to play much more 3-3-5, dropping eight defenders into coverage. The problem has been, that approach generates little to no pressure on opposing passers, takes away from the run defense and, honestly, hasn’t really cut down on big plays. The problem for most of the season has been missed assignments and alignment errors. But last time out, at BYU, Virginia missed a stunning number of tackles. It’s crazy to say after a game where they gave up 66 points and more than 700 yards of total offense, but in some ways, the defense was better in that game then it’s been. It had guys in the right spots for most of the night, but the missed tackles rendered that largely irrelevant.

I anticipate Notre Dame having success running the ball with Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree, and that those two will have chances for some big plays.

I don’t mean to only knock the Cavaliers, but with Armstrong’s injury, the threat of Virginia’s offense becomes as much a hypothetical as anything, and that defense’s struggles are decidedly not hypothetical. Do you think it can pull off this upset on Saturday?

I think you’re being fair. With a healthy Armstrong, the answer would be yes. If he’s anything less than at his best, it becomes no. I do believe the defense is capable of more than it’s shown, and Virginia has been an outstanding home team the past few seasons. Still, if I were a betting man – and I am – I’d take Notre Dame 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

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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.