Leftovers & Links: Defensive coordinator delay not a concern for Notre Dame, Marcus Freeman

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 02 Cincinnati at Notre Dame
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It has been two months since Marcus Freeman became Notre Dame’s head coach and the third-youngest FBS head coach in the country. To be precise, on Tuesday it will have been two months since the first reports of his hiring.

At the time, it seemed Freeman’s first coaching staff would largely be Brian Kelly’s last Irish coaching staff, with the last day of November and the first day of December filled with assistant after assistant announcing he would remain in South Bend rather than head to Baton Rouge. In the moment, it was seen as program-wide stability and continuity. What it should have been seen as was an immediate preference for Notre Dame’s success and Freeman’s potential over Kelly’s rebuild at LSU, however quick that endeavor may or may not be. It was not an absolute assurance of stability and continuity.

And as assistant after assistant has since departed — most recently, defensive line coach Mike Elston to Michigan and running backs coach Lance Taylor to Louisville to become offensive coordinator — that stability has diminished. With retrospect, those decisions make sense, especially when those initial announcements are viewed through a prism recognizing the difficult position each of those men was in on Dec. 1, awkward timing in the coaching carousel when they had no way to know what opportunities might come their way in the next two months.

Yet the one coaching position Freeman always knew he would have to fill remains unfilled, as of Monday morning: defensive coordinator.

Why?

Because there is no need to rush the hire, and given the NFL season ended only within the last few weeks, half the candidate pool was off-limits for interviews until recent weeks.

Notre Dame is not worrying about any defensive recruits signing on the dotted line this Wednesday, and any high school juniors the Irish are pursuing will have plenty of time to get to know a new defensive coordinator after Freeman puts on the initial charm during this stretch.

Furthermore, whomever Notre Dame’s new defensive coordinator will be, he will not bring all that much change. There is every expectation, from both inside the program and out, that Freeman will want the core tenets of his defense to remain in place, understandable given that defense was a key piece of Freeman’s rapid ascension in recent years.

“I really feel like coach Freeman has a good idea of what a defensive coordinator should be, what his identity is going to be,” rising senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey said last week. “I feel like coach Freeman is going to find someone that has the same identity, same thinking as he did as defensive coordinator.”

That identity worked well with the current Irish personnel, furthering the logic to keeping that scheme in place in 2022. Notre Dame recorded more sacks than it had at any point in the Kelly era and ranked No. 14 in the country by allowing only 19.7 points per game.

“I would like the same defense as I was able to produce in and get production off of,” Foskey said. “Whoever he finds, I feel like it’s going to be the same defense that he came in with.”

It is quite possible a new defensive coordinator hire is reported this week and announced by the University next week, timing that would give him five or six weeks of time on campus before spring practices start. That is the only genuine time constraint for Freeman to worry about bumping up against.

No, not that this hire would wait until mid-March, but that some veterans are already itching to start studying their playbooks.

“I just want a defensive coordinator so I can start studying the playbook,” fifth-year linebacker Bo Bauer said. “I haven’t been able to do that yet, and I kind of want to get an idea of what we’re going to be playing like next year. For me, the sooner the better, but I know coach Free has to make the right decision.

“I’m ready to wait, but I’m also ready to work.”

SPEAKING OF ASSISTANT TURNOVER …
More be yet on the way for Notre Dame. When offensive coordinator Tommy Rees announced he was staying at his alma mater, there was a widespread expectation he would need to find a new receivers coach and an offensive line coach. Both became reality and both have already been filled.

Replacing Taylor was unexpected, as would be replacing tight ends coach John McNulty, who Rees played a key role in bringing to Notre Dame in 2020 in the first place, having worked with McNulty with the San Diego Chargers in 2016. On top of that, McNulty appeared to be the connection between Rees and newly-hired receivers coach Chansi Stuckey.

RECORD PURSUIT
This will come up a number of times between now and the Sept. 3 opener at Ohio State (215 days), but mentioning Bauer above brings it to front of mind today. He should break Kurt Hinish’s record of career games in an Irish uniform, set at 61 courtesy of the universal pandemic eligibility waiver, though lowered by two by Hinish’s injury concerns in 2021.

Bauer has appeared in 51 games to date. Presuming health, he should be assured of reaching 64, and if he falls short, then fifth-year safety Houston Griffith will also have a chance at the top of the record books, with 49 career appearances to date.

Sixth-year offensive lineman Josh Lugg (48 games to date) could also have a vague chance of setting the record, though to hold it on his own he would not only need Bauer and Griffith to both miss a few games, but he would also need the Irish to reach the national championship game.

Perhaps a version of more notable, Lugg’s sixth year will guarantee him more wins while on Notre Dame’s roster than anyone else in history. No research needs to be done on this thought. The Irish have gone 54-10 in the last five years, and while Lugg may not have been on the travel roster for every road trip in 2017, he was in practice each week leading up to those games. Notre Dame’s 54 wins in the last five years are a program record, and a strong 2022 should then set the six-year mark, as well. Typically, that would be too obscure a timespan to note, but in Lugg’s case, it stands out.

SUPER BOWL ROOTING INTERESTS

INSIDE THE IRISH
Track records of young, first-time head coaches, a la Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman
Foskey’s senior season at Notre Dame will be measured by highest of expectations
Ohio State, North Carolina, USC all lose plenty to NFL draft early entry
Playing without Kyle Hamilton in 2021 left Notre Dame’s safeties ready for it in 2022
Experience along Notre Dame’s offensive line lies in the eye of the beholder as Lugg, Patterson and Hiestand return

OUTSIDE READING
Offensive linemen John Dirksen ends Notre Dame football career
Tracking COVID-19 at Notre Dame
Jack Coan showed improvement and poise in his lone year as the Irish starter
Best college football players at every position in 2021
Top 10 returning offensive tackles in college football
Top 10 returning interior offensive linemen in college football
The 2022 college football games we’re already looking forward to
2022 college football storylines we’re already looking forward to
Early look at the top 20 NFL draft-eligible college football players taking the field in 2022
Brian Kelly did the dancing thing again
Peacock hits 9 million paid subscribers
COVID hit Texas football, other sports with financial shortfall
With help, Alabama athletics didn’t lose money during COVID-19 crisis

Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

From December of 2021:

Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

Clemson v Notre Dame
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A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.

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

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The early-morning chaos of today’s National Signing Day did not disappear with the implementation of the December “early” signing period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. It just moved six weeks earlier.

In 2014, waking up at 6:45 a.m. ET to be logged on and publishing at 7 a.m. led to noticing one expected recruit had not yet signed with Notre Dame by 8 a.m. Pointing that out and reminding the world Michigan State was making a late push led to an Irish media relations staffer reaching out to quietly say something to the extent of, “Just letting the young man have his moment at school.”

In 2017, less than two weeks after taking over this gig, waking up at 3 a.m. CT to churn through 2,000 words before signings could begin becoming official eventually led to napping through Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference.

Nothing changed 10 months later. That December, the afternoon of Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, was spent waiting for receiver Braden Lenzy to officially choose Notre Dame over Oregon. Sitting at your parents’ kitchen table not helping your niece make a gingerbread house because recruiting-obsessed fans harassed a player through two de-commitments is not a strong way to conjure up holiday spirit.

Coaches across the country advocated for the earlier signing period, claiming it would allow high-school seniors to make their collegiate decisions official earlier on in their senior years, particularly when the prospects had already made up their minds on where to play football at the next level. That was all optics, if even that.

These high schoolers now make their decision official just six weeks earlier. In the preps football calendar, those six weeks are meaningless. Both the December signing period and today, the traditional National Signing Day, come well after the high-school seasons have ended.

The truth was, coaches across the country did not want to tend to their solid commitments over Christmas and New Year’s, particularly not amid bowl prep. It was self-serving at best and short-sighted at worst.

First of all, when the December signing period became reality in 2017, one-time transfers were not yet allowed without losing eligibility the following season. Secondly, no one predicted the early signing period would lead to the coaching carousel beginning earlier and earlier in the season. September firings used to be the result of only off-field scandals, not outright expected from half a dozen programs each fall. Athletic directors now want that headstart on hiring a new coach so he can have time before the December signing period commences.

Exhibit A: Notre Dame may have ended up with Marcus Freeman as its head coach after Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure following the 2021 season, but if the primary signing date had not been lingering just a few weeks away, Kelly likely would not have jumped to LSU before the College Football Playoff field was set, and Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick would have taken more time in choosing his next head coach, more than the 48 hours he used last December. After all, Swarbrick took 10 days in hiring Kelly in 2009.

Lastly, with a 12-team Playoff coming in 2025, December will become only more hectic.

Those head coaches who wanted a little less stress over the holidays will then have to deal with, in chronological order:

— Keeping their own jobs.
— Securing their recruiting classes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
— Preparing their teams for bowl games.
— Preparing their teams for up to four games if in the Playoff.
— Re-recruiting any players considering entering the transfer portal before the winter window closes.
— Winning a bowl game.
— Retaining their coaching staffs.
— Oh, and celebrate the holidays with their families, as was their want when they hollered for the early signing period.

Most of those tasks are immutable and inherent to the sport.

But one can move. It already has once.

The logic is too clear. Nothing was gained in moving up the primary signing date by six weeks. And sanity was lost.

This is, of course, a sport that prefers to ignore logic, but usually that is charming. A mustard bottle on the field is quirky; lacking a worthwhile voice of authority is stubbornly stupid.

So the early signing period may not move as soon as it should (now), but it will move. There are no anti-trust worries tied to it, fortunately.

And aside from the logic, cramming more content into December costs the media, too. Spreading out that context through the vacuum of mid-January to mid-March will be much appreciated.