Leftovers & Links: Freeman Era begins with a leadership vacuum for Notre Dame roster

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Georgia Tech at Notre Dame
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The headlines for the next 167 days will not focus on new Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman solely out of laziness. Freeman taking over the Irish program at only 36 as a first-time head coach is a worthwhile story, but in this exact instance, even more of the offseason will focus on Freeman than necessarily realized.

Notre Dame simply has so few other leaders at the moment. When this spring’s practices seem to deal too much with Freeman’s first real moments leading the Irish on the field, that topic will struggle to change because hardly anyone else brings proven leadership around the program.

Seven new assistant coaches do not help that cause. Neither does returning two captains, only to have both of them sidelined this spring. (Sixth-year receiver Avery Davis is recovering from an ACL torn in November; fifth-year center Jarrett Patterson tore his pectoral a few weeks ago.)

“The two natural leaders are the two returning captains. … That’s tough because you don’t have a captain that’s on the field with them,” Freeman said Thursday after Notre Dame’s first of 15 spring practices. “It’s still something we’re trying to promote. You have to be able to point it out. ‘Hey, if you see somebody and don’t say something, you’re just letting them perform below the standard.’

“It’s that constant message, that reinforcement from everybody from top-down.”

Some leaders will obviously emerge — sixth-year offensive lineman Josh Lugg and fifth-year linebacker Bo Bauer quickly come to mind, perhaps along with fifth-year safeties Houston Griffith and DJ Brown — but for the immediate future, that onus will remain with Freeman, along with most everything else.

As a result, and this is more a bookkeeping note than anything else, Freeman will refrain from naming captains this spring. He has not even decided how his program will choose them.

“There’s captains that are voted on, and there are captains that you know as a head coach are true leaders,” he said. “I don’t know if I have a perfect answer yet, but it’s going to be something I continuously think deeply about because you want those guys that are leading your team to be the right leaders.”

Though he will not be named a captain — without checking historically, no sophomore captain comes to mind in recent Irish history — rising sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner will be counted on to be one of those leaders. Of offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ primary wants from Buchner this spring, communication and leadership are as high of priorities as passing accuracy.

Buchner is not surprised by that. It is expected of a quarterback.

“I think, being a quarterback, it always starts with leadership,” Buchner said Saturday. “That’s the most important thing. As a quarterback, you’re sort of placed into this role as a leader, and that’s just how the sport works. It’s about taking that role and accepting that role and doing the best I can and being the best leader I can possibly be.”

A small honor, Buchner reportedly led one of Notre Dame’s stretching lines to start Thursday’s practice. For the last decade or so, the 10-12 players at the head of those lines were usually the leaders of the team, captains and upperclassmen. That alone should be considered proof of Buchner taking a step into the leadership vacuum Freeman is currently forced to fill single-handedly.

Drew Pyne on Harry Hiestand
The return of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand should help more than just the Irish offensive line. Freeman spent some of Thursday praising the effects of Hiestand’s “demeanor” on the entire offensive coaching staff. Beyond that, Hiestand can work with players other than the offensive linemen. Namely, communication between the offensive line coach and the quarterbacks will improve protection calls.

“I was in here with coach Hiestand yesterday for an hour and a half going through just simple inside-outside zone with the line,” rising junior quarterback Drew Pyne said Saturday. “He’s someone that really cares. He watched every single game lat year, had a note for every single game last year. He’s a guy we’re going to really rely on. I think the run game is going to step up this year.”

INJURY UPDATE
Injuries happen. This is football. It is still most frustrating for any player to not even make it a week into spring practices before suffering a season-ending injury, as rising junior defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina reportedly did over the weekend.

Irish Illustrated’s Tim Prister first reported Keanaaina tore his ACL.

At the moment, Keanaaina has four years of eligibility remaining, but this season will count as one of them, since he already preserved the traditional year of eligibility by playing in only three games in 2021.

Without Keanaaina, Notre Dame should still have plenty of defensive interior depth, but obviously losing a 300-pounder is never something to overlook.

The complete list of active Irish injury concerns:
— Keanaaina with a freshly-torn ACL.
— Cornerback Cam Hart and defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola both recovering from winter shoulder surgeries.
— Receiver Avery Davis rehabbing an ACL torn in November.
— Center Jarrett Patterson out for the next two months after tearing his pectoral in offseason weight-lifting.
— Tight end Cane Berrong recovering from an ACL torn last season.
— Sophomore center Pat Coogan with a meniscus injury, per Freeman.
— Early-enrolled freshman offensive lineman Billy Schrauth out for the spring after undergoing surgery to repair a foot injury he played through in his senior season of high school.

Only Coogan and Keanaaina were new additions to this list in the last week.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Mixed results for Notre Dame at the NFL combine, with the best showing coming from Kevin Austin
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Running backs, moving forward without Kyren Williams
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Tight ends, obviously led by All-American Michael Mayer
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Wide receivers, still too few on the Irish roster
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Offensive line, returning four starters and a familiar coach
Where Notre Dame Was & Is: Defensive line, still talented but now with unproven depth
Notre Dame begins spring practice with familiar QB question despite new coaching staff

OUTSIDE READING
Aidan Keanaaina suffers torn ACL
What’s changed and what hasn’t for Notre Dame OC Tommy Rees
Todd McShay’s predictions for all 32 first-round picks after combine workouts
NFL Combine 2022: Testing outliers and the results we should take with a grain of salt
Notre Dame closes bookstores for week to undergo renovations
When Tom Brady was locked inside Notre Dame Stadium
Stewart Mandel ranks the top 25 college football head coaches
Prep football’s return, one year later: Was it worth the trouble for two 2021 seasons?
Report: Kirk Herbstreit to join Amazon, remain with ESPN
Joe Buck expected to leave Fox Sports for huge ESPN deal
MLB, Apple link up for “Friday Night Baseball”

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.