Notre Dame Football: Tommy Rees

Notre Dame mailblog

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
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One more time before the spring game ...

Derrick from Warsaw, Ill., writes: Matt, first off, thanks for doing such a great job covering the Irish! I always look forward to reading everything you write! My question is, with all the great options the Irish have at running back heading into the season, how do you see everything going at the running back position? Will one guy get the lion's share of the carries? Do they go with the hot hand? Or will each guy get a fairly equal share of touches? Thanks! And keep up the great work!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Derrick. I think everyone will get a fair share early. Cam McDaniel is obviously the veteran of the group and will probably "start" the season with the first unit, but I don't see it being a traditional 1-2-3 pecking order. I said it last year (and was wrong) and will say it again now: I do think the bulk of the workload will go to Greg Bryant if he's playing near the top of his game. After all of his talk this spring about being "hungry and humbled," I think the light will click on for him in 2014.


Brian Henighan from Medina, Ohio, writes: During the practices leading up to the Pinstripe Bowl, we heard a lot about how Torii Hunter was looking very good. There was some good hype around this kid before and after his injury. Spring practices are now nearly over and I haven't heard his name mentioned one time. How is he doing/progressing? It's just strange for his name to completely disappear lately.

Matt Fortuna: Brian, I was actually wondering the same thing recently, as he rebounded from his leg injury last year to win offensive scout team player of the year: Here's what offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock said when I asked him Monday: "He is absolutely physically very gifted, and right in the mix with all those young guys as far as what we feel like he can do potentially down the road. Like a lot of young guys, the more he sees things, the more he does things, the better he's going to be. He's not where we need him to be yet, but you can see so many positive things that are going to happen there moving forward. We're just trying to speed up the process as fast as we can."


[+] EnlargeTommy Rees
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsTommy Rees' legacy at Notre Dame will likely grow with time.
Jeremy from Bethlehem, Ga., writes: Hey Matt, great job on the blog! I was curious on your take of Tommy Rees' legacy. He has been on the losing side of some games that they should have won, like Stanford. But he has won some big games in his career, such as against No. 14 Utah in 2010, being the closer in 2012 to go on to the BCS championship game, and against Michigan State this past year.

Matt Fortuna: Jeremy, like most things, I think it will only grow with time. Sure, a lot of the turnovers are what stick out in most fans' minds right now, but you have to look at the bigger picture. Notre Dame had flat-out awful quarterback luck in three of Rees' four seasons there. And yet, the Irish were lucky beyond relief to have a guy like Rees who not only knew, but embraced his role, stepping in unfazed every step of the way. And in the one year they had good quarterback luck, in 2012? That 12-0 regular season doesn't happen without Rees being the great teammate he was, relieving the guy who took his job and leading the Irish to some crucial wins. Speaking of which, that locker room absolutely loved him, which speaks louder to anything the rest of us could say.


Thomas Witty from Northbrook, Ill., writes: Hey Matt! I've been looking at the offensive line for this year and it seems like there is a lot of talent overall. I've seen on various sites that they have Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey playing tackle, but do you think Steve Elmer could get a chance, too? Also, I was excited last year when they got Hunter Bivin because he seemed like a great player. How do you see him factoring into the mix in the coming years/this year? Lastly, it seems that the talent of the offensive line has increased a lot. Do you think the offensive line could change from good to great in the coming years or even this year? As always, I love reading your blog!

Matt Fortuna: Thanks for the kind words, Thomas. Brian Kelly actually addressed this topic Wednesday, saying that the left guard spot could very well be affected by the right tackle spot, which would be between Elmer and McGlinchey. That could provide an opening at left guard for Matt Hegarty, who has plenty of experience across the line and has filled in at center for Nick Martin this spring. As for the depth question, we'e seen Notre Dame sign nine offensive linemen across the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes. So while the numbers are down this spring -- especially on days such as Wednesday, when Elmer had a stomach ailment and the Irish were down to eight healthy offensive linemen -- the addition of four more come fall camp should be a big boost to this group's daily progress.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Just because the relationship between Notre Dame's top quarterbacks is different this time around doesn't necessarily mean Everett Golson and Malik Zaire are stealing each other's playbooks.

"They are competitive, but they do help each other, believe it or not," quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur said Wednesday. "Just the other day at practice Malik made a mistake and Everett was trying to explain to him why he made that mistake. Yeah, there is a competitiveness but those guys also help each other at game time."

Golson-Tommy Rees, this is not, as coach Brian Kelly made pretty clear earlier this spring. And the frontrunner to be the Irish's starter will likely have to wait four-plus months to be officially declared the No. 1 guy.

LaFleur, the first-year Irish assistant, said he has been more focused this spring on getting everyone on the same page before drawing any comparisons between the two signal callers, be it through stats or other tangible measurements.

"Honestly, I don't think it makes a difference right now," LaFleur said of knowing a starter this early. "I think each guy, whether you're an offensive lineman, receiver, running back -- you're kind of focused on your job. And No. 1, I tell the quarterbacks, do your job. You've got to do your job before you can even worry about anyone else or any other situation. I think from an offensive standpoint, I think everybody's just focused on improving their own skills and improving each day."

Both quarterbacks have heeded that advice, stressing that their concerns have lied inward, not on what the other was doing.

"It's definitely put me in another level of capability in terms of just being comfortable within the offense," Zaire said. "I think this year and this spring specifically it's gotten better for me because I'm in there a lot more than last year."

Notes: LaFleur, a Mt. Pleasant, Mich., native, said he will recruit Michigan locally while having responsibilities on the West Coast, from the Los Angeles area up through Washington. He has Hawaii, as well. … Notre Dame was finally able to practice outside Monday and Wednesday, making conditions more ideal for the always-intriguing punt return unit. Running backs coach Tony Alford mentioned Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston, Cam McDaniel, Amir Carlisle, Torii Hunter Jr. and Josh Atkinson as players who have gotten looks in the return game.

Irish lunch links

March, 28, 2014
Mar 28
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Enjoy the weekend, everyone.
All that talk about Everett Golson this spring must have gotten lost between the time Notre Dame's former starter returned to school and the time the redshirt was unofficially taken off the Fighting Irish's other returning quarterback.

No, Malik Zaire is not bowing down to anybody this spring, even if the man he is splitting reps with has a résumé that includes national title game experience.

"I don't see it as a competition at all -- I see it, I'm competing with myself to get better every day and competing with myself to be the best quarterback in the country, because I hope that's why a lot of guys come to college football, especially Notre Dame," Zaire said. "I'm not here to make this a one-on-one match with the next guy as me being the most prepared to lead this team to 12 victories and a national championship."

[+] EnlargeMalik Zaire
Matt Cashore/USA TODAY SportsDespite the pedigree that Everett Golson provides, Malik Zaire won't concede the Notre Dame starting job without a fight.
It's been there, nearly-done-that for Golson, which is why Brian Kelly raised a few eyebrows last month when he declared the starting job an open competition. What Golson's opponent lacks in experience he just might make up for in potential, as Zaire entered Notre Dame a year ago as ESPN's No. 6 signal-caller from the Class of 2013.

But with Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix now out of the picture -- and with incoming signee DeShone Kizer three months away from enrolling -- the burden is on Zaire to be more than window-dressing, to emerge as a viable in-game option for the Irish and perhaps even more.

"It's definitely put me in another level of capability in terms of just being comfortable within the offense," he said. "I think this year and this spring specifically it's got better for me because I'm in there a lot more than last year. Dealing with that, I'm feeling better as the days progress, I'm getting better as the days progress, I'm enjoying it as the days progress, so I'm just getting a lot better each day."

The southpaw gets the benefit of a clean slate with a new position coach in Matt LaFleur, and, by statistical measure, hardly trails Golson in the chemistry department with the current crop of receivers.

Only Ben Koyack and Chris Brown have caught passes from current Irish signal-callers, accounting for two receptions from Golson totaling 55 yards during that charmed run of 2012. Both the experience gap and the skill-set between Notre Dame's current quarterbacks are not what they were during Golson's ascension around this time two years ago, when he fought off the incumbent, football-savvy Rees -- who was never hesitant to share all that he knew with the underclassman.

"They're good together, they like each other," Kelly said. "Everett's not going to sit down and teach him the playbook, though. But they like each other, they get along very well, but it's not a Tommy Rees (situation), where Tommy Rees would sit down and teach Everett the offense; we don't have that kind of situation. These are two competitive kids. Malik wants to beat out Everett. But it's a very positive kind of atmosphere.

"(Zaire's) just a highly competitive kid, and he's extremely confident in his ability. Extremely. Sometimes I have to settle him down a bit. But that's a good thing. I'd rather have that than somebody who doesn't think he can do it. So the dynamic is very positive. They're very good with each other. They help each other. But it's not one where they're going to share notes and sit down and, 'Hey, how can I help you beat me out?' That's not happening."

Zaire treaded a path similar to Golson upon his arrival to Notre Dame last spring before coming down with mononucleosis during his first preseason camp. Kelly conceded that the 6-foot, 208-pounder probably got a little lost mentally as the reality of redshirting settled in, but he had come full-circle by season's end.

"When December rolled around, being in there and being at least kind of involved definitely impacted me in a way where I felt a lot more comfortable and I felt like myself," Zaire said. "I always say, 'You take the lion out of the wild and put him in the zoo for a while, he forgets how to be a lion.' In December, I was able to come right back and do what I've been doing since Day 1, and that's playing and being involved and being the quarterback that I am."

Whether that will be enough to pull off a monumental upset on the depth chart remains to be seen, but for now the only person Zaire is concerned with is Zaire, the name he thinks can take the first snap for the Irish come Aug. 30.

"This competition is more me getting better and finding whatever it takes to do and whatever it takes to get to that next level, so they don't have a choice but to play me," he said. "There are things that I can't control as well -- it's definitely an uphill battle on fighting in terms of what people believe to be a quarterback competition because of the guy that's been there and done that.

"So I can't concern myself with something I can't control. More of it is just like, whatever it takes for me to be on the field, and doing what it takes to be on the field and knowing that I got what it takes, that's all that really matters."

Notre Dame pro day notes

March, 20, 2014
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Fourteen former Notre Dame players were back on campus Thursday for pro day, with many doing drills in front of executives from all 32 NFL teams and two head coaches, Mike Tomlin (Steelers) and Gus Bradley (Jaguars).

Here are a handful of notes from the event, courtesy of the Irish's sports information department:
  • Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Kona Schwenke were the only players to take part in every drill, with Tommy Rees and Chris Watt skipping only the bench press. TJ Jones, Zack Martin and Prince Shembo only did position drills, with Shembo working with both defensive linemen and linebackers.
  • Bennett Jackson, who ran a 4.51 40-yard dash at last month's NFL combine, improved that mark to 4.40 Thursday. The only cornerbacks to top that at the combine were Justin Gilbert (4.37, Oklahoma State), Phillip Gaines (4.38, Rice), Jason Verrett (4.38, TCU) and Bradley Roby (4.39, Ohio State).
  • Fox, who was not invited to the combine, ran a 4.59 40, which, among linebackers, would have trailed only Boston College's Kevin Pierre-Louis (4.51) and Florida State's Telvin Smith (4.52) at the combine.
  • Rees, who also was not invited to the combine, had a vertical leap of 31 inches, which would have topped fellow quarterbacks Tajh Boyd (30.5, Clemson), Jimmy Garoppolo (30.5, Eastern Illinois), Teddy Bridgewater (30, Louisville), Stephen Morris (30, Miami) and Jordan Lynch (29.5, Northern Illinois). Rees completed 32 of 34 passes Thursday.
  • Louis Nix improved his 40 time from 5.42 at the combine to 5.36 Thursday. He improved his three-cone drill time from 8.29 to 7.94.
  • Watt, whose PCL tear kept him from all but the bench at the combine, ran a 5.39 40 on Thursday, in addition to a 4.76 20-yard shuttle and 7.60 three-cone drill. He did a 28.5-inch vertical and 8-foot, 8-inch broad jump.
  • Schwenke, also not invited to the combine, ran 4.88 40, 4.59 20-yard shuttle, 7.16 three-cone drill, did 29 inches on the vertical leap, nine feet on the broad jump and 27 reps on the bench,
  • George Atkinson III improved his 20-yard shuttle from 4.46 at the combine to 4.38 Thursday.
  • Calabrese, another combine snub, ran a 4.86 40, 4.60 20-yard shuttle, 7.10 three-cone drill, did a 30-inch vertical, jumped 9-feet, 2-inches on the broad jump and did 25 reps on the bench.
Sixteen former Notre Dame players will take part in Thursday's NFL Pro Day at the Loftus Sports Center, the school announced Monday.

Though each's exact participation has yet to be determined, the names scheduled to be in attendance this week are George Atkinson III, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox, Mike Golic Jr., Bennett Jackson, TJ Jones, Zack Martin, Troy Niklas, Louis Nix III, Tommy Rees, Kona Schwenke, Prince Shembo, Nick Tausch, Stephon Tuitt, Robby Toma and Chris Watt.

Golic and Toma both finished their Irish careers during the 2012 season.

One player from that list who won't be participating in any drills is Tuitt, who told ESPN.com in a text message that he already completed such drills during his Feb. 28 pro day at Lovett (Ga.) High. Tuitt had surgery earlier this month to repair a stress fracture in his left foot that was discovered during the NFL scouting combine.

Testing and position-specific drills Thursday start around 11:45 a.m. ET.
Nine former Notre Dame players were invited to the NFL scouting combine, including all three players who declared for the draft early.

TJ Jones, Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo and Bennett Jackson will be in Indianapolis for the Feb. 22-25 event, along with underclassmen George Atkinson III, Troy Niklas and Stephon Tuitt.

Notable former Irish players to be left off the list are Tommy Rees and Carlo Calabrese, along with Dan Fox, who spoke of the snub to CSNChicago earlier in the week, saying he plans to use it as motivation.

It will be interesting to see how a number of these players fare, and if they can seriously affect their stock either way. We all remember Manti Te'o's 40-time being a source of much questioning last year.

The intrigue this year will likely be among the early departures. Tuitt will more than likely be the first of the trio drafted, but he has already seen his name fall out of the first round of Mel Kiper Jr.'s mock draft. The jumps by Niklas and Atkinson were more surprising, but given the former's strength and the latter's speed, they could turn out to be combine stars.
We are one day away from national signing day, an occasion packed with promise. As we noticed last week when looking at the Ultimate 300, some prospects meet their potential better than others.

Recruiting is an inexact science, as projects such as the Ultimate 300 reveal, and as many rosters filled with blue-chip prospects show, too.

[+] EnlargeJaylon Smith
AP Photo/Scott BoehmJaylon Smith was the only five-star recruit among Notre Dame's starters last season.
Look no further than Notre Dame, which currently has Recruiting Nation's No. 11 overall haul for the Class of 2014, down from No. 4 last season. The Irish were No. 9 in 2012, No. 9 in 2011, No. 21 in 2010 and No. 14 in 2009.

The 2009-13 classes made up the 2013 Notre Dame roster. So, using Recruiting Nation's rankings, we will take a look back at this past season's (general) starters to see where they stood as recruits.

The numbers? Notre Dame had one five-star recruit, six four-star recruits, 11 three-star recruits and one two-star recruit.

(Note: ESPN did not use the star system until 2010.)

Offense

  • QB Tommy Rees, Lake Forest (Ill.) High: Three stars, No. 19 QB, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 79
  • RB: George Atkinson III, Granada (Calif.) High: Three stars, No. 40 ATH, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79
  • WR: TJ Jones, Gainesville (Ga.) High: Four stars, No. 68 overall prospect, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 81
  • WR: DaVaris Daniels, Vernon Hills (Ill.) High: Four stars, No. 65 overall prospect, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 81
  • WR: Chris Brown, Hanahan (S.C.) High: Three stars, No. 66 WR, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 78
  • TE: Troy Niklas, Servite (Calif.) High: Three stars, No. 19 TE, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79
  • T: Zack Martin, Indianapolis Bishop Chatard High: No. 109 overall prospect, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 81
  • T: Ronnie Stanley, Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High: Four stars, No. 34 OT, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 79
  • G: Chris Watt, Glenbard West (Ill.) High: No. 68 overall prospect, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 82
  • G: Christian Lombard, Williams Fremd (Ill.) High: Three stars, No. 20 OT, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 79
  • C: Nick Martin, Bishop Chatard (Ind.) High: Three stars, No. 39 OT, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 78
Defense

  • DE: Stephon Tuitt, Monroe (Ga.) High: Four stars, No. 90 overall prospect, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 81
  • DE: Sheldon Day, Indianapolis Warren Central High: Four stars, No. 143 overall prospect, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 80
  • NG: Louis Nix, Jacksonville (Fla.) Raines High: Four stars, No. 64 overall prospect, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 81
  • LB: Prince Shembo, Charlotte (N.C.) Ardrey Kell High: Three stars, No. 47 DE, Class of 2010, Scout grade: 78
  • LB: Dan Fox, Cleveland St. Ignatius High: No. 76 OLB, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 76
  • LB: Carlo Calabrese, Verona (N.J.) High: No. 12 ILB, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 78
  • LB: Jaylon Smith, Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers High: Five stars, No. 7 overall prospect, Class of 2013. Scout grade: 90
  • CB: Bennett Jackson, Hazlet (N.J.) Raritan High: Three stars, No. 97 WR, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 77
  • CB: KeiVarae Russell, Everett (Wash.) Mariner High: Three stars, No. 28 RB, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 79
  • S: Matthias Farley, Charlotte Christian (N.C.) High: Three stars, No. 92 ATH, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 77
  • S: Austin Collinsworth, Highlands (Ky.) High: Two stars, No. 121 S, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 74
Special Teams

  • K/P: Kyle Brindza, Plymouth (Mich.) High: Three stars, No. 6 K, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79

Poll: Who will be drafted highest?

January, 28, 2014
Jan 28
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Zack Martin's recent surge throughout Senior Bowl week and his rise up draft analysts' rankings make it a very real possibility that he could be the first former Notre Dame player to hear his name called on Night 1 of the NFL draft. Obviously, there is plenty of time for movements to happen and stocks to rise and fall (the combine, pro days, etc.), but this early in the stage, we are wondering who you think will go highest.

SportsNation

Which former Notre Dame player will be drafted highest?

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    39%
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    21%
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    40%
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    0%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,281)

Zack Martin, LT: The two-time Notre Dame captain capped his career by winning MVP honors in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. The 6-foot-4, 308-pounder could play guard at the next level, and he set the Irish career starts record by starting 52 straight games from his second through fifth seasons.

Louis Nix III, NG: The 6-2˝, 342-pound interior lineman is a run-stuffer who often commands double-teams. His combination of size and quickness is rare at all levels, making him a precious commodity among NFL franchises. It is worth wondering whether his injury-plagued (meniscus surgery) final campaign in South Bend, Ind., coupled with his early signing with an agent before telling the staff -- and therefore forfeiting his final game, which he was out for anyway -- hurts him in the eyes of pro front offices.

Stephon Tuitt, DE: Another giant defensive lineman who was plagued by injuries his final year, though he overcame them to become Notre Dame's best defensive lineman by season's end. The 6-6˝, 312-pounder entered camp overweight after recovering from offseason sports hernia surgery, then dealt with a back issue. Still, he managed to start all 13 games and record a team-best 7.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss, while forcing a fumble and adding a pick-six. His 21.5 career sacks are second-most in program history, and we all know how coveted explosive pass-rushers are at the next level. The fact Tuitt didn't play football until high school suggests plenty of the infamous "upside" that so often seems to make scouts salivate as well.

Other: Tight end Troy Niklas leads this category, as the 6-6˝, 270-pounder also possesses plenty of upside after catching passes for just two years while at Notre Dame after switching from linebacker. Don't be surprised if he ends up becoming a combine superstar. He is nicknamed ‘Hercules’ for a reason, after all. The other early departure is running back/kick returner George Atkinson III, who was probably the fastest player on the team during his time at Notre Dame. Seniors to consider are receiver TJ Jones, cornerback Bennett Jackson, left guard Chris Watt, linebackers Prince Shembo, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox and quarterback Tommy Rees as well.

Notre Dame mailblog

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
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It has been a while. What's on your minds?

Scott from St. Joseph, Mich., writes: Matt, disagree about Michigan State easily being the highlight of the season. The game was marred with questionable penalties and calling by MSU's staff. To me the highlight of the season was the second-half defense against USC. Being able to beat your biggest rival basically without a functional QB and on the hands of a defensive performance remnant of '12 was the highlight of the year for me.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Celebration
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPulling out a victory over Rose Bowl champion Michigan State was the biggest achievement for Notre Dame in 2013.
Matt Fortuna: I think both performances, to be fair, were far from aesthetically pleasing. And yes, we have to give Notre Dame's defense plenty of credit for its play in both games. But the circumstances are too big to ignore here. By beating Michigan State, Notre Dame helped reshape the national title picture. It was the only team to beat a very good Spartans squad, one that ended up winning the Rose Bowl. While it's always big to beat your archrival, let's also remember that USC was without Marqise Lee for the second half, committed 11 penalties and missed two field goals (from 40 and 46 yards), too. And I just can't erase the memory of the Fighting Irish offense coming to a standstill once Tommy Rees went down. No points from either team in the final 30 minutes of a primetime game? No thank you.

Matt from Pittsburgh writes: Matt, O-line starting 5 from LT-RT: Elmer, Hanratty, Martin, Lombard, Stanley? Also how do you see the D-line and linebackers forming out?

Matt Fortuna: That would probably be my early guess, though I'll keep a close eye on that group this spring since Martin will still be out. Matt Hegarty started at center in his place but provides plenty of flexibility, too, so it will be interesting to see where he fits into the picture next fall. My guess for defensive line would be Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, only because I don't know how ready Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) is. If he's 100 percent, it's easy to see him starting. And I'm anxious to watch Chase Hounshell, who saw the field as a true freshman in 2011 but has missed the last two seasons with shoulder injuries. Same with Jarrett Grace at the mike linebacker position (probably not this spring), with possibly Kendall Moore starting next to him. Jaylon Smith (dog) and Ishaq Williams (cat) will be expected to start if and when Brian VanGorder employs a 3-4 scheme, though he said last week he had not delved into schematics yet. Could we see Williams and/or Romeo Okwara play on the line some more? And where will Ben Councell fit into the picture once he's back from his ACL tear?

Jim from Chicago writes: Matt, What role do you see Torii Hunter Jr. having next year? Seemed to be the most athletic freshman WR before the injury. Can he work his way into the rotation with Daniels out in spring ball?

Matt Fortuna: He's the guy on offense, outside of Everett Golson, whom I most want to see this spring. The opportunities will be there for the taking with Daniels gone until the fall, and Hunter was able to battle back from that nasty leg injury to win offensive scout team player of the year. I'm also curious to see what kind of improvements Corey Robinson can make, given his size and potential. In limited practice viewings he seemed to be always making plays, but in games this season there were times where he looked like he could've used a couple of extra pounds.

Chris Kosiak (@C_K_42) writes: Justin Brent going to push for playing time next year? Or does he RS?

Matt Fortuna: It's probably too early to say, though, like Hunter, he'll have a great opportunity to showcase himself this spring with Daniels out. Last year Robinson and James Onwualu enrolled early and ended up taking advantage of the spring transfers of Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson, resulting in playing time during the 2013 season. Notre Dame's receiving corps was young then and is young again now, so playing time will likely be there for the taking.

Michael Hughes (@designwithmike) writes: More important to ND success in '14: Red-zone execution or finding good to great defensive leadership?

Matt Fortuna: Good question. I'll go with red-zone execution, since I expect this Notre Dame team to rely much more on its offense than it has so far in the Brian Kelly era. And that means the Irish will have to capitalize on more red-zone opportunities and score more points. With Golson back at the helm after a semester spent training with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. and an improving backfield, I think you'll see the Irish take more chances offensively. None of this is to minimize the importance of defensive leadership, but that's just such an unknown factor at this point, especially since we have yet to see these players get coached by and respond to VanGorder, who seems nothing like Bob Diaco from a personality standpoint.

Irish lunch links

January, 21, 2014
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What's happened to UNC?

Tommy Rees ends Irish career on top

December, 28, 2013
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NEW YORK -- Notre Dame finished a disappointing season with a win Saturday at Yankee Stadium. For Tommy Rees, it was a fitting end to an up-and-down career.

[+] EnlargeTommy Rees
Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY SportsTommy Rees threw for 319 yards in his final game at Notre Dame.
The senior quarterback completed 27 of 47 passes for 319 yards, leading the Fighting Irish to a 29-16 win over Rutgers in the fourth-annual New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

“Hats off to Rutgers for playing a great game, but I’m really proud of the way we persevered and were able to pull it out,” Rees said.

It certainly wasn’t pretty. The heavily favored Fighting Irish mounted long drive after long drive but repeatedly had to settle for field goals. They racked up 258 more yards of offense (494-236) and nearly twice as many first downs (31-16) as the Scarlet Knights, but the game was tied at halftime and Notre Dame led by only three points with under nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.

That’s when Rees engineered the game-clinching drive, leading his team 79 yards in 10 plays -- capped off by a three-yard touchdown run by Tarean Folston -- to put away Rutgers.

At this time last year, Notre Dame was preparing to play Alabama in the BCS National Championship on Jan. 7. This year, Notre Dame’s season ended three days after Christmas, with a record of 9-4 and thoughts of what might have been.

“A good year that could have been a great year,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said when asked to assess this season. “Some really good victories. ... A couple of missed opportunities in some games where we very easily could have been a team that’s looking at double-digit wins, and that’s where we want to be every year.”

Kelly’s comments -- and the fact that they don’t sound outlandish -- show just how far Notre Dame has come in his first four years at the helm. Kelly’s 37 wins tie him with Lou Holtz and Dan Devine for the most by a Notre Dame coach in his first four seasons.

Correspondingly, Notre Dame’s current senior class finished with 37 wins -- the most since the Class of 1994.

That group includes wide receiver TJ Jones, who had 1,042 receiving yards and nine touchdowns on the season entering the Pinstripe Bowl. Jones had five receptions for 66 yards against Rutgers plus four carries for 16 yards and a touchdown. The five catches moved him into second place on Notre Dame’s career receptions list with 181.

And Jones came back in the game despite suffering a second-degree shoulder sprain.

“I wasn’t gonna be done for the day -- not with my last game in a Notre Dame uniform,” Jones said. “I had to come back and contribute.”

That class also includes Rees, who wasn’t even supposed to be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback this season. He stepped in due to injury his freshman year and started 12 games as a sophomore but lost the job to freshman Everett Golson as a junior and figured to play behind Golson as a senior -- until Golson was suspended for academic reasons.

Rees stepped in again and ended up throwing for 3,257 yards with 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions -- becoming only the third Notre Dame quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a season.

His erratic play over the years might have infuriated Notre Dame fans at times, and Rees was far from perfect against Rutgers; in fact, an offensive lineman, Zack Martin, won the game’s MVP award.

But numbers don’t lie. Rees finished his career third in school history in passing yards (7,670) and second in touchdown passes (61) and joined Tom Clements, Joe Montana, Tony Rice and Rick Mirer as the only Notre Dame quarterbacks with two bowl game victories as a starter.

“I’m a Tommy Rees fan for life,” Kelly said. “He’s gonna go keep chasing that football dream. He’s gonna play in the East-West Shrine Game, and he’ll keep trying to play the game as long as he can. But I told him he’s got a bright future as a graduate assistant for Brian Kelly any time.”

The last time Notre Dame played at Yankee Stadium was three years ago -- a 27-3 win over Army. A freshman named Tommy Rees, making just the second start of his college career, completed 13 of 20 passes for 213 yards with one touchdown and one interception. Afterward, the wide-eyed freshman gushed about being given Derek Jeter’s locker in the Yankees clubhouse.

Three years later, Rees looked and sounded like a different person.

“To be honest, I’m not as emotional as I thought I’d be after my last game,” he said. “I’m just really enjoying the moment.”

Asked to evaluate his just-completed collegiate career, Rees politely declined.

“I’ll let you guys [in the media] judge that,” Rees said. “As long as I’ve got the respect and the commitment from my teammates and coaches, that’s all that’s ever mattered to me. I know I can leave here with my chin held high. I love the game of football. It’s pretty special to start at quarterback at Notre Dame, and that’s something I’ll hold with me for the rest of my life.”

Say what you want about Tommy Rees, but he finished on a high note.

New Era Pinstripe Bowl preview

December, 28, 2013
12/28/13
9:00
AM ET
Rutgers and Notre Dame take the Yankee Stadium field at noon ET today (ESPN) with the George M. Steinbrenner Trophy on the line. Here is a preview of the action today from the Bronx, N.Y.:

Who to watch: TJ Jones is playing in his final college game. Notre Dame's team MVP from this season has caught 65 balls for 1,042 yards with nine touchdowns, becoming Tommy Rees' most reliable target. And he is facing a Rutgers defense that has been susceptible to the big play, as the Scarlet Knights have allowed an FBS-high 153 pass plays of 10 or more yards, an average of 13 per game. Look for Rees and Jones to connect early and often.

What to watch: This could also be Stephon Tuitt's final game. The 6-foot-6, 312-pound end is a nightmare for offensive linemen, tallying 18 sacks over the past two seasons. Seeing how much he -- along with a now-healthy Sheldon Day opposite him and what is likely to be a revolving door in the middle at nose guard -- can pressure Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd into mistakes will probably dictate the flow of this game. The Scarlet Knights are tied for 98th nationally in sacks allowed, surrendering 2.58 per game, and Saturday could provide a nice opportunity for Tuitt to leave a final impression on NFL scouts, as the draft advisory board gave the junior a second-round grade, according to Brian Kelly.

Why to watch: This is the finale for a group of Notre Dame seniors who have, in large part, turned the program around. Many committed to the Charlie Weis regime -- or, in some cases, to no coach at all before Kelly was hired. They have gotten the Irish to a point where Pinstripe Bowl berths and eight- or nine-win seasons are disappointments, and they are a big reason why Kelly, the fourth-year coach, gave them such a strong say in where they would go bowling once a BCS bid was off the table. This could, in theory, be an audition for the Irish's two interim coordinators as well, as Mike Denbrock (offense) and Kerry Cooks (defense) will run their units after Chuck Martin and Bob Diaco left for head-coaching jobs at Miami (Ohio) and UConn, respectively.

Prediction: Notre Dame 38, Rutgers 14. The Irish offense will have its way with an uncharacteristically bad Scarlet Knight defense (one that is also with an interim coordinator, in Joe Rossi).

Did you know? Notre Dame vs. Rutgers

December, 27, 2013
12/27/13
9:00
AM ET
As always, thanks to ESPN Stats & Info, and sports information departments, for these tidbits about the Irish vs. Rutgers in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl (Saturday, noon ET, ESPN).
  • According to ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) projections, Notre Dame has an 84.7 projected win percentage in this matchup. That ranks fourth-highest entering the bowl season.
  • Notre Dame is 4-0 all time against Rutgers and has outscored the Scarlet Knights 197-17 in those games (three were shutouts). They last met in 2002 (a 42-0 Notre Dame win). This isn’t the first time these teams will meet in New York City, either. In 1921, Notre Dame beat Rutgers 48-0 at the Polo Grounds.
  • Notre Dame is no stranger to playing in Yankee Stadium. The Irish are 16-6-3 there, though most of those games have come against Army (15-5-3). The Irish are 0-1 against Syracuse there and 1-0 against North Carolina there.
  • Notre Dame has lost its last two bowl games and is 2-11 in its last 13 bowl games. Rutgers has won five of its last six bowl games, but lost to Virginia Tech in the Russell Athletic Bowl last season. One of those five wins came in the 2011 Pinstripe Bowl against Iowa State.
  • Notre Dame has four losses this season, but all four have come against bowl teams (Michigan, Oklahoma, Pitt, Stanford). The Irish have had seven games decided by seven points or fewer this season, winning five of them. On the other side, five of Rutgers’ six losses have come against bowl teams.
  • The Rutgers defense has been shredded this season, especially in the passing game, although the Scarlet Knights are coming off perhaps their best defensive effort in the win over USF. Rutgers has allowed at least 400 passing yards four times this season. That’s tied with Cal for the most in FBS. Notre Dame hasn’t passed for 400-plus yards in a game since Nov. 7, 2009 vs. Navy.
  • Rutgers is 0-5 this season against teams with a winning record. Its six wins have come against Norfolk State (3-9 in FCS), Eastern Michigan (2-10), Arkansas (3-9), SMU (5-7), Temple (2-10) and USF (2-10). That might present an opportunity for Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees to get back on track. Since a five-touchdown performance against Air Force, Rees has seven touchdowns and seven interceptions in the last four games.
  • Watch out for the turnover story in this game. Notre Dame has committed only 16 turnovers this season, but has forced only 13. Rutgers has been plagued by turnovers all season, committing 26. The Scarlet Knights ranked last in the American Athletic Conference with a negative-9 turnover margin.
  • This will be the last game for Rutgers before becoming an official member of the Big Ten entering next season.


Irish lunch links

December, 24, 2013
12/24/13
12:00
PM ET
Happy Holidays. And enjoy NY if you're going. (How could you not?)

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