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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

February 9, 2023

Whenever there is an opening on the coaching staff for Notre Dame’s football program, there are always fans who inquire about a former player to fill that role.

Typically they are asking about someone who was, for the most part, beloved when they played for the Irish. Tommy Rees did not fit into that category when Brian Kelly hired him to coach quarterbacks at his alma mater.

Rees' relationship with ND fans was complicated.

For some he was the plucky underdog at quarterback who helped save Kelly’s first season from disaster. Maybe he was the guy who came off the bench and won the Purdue game in 2012 or the guy who had to fill in when Everett Golson was suspended in 2013. Or maybe he was the guy whose heart exceeded his physical talent and it’s hard to knock someone like that.

There’s a whole other side to it for other fans, though.

To many he is the one who threw 37 interceptions in his career or the guy who got arrested before the 2012 season. He’s the guy who had more mistakes in losses that overshadowed his other good moments.

He could have been the backup who ignited the offense when they needed it, but he was miscast in a leading role due to circumstances that had nothing to do with him. He probably should be remembered for being an overachiever as a player, but he played more than he would have on many other Notre Dame teams and that’s what made him a polarizing figure before he ever came back to coach.

Then when he came back as a coach it flipped to him being the guy who wasn’t qualified enough to coach quarterbacks (“This kid has barely coached!”). And then later he was the guy who wasn’t qualified enough to be Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator (“He’s never called plays before! He’s going to be BK’s puppet!”).

As unfair as it was to him, he came in with a lot of baggage as a coach that most normally don’t have to bring with them. That helped shape the narrative before he even got started. None of what he did should have had anything to do with that, but when someone has a strong opinion on someone, it’s often hard to shake.

I think it was hard for Rees to get away from all of that even after some of the really good things he did as offensive coordinator at Notre Dame. He’d have to pitch close to a no-hitter to wash away much of the doubt and we know that didn’t happen.

Bad starts on offense the last two years only amplified how much some people weren’t sold on him. Even when he did a good job of fixing things, frustration grew about not identifying problems and fixing them earlier.

Sure, he had to work around a young and struggling offensive line in 2021, but why did it take so long to adjust the offensive philosophy because of that? It’s a valid question. And yes, he lost his starting quarterback in week two and had a worrying wide receiver situation last fall, but the offense lacked an identity before that and only found it about a month into the season. That’s a legitimate gripe when we later saw what the offense morphed into as the year progressed.

I think Mike Frank has a pretty good assessment of him as a coordinator at Notre Dame.

Rees was good (wins against Clemson in 2020 and 2022 are pretty strong indicators of that) and he is probably going to be great. He was getting better and unfortunately his best is probably yet to come with a roster like Alabama’s that won’t have the same limitations he had in his three years calling plays for the Irish.

How will he be remembered as a coordinator by Notre Dame fans? It likely depends on who you ask and the answer is too complicated to get into for those who haven’t followed the program closely over the last 13 years.

It sounds like a lot of Alabama fans are underwhelmed with their new offensive coordinator hire. I think it will end up working out pretty well for them and him in the long run.

I think it will end up being a positive for Notre Dame as well. The next guy is going to inherit a better situation than Rees did and he won’t arrive with the same preconceptions that accompanied Rees.

2. How much should experience matter when hiring the next OC? I certainly wouldn’t advocate for Notre Dame hiring someone with limited experience, but I do think it gets overrated to a certain extent to the point where someone can be overlooked because they don’t have the same checkpoints on a resume.

Jeff Hafley at Ohio State and Liam Coen at Kentucky are two examples of coaches who had no previous experience as coordinators, but they ended up being home run hires. Hafley helped the OSU defense go from 33rd to 1st in DF+ (combined FEI and SP+ ranking) and Coen helped Kentucky’s offense go from 93rd to 17th in OF+. No one could argue with those results.

I think one of the most interesting candidates for Notre Dame’s OC position is Andy Ludwig. He’s the current offensive coordinator at Utah and if you just look at the last four years, he’s had the Utes offense ranked in the top-20 in OF+ in three of them. That would be enough to make him a name on a coordinator hot board, but he also has 25 years of experience running an offense at the FBS level. No other candidate can match that.

Looking at a coordinator is also like looking at an NFL Draft prospect. The less you see of them, the more potential that exists. More viewings of them show more warts.

Ludwig has had plenty of success over his career, but he also has warts on his resume. F+ rankings go back to 2007 and Ludwig has had only two offenses ranked higher than 20th in OF+. He’s never had a top-10 (the highest was 11th at Utah in 2019). It’s enough to question how high the ceiling is if Notre Dame hired him.

He also hasn’t had offenses that have consistently created explosive plays. His offenses have finished 36th, 54th, 102nd, 40th, 46th, 84th, 103rd, 125th, 9th and 21st (at Wisconsin), 61st, 36th, and 103rd in plays of 20+ yards from scrimmage over the last thirteen seasons. A baker’s dozen is enough seasons to see his offenses aren’t built on explosive plays and they are more critical than ever in college football.

Experience is important. Hiring someone that Marcus Freeman has the confidence in that can push Notre Dame’s offense into a top-10 offense is more important.

3. Staff continuity hasn’t mattered all that much for Notre Dame in recent years. They had a new coordinator in both years when they had undefeated regular seasons and went to the College Football Playoff.

I think it can help to have the same terminology for several years in a row, but look at how different Rees’ offense was over the three years he was OC at Notre Dame. The calls might have been the same, but the offenses looked fairly different from year to year.

13 of the top-20 teams in the 2022 team recruiting rankings are going to have at least one new coordinator next season. I don’t even know if that’s the new norm or that it’s been happening like this for some time now, but anyone who worries about how coaching turnover can affect Notre Dame has to acknowledge that this is happening at a lot of other places as well.

If the Irish have struggles to start next season on offense, it’s probably not because they have to learn a new offense. They technically had the same one the last three years and it wasn’t much help to them in September.

4. ESPN’s Bill Connelly shared his returning production rankings and the Irish are in a better position this year than they have been in a while.

Here’s the weighting for returning production on offense:

Percent of returning WR/TE receiving yards: 24% of the overall number
Percent of returning QB passing yards: 23%
Percent of returning OL snaps: 47%
Percent of returning RB rushing yards: 6%

Here’s the weighting for the returning production on defense:

Percent of returning tackles: 70%
Percent of returning passes defensed: 14%
Percent of returning tackles for loss: 12%
Percent of returning sacks: 4%

Typically, Notre Dame has been near the bottom of these rankings in the last five years, but they were 44th overall (35th on defense) this year. It’s the most production they’ve had returning since 2018. (Before anyone asks, transfer production gets included in this. Sam Hartman’s numbers essentially take over Drew Pyne’s).

A few Notre Dame opponents jumped out for both good and bad reasons with their returning production.

USC is 14th and with how they’ve approached the transfer portal, they are likely always going to be ranked highly here because they treat it like free agency.

Navy is 17th, which typically means they’ll be improved from last season. They need to have experienced players in their system, even though they’ll be in transition with some coaching staff changes.

Duke is 9th on offense. They finished 43rd in OF+ last season and could be the next best offense the Irish face next season outside of the big three matchups with USC, Clemson, and Ohio State.

Ohio State is 97th on offense because of the losses up front and at quarterback, but the defense is 9th. Just about everyone of consequence is back for them and they should be very good in their second year in Jim Knowles’ defense.

There’s more good news than bad news for Notre Dame, though.

Stanford is 129th (yikes). Pitt is 106th. Wake Forest is 117th. NC State is 98th (not a bad thing for a first road game). Central Michigan is 110th on offense so anyone thinking of them as a Marshall/Toledo type of early season matchup can breathe a little easier.

A lot of the production needs to go up for the Irish, specifically at wide receiver and at linebacker, but it should be interesting to see the impact it has to have more production back than they’re used to.

5. ISD’s Matt Freeman had an interesting report on the offensive coordinator search and this stands out above everything else.

“I think if you have a name of interest, Marcus Freeman has likely talked to them at this point as however many coaches you think he's had conversations's probably higher. That bodes well as coaches are picking up the phone to at least entertain the idea and coaches are also interested in the job.”

It’s an attractive opening. Notre Dame has plenty of returning talent, they have a head coach and staff who have early recruiting results that continue to improve the talent, and they have one of the top quarterback transfers in the country.

I don’t want to say anyone would be crazy to not pick up the phone, but it’s unsurprising that most people are. Compare the situation now to what it would have been if Rees had taken the Miami job last year and there is no comparison. This offense is set up to hit the ground running with less limitations and more strengths than they’ve had since the 2015 season.

That might sound nuts given how good that offense ended up being, but remember that no one was hyping up CJ Prosise to do what he did at running back or expecting Josh Adams to be a big play option in the backfield either. They had questions too. They just answered them emphatically.

The potential is there for this offense to answer their questions emphatically as well. Maybe it being Notre Dame or the potential pay bump gets them to answer the phone. The material they’ll get to work with should keep them talking and fighting for the job.

6. He’s talking to a lot of candidates and it doesn’t appear he has narrowed anything down to a group of finalists yet.

The big question looming over all of this is: what does Marcus Freeman want from his offensive coordinator?

I wrote a piece about candidates checking certain boxes (adapting to Notre Dame’s current personnel, history of producing explosive plays, and strong track record with quarterbacks), but we won’t know if the choice that Freeman makes will be based on those things or another set of criteria.

He stressed several times that Notre Dame is an offensive and defensive line driven program, but does that mean he wants to be a ball control offense that runs the football at the kind of frequency they did this season? They ran it 59.7% of the time and a lot of that had to do with the issues at quarterback. In his first game as a head coach Notre Dame threw the ball 76.2% of the time and he seemed more than fine with that strategy that day because of the match up (Notre Dame’s O-line with no Kyren Williams versus Oklahoma State’s stout run defense).

I think everyone assuming that Freeman is going in the direction of “Tresselball” with a conservative play-caller is going to be proven incorrect. As a former defensive coordinator, he has a unique perspective. It’s more than what type of offense he hated to face. It’s going to be about winning, first and foremost. And no college football program wins big in this day and age by playing conservative.

That’s how you become Iowa and create contract incentives for your offensive coordinator if he reaches 25 points a game.

I like what Freeman’s mentor did with his hire at Wisconsin. Luke Fickell could have played it safe and stayed with the same style that has helped Wisconsin win plenty of games over the last couple of decades. He opted for change with Phil Longo and the Air Raid because if they want to do more than win the Big Ten West, they aren’t doing it by having an offense that defenses can run a 4-4 against.

I don’t think Air Raid is the answer for Notre Dame, especially with their current personnel. I know that safe or conservative is the wrong answer, though.

Freeman strikes me as someone who will look for some sort of change with this hire. He knows that reaching into the past isn’t what the program needs to take that next step.

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