SOUTH BEND — It is as challenging to find someone who has intimate knowledge of Tommy/Tom Rees’ body of work as a coach who believes the big headline on Jan. 14 won’t end well as it seemingly is finding someone with no knowledge of it believing it will end well.
The latter is more Twitter-driven than fact-driven and admittedly embellished. The former is essentially hyperbole-free.
The reality, though, in elevating 27-year-old quarterbacks coach Rees to offensive coordinator and 36-year-old running backs coach Lance Taylor to run game coordinator is that there’s still a puzzle piece missing when it comes to Notre Dame football’s big picture on offense.
Who that pending outside hire turns out to be and what roles that person is expected to fill not only more conclusively frames the Rees promotion, it defines who Brian Kelly wants to be — on game day and during game week prep — in presumably his last few years as ND’s head coach as well as the ones in which his rosters are the most loaded for success of any during his regime.
Kelly, since the post-2016 reboot, has remained committed to being more connected to his players, more available for input on defense, more balanced in his practice and meeting room approaches that for years were perhaps too quarterback-centric.
Not that a heavy hand in the offense wasn’t a Kelly strength at some of his previous stops and potentially at ND too, but the taffy pull that makes Notre Dame different in terms of demands coaxed that approach into obsolescence.
So simply hiring a tight ends coach who’s an elite recruiter and little else would seem to be a misguided step if that’s all there is. A true collaborator on offense, someone who can set the practice schedule and other time-consuming logistics would seemingly help Rees be the best he could be, and Kelly too in the new offensive alignment.
There are always significant takeaways from the team that emerges as national champion, and in ND’s case this season even more so, given that two Januarys ago the Irish held LSU to 17 points and less than 400 yards in total offense in a 21-17 Citrus Bowl victory.
Where the Tigers, 42-25 victors over defending champ Clemson on Monday night, looked the most different than the last version to face the Irish is at offensive coordinator, or rather offensive coordinator and passing coordinator/wide receivers coach.
Though the pairing of 61-year-old Steve Ensminger and 30-year-old prodigy Joe Brady lasted just one season — Brady reportedly is off to the NFL again, this time to be the Carolina Panthers’ offensive coordinator — it’s one that has set a template for success for LSU head coach Ed Orgeron and validated his decision to cut ties with 2017 big-splash hire Matt Canada after a single season.
“Circumstances were different when I got the (head coaching) job,” Orgeron told The (Baton Rouge) Advocate months after the divorce. “I went out and tried to get the best coordinator in the league, and possible for our football team it didn’t work. And all the while I was saying: ‘You know what? Steve Ensminger is the guy, and if I have a chance, I’m going to hire him.’”
The Brady hiring came one year after Ensminger took over as offensive coordinator. Brady won the Broyles Award, kind of the Heisman Trophy for assistant coaches. Ensminger, meanwhile, put ego aside, and he and LSU became better for it — way more enduring than a trophy.
Remember, Chip Long, the man Kelly bounced a little over a month ago, was a Broyles finalist in 2018. A year later, he had a better year with his X’s and O’s in some respects, but a deteriorating relationship with his fellow coaches and the Irish players overpowered his assets.
Once again, Orgeron’s words regarding Canada seem apt when looking at the Kelly/Long breakup.
“It’s tough when you make a mistake,” Orgeron said. “It’s tougher when you can’t admit you made a mistake.
“It just wasn’t a good fit. And I had to do the best what I thought was for the LSU program, and that’s why I did it.”
Another takeaway from the LSU title run is the evolving metrics of what a champion looks like. In the 16 years of BCS-formula championship games and six years of the College Football Playoff, rush offense, pass-efficiency, total defense, rush defense and turnover margin have been the dominant metrics.
The Tigers became the first of those 22 titlists to also lead the nation in total offense. Just four years ago the 2015 Alabama championship team was 45th. The 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes won it all with a national total offense ranking of 70th.
But perhaps it’s no longer that defense wins championships, but defense AND offense wins championships in the 2020s.
If that holds true than the Irish — 18th in total defense and a school-record fifth in pass-efficiency defense under coordinator Clark Lea — there’s more work to do on offense to evolve into a playoff contender than there is on defense.
Yes, Notre Dame finished with a school-record 36.8 points per game, good for 13th nationally. Some of that was a product of the Irish leading the nation in fumble recoveries (19) and 28 turnovers gained overall, tied for fourth nationally.
The Irish were tied for sixth in defensive touchdowns scored (4).
Yet in total offense, Notre Dame ranked a modest 43rd, its worst ranking of Long’s three years with Kelly at ND.
What the offense needs to look like under Rees in 2020 if Notre Dame is going to get back to the playoff is:
• Third-year starting quarterback Ian Book needs to make the leap from a top 25 QB (he finished 24th in passing efficiency in 2019) to a top 10 as the last two third-year starters at ND, Jimmy Clausen and Brady Quinn, were able to do.
• The offensive line, ranked second nationally by analytics-based Pro Football Focus in pass protection, needs to have a similar grade in the run game.
• And a young wide receiver group that includes Kevin Austin Jr., Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III, Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts among others can’t get stuck in developmental traps. There is speed and athleticism in abundance, even if experience is lacking.
Miami (Ohio) head coach Chuck Martin held the title of offensive coordinator at ND under Kelly in 2012 and 2013 after being promoted from defensive backs coach. He had to demote Rees as the starting QB in 2012 and then reinstate him to that status in 2013 when incumbent Everett Golson got into academic hot water.
A peek into Martin’s priority list for hiring his own offensive coordinator at Miami sheds some light on what Kelly found most appealing about Rees.
“The X’s and O’s are always important. They’re ever evolving,” Martin said on NDInsider’s Pod of Gold Podcast. “How much has offense changed the last five to eight years?
“It’s ever-changing, and the things that don’t change is you’ve got to be able to communicate. Because you’re a product of the whole offense and you’re in charge of the whole offensive staff.
“You (also) have to be a good communicator, because talking to Zack Martin and Chris Watt is a lot different than talking to Cierre Wood or Theo Riddick or Tommy Rees or Everett Golson. You’ve got to have the ability to manage all these different personalities.
“You need someone who can get everybody going in the same direction at the same time.”