Tommy Rees USF

Under the lights: Tonight can help define Tommy Rees

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — When the Irish finally broke the eight-year hex the Trojans had cast over them, it wasn’t because of their freshman quarterback. In a season that saw Tommy Rees become one of the biggest surprises on the roster, on a rain-soaked night in Los Angeles, Rees threw three interceptions and nearly gave the game away to the Irish’s rival before scoring late to pull out a 20-16 victory.

“The USC game obviously wasn’t one of my better games,” Rees said this week.

The statement was delivered matter-of-factly. That the Irish won the game probably made him feel better, but it’s doubtful that anything the sophomore quarterback has seen in his first two seasons on campus have raised his pulse.

“He’s kind of a low-key guy,” wide receiver Michael Floyd said of his partner-in-crime.

But Rees’ emergence as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback has been anything but low-key. While he doesn’t fit the mold of an elite college quarterback, Rees’ performance tonight might finally force Irish fans to begrudgingly accept the sophomore’s ascension to his starting spot, even if his own depth chart is filled with players with better suited for Brian Kelly‘s spread offense.

***

When Brady Quinn walked onto campus at Notre Dame, he immediately looked the part of a starting quarterback. Golden boy looks, a sculpted physique, living through Quinn’s growing pains was made easier knowing that the raw material was there. Jimmy Clausen‘s arrival under the Golden Dome was even easier to stomach. Sure, the 2007 season was filled with more aches and pains than any before in the program’s history, but Clausen was the LeBron James of high school football, a wunderkind whose family hand-selected Charlie Weis as their personal quarterbacking guru. When Dayne Crist signed on the dotted line, Irish fans had all but believed they had struck gold for the third time. South Bend was becoming a boom town, with Crist’s athleticism, NFL-caliber size, and arm strength now being nurtured by Weis as Clausen starred under center.

Line up Quinn, Clausen and Crist and you’ve got three quarterbacks who look the part. Add Rees into that conversation and you half expect him to be asking the trio for an autograph.

“When you look at Tommy, you see the paperboy,” Kelly said. “He doesn’t necessarily strike you as an imposing figure.”

If you think comparing Rees to the two quarterback’s atop Notre Dame’s passing record books is unfair, size him up against the current depth chart. Crist will forever outshine Tommy getting off the bus. So will Andrew Hendrix, who gave more ammunition to those calling him the quarterback of the future with his escapades against Air Force. Freshman Everett Golson, who has only seen the field in the spring game, brings an athleticism to the position that even Hendrix can’t touch — he was set to play point guard and quarterback for North Carolina before he beat Butch Davis out of Chapel Hill. Even fifth-string quarterback turned wide receiver Luke Massa has a more complete skill-set for the position, though he’s now relegated to running routes, not reading them.

Tommy Rees may look better suited to throw a frisbee than a football. But as he approaches the tenth start of his career tonight, a win over USC and another steady performance by Rees should help Irish fans come to grips with a baffling conclusion: The kid is pretty good.

***

Pat Dillingham. Matt LoVecchio. Common names that come up from even educated Notre Dame fans when trying to put into perspective the early success Rees has had during his short time in South Bend. On first glance, maybe the comparisons work — heady, not-overly-athletic, white quarterbacks. But a quick look back shows how inappropriate those comparisons are.

Dillingham’s touchdown pass to Arnaz Battle to beat Michigan State will rightfully go down in Irish lore, but his career will not. The walk-on quarterback threw just that one touchdown pass against seven interceptions in his 87 career attempts.

LoVecchio’s career is a bit less cut and dry. After Gary Godsey floundered in the Irish’s loss to Michigan State in 2000, Notre Dame put the offense in LoVecchio’s hands, and he guided them to seven straight wins, including a victory over Carson Palmer and USC. The seven game run was amazing in that LoVecchio handled the football with extraordinary care, committing only one turnover (an interception against Navy) as he led the Irish to the Fiesta Bowl.

Of course, after that Fiesta Bowl things came crashing down. In a brutal mismatch, Oregon State plastered the Irish, and LoVecchio threw two interceptions, fumbled away another ball and finished just 13 of 33 for 138 yards while being sacked six times. The next season, LoVecchio struggled from the get go, gave way to Carlyle Holiday, and transferred to Indiana after the season. At no time did he every come close to playing to the level he did in those first seven games.

Comparing LoVecchio to Rees shows the obvious difference between Bob Davie and Brian Kelly’s offense. Outside of the bowl debacle, Davie only asked LoVecchio to throw the ball more than 20 times once, and while LoVecchio threw three touchdown passes against Air Force, he only completed 10 of 25 attempts. When Rees came in for an injured Dayne Crist, he never threw less than 20 times, with Rees having his highest completion percentages in the two games he attempted only twenty throws.

If you’re looking for the biggest difference between Rees and LoVecchio, you’ll find it in their second years. When asked to do more, LoVecchio struggled to play consistent football and lost a quarterbacking battle to a guy better suited for his head coach’s system. While Rees will never be able to do everything Kelly wants in his offense, the sophomore quarterback has only improved throughout the season, with his best work coming of late.

***

To borrow a phrase from the coach who originally recruited Rees, the arrow is pointing up for the sophomore.

“Since the final drive against Pitt, Tommy Rees has played at a completely different level,” Mike Mayock told me. “This is a game where he could make his statement.”

Rees’ numbers since that drive have been staggeringly efficient. He’s completed 56 of 81 throws for eight touchdowns. He’s thrown no interceptions and had no fumbles. Just crisp, efficient football, something the quarterback has seemed on the cusp of doing all season.

With that run, an unlikely character has started to emerge in the Irish record books:

  • Tommy Rees leads Notre Dame in career completion percentage.
  • Tommy Rees is fifth in school history in Efficiency Rating.
  • Tommy Rees’ 66% accuracy this season has only been bested by Clausen’s 68% in 2009.
  • Tommy Rees just broken into the school’s top ten in touchdown passes.
  • Tommy Rees is third in passing yards per game.
  • Tommy Rees has 11 straight games with a touchdown passes, the third longest streak in school history.

That unlikely character is doing all of this as a sophomore, at a time where no quarterback in his recruiting class is having anywhere near the success of the lightly touted Rees.

***

While the stats above are nice, Rees also has the chance to do something no Irish quarterback has done in 20 years. That’s beat USC in back to back games. The last time that happened, Rick Mirer leapt from the Notre Dame sidelines to the second overall pick in the NFL Draft.

We can feel safe saying that Rees’ collegiate career won’t end with him being taken at the top of the NFL Draft’s first round. At this point, we can also safely say that Rees’ career won’t fit into the mold of Dillingham or LoVecchio.

Under the lights against USC, we’ll get a better hint of where Rees’ road will lead him. The unlikely pilot of the Irish offense has a chance for a career-defining win in just his sophomore year. From there, he could end up near the top of the Irish record books or as a memorable footnote in the school’s rich history. While everyone’s in a hurry to figure it out, sometimes the truth takes some time to reveal itself.

Notre Dame makes Alexander and Balis hires official

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Notre Dame confirmed the news that Del Alexander and Matt Balis are joining Brian Kelly’s staff. As expected, Alexander will coach wide receivers while Balis was named director of football performance.

The program announced both hires on Thursday.

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

Alexander, who’ll lean on his West Coast roots and familiarity with new offensive coordinator Chip Long, said the following:

“I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country. Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

Balis comes to Notre Dame from UConn, with an impressive pedigree that counts jobs at Mississippi State, Florida, Virginia and Utah. He takes over for Paul Longo, who is taking a leave of absence from the football program, per the official release.

“Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh,” Kelly said. “He’s already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn’t be more excited to have him in place moving forward.”

 

Saying Goodbye: Five things I learned writing Inside the Irish

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As Lloyd Christmas said, “I hate goodbyes.”But after eight seasons of covering the day-to-day happenings of Notre Dame football, it’s time to say just that.

It’s crazy to think that it’s almost been a decade since I talked the good people of NBC Sports Digital into paying me money to cover the daily comings and goings of the Irish football team. And it’s even crazier that come this Friday, I won’t wake up wondering what I’ll be writing about.

But, it’s time. After eight seasons, two head coaches, 65 wins, 37 losses and one imaginary girlfriend, I’m turning in my wings.

So let’s do this the only way I know how. Here are five things I learned writing Inside the Irish.

 

No matter how fair you try to be, you’re always going to have favorite players. 

My introduction to Notre Dame football was a memorable one. Big-box speakers blared down the fourth floor hallway of Stanford Hall, a rude early-morning awakening for an 18-year-old freshman who was still a little groggy from the night before. I still hadn’t seen a football game in Notre Dame Stadium, though I did manage to wander through the stadium gates and down the tunnel the night before, running phantom pass patterns on that shaggy grass field after a night of exquisite Keystone Lights.

The next day, the Irish beat the defending Rose Bowl champs. And a very young Keith Arnold wondered if all Saturdays would be as magical as this one.

They wouldn’t be. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t all interesting.

The above story is license to expand my very first (and last) All-Inside the Irish Team, building a roster of my favorite players to man their respective positions since the virus that is Notre Dame football took hold of me.

 

The All-Inside the Irish Team

QB: Brady Quinn
RB: Autry Denson
RB: Darius Walker
WR: Golden Tate
WR: Michael Floyd
WR: Jeff Samardzija
TE: Tyler Eifert
LT: Zack Martin
G: Quenton Nelson
C: Jeff Faine
G: Chris Watt
RT: Ryan Harris

DE: Justin Tuck
DT: Trevor Laws
DT: Louis Nix
DE: Stephon Tuitt
LB: Jaylon Smith
LB: Manti Te’o
LB: Kory Minor
CB: Shane Walton
S: Harrison Smith
S: Tommy Zbikowski
CB: KeiVarae Russell

P: Hunter Smith
K: David Ruffer
Returner: Julius Jones
X-Factor: Tommy Rees

 

For as close as they got, it’s hard not to wonder what could have been. 

For me, the best three minutes of covering the Irish were the three minutes before kickoff of the BCS National Championship game. I’ll remember that moment in the press box forever. I could’ve run through a wall, I was so filled with excitement.

The next three minutes? Not quite as good. But after eight years of watching the ups and downs, I’m still left with some serious “what could have been” moments.

What if Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate stuck around for their senior seasons? What if Dayne Crist never got hurt? What if Aaron Lynch didn’t leave? Or Eddie Vanderdoes didn’t want to see his grandma? Or Tee Shepard made it to spring ball? What if Brian Kelly didn’t hire Brian VanGorder?

What if a certain unnamed student trainer didn’t give a little bit too much help or if Everett Golson didn’t take accounting class? Or the 2015 team didn’t live out a Final Destination movie?

Follow a team close enough, and you’ll drive yourself crazy wondering about these scenarios. But at Notre Dame—a school where you’re always going to be on a razor’s edge—the one thing that hit me was the Sisyphean nature if it all. Just when it seemed like the Irish were close to getting that boulder to the top of the mountain, it always found a way to come barreling back down.

 

No matter how long I do it, I’ll never understand the people who can’t find a way to enjoy it. 

Apologies in advance, but let me get this one off my chest. There’s a passion that surrounds Notre Dame football. But for a very vocal group, that passion has gotten demented, an elephant in the room that’s hard to ignore—even when you’re trying your best to do it.

I’ll never understand that. How people who have all the enthusiasm in the world for Notre Dame football have gotten it so twisted that they’ve forgotten that this is supposed to be fun.

It’s sports.

I won’t miss this part. The hard-liners who hold kids and coaches to a standard so far outside the one that they have for themselves, or the ones who fail to understand that every Saturday one team leaves a winner and the other a loser—and sometimes that loser wears blue and gold.

Make no mistake, I know better than most that college football is big business. It’s helped me and my family earn a living, talking and writing about one team, every day, for eight years.  But for as good as it is when the team wins, the bad years are so much worse.

It’s hard not to draw parallels between the joyless cyber mob that infests Notre Dame football (and I’m sure many other programs) with the ones that turned this political season so toxic. The people who refuse to think there’s any nuance—that things either ARE or they AREN’T.

It’s hard to deal with people who believe that Notre Dame, if simply managed and operated by competent people, would still be the Notre Dame of the past. That if only Rockne, Leahy, Ara or Lou were in charge of the team, or Sorin, Moose or Father Ted were in the Main Building, things would be just fine.

Politics aside—and I truly mean that—nobody is going to Make Notre Dame Football Great Again. At least not how it used to be. And certainly not the echo chamber over at NDNation. So while that group will be very glad to be rid of me, know that—for the most part—the feeling is very mutual.

 

Enough doom and gloom. I’ll be eternally thankful for the community we built here—mostly because of you. 

I’ve met plenty of wonderful people because of this blog. I’ve even had people stop me on the streets of South Bend, a head-shaking occurrence still to this day, with the question, “Are you Keith Arnold?” Thankfully, it was for a good reason. Mainly, you read the blog.

So thanks to everybody who has played along—especially those who have lived below the fold. There is a large community of you that I will sincerely miss, even if I’m unwilling to single out any individual reader (other than my mom) for being better than the rest.

We’ve had some wonderful characters in the comment threads. Daily participants. Some who have come and gone. Some who have been banned and re-appeared. Even crazy disbarred lawyers with conspiracy theories.

The live blogs were fun. The tight finishes of the 2009 season were made even crazier when you saw the thousands of people feeding CoveritLive with their every thought. So were the (way too) occasional mailbag. Thanks to all for participating.

For as rough as I was above, there are so many people doing great work writing and podcasting about the Irish. Interesting, intelligent people who I am glad to call friends. There are too many people to single out, but whether they be premium websites that get by with subscribers or blogs run by people with a full-time job, there are too many people to single out, but it’s all really well done. Speaking as a daily-consumer of an unhealthy amount of Notre Dame coverage, it’s a wonderful time to be an Irish fan—4-8 season aside.

 

If I’ve learned anything these past eight years, it’s that Notre Dame does try to be different. 

If you want to get an eye-roll, go ahead and tell someone who doesn’t like the Irish that Notre Dame does it better than the rest. (Go ahead, it shouldn’t be hard to find someone.)

But as much as that statement makes my skin crawl—and I’m a proud alum—the more I dug deeper and deeper into the football team and Jack Swarbrick’s athletic department, the more comfortable I got saying that Notre Dame tried to do it right.

That doesn’t mean they always did.  In my time covering the team, I had to cover some terrible events—and had to ask some very difficult questions. But more often than not, I was always struck by the conscientious effort made to balance everything that goes into doing things the right way, challenging student-athletes to excel in a impressive academic environment while also attempting to compete for a national championship.

No matter what the NCAA tells me, I won’t forget the 2012 season. I won’t forget the moment when the Irish had the No. 1 Graduation Success Rate in the country and the No. 1 glowed proudly atop Grace Hall.

My thanks to the team and people who let me cover them. To those who let a guy living 2,000-plus miles away poke around and ask questions, even if sometimes they resulted in a story getting out that was purposely being kept under wraps. I’m guessing there were more than a few moments inside the Gug spent wondering how some guy with a laptop in Manhattan Beach found something out that he wasn’t supposed to know.

While I’m stepping away from blog, I won’t stop watching the games. And while my time with NBC is done (for now), we’re still thinking of ways for me to be involved with their always excellent coverage of the Irish.

So thanks again to everyone. I’ll be back here later this week to introduce you to the “new guy,” who you’ll soon like much better than the old one. And while shorter is usually better, anybody who has read this blog knows that’s never been one of my gifts.

Report: Tarean Folston won’t return for fifth year

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Tarean Folston will declare for the NFL Draft. The senior running back, who has a fifth-year of eligibility available after a medical redshirt in 2014, will instead turn his focus to preparing for the professional ranks. Irish Sports Daily’s Matt Freeman broke the news, confirming the decision with Folston.

The departure wasn’t totally unexpected, though Folston was also a candidate for a graduate transfer. But after running for 1,712 yards over four years, the 214-pound back will hope an NFL team takes a shot on him, likely looking at tape of Folston the underclassmen to make their evaluation.

The Cocoa, Florida native burst onto the scene as a freshman against Navy when he ran for 140 yards on 18 carries in the Irish’s 38-34 win. He was Notre Dame’s leading rusher in 2014, running for 889 yards and 5.1 yards per carry  and six scores in 2014.

Expected to do big things in 2015, Folston’s season lasted just three carries, a torn ACL suffered against Texas in the season opener. After Josh Adams emerged that season, Folston fell behind him in the depth chart, getting just 77 carries in 2016.

The move clarifies a depth chart that looked to be unchanged heading into next season. But with Folston’s exit, rising sophomore Tony Jones will join Adams and Dexter Williams in the rotation. Fellow sophomore Deon Macintosh and incoming freshman C.J. Holmes will also compete for playing time.

Quenton Nelson will return for his senior season

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 17: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after a 10-yard touchdown reception by Corey Robinson against the USC Trojans in the fourth quarter of the game at Notre Dame Stadium on October 17, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s talked about the rare 6-star recruit: Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o, Michael Floyd, Zack Martin. Well, add Quenton Nelson to the list. Notre Dame’s starting left guard has made it official that he’ll return for his senior season.

The New Jersey native adds another key building block to the Irish offensive line, returning with Mike McGlinchey to anchor Harry Hiestand’s unit. Like McGlinchey, Nelson had an option to be selected high in next year’s NFL Draft, staying in school even after receiving a second-round grade from the NFL’s Advisory Board, per Irish Illustrated.

Nelson took to social media to make the news public, with the NFL’s declaration deadline set for January 16.

“Excited for this team to grow every day this offseason by putting in nothing but hard work and grinding together. When we reach our full potential, look out. I’m right behind you Coach.”

Nelson was named a team captain for 2017 at the year-end Echoes Awards Show. He earned second-team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and was rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the No. 1 offensive guard in the 2017 draft class, a grade he’ll likely carry into next season.