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.

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.

Irish A-to-Z: Grant Blankenship

Notre Dame v Syracuse
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Notre Dame’s junior defensive end has an unclear status entering his third season in the program. Suspended by Brian Kelly this spring after playing minimal snaps as a sophomore, the Texas native already had an unclear path to the field even before you consider his status as a member of the team and student at the university.

After playing in 11 games as a true freshman, Blankenship struggled to make progress after adding the mass needed to play on the strong side. With the depth chart at defensive end already in question, Blankenship is a true unknown entering 2016.

 

GRANT BLANKENSHIP
6’5″, 278
Junior, No. 92, DE

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A late-riser on the recruiting scene, Blankenship turned down an offer from Charlie Strong to stick with his commitment to Notre Dame, his favorite program as a child. An early target by former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, and he stuck with Notre Dame even after Diaco departed for UConn.

Not highly rated, Blankenship fell outside the 250 recruits on 247’s composite.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Played in 11 games, making 12 tackles including one TFL. Didn’t play against Navy or LSU. Made three tackles against Syracuse.

Sophomore Season (2015): Appeared in three games, making one assisted tackle. Played a season-high 10 snaps against UMass.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

Blankenship’s participation took a step backwards. He looked like a potential redshirt until he played in garbage time. Partial credit, at best. Nobody gave Rochell and Day a break.

It’s too hard to project Blankenship as a 30-snap-a-game contributor. But if he’s forced into action, the experience he got last season will come in handy. More likely, Blankenship will be part of an expanded front seven depth chart, and will make it easier to keep guys like Isaac Rochell and Sheldon Day fresh.

As a second-year player, he and Andrew Trumbetti have a chance to both make big steps forward this season. If either can help a pass rush that needs to win more from base packages, it’ll be huge for the defense. Expect new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore to get this through to Blankenship, who likely derives fuel from being overlooked, something he certainly was last season.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

We’ll know a lot more about Blankenship’s future when the Irish enroll in summer school. If he’s there, it’ll signal that there’s a road back onto the team. If not, it’ll be another washout at defensive end, a position that’s been very difficult to keep together.

At this point, barring some remarkable change to his production or the depth chart, there doesn’t look like much of a road to playing time for Blankenship, at least not with Isaac Rochell on the roster in front of him.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Very unclear.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Blankenship was a part of a different program come next fall or buried on the depth chart at Notre Dame. The one reason for optimism is the position he plays. There’s opportunity at defensive end, especially if you can rush the passer.

Blankenship hasn’t show that ability yet. Part of that came from gaining a ton of weight between his freshman and sophomore seasons. The other part of it was scheme—he was recruited by Bob Diaco to play a different type of end.

Let’s get Blankenship out of the doghouse and back onto the field before we look for optimism.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin

 

This week’s episode of Blown Coverage features me pitching John Walters on the perfect three-year solution for Notre Dame’s QB conundrum. And a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy. 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.