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 99-to-2: No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2, 220 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: McKinley spent this spring behind junior Miles Boykin at the W-receiver position, also known as the boundary receiver. In offensive coordinator Chip Long’s up-tempo scheme, though, receivers must learn multiple positions, so it may be more accurate to say McKinley is among a second-tier of options including the likes of juniors Chris Finke and C.J. Sanders, all behind a current starting group of Boykin, junior Equanimeous St. Brown and sophomore Chase Claypool.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit and U.S. Army All-American

CAREER TO DATE
McKinley appeared in seven games last season but recorded no other statistics. A late-October broken leg cut his freshman campaign short and also kept him somewhat limited in spring practice. (Notre Dame’s official 2016 statistics list McKinley as having appeared in seven games, including the season finale against USC. Without finding footage of that game and watching every snap, it is quite possible that is a mistake and McKinley appeared in only six games. Frankly, there is no difference between six games and seven in this instance.)

QUOTE(S)
Whenever Irish coach Brian Kelly spoke of McKinley this spring, it was in reference to an injury, be that of his own and his recovery or of another receiver’s aggravation providing McKinley more chances to impress.

“He’s such a big kid, I think the red jersey should go on the guy that’s going against him,” Kelly said toward the end of spring in reference to McKinley’s non-contact designation. “He always gets the other guy hurt.

“He’s a good player. He just needs to get out there. He’s gotten behind a little bit, but he’s going to help us in the fall. He’s a good player.”

Earlier in spring practice, a hamstring issue limited St. Brown for a day or two. In his absence, McKinley indeed got out there and caught up a bit.

“It was a great opportunity for Javon in there,” Kelly said. “We think we can get him some more work as we progress.”

McKinley capitalizing on St. Brown’s absence shows the fluid nature of the receiver positions in Long’s offense. (For further explanation, see this discussion of the Irish receiver depth from early April.)

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
I think McKinley’s too good to keep off the field. But I also think his freshman ceiling will be in line with the better of Brian Kelly’s young receivers, so I’m still going to put a cap on his season totals around 15-20 catches.

“If McKinley were the early enrollee, I think all of us would’ve been buzzing about him instead of Stepherson. And those 15 practices might be enough to give Stepherson the nod over McKinley, though the latter is far more game-ready from a physicality standpoint.

“Regardless, Notre Dame’s young receivers—Stepherson, McKinley and Chase Claypool—might be the most exciting incoming class at a position that I’ve seen in my time covering the Irish, so while it’s too early to say it, McKinley could be the best of the bunch.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Even without the leg injury, McKinley was going to fall far short of Keith’s optimistic projections. That is partly due to the Irish depth at receiver, including some breakout performances in 2016, and that is partly due to Keith pondering McKinley-to-Michael Floyd comparisons, at which point the scribe native to Minneapolis may have gotten distracted by Floyd’s unique skillset.

This season, that depth chart is still not going to do McKinley any favors. St. Brown, Claypool and Stepherson all showed magnificent flashes last season, and Boykin was the primary praised receiver throughout the spring.

Nonetheless, Keith’s optimism was based off McKinley’s sheer size, and it cannot be denied. It fits right alongside the likes of the presumptive starting trio, meaning McKinley should be able to fill in for either the boundary or the field receiver whenever needed. Do not look only for McKinley to match Keith’s year-ago projection of 15-20 catches, but also look for some of those to come in pivotal situations, providing first downs or breaking open stagnant drives.

DOWN THE ROAD
Projecting McKinley’s future is much like projecting his 2017, as no Irish receiver will be out of eligibility following the season, and only St. Brown looks the part of a possible NFL Draft entry following his junior year. Emphasis on possible.

That said, if McKinley can gain the coaches’ and Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s trust, the provided depth at the receiver position may be the easiest spot on the field to capitalize on it, theoretically to McKinley’s benefit.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 252 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Early enrolled freshman with four seasons of eligibility remaining
Depth chart: Wright joined the deepest position on the Notre Dame roster at his first opportunity, and by doing so he inserted himself into the mix for playing time behind fifth-year senior Durham Smythe and junior Alizé Mack. Wright will have a legitimate chance to pass seniors Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, if he hasn’t already, for pass-catching opportunities this season. Classmate Cole Kmet will fill out the positional group this summer, but that simple delay will likely keep him on the sidelines in 2017.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Wright was the top-ranked tight end in the country per rivals.com.

QUOTE(S)
Offensive coordinator Chip Long’s offense often calls for two tight ends, and his track record includes a predilection to include multiple tight ends in the passing game, not just the rushing game. With that in mind, Irish coach Brian Kelly forecast a possibility of Wright seeing playing time this season along with some of the upperclassmen.

“We can play four of those tight ends as receivers,” Kelly said this spring. “We think there’s great versatility. You know Durham Smythe has really made great strides. He’s been very impressive. I think Alizé and Nic Weishar and Brock Wright and all of those guys can all be on the field and you can detach them. You can’t say I’m not going to cover them when they have to the ability to impact what we’re doing.”

For his part, Long keeps in mind Wright’s youth but still sees the vast potential not far from realization.

“[He’s] figuring things out right now. He probably had his best practice the other day,” Long said the day before the Blue-Gold Game. “He’s been out of high school for four months, but he’s one of the hardest workers. …

“His potential is through the roof. He’s a great kid, great worker, been a lot of fun seeing him grow these last few weeks. His head was spinning the first part of spring ball, but I think he’s kind of settling in, going out there playing with more confidence. You can see it in the last couple practices.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD SAID UPON WRIGHT’S EARLY ENROLLMENT
Wright is a highly sought-after talent at tight end, a position that’ll welcome their entire depth chart back, and also Alizé [Mack], who missed last season after academic issues.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Wright’s early enrollment sets him on a fast track to playing time in 2017, even if behind both Smythe and Mack. It does not seem to be putting the cart before the horse to think Wright has already passed by Luatua and Weishar in the general offensive plan. Perhaps those two seniors could be utilized more in run-specific situations, but Wright should fit well into Long’s scheme.

This is where remembering Long’s history using tight ends is quite pertinent. Most notably, last season Memphis’ top two tight ends caught a combined 36 passes for 423 yards and five touchdowns with Long as offensive coordinator. For context, Irish tight ends last season totaled 12 catches for 159 yards and four scores.

Notre Dame’s grouping has much more talent than those statistics belie. When it comes to potency as a receiving threat, Wright may be second only to Mack. Smythe will remain ahead of the freshman due to his experience, and rightfully so, but Wright’s abilities should force him onto the field as the season progresses. Will he get into the end zone? That will be as much up to chance as anything else, but recording a few catches, perhaps even some first downs, would be a worthwhile contribution from the highly-touted tight end.

DOWN THE ROAD
If able to notch a few catches this season, Wright would give Long an idea of what he will have to work with in 2018. Smythe and Luatua will be gone next season, and it is hard to imagine Weishar earning an invitation back for a fifth year. At that point, Wright and Mack will be the top targets for Long’s two tight end system, and that is if Mack does not head to the NFL after this season.

In many respects, Wright’s nearly-assured primary role in 2018 is reason enough to expect imminent opportunities in 2017.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 90 (theoretically) Cole Kmet, tight end

Rivals.com
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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, 235 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Freshman yet to enroll
Depth chart: Tight end might be the deepest position on the Notre Dame roster, and, as a result, Kmet might be further down the Irish depth chart than any other player. Fifth-year Durham Smythe leads the group, with junior Alizé Mack right behind him, if behind at all. Then come seniors Nic Weishar and Tyler Luatua, both of whom may be soon passed by early enrollee freshman Brock Wright. Then, finally, slots in Kmet, if for no other reason than the obvious fact that he has yet to hit the college weight room or learn offensive coordinator Chip Long’s playbook.
Recruiting: Not only was Kmet a consensus four-star prospect, he was a consensus top-five tight end in the country. Rivals.com, for example, rated Kmet as the No. 3 tight end in the class of 2017.

QUOTE(S)
It was difficult for Irish coach Brian Kelly to discuss Kmet without including his classmate Wright during Kelly’s National Signing Day comments. Bringing in two tight ends of their potential in one class certainly stood out as an unlikely occurrence.

“Brock Wright [is] arguably one of the best, if not the best, tight ends in the country,” Kelly said. “But you’re not going to pass up an opportunity at a young man like Cole Kmet who thoroughly impressed us when we got a chance to see him in Irish Invasion.

“We think there can’t be a better tandem at the tight end position in a signing day today. We think we’ve got two tight ends coming in to obviously a very good situation already with Durham Smythe, Alizé [Mack], Nic Weishar, Tyler Luatua. We have great depth at that tight end position, and these two guys only add to it.

“I think you start and you look at the depth at that position, it really jumps out at you.”

WHAT WE SAID WHEN KMET’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
Kmet completes a duo of tight ends in this class along with early enrollee Brock Wright. Fittingly, Kmet will only burnish Notre Dame’s ‘Tight End U’ reputation. He has the length and athleticism to be a threat in the aerial attack while also contributing in blocking along the edge.”

2017 OUTLOOK
A situation in which Kmet plays in 2017 is nearly beyond fathoming. An injury crisis would have to tear through the Irish tight ends in order to make playing the sixth and most-inexperienced option a necessity.

Kmet’s odds of seeing action this season were further diminished when Wright not only enrolled early but also held his own in spring practice. It is not that Wright is far-and-away better than Kmet, it is that the head start will be most noticeable in their freshman campaign. If Notre Dame opts to play a freshman tight end, it will be Wright, not Kmet.

DOWN THE ROAD
Kmet’s future shines bright. Smythe and Luatua will be gone following 2017, and it is hard to imagine Weishar earning an invitation back for a fifth year. Mack will assuredly be the top target at the position in 2018, but Long has a track record of featuring tight ends. More than one will be needed.

That could mean only Mack and Wright are consistent contributors in 2018, but a third viable option could provide the ability to keep two fresh tight ends on the field whenever wanted.

Beyond that, Mack will have 2019 eligibility, but it seems unlikely he takes it. If he plays up to his palpable potential, it is more likely Mack heads to the NFL Draft as soon as possible—and that does not rule out after this season—than it is he stays around college for five years.

Kmet will get his chance. He comes in too highly-rated not to. It will just be a matter of time and patience.


Aside from the five early enrollees, the numbers are not yet known for the Irish freshmen class. That is one of the admitted drawbacks to organizing this summer-long series numerically. But a little bit of educated guessing can garner estimates for those numbers, and those estimates can allow the series to proceed without pause.

How are those estimates crafted? The first step is to take a look at certain NCAA rules. When it comes to an “end,” the NCAA limits them to Nos. 80-99. Looking at the Irish roster, this leaves only so many likely options for Kmet, hence slotting him at No. 90.

Cole Kmet very well may not wear No. 90, but it is possible, and, frankly, it should be close.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4, ½, 251 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with four years of eligibility remaining including 2017
Depth chart: Adetokunbo Ogundeji is one of three sophomores vying for playing time on the weakside edge. Daelin Hayes leads the group, and Julian Okwara would appear to be ahead of Ogundeji both due to Okwara seeing playing time last season and having a more prominent role this spring.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star prospect, Ogundeji originally committed to Western Michigan and P.J. Fleck before his profile picked up more attention.

CAREER TO DATE
Ogundeji preserved a year of eligibility in 2017. With his slight frame, that decision made sense. When Ogundeji signed with Notre Dame, he was listed as 6-foot-5 and 216 pounds. A year later, that listing presents a perhaps more-accurate height and, more importantly, 35 added pounds.

The year on the sidelines also allowed Ogundeji’s knee plenty of healing time after he partially tore his MCL during his final season in high school. The injury did not necessitate surgery, simply time and rehab.

QUOTE(S)
Quotes on Ogundeji are few and far between. Irish coach Brian Kelly spent National Signing Day 2016 discussing bigger picture items than going through each individual recruit. This spring, his only mention of Ogundeji was in a brief summary of injuries and recoveries.

Looking back to when Ogundeji committed to Notre Dame, he offered a realistic view of his future to the South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James.

“I understand that I’m a raw person, but I think I just need to work on my upside—getting stronger and bigger,” Ogundeji said. “That’s what I’ve been working on in the offseason. I know I’m a long person, and most of the time I’m just going into the offensive line and not knowing that I can use my hands to keep them off me. I need to use my hands much better.

“One thing I know I am is a coachable person. I know my coaches will make me better.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
This feels like a redshirt situation. With Jay Hates and Andrew Trumbetti likely sharing the snaps at weakside (and don’t forget Daelin Hayes), Ogundeji seems a long way from being ready to contribute. So while there could be a terror off the edge developing, it’ll take a few years.

“Looking back at developmental recruits at defensive end, the Irish haven’t had the best of luck. But Ogundeji has a few things going for him other than his physical traits—mainly a academic profile that lends itself to Notre Dame.

“A good gamble to take, but he’s a wait-and-see freshman. Let’s put a pin in this until spring time.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Falling behind two classmates at his own position makes it hard to expect much from Ogundeji this season aside from perhaps some special teams success. Both Hayes and Okwara excelled in spring practices, making Ogundeji’s path forward even cloudier.

While he will see the field this season, Ogundeji’s 2017 may hold more resemblance to his freshman season on the sidelines than he likes.

DOWN THE ROAD

That does not need to be a waste, though. If Ogundeji continues forward with the mature mindset represented in the above quotes upon his commitment, further development will only bode well for his future. Simply due to the nature of college football (injuries, transfers, suspensions, etc.), there is no such thing as having too many worthwhile pass rush threats. Should Ogundeji demonstrate that ability to the Notre Dame coaches, they will find him playing time in future seasons.

Some might speculate Ogundeji’s length could make him a candidate to move to linebacker, but that seems unlikely for now. His value is as a rusher, be it in specific situations in 2017 or in a larger role in 2018-2020.

2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle