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Ten players, ten reasons: Tommy Rees

Jan 4, 2013, 10:11 AM EDT

Michigan v Notre Dame Getty Images

The seventh in a series on ten below-the-radar players whose performances helped key the Irish’s run to the national title game. Others include Zeke Motta, Danny Spond, TJ Jones, Prince Shembo, Theo Riddick and Kapron Lewis-Moore.

History will likely be very kind to Tommy Rees. But that doesn’t mean it’s been an easy year for Notre Dame’s junior quarterback. Between an embarrassing off-season arrest and losing his starting job to redshirt freshman Everett Golson, it’s been a trying few months for the junior quarterback. Yet that’s been life in South Bend for Rees, an interesting blend of success and failure, praise and blame that tends to find its way onto the shoulders of a guy not many expected to be a starting quarterback at Notre Dame.

From the moment Rees stepped onto Notre Dame’s campus — six months premature, thanks to enrolling early to give the Irish a scholarship quarterback that wasn’t rehabbing a major knee injury — Rees has been looked at under the lens of a very discriminating microscope, picked apart far more for the things he’s unable to do than lauded for the successes he’s had.

At a school that’s had movies made about scrappy underdogs and embraced the little engine that could more than just about any other, Notre Dame fans’ treatment of the junior quarterback from Lake Forest, Illinois is a peculiar case study that probably says more about fan expectations in a high-profile recruiting era than anything Rees has done on or off the field.

Rees was far from the prototype Notre Dame quarterback recruit. For the last decade, the Irish have brought in signal callers that may as well have come from central casting. In 2003, Tyrone Willingham inked Brady Quinn, who was already well on his way to a Myoplex commercial by the time he took over the starting job as a freshman. Quinn passed the torch to Jimmy Clausen, who was thought to be one of the most college ready quarterbacks to play on Saturdays in a long time. Following up Clausen’s signing was Dayne Crist’s commitment, another five-star prospect that looked even more impressive physically than his predecessors.

Even flops like Demetrius Jones or Zach Frazer came with a recruiting pedigree. While it didn’t mean they could hit the broad side of a barn throwing a football, it at least helped frame the conversation. In 2010, the list of quarterbacks Notre Dame recruited was prodigious. Top names like Blake Bell, Jake Heaps, Devin Gardner, Connor Wood and Nick Montana all had a shot to play for the Irish, yet all passed. But Charlie Weis eventually landed his blue-chip prospect, when a strong-armed, well-built quarterback with elite offers pledged for the Irish: Andrew Hendrix. Almost an afterthought a few weeks later, Tommy Rees committed, looking very much like a contingency plan at best.

Yet nobody told Rees that. The son of a long time college coach and NFL executive, Rees had spent more time around football than any player on the Irish roster. And when Brian Kelly was given the reins of the Irish football program and began installing his spread offense, it wasn’t surprising that Rees, perhaps the least physically talented of the quarterbacks on the Irish roster, began to emerge.

“He’s really savvy. He’s a smart kid. He has those intangibles of a quarterback relative to seeing things before they open up. He can anticipate very well. The ball comes out of his hand,” Kelly said back in August of 2010.
“He has a great head for the game. He understand was the offense very well… He showed us early on that he can run this offense.”

Rees’ freshman season included a solid relief performance after Crist lost another season to a serious knee injury. With the Irish needing wins to simply qualify for a bowl game, Rees led the Irish to a shocking four-game winning streak that included victories over a ranked Utah team and a streak-ending victory against USC in the Coliseum.

When 2011 opened up, Crist looked the part of a starting quarterback, but Rees also had winning on-field experience. While Kelly ultimately chose Crist to start the season opener against USF, it didn’t surprise many that watched the preseason competition when Kelly quickly turned to Rees to run the offense after Crist laid an egg in the first half against the Bulls.

In retrospect, the offense was hardly the problem for Notre Dame in 2011. The mistakes were. Rees will never be a dual-threat quarterback, but Kelly had won before with statuesque quarterbacks. But none made mistakes at the frequency of Rees and the 2011 offense. While he threw for 2,871 yards and 20 touchdowns and completed over 65 percent of his throws, Rees’ 14 interceptions and five lost fumbles weighed heavily on the Irish, with turnovers and horrific luck submarining a team that was two full wins better than it’s final 8-5 record.

With Everett Golson learning throughout his redshirt season and a perfect fit for Kelly’s zone-read run game, many expected a good battle between the savvy veteran and the talented understudy. Nobody expected Rees to all but give the job away after a night that ended with a terrible decision.

With classes ending and a group of football players gathering on a beautiful spring night, Rees found himself the punch line of jokes all across the college football world when news trickled in about his arrest for underage drinking. Early rumors had Rees fighting a police officer. Others had him running for a taxi, only to be taken down from behind by an officer or thwarted by a cabbie, easy punch lines after watching Rees’ limited mobility all season.

While an early felony charge was dismissed and the plea agreement reflected quite a difference between the early reports and the facts of the evening, Rees was repentant and embarrassed after finding himself in the news for all the wrong reasons.

“I apologize to my family, friends, the Notre Dame community, Fighting Irish fans and the South Bend Police Department for my actions this spring,” Rees said in a statement in July. “I made a poor decision and I accept full responsibility. I learned a valuable lesson and witnessed first-hand that actions have consequences. This experience will make me a better person and I will focus on being a positive role model and citizen. To those who supported me during this difficult time, I offer my sincerest thanks. To the people I disappointed, I am dedicated to winning back your trust and confidence.”

The arrest all but opened the door for a coaching decision that would have likely been made even without the incident. And it thrust Rees into a difficult role he was unaccustomed to playing. He was now the understudy. He was now the beloved teammate that was playing behind a young quarterback learning on the job.

Yet Rees found a way to thrive as a quarterback stuck in uncertainty. Like a starting pitcher relegated to the bullpen, Rees turned out to be incredibly effective in short spurts — a situational reliever maybe better suited for one spin through the lineup.

Against Purdue, Rees entered the game to a cascade of boos yet exited after piloting the game-winning drive after sitting out the entire preseason and only practicing with the No. 1 offense for less than a week. Against Michigan, he came to steady the ship after Golson spun out of control and managed the football game, completing 8 of 11 throws, including the game-clincher to Tyler Eifert. Against Stanford, Rees closed the ballgame again, a clutch four of four including an overtime touchdown pass on an audible to TJ Jones.

Given his opportunity to potential wrestle the starting job away from Golson with a start against BYU, Rees won the game, but did so with his least effective performance of the year, limping past the Cougars stout defense and in many ways solving any controversy himself. From then on, the job seemed to feel more like Golson’s than ever before, with Rees still chipping in and helping, but finding his role as the relieve pitcher.

But the 2012 season doesn’t end in Miami without Tommy Rees. And the chemistry on this Irish football team, a group with tremendous unity and spirit, doesn’t exist without Rees playing the role of teammate and mentor. And if the crystal ball ends up in Brian Kelly’s hands Monday night, history will crown Everett Golson as the quarterback that brought the Irish back from obscurity.

But Tommy Rees will have played a gigantic role. And after an offseason where Irish fans thought any role played by Rees would be too much, the scrappy Irish quarterback might find his way back to being a fan favorite.


  1. 1historian - Jan 4, 2013 at 10:27 AM

    When you really screw up there is only

  2. 1historian - Jan 4, 2013 at 10:29 AM

    Only one thing matters when you really screw up – what do you do next?

  3. nudeman - Jan 4, 2013 at 10:53 AM

    Everyone knows what I think of Rees as a qb.

    Moving on, Rees has shown himself to be a leader and a very good person. Compare him, if you will to the QB for my (and Rees’) favorite team: The Chicago Bears.

    Jay Cutler is Tommy Rees in reverse. All world physical talent, and actually pretty smart (like Rees) too. But a complete zero as a leader and a vacuous personality. If he had 1/4 of the intangibles Rees seems to have, he and his team would be playing this Sunday.

    I’m not starting a Tommy fan club just yet; just saying the guy has a certain something that works for him, his teammates and ND.

    • irish4006 - Jan 4, 2013 at 12:53 PM

      “Everyone knows what I think of Rees as a qb.” Understatement of the year? The year is only just beginning, but this sure qualifies…

      I would have stopped watching ND football (or so I said) if he were the starter in 2012 (unless he, all of a sudden, grew a throwing arm and benchpress Kap 200 times). He is a great asset as a backup, an option that no other team I know of has. He has also shown maturity in embracing this role and playing his part in the team’s success. He is, for sure, one very good reason why we are 12-0 and playing for the NC. A good story…

  4. joeschu - Jan 4, 2013 at 12:15 PM

    I think a lot of Irish fans (myself included) wanted someone to blame for last year. “Luck” just didn’t feel like the right way to justify the way the team underperformed. Rees was the picture-perfect scapegoat for those frustrations. Those frustrations were amplified by perceptions that the guys on the bench having more “potential” than Rees.

    Personally, I vented a lot of that frustration towards Rees’s play. I also vented it towards Keith because I perceived he had a “Rees bias.”

    This year did a lot to remove those frustrations, and with the clarity of time comes a few realizations:
    1) Rees seems to be a really good guy, and certainly an asset to the team and to the ND community.
    2) Keith saw that early on and wasn’t willing to heap all the blame on his shoulders.

    Great article. Explains a lot.

    • nudeman - Jan 4, 2013 at 12:34 PM

      Well … let’s not get all teary eyed about The Tommy Rees Story just yet. And we can hold off on calling central casting too.

      You weren’t exactly off base in identifying Rees as responsible for a lot of their trouble last year.

      The guy did his level best and is a good ND guy and teammate and all that. But he DID commit 19 turnovers all by himself. That is just plain ridiculous. And Keith DID go out of his way in defending him, at times to an unreasonable extent (IMO).

      I’ll say this: After watching Dayne Crist this year at KU, it’s clear to me I was WAY WRONG about him. He just can’t play, and strikes me as “timid”. BK doesn’t doesn’t do timidity very well.

      So in retrospect, even though TR drove us nuts last year, he was probably the right choice. Gulp.

      • papadec - Jan 5, 2013 at 1:19 AM

        nude – Gulp? Gulp! Good Grief & Holy Guacamole! nude you never stop surprising me. I do believe that was the sound of you swallowing some crow pie. You just grew in my estimation of your character. Although, it was already pretty high!

    • irish4006 - Jan 4, 2013 at 1:08 PM

      Dude (joe), it was not about finding a scapegoat to assign “blame”. Although I would prefer to see Dayne get a little more opportunity, I understood that it was Kelly’s decision and obviously he felt that Rees was the best option we had at the moment. The best option at a given time, does not mean a great (or even good) option. Dayne simply was not the qb we all hoped he would turn out to be.

      Keith did have a Rees bias. He would gush about “perfectly thrown” passes that everyone else thought was a poorly thrown ball that Floyd somehow magically pulled in. He would also talk about ND being ‘just fine’ if only TR developed the deep ball or locker room revolts and what not. This is not bad journalism, he was probably just reporting what he was hearing from his sources inside the program. We don’t have to worry about maintaining relationships or being a good guy, we as fans can call a spade a spade. This is, in no way about blaming one guy for all the misfortune that came our way.

      Sorry, KA! I love this blog and would love to have a beer with you sometime, but TR is one topic where I could never agree with your assessment.

      • nudeman - Jan 4, 2013 at 1:20 PM

        Irish4006 channeling his “inner nude” persona here.
        A 100% dead on post.
        Come to think of it I’ve never seen a pic of us in the same room at the same time. Hmmmm … nah, no way

      • irish4006 - Jan 4, 2013 at 1:38 PM

        I hardly disagree with the nude one, except when it comes to talking trash about kids leaving or not coming to ND. :-)

        I could be your not-so-vocal, somewhat introverted doppelganger.

      • nudeman - Jan 4, 2013 at 2:36 PM

        Yes, you COULD be my doppleganger, but WHY?
        Why do that to yourself, wife and family?

        Not a big line out there of guys trying to emulate me

      • don74 - Jan 5, 2013 at 11:21 AM


        From what I’ve gleened….approaching 60, shoots in the low 70’s from the back tees, can still run….heck a lot of guys on this site wouldn’t complain about any of that.

        • irish4006 - Jan 6, 2013 at 11:32 PM

          I thought being a doppelganger is not a choice, it’s what you are… 😉

  5. yllibnosredna - Jan 4, 2013 at 12:24 PM

    After the Lynch departure last spring, and following his arrest, Rees became the most polarizing player in this team. Since that occurrence, TR has simply grown up and impressed both on and off the field. The guy could have easily found a way to become selfishly consumed with all his challenges and experiences, but instead he learned from his mistakes (both on and off the field) and appeared to give himself wholly to the team. I still believe one of the most impressive prformances by ANY Notre Dame player this season occurred when Rees led the game-winning drive against Purdue (amidst a cacophony of boos and jeers FROM HIS OWN HOME TEAM’S FANS) without his security blanket in Eifert or a big play-maker in Davaris Daniels. Whether or not Golson should have been pulled is a different matter, but credit Rees for rising to the occasion when called upon-a supporting role which he admirably filled in some critical points this season. After dogging this guy for his ineptitude and poor decision-making last season, I tip my hat to TR for his grit, determination, and mature leadership he displayed throughout this season. Well played, sir.

  6. shaunodame - Jan 4, 2013 at 12:29 PM

    In the midst of everything we found that Tommy Couldn’t do, he proved that we were all missing the most important thing he Could do: Provide Invaluable Leadership.

    The thing that stuck out to me most was the line about Tommy becoming the beloved teammate sitting behind the young QB. For as much confidence as we the fans lost in Rees, his teammates never wavered on their confidence in Tommy. And that should have said something to the rest of us.

    Rees’s transition this year, from Competent starter to Veteran Relief, has been nothing short of spectacular. In a season filled with “Beyond-all-of-our-expectations” success, it’s no surprise that Tommy Rees also grew into something none of us fans saw coming: a like able leader, now in possession of our confidences.

  7. goirishgo - Jan 4, 2013 at 1:12 PM

    Football is the ultimate team game. Players need to execute their individual responsibilities within a broader strategy defined and implemented by coaches. Rees executed when called upon to do so. In my mind, that makes him a solid contributor to an undefeated, number one ranked Irish squad playing for the NC on Monday.

    I really liked typing that last sentence.


  8. North of Denver - Jan 4, 2013 at 2:58 PM

    I’ll limit my response to a single “Amen” simply because I have no argument with any of your posts… now I am leaving the office to get in my car, drive to Denver and catch a flight to Miami.

    See you there!

  9. andy44teg - Jan 4, 2013 at 3:31 PM

    I don’t know how big of a bust Zach Frazier was, but he did walk out of ND Stadium with a victory for UConn, I do believe. If you’re gonna transfer, ya better show up when you play against the team you transferred from, and he did. I’d like to see how Lynch would do against us next year if we played USF.

  10. jerseyshorendfan1 - Jan 4, 2013 at 5:37 PM

    Keith, thanks for pointing out that Rees was “picked apart far more for the things he’s unable to do than lauded for the successes he’s had.” That really put his time with the team into perspective for me. He was an important link in the chain of a 12-0 season and not the weakest link, to follow through on that metaphor. Weakest link has to be our punt return game, but I digress. Good article anyway. What does everybody on here think the chances are that Rees sees time in the NC game? I hope EG’s field vision has improved since the regular season ended. Not only so he can see Eifert in man coverage, but so he can see those crimson helmets bearing down on him.

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