Michigan v Notre Dame

Ten players, ten reasons: Tommy Rees

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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.

 

Spring positions to watch for revelations: DL & WR

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 05: Jerry Tillery #99 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish tackles Jerrod Heard #13 of the Texas Longhorns for a loss of yards during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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If quarterback, rover and the early enrollees could be Notre Dame fans’ springtime Christmas thrills, what positions present as potential spots of coal?

Three former Irish players were invited to next week’s NFL Combine in Indianapolis: quarterback DeShone Kizer, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive end Isaac Rochell. Losing two consistent defensive linemen leaves this year’s unit with some questions. Jones and Rochell combined for 100 tackles, 18 for loss and three sacks last season. Notre Dame’s returning defensive linemen combined to total 111 tackles and only 5.5 tackles for loss. To be clear, sacks are not included in that latter list because no returning defensive linemen recorded one. Among the returnees, junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37 tackles, three for loss) and senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26, 0.5) contributed solidly alongside the two NFL prospects.

This dearth of known and reliable linemen is a large part of why the potential transfer of Clemson graduate defensive tackle Scott Pagano is so intriguing. Pagano would immediately be a favorite to start, and if not that, at least rotate in heavily.

For now, though, Pagano remains a theoretical

By the end of spring practice, who already on campus will emerge alongside Tillery and Trumbetti in the Irish front? Senior ends Jay Hayes (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) and Jonathon Bonner (nine tackles) seem the most-likely candidates … aside from former four-star recruit and now rising sophomore Daelin Hayes. In his debut season, D. Hayes finished with 11 tackles.

Look for senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss) to establish himself as Tillery’s immediate backup this spring, but that spot in the rotation will be up for competition all over again once four-star tackle Darnell Ewell (Lake Taylor High School; Norfolk, Va.) arrives on campus in the fall. His size and quickness should play right into new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system.

Equanimeous and Who?
Not only did Notre Dame bring in a graduate transfer at receiver in former Michigan wideout Freddy Canteen, but it has also already received the commitments of two four-star receivers in the 2018 recruiting class. The continued emphasis on the position reflects the lack of bona fide game-breakers currently on the roster.

Junior Equanimeous St. Brown established himself as the top Irish threat in 2016, and he should shine only further with junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush targeting him. Classmates often amplify each other’s success, simply due to the added shared reps innate to joining practice at the same time. With Torii Hunter, Jr., now pursuing a professional baseball career, who will prevent the secondary from focusing all its energies on St. Brown?

Canteen will not be with Notre Dame in the spring, as he does not graduate from Michigan until April. That will give a clear shot for the likes of juniors Chris Finke, C.J. Sanders and Miles Boykin, and sophomores Kevin Stepherson, Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool to establish themselves. Did that say “clear” shot? It should probably read, “a chance to separate from the crowd.”

If a genuine threat does not line up opposite St. Brown, his explosiveness will likely be greatly reduced by focused defensive scheming. Wimbush will need another target before 2018.

Of course, here is where one should acknowledge the millennia-tested fact: Coal under pressure becomes diamonds.

2016 Notre Dame’s win expectancy was 7.2
Sports Illustrated’s Chris Johnson named the Irish as his team most likely to dramatically improve its record in 2017. Johnson’s thinking is based, at least in part, on Notre Dame’s second-order win total having been 7.2 in 2016, compared to the four wins the Irish actually walked away with. That discrepancy was the largest in the country.

Second-order win totals reflect how many points a team should have scored and allowed based on offensive and defensive stats. In theory, this shines a light on how luck and chance factored into results. Naturally, losing seven games by one possession will often be reflected by a higher second-order win total.

“Notre Dame’s win-loss record belied a solid, if imperfect, squad that just couldn’t pull out close games…” Johnson writes. “The Irish may not get back into College Football Playoff contention in 2017, but they’re bound to post a few more Ws because of reversion to the mean.”

Admittedly, the small sample size of a football season reduces the applicability of metrics such as second- and third-order wins when compared to baseball and basketball.

Jones becomes Mack
A quick piece of housekeeping: Apparently junior tight end Alizé Jones has changed his name to Alizé Mack.

While Notre Dame’s roster may not reflect that change yet, it is reasonable to expect it will after its next update. The football program has consistently respected the intricacies of players’ name preferences. Tai-ler Jones becoming TJ Jones jumps to mind, for example.

Anyways, hopefully noting Mack’s name change here might reduce some confusion down the line. Probably not. How many readers possibly read to the actual bottom of an article? But hey, in good faith.

WR Lenzy makes 11th commitment, brings speed to Irish

lenzy
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At what point does an impressive recruiting roll become something more? When does it become a harbinger of things to come, even if not for a few seasons? How many notable commitments in a row establishes a class as special?

If the answer to any of the above is 11 commitments by the end of February, including five within two weeks, then Notre Dame is there following consensus four-star athlete Braden Lenzy’s announcement Thursday evening.

The Tigard High School (Portland, Ore) receiver/cornerback chose the Irish over offers from USC, Oregon and Michigan State, among a litany of others. In all, nine Pac-12 schools chased Lenzy—and a 10th, Washington, had shown interest—per rivals.com.

Lenzy will fit the leading 2018 need voiced by Irish coach Brian Kelly three weeks ago on National Signing Day 2017.

“Elite speed on offense will be a primary goal for us,” Kelly said Feb. 1. “Guys that can change the game on one possession. I think we’ll see that… We want a couple of home run hitters. We don’t care if they’re Darren Sproles’s size. We’re going to come off the board in terms of profile. We want some guys that can change the game on offense with elite speed.”

At 6-foot, 175 pounds, Lenzy is taller than Sproles’s 5-foot-6, but it is still his speed that drew Notre Dame’s interest.

“They made it clear they want me to do kickoff return and use me as a deep threat across the field,” he told Irish Illustrated. “Just being kind of an athlete, similar to what I’ve been doing already in high school, just on a bigger scale with a quarterback that can throw it a lot farther.”

Presuming Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush is that arm in 2018, throwing great distances should not be an issue. Between Lenzy and fellow 2018 commit Micah Jones, covering those distances should be a reasonable request, as well.

Lenzy brings Notre Dame’s class of 2018 to 11, including eight four-stars according to Rivals’ rating system. Current scholarship projections indicate the class will not be a large one, meaning the Irish coaching staff has already garnered the commitments of more than half the class. Once again, though, Kelly’s sentiment regarding recruiting timing should be remembered.

“We’re all going to have to fight until February.”

SWARBRICK’S TAKE ON RECRUITING
Kelly credited Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick with much assistance in securing the country’s No. 13 recruiting class in 2017. A refresher on those comments:

“In a lot of instances, [Swarbrick] had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it’s going,” Kelly said. “There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future.”

Swarbrick did not dispute the factual nature of any of that in an interview with the Indianapolis Star, but he did contest the need for praising what he saw as part of his job, one of the preferred parts of his job, at that.

“I can’t say anything about this year felt all that different,” Swarbrick told Star reporter Laken Litman. “Some asked questions about the future of the program and can we compete for a national championship. And I would talk about the elements of the program we were focused on improving.”

Swarbrick and Litman discussed a number of items in the second-half of the interview released by the Star, including Notre Dame’s facilities, a possible early signing period in football and if the Oct. 8, 2016, game against North Carolina State should have been played. Spoiler: No. Then why was it? Go check it out.

Swarbrick also told Litman he likes to write in his free time.

“I tend to think strategically with a pen in my hand.” Swarbrick added he is currently scribbling away on where he thinks college athletics are headed.

This scribe, for one, would be most interested in skimming those legal pads.

Will Wimbush, Elko and the early enrollees surprise in spring practice?

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans congratulate Brandon Wimbush #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish after he ran for a 58 yard touchdown against the Massachusetts Minutemen at Notre Dame Stadium on September 26, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Umass 62-27.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Exactly 59 days from today, the Irish will take the field at Notre Dame Stadium. Sure, they will be playing against themselves, but nonetheless, it will be somewhat-competitive football played in gold helmets.

For timing context, exactly 59 days ago, you looked beneath the Christmas tree to learn if Santa Claus left you season tickets, socks or coal. I got socks. They had some of that extra cushioning, so I considered them a suitable treat.

Whether you care about my argyles or not (you don’t), for many the Blue-Gold Game and Christmas morning hold similar excitement. That fact is apparently why Notre Dame director of athletics Jack Swarbrick does not concern himself when groups of alumni publicly lament his decisions, or lack thereof.

“I never worry about that,” Swarbirck told the Indianapolis Star in an exclusive interview you really should read. Go on, click the link, it will open in a new tab. You can come right back here when you are done.

“The hardest job in athletics is trying to generate passion in your program. If that sort of stuff bothers you, you can’t be the athletic director, head coach or the quarterback at Notre Dame.”

That very passion will undoubtedly lead to frame-by-frame discussions of video snippets from spring practice, parsing of each and every word Irish coach Brian Kelly says in quick interviews after those practices, and extreme pessimism and optimism about the 2017 season.

In the Christmas spirit, what toys could bring the must excitement during the spring unwrapping? Personally, the gift I was unsure of always brought the most joy. I would rather open an unexpected book than know about a charcoal-gray suit. In other words, at least for today, let’s look past the offensive line, the running backs and the inside linebackers. Instead, let’s look forward to learning about… (more…)

How did Mike Elko fare against past Irish opponents?

TALLAHASSEE, FL - OCTOBER 18:  Karlos Williams #9 of the Florida State Seminoles scores the touchdown that would win the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during their game at Doak Campbell Stadium on October 18, 2014 in Tallahassee, Florida.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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Former Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder took over at that position before the 2014 season. Former Wake Forest defensive coordinator, and now VanGorder’s successor at Notre Dame, Mike Elko took over in Winston-Salem at the same time. Since then, the two programs faced common opponents nine times.

With the lone exception of Army, all these games featured ACC opponents. When it comes to talent, Wake Forest tends to be outmatched in the ACC. Recruits from 2011 to 2016 suited up for the Deacons in the 2014-16 seasons. During those six recruiting cycles, Wake Forest never finished higher than No. 10 in the conference according to rivals.com’s rankings. In 2012 and 2014, the Deacons finished at the bottom of the conference in recruiting.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, finished behind an ACC team a total of 10 times over those six years. Florida State outpaced the Irish five times, the exception being Notre Dame’s No. 3-ranked class in 2013 following its national championship game appearance. Clemson finished ahead of the Irish four times (2014 joining 2013 as the outliers), and Miami rounds the listing off with its No. 9-finish in 2012, compared to Notre Dame’s No. 20.

The point being, VanGorder and the Irish could anticipate having a stronger and deeper roster in at least six of the games discussed below. Elko and Wake Forest may have been able to make that argument—and it would be a debatable one—just once, when they faced Duke this past September.

Before comparing the two units’ successes and failures in those nine—actually, 18—contests, let’s establish two points of clarification. Notre Dame and North Carolina State played in a literal hurricane this past October. Comparing that game to any other will accomplish nothing. Furthermore, before anyone starts griping about that afternoon’s play-calling, this is an exercise discussing defensive performances, not offensive. The run:pass distribution of Oct. 1, 2016, bears no significance here.

Secondly, the other two games the Irish played fitting this criteria but after VanGorder’s dismissal—Syracuse and Army—are included below. Only so much of the scheme changed mid-season, and the personnel did not.

If you are busy catching up from a long weekend and do not have the time to look at the numbers below, a quick summary for you: In five of the eight instances, Elko’s unit fared distinctly better than VanGorder’s in multiple notable statistical categories. However, the Deacons struggled with Army’s triple-option attack, and both 2014 Florida State and 2015 Clemson blew right through the aggressive defense far easier than they did against Notre Dame.

Presented in something resembling reverse chronological order: (more…)