Skip to content

Ten players, ten reasons: Tommy Rees

Jan 4, 2013, 10:11 AM EST

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.

 

Latest Posts
  1. Five things we learned: Louisville 31, Notre Dame 28

    Nov 22, 2014, 8:40 PM EST

    Austin Collinsworth, Joe Schmidt Austin Collinsworth, Joe Schmidt

    Kyle Brindza stared down his spot. Envisioned making the kick. Took a final deep breath before waiting for the snap.

    And then he missed it.

  2. Live chat — Notre Dame vs. Louisville

    Nov 22, 2014, 3:15 PM EST

    Rice v Notre Dame Getty Images

    How will the regular season end for the Irish? Let’s talk about it here during the home finale from Notre Dame Stadium.

  3. Mailbag: Still steaming mad about last week

    Nov 22, 2014, 12:33 PM EST

    New Mailbox

    With the questions (understandably) a little bit more filled with frustration than usual, it seems more than a few of you are searching for answers to last week’s loss still. Let’s answer a few mailbag questions before the game.

  4. Former Irish greats talk about their favorite Notre Dame memories

    Nov 22, 2014, 10:42 AM EST

    Washington v Notre Dame Getty Images

    With Senior Day a perfect time to look back, some former Notre Dame football greats are looking back at their time with the Irish. And they’re doing it in a pretty cool way.

  5. Pregame Six Pack: Battling Louisville in Senior sendoff

    Nov 21, 2014, 4:31 PM EST

    Notre Dame v Arizona State Getty Images

    And just like that, Notre Dame’s season is nearly over. While losing three of four games has dampened the spirits of fans and detoured the team’s postseason hopes, the Irish will play their final game at home on Saturday, a senior sendoff in Notre Dame Stadium for a large group with a still-to-be-determined future.

  6. After unexplainable loss, can Irish rally again?

    Nov 20, 2014, 2:21 PM EST

    BYU v Notre Dame Getty Images

    Few memories are shorter collectively than football fans. Every mistake is magnified in the prism of “now,” with the devastation of a difficult to understand loss like last weekend’s to Northwestern consistently taking dead aim at the foundation of a football program, regardless of its stability.

  7. Louisville Mailbag: Now Open

    Nov 19, 2014, 11:07 PM EST

    New Mailbox

    Send your questions in below. Or on Twitter @KeithArnold.

  8. And in that corner… The Louisville Cardinal

    Nov 19, 2014, 9:30 AM EST

    DeVante Parker, Tyler Hunter DeVante Parker, Tyler Hunter

    Another Saturday, another football game for Notre Dame. And because of last weekend’s loss to Northwestern, the Irish face what now feels like a must-win game on Senior Day.

    Mark Ennis gets us ready for the Louisville Cardinals.

  9. Kyle McCarthy announces he’s cancer free

    Nov 19, 2014, 12:02 AM EST

    Washington v Notre Dame Getty Images

    Notre Dame graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy took to Twitter to share the good news that he’s been given a cancer-free diagnosis. The former Irish captain had been battling an undisclosed type of cancer since earlier this year, staying with the team throughout surgery and multiple treatments.

  10. BK: “We’re going to fight through this rough spot”

    Nov 18, 2014, 4:40 PM EST

    Purdue v Notre Dame Getty Images

    Brian Kelly met with the media this afternoon, a few days into preparation for Louisville. While there were certainly questions about how the Irish were going to challenge a Cardinals team with some really exceptional personnel on both sides of the ball, the focus was mostly on the guys inside Notre Dame’s locker room.

  11. The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Northwestern

    Nov 17, 2014, 1:22 PM EST

    Will Fuller, Nick VanHoose Will Fuller, Nick VanHoose

    A little less than 48 hours after Notre Dame’s loss to Northwestern, it doesn’t seem like too many people are over it. So let’s dispense with the introductions and pull the band-aid.

    Here’s the good, bad and ugly from Saturday’s disastrous 43-40 loss to the Wildcats.

  12. Former Irish back Jonas Gray has monster game for Patriots

    Nov 17, 2014, 10:46 AM EST

    Jonas Gray Navy

    Jonas Gray became the NFL’s overnight sensation. It only took three long years for him to get there. The former Irish back dominated in a breakthrough game for the Patriots.

  13. Kelly talks failed two-point play, moving on to Louisville

    Nov 16, 2014, 4:06 PM EST

    Brian Kelly Brian Kelly

    As you might have noticed, Notre Dame lost to Northwestern yesterday. And that’s got more than a few people unhappy. Brian Kelly talked about moving forward on his Sunday teleconference.

  14. Five things we learned: Northwestern 43, Notre Dame 40

    Nov 15, 2014, 9:36 PM EST

    Northwestern v Notre Dame Getty Images

    Apologies to Van Morrison’s mother. There didn’t have to be days like this.

    Notre Dame’s overtime 43-40 loss to Northwestern Saturday is a game that defies explanation. Turnovers. Mistakes. Coaching blunders. They all add up to the worst Saturday Brian Kelly has ever had at Notre Dame Stadium, and perhaps one of the worst defeats in his 20-plus year coaching career.

  15. Live chat — Notre Dame vs. Northwestern

    Nov 15, 2014, 3:15 PM EST

    Michigan v Notre Dame Getty Images

    After a long time away from South Bend, the Irish finally return home to Notre Dame Stadium. Met by Northwestern, the Irish have a chance to get back to their winning ways, against a Wildcat team that’s 3-6 and struggling in a less-than-stellar Big Ten.

  16. Online viewing guide for Notre Dame-Northwestern

    Nov 15, 2014, 11:13 AM EST

    NDonNBC

    It’s game day in snowy South Bend. For those of you not enjoying things from the “cozy” confines of Notre Dame Stadium, you can catch all the action, as usual, on NBC, with a pregame show starting at 3:00 p.m. ET and kickoff coming at 3:30.

  17. Northwestern Mailbag: (Begrudgingly) Moving on

    Nov 15, 2014, 11:03 AM EST

    Lloyd Carrington, Everett Golson Lloyd Carrington, Everett Golson

    Nothing like a difficult loss to rankle the soul of an Irish fan. And while I smartly steered clear of the comments, it doesn’t look like too many of you did. For a football fan, you can dwell on struggles and turnovers and other mistakes for weeks and weeks. For a football team? It’s on to the next one.

  18. Pregame Six Pack: Wildcats in the winter

    Nov 14, 2014, 2:37 PM EST

    Michigan v Notre Dame Getty Images

    It’s a winter wonderland in South Bend. As an early snow covers the Midwest before the middle of November, it’s a wonderful reminder that FieldTurf has been installed in Notre Dame Stadium, allowing Saturday afternoon’s game to look more like football than broomball, as it has in the past.

  19. High stakes struggles: Irish D failing when it counts

    Nov 13, 2014, 2:48 PM EST

    Joe Schmidt Joe Schmidt

    Heading into the season, questions surrounded Notre Dame’s defense. With key starters gone at every position, the strength of Brian Kelly’s previous four teams would need to replace a cast of characters that played a lot of really good football.

  20. Northwestern Mailbag: Now Open

    Nov 12, 2014, 6:10 PM EST

    New Mailbox

    Drop the questions below. Or on Twitter @KeithArnold.