Jan 4, 2013, 10:11 AM EDT
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.
Aug 20, 2014, 8:26 PM EDT
Inked to help fill a running back depth chart in need of reinforcements, KeiVarae Russell became a cornerback by accident. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at an All-American candidate with his season up for grabs, an academic investigation determining Russell’s role on the 2014 team.
Aug 20, 2014, 1:03 PM EDT
Of the players made available to the media yesterday, grad student Cody Riggs wasn’t among them. But the cornerback stopped by UND.com’s Media Day coverage, and after watching his interview with Jack Nolan it’s hard not to be impressed.
Aug 19, 2014, 9:57 PM EDT
With access to Brian Kelly, his assistants and a handful of veteran players, today’s Media Day felt a little different than most. That’s understandable, with the aftermath of unexpected academic suspensions still lingering over the program. With the investigation still on media lockdown, speculation has varied widely, but it’s clear that Kelly is moving forward, the only thing a head coach can do.
Aug 18, 2014, 7:28 PM EDT
The Irish practiced today without four suspended veterans, as an academic investigation continues at Notre Dame about potential Honor Code violations committed by DaVaris Daniels, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams. And with rumors swirling and little actual info coming out of anyone inside the program, Phillip Daniels was a guest on NBC 5’s Sports Sunday, and spoke candidly about his son’s situation.
Aug 18, 2014, 6:07 PM EDT
Providing depth in 2013, sophomore Isaac Rochell just became a very large part of Notre Dame’s plans this season. Irish A-to-Z continues with a lock at Notre Dame’s accidental starter at defensive end.
Aug 18, 2014, 9:00 AM EDT
Notre Dame plays Rice in less than two weeks. While that might take a backseat to the interest following the academic investigation that’s underway, the Irish are preparing for a football game, and 15 practices into camp, things are starting to come together.
Aug 17, 2014, 1:02 PM EDT
Among the fleet of celebrity sons playing on Notre Dame’s football team, sophomore Corey Robinson looks poised to make his own name in 2014. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at the young receiver.
Aug 16, 2014, 2:53 PM EDT
Life goes on for Notre Dame’s football team, as the Irish practiced inside Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday morning. After practice, Brian Kelly addressed the assembled media, talking for over 20 minutes, primarily about the suspensions of DaVaris Daniels, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams and the internal investigation taking place.
Aug 15, 2014, 9:29 PM EDT
The college football world stared at Notre Dame on Friday. Some snickered as they hoped to see smoke and fire emerge from the Golden Dome. Irish fans braced for impact, with even the most level-headed dreading impending doom, with things getting worse by the minute as Notre Dame brass stayed silent.
Aug 15, 2014, 5:10 PM EDT
An investigation is taking place at Notre Dame, the university announced Friday. With a news conference scheduled for 6 p.m., four Notre Dame football players have been taken off the field and held out of practice and competition until the investigation is complete.
Aug 15, 2014, 2:08 PM EDT
As rumors swirl out of control, multiple reports have Notre Dame suspending four players for the season as the result of an academic probe.
Aug 14, 2014, 12:46 PM EDT
Heading into fall camp, surprises were expected on the defensive side of the ball. But while everybody is talking about Brian Kelly naming Everett Golson his starting quarterback, the Irish head coach’s comments about his evolving defense were probably the most illuminating we’ve heard from Kelly in years.
Aug 14, 2014, 11:20 AM EDT
Notre Dame announced this morning that graduate assistant Kyle McCarthy is taking a leave of absence from the football team to battle cancer. The former Irish captain is in his first season working with the Irish under Brian Kelly after retiring from the NFL.
Aug 13, 2014, 7:48 PM EDT
After using the graduate transfer rule to fill niche roles like situational punter, Notre Dame landed a potential difference maker in Florida graduate Cody Riggs. Irish A-to-Z takes a closer look at the diminutive cornerback.
Aug 13, 2014, 1:47 PM EDT
While it may have taken longer than many expected, Brian Kelly named Everett Golson his starting quarterback after practice on Wednesday. The senior beat out sophomore Malik Zaire, who put up a valiant effort.
Aug 12, 2014, 11:27 AM EDT
A year after struggling to get on the field, Max Redfield has emerged as one of the key pieces of Notre Dame’s defense. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at the former five-star safety.
Aug 11, 2014, 4:18 PM EDT
As fall camp continues, we take a (way-too) close look at the latest UND.com practice video, with the Irish going 11-on-11 in full pads.
Aug 11, 2014, 2:31 PM EDT
Notre Dame practiced on Monday inside Notre Dame Stadium, their first official workout on the team’s new playing surface. After following the transformation from natural grass to FieldTurf, getting inside a stadium that hasn’t been enough of a home-field advantage over the past few years was critical.
Aug 11, 2014, 10:34 AM EDT
Our annual exercise is over and the result is a Top Five that was as close to consensus as possible. On a roster with unproven talent and unprecedented depth, part of what makes this list interesting and fun is that I put zero qualifications on the logic used to rank players. Beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.
Aug 9, 2014, 1:02 PM EDT
Sophomore wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. is expected to miss 4-6 weeks with a groin tear, Brian Kelly announced after practice on Saturday.
- With all eyes watching, a dig for truth begins at Notre Dame 132
- Academic misconduct investigation underway at Notre Dame 58
- Multiple Reports: Notre Dame set to suspend four players for season 130
- Ready or Not: Young Irish defenders making moves 82
- Kelly names Golson starting quarterback 78
- Irish A-to-Z: Max Redfield 56
- With all eyes watching, a dig for truth begins at Notre Dame (132)
- Kelly addresses academic investigation (131)
- Multiple Reports: Notre Dame set to suspend four players for season (130)
- Phillip Daniels feels confident son DaVaris will be cleared (95)
- Ready or Not: Young Irish defenders making moves (82)