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.
May 18, 2013, 4:04 AM EDT
The future depth chart along the offensive line for Notre Dame just received another star-studded name when Tennessee’s Alex Bars gave his verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff. The 6-foot-6, 280-pound linemen picked Notre Dame over an elite offer list, turning down Michigan, Ohio State, LSU, Penn State and Stanford among a slew of…
May 17, 2013, 7:00 AM EDT
When you think back to this time last year, there were so many unanswered questions about the Notre Dame offense. We were quoting Nelly and analyzing pie charts, hoping to get to the bottom of what was wrong with an offense that couldn’t stop shooting itself in the foot and struggled getting any efficiency. Everett…
May 16, 2013, 11:19 AM EDT
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen defensive end Aaron Lynch on the football field. After a freshman All-American season for the Irish, Lynch left South Bend in the middle of spring practice and headed home to South Florida. The soap opera surrounding the decision to transfer, which included social media pleas to stay…
May 16, 2013, 5:38 AM EDT
It appears football life (almost) in the ACC is starting to come into scheduling focus, as news is starting to trickle out from Big Ten rivals about future dates. While the Michigan series is on hold (likely until 2020), Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis announced the future of the Irish-Spartans rivalry isn’t going anywhere.…
May 14, 2013, 11:54 AM EDT
It might not fly too well on the handshake circuit, but Brady Hoke‘s dig at Notre Dame for backing out of the Michigan series might not be all that appropriate… considering Michigan asked to take a break first. Last June news broke that the Irish and Wolverines were going to take a two-year hiatus in…
May 14, 2013, 7:40 AM EDT
God bless Brady Hoke. During a time of year where just about anything counts as college football news, the Michigan head coach provided some real bulletin board material and ratcheted up a Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry that will be coming to a temporary end after the 2014 season. “We are fortunate to have unbelievable rivalry games…
May 13, 2013, 10:41 AM EDT
With news light on the college football front (we’re still putting the pieces together for some long-form offseason features), let’s take a quick look at San Diego, where Manti Te’o‘s life as an NFL football player just got started. Te’o debuted at rookie minicamp, where reporters and coaches got their first look at the former…
May 12, 2013, 8:07 PM EDT
For Notre Dame football fans, there will always be a bit of a “what if” with Jeff Samardzija. The former All-American wide receiver, who exploded onto the scene when Charlie Weis arrived in South Bend, scored a ridiculous 27 touchdown passes in his final two years in South Bend, exactly 27 more than he did…
May 10, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT
The news of Gunner Kiel leaving Notre Dame was hardly a surprise. The talented young quarterback, who redshirted during the Irish’s 2012 run to the BCS Championship game, departed before spring practice, with an eye on finding an opportunity to play. It was another switch on an already wayward journey for Kiel, one of the…
May 8, 2013, 6:58 PM EDT
Sad news out of the Notre Dame football program. Former fullback Asaph Schwapp has lost his battle with cancer. He was just 26 years old. News of his grave condition broke earlier today when former Irish coach Charlie Weis tweeted, “One of the first young men I ever recruited to ND, Asaph Schwapp is gravely…
May 8, 2013, 4:58 PM EDT
As the school year draws to a close, the Irish are in the unofficial portion of the calendar. Yet that’s the time — through the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, that leadership usually emerges. Watching Brian Kelly’s teams evolve, you get the idea that when Kelly says his team develops at its…
May 7, 2013, 6:25 PM EDT
Last year, Notre Dame assembled a recruiting class that did most of its own work. Spearheaded by early commitments like James Onwualu, Malik Zaire and Jaylon Smith, the “Irish Mob” built on the camaraderie and closed strong, adding five-star recruits Greg Bryant, Max Redfield and Eddie Vanderdoes. It looks like the current recruiting class is…
May 6, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT
Putting the 2012 season into context will be easier the farther away it gets. Notre Dame’s unlikely run to the BCS Championship game is incredible for so many different reasons. Even if the end result was a one-sided Alabama victory, the fact that the Irish found themselves at the apex of the mountain is one…
May 4, 2013, 7:55 AM EDT
The house that Rockne built is in need of another expansion. At least that’s the thinking among Notre Dame administrators. The university announced a feasibility study that’s going to explore all options for the iconic stadium over the next six to nine months, as part of the a larger campus plan. “Inspired by the University’s…
May 2, 2013, 5:08 AM EDT
Just a few days after adding one of the top running backs in the country, the Notre Dame coaching staff accepted the verbal commitment of New Jersey offensive lineman Quenton Nelson. The 6-foot-5, 285-pound offensive tackle had offers from Alabama, Miami, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Stanford and a slew of others. Nelson joins a growing offensive…
May 1, 2013, 7:08 AM EDT
While draft day might have been disappointing for some graduating Notre Dame players, it’s far from that when you’re looking at the overall health of the football program. The six Irish players drafted last week is another data-point that shows the talent on the roster, and the health of the program, is on the rise.…
Apr 29, 2013, 3:20 AM EDT
After a slow start to recruiting this spring, the 2014 group received a huge jolt when blue-chip running back Elijah Hood pledged his commitment to the Irish on Sunday evening. The 5-foot-11, 220-pounder is Rivals’ top-ranked athlete, No. 12 prospect overall, and has offers from North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio State, Florida State, USC and more.…
Apr 28, 2013, 11:00 AM EDT
During Kapron Lewis-Moore‘s Notre Dame career, the six-foot-four, 300-pound defensive end had his share of bad timing. An injury during the 2011 season cut short his junior year just as the Irish needed him most. After an impressive final season, an ACL injury during the biggest game of his career threw his draft potential into…
Apr 28, 2013, 6:13 AM EDT
It took longer than they probably hoped, but four more Irish football players went off the board in the late rounds of the NFL Draft. Safety Jamoris Slaughter, whose season was cut short after an Achilles tendon tear, was selected in the sixth round by the Cleveland Browns. Later in that round, Theo Riddick went…
Apr 27, 2013, 4:04 AM EDT
The waiting is finally over for Notre Dame All-American Manti Te’o, who was selected by the San Diego Chargers with the sixth pick of the second round. For Te’o, it’s a silver lining landing spot after a disappointing slide dropped him out of the first round. The former Irish linebacker heads to San Diego, about…
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