Rees USC

Last look back: Quarterback

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Nobody expects Irish fans to write a final love letter to Tommy Rees. But the senior quarterback, who played significant minutes in all four of Brian Kelly’s seasons in South Bend, is the quarterback of record for the Kelly era. None of that is Rees’s fault. And in some ways, it’s not really Kelly’s fault either.

Before we dig into Rees’ year that was, let’s take a look back at the period that allowed these four seasons to create the Tommy Rees era. To do that, we need to take a look back at the decade, and closer examine the decisions that brought the unlikely partnership of quarterback and coach together.

Consider this a refresher timeline of the decade that was at the quarterback position.

2003 — Even though Carlyle Holiday was coming off a solid season where he piloted the Irish to a 10-win season at quarterback, Brady Quinn took over the job after three games. Quinn played through some bumps and bruises, but Tyrone Willingham and his staff went all in on Quinn.

2003 QB Depth Chart
Brady Quinn, Fr.
Carlyle Holiday, Sr.
Pat Dillingham, Jr.

Though Quinn was locked into the starting job, the depth chart was precariously thin, and the Irish staff signed two quarterbacks. Unfortunately both quarterbacks were two-star prospects, with Darrin Bragg and David Wolke signing in February.

2004 — It was Quinn’s offense and while he improved, the Irish didn’t. Even though Quinn threw for 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a sophomore, after starting 5-2, the Irish faltered down the stretch, leading to the firing of Willingham after three seasons.

2004 QB Depth Chart
Brady Quinn, Soph.
Pat Dillingham, Sr.
Carlyle Holiday, Sr. (WR)
David Wolke, Fr.
Darrin Bragg, Fr.

While Charlie Weis stayed on to coach the Patriots during their Super Bowl run, he did keep the commitment of Evan Sharpley, a three-star quarterback that committed to Willingham in the summer.

2005 — It was Quinn or bust at quarterback for the Irish and the junior delivered a breakthrough season as the Irish offense exploded in Charlie Weis’ first season. But the scoring bonanza hide some of the depth chart issues, as Bragg had already been transitioned to wide receiver.

2005 QB Depth Chart
Brady Quinn, Jr.
David Wolke, Soph.
Evan Sharpley, Fr.

To remedy that problem, Weis brought in two quarterbacks. Pennsylvania quarterback Zach Frazer committed in April, while Demetrius Jones joined the class in August. Both were highly sought after players, with Jones the No. 2 dual-threat QB in the country, according to Rivals.com.

2006 — Brady Quinn put an impressive cap on his Irish career with another stellar season, throwing 37 touchdown passes against just seven interceptions. While the Irish didn’t ultimately play up to their lofty preseason status and lost ugly in their final two games to USC and LSU, Weis’ status as a QB guru was at its all time high.

2006 QB Depth Chart
Brady Quinn, Sr.
Evan Sharpley, Soph.
Zach Frazer, Fr.
Demetrius Jones, Fr.

No bigger fish in the pond than Jimmy Clausen. If you want a walk down memory lane, here you go:

***

2007 — And then it all went wrong. The bottom fell out for Weis, and the Irish went from back-to-back BCS runs to one of the worst teams in school history. Life after Brady Quinn was a veritable mess.

Zach Frazer, upon being named the No. 4 quarterback on the depth chart, decided to transfer. Jones went from opening weekend quarterback to not boarding the bus to Michigan. And just like that, Weis — just like Willingham had done — hit a hard reboot on the depth chart and handed the offense over to Clausen.

2007 QB Depth Chart
Demetrius Jones, So.
Evan Sharpley, Jr.
Jimmy Clausen, Fr.
Zach Frazer, So.

It still felt like reload, not rebuild for Weis, with the 2008 recruiting class ranked the No. 1 in the country by many publications.  That group was anchored by Dayne Crist, another five-star Southern California quarterback.

2008 — Just like Brady Quinn, Clausen improved in his sophomore season, but not enough to keep the Irish from struggling. A hot start ended with a screeching halt, and an ugly November was capped off with a brutal performance against USC.

2008 QB Depth Chart
Jimmy Clausen, So.
Evan Sharpley, Sr.
Dayne Crist, Fr.

If you’re looking for an example of questionable roster management, Notre Dame didn’t sign a quarterback in 2009, but did end up signing three specialists, long-snapper Jordan Cowart, punter Ben Turk and kicker Nick Tausch. That’s probably a product of seeing Clausen and Crist as the present and future, but it put the Irish in a precarious situation, especially if Clausen was intent on leaving after three seasons.

2009 — Even though the offense continued to be prolific, the defense couldn’t stop teams and the Irish kept losing. Another November swoon and a string of close losses cost Charlie Weis his job. With Weis gone, Clausen followed. So did Golden Tate, the Biletnikoff Winner. Neither went in the first round.

2009 QB Depth Chart
Jimmy Clausen, Jr.
Dayne Crist, Soph.
Evan Sharpley, Sr.*
Nate Montana, Jr. (Played at Pasadena Junior College)

When Kelly took over the roster, the first thing he noticed was a quarterback position that had Dayne Crist down for the season with a torn ACL, a graduated fifth-year senior and a walk-on son of a Notre Dame legend. You can’t blame him for knowing he needed to go out and get some bodies.

Kelly inherited Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix, but was seeking out a third quarterback. That he signed Luke Massa, a good athlete with college basketball options — and a teammate of touted left tackle prospect Matt James — made a ton of sense.

2010 — With Dayne Crist or bust at quarterback, Kelly had a first year starter with a five-star pedigree playing in a new system. He also had little safety net, with three freshmen breaking in and Nate Montana back from getting just limited reps in Juco football.

2010 QB Depth Chart
Dayne Crist, Jr.
Tommy Rees, Fr.
Nate Montana, Jr.
Luke Massa, Fr.

Crist’s knee injury ended up being the perfect storm. But Rees weathered it, almost amazingly leading the Irish to a late season winning streak after looking like a team that might not even qualify for a bowl game.

WHAT’S HAPPENED NEXT

We all know what happened after that, but it’s worth recapping. Rees and Crist battled heading into the 2011 season, with Crist laying an egg in the first half against USF and throwing the depth chart into chaos. To Crist’s credit, he stuck things out, and while Rees turned the ball over too much, the Irish offense was plenty explosive.

But Kelly continued to bring in quarterbacks, finding Everett Golson even after a three-man class and Gunner Kiel after that. That both weren’t on the roster last season gives you an idea of the twists and turns of recruiting college quarterbacks, but it should also give you some appreciation for the quarterback that could withstand it all.

FINAL STATS

GP-GS Effic. Cmp-Att-Int Pct. Yards TD Long Avg/G
Tommy Rees 13-13 135.4 224-414-13 54.1 3,257 27 82 250.5
Andrew Hendrix 8-0 27.9 2-14-0 14.3 56 0 47 7

 

TOP THREE PERFORMANCES

Bronze: Rees vs. Michigan State.

Don’t laugh. The numbers stink, a 41 percent completion percentage and just 142 yards and 14 of 34 passing. But Rees kept throwing it down field, and kept it out of the Spartans’ hands. That ended up being rather tough last season and the victory over Michigan State might be one of the more underrated performances and game plans that Brian Kelly has put together.

Silver: Rees vs. USC 

It was shaping up to be quite a day for Rees, who had struggled at times against the Trojans. But while a massive hit took him from the game, Rees was able to complete 14 of 21 passes for 166 and two touchdowns. He moved the Irish at tempo, connected on red zone opportunities and was just about in a position to put up some numbers when he wrenched his neck and the Andrew Hendrix experience went south.

Gold: Rees vs. Air Force

Any time you complete five touchdown passes and roll a team by 35 points you’ve done a nice job. Rees’ QBR was a ridiculous 260.7 as he went 17 for 22 for 284 yards.

PLEASANT SURPRISE

Downfield passing. You’d have won some money if you had Tommy Rees playing the “big play passing threat” this year. His improvement throwing the ball downfield was significant.

MILD DISAPPOINTMENT

Accuracy. Completing just 54.1 percent of throws was a bit disappointing, especially considering that Rees went into the season as the school’s most accurate passer.

CRYSTAL BALL

Golson. Lots of Golson.

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal

Irish A-to-Z: Asmar Bilal

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It is freshman year all over again for linebacker Asmar Bilal. The rising sophomore, who wore a redshirt in 2015, likely spent more time working with Brian VanGorder’s defense in 15 spring practices than he did all of last season.

That’s what happens when Jaylon Smith departs for the NFL and Te’von Coney and Greer Martini spend the offseason recovering from injuries. Those circumstances cleared the way for Bilal to take center stage at Will linebacker this spring, a position that’ll look quite different than it did the past two seasons when America’s most talented linebacker roamed the field.

No slouch himself, Bilal has more than just long dreads in common with Smith. With a body that also looks chiseled from granite and the speed of a safety, there are great expectations for the Indianapolis native.

 

ASMAR BILAL
6’2″, 230 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 27, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, Bilal picked Notre Dame over Michigan after a competitive recruitment. He had offers from Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee and a dozen other programs, too.

Bilal was an Army All-American, second-team on the MaxPreps All-American team and was Indiana’s defensive player of the year on the American Family Insurance All-USA team. He was a four-star prospect and a 247 composite Top 200 player.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

The year of eligibility was saved, keeping Bilal off of special teams. But all else held true:

At the very least, I see Bilal wreaking some havoc on special teams. But if there’s an opening on the field with this defense, it’s at safety. Perhaps Bilal could serve as a situational defensive back, the type of in-the-box plugger that Drue Tranquill excelled at in 2014.

The reality of the situation is a year of learning and gaining weight for Bilal. With Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace departing after this season, and Jaylon Smith having quite a choice on his hands as well, the depth chart could turn over after this season—turning next spring into maybe an even more critical time than this fall in Bilal’s development.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bilal’s primary competition at Will linebacker is classmate Te’von Coney, who had worked his way into the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith, playing briefly in the Fiesta Bowl before suffering his own major injury. While Coney had to watch spring ball as his shoulder healed, Bilal took reps for the two of them.

While it’s far from decided, Coney looks like the first choice in the starting lineup for VanGorder and Mike Elston. That’s not to say that the rotation will be as limited as it was last season—this group of linebackers might very well be patched together by scheme and circumstance.

None of that changes Bilal’s potential. A football player who came to Notre Dame needing to add mass to his frame and learn the intricacies of playing linebacker, Bilal’s high school exploits included a lot of time at safety, a tackling machine that looked more search-and-destroy than fully understanding the nuances of gap control and positional responsibilities.

Bilal put on the weight, up to 230 pounds this spring, looking like a linebacker not a DB. Now the mental aspect of the game will likely dictate how quickly Bilal’s able to deploy his physical skills and use them for good. We’ll get a nice progress report on where the coaches think he is come Texas.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Bilal looks like a four-unit coverage contributor on special teams from game one. He also has the type of speed and skill that he could find a role in a sub-package (remember those?) for VanGorder, if the defense is able to keep enough guys healthy to play multiple schemes.

The redshirt was the best thing to happen to Bilal in that he’s essentially starting his college career now. We’ve seen too often the difficulties that come with using talented young defenders in bit roles, robbing years of eligibility from guys like Kona Schwenke and Romeo Okwara, removing a fifth-year opportunity that could have really helped all parties involved.

Positional depth helped save Bilal in 2015. Now he’s going to need to be part of the solution in 2016, when a new cast of characters needs to step forward and lead with captains Joe Schmidt and Smith long gone.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars

Irish A-to-Z: Alex Bars

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Even as he recovered from a broken ankle suffered late in the 2015 season, Alex Bars made the move everybody expected from him this spring. The rising junior rose to the top of the depth chart at right tackle, filling the hole Mike McGlinchey left behind and potentially solidifying the rebuilt core of Notre Dame’s front five.

It was a move that felt preordained, especially if you’d been paying attention to the coaching staff’s belief in Bars. A high-level recruit, an impressive redshirt and capable in spot duty in 2015, assuming all goes according to plan, the move to the starting lineup gives Bars the chance to spend three seasons in the starting lineup of one of the country’s most competitive position groups.

Now he’s got to perform.

 

ALEX BARS
6’6″, 320 lbs.
Junior, No. 71, RT

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A top-100 recruit who chose Notre Dame over Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford—and a host of other schools. Bars was an Under Armour All-American, a USA Today All-American, and the Rotary Lombardi Chip Off the Old Block Award winner, given to the South’s best lineman.

His father Joe played linebacker for Notre Dame in the early-80s, while two of his brothers played major college football. Bars is a blue-chipper by every measure.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Saved a year of eligibility and did not participate.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in six games, starting against Navy and USC at guard before breaking his ankle. Served as primary backup at both tackle positions and guard until his injury.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Spot on here, both about the time-share being difficult and injuries. Unfortunately, Bars was the lineman who suffered—not finding as much time behind Nelson and then ending his year with a broken ankle.

Sharing time isn’t easy, especially on the offensive line. But Kelly was adamant this spring that he’ll need to find snaps for Bars to make sure his development continues, and sharing time with Quenton Nelson makes the most sense.

Of course, injuries also happen. And right now, it looks like Bars is the No. 1 replacement at every spot but center. So while a clean bill of health will likely be best for the best Irish offensive line of the Kelly era, an injury will likely just mean more time for the talented second-year player to make his mark, a nice benefit of the impressive depth chart the Irish have assembled.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bars looks like another potential NFL offensive lineman, something Harry Hiestand is churning out at an impressive rate. While we won’t know just how good he is until we see him on the edge against Texas, Bars is the type of lineman who’d have started too early in his career at left tackle in previous eras, forced to learn on the fly like Ryan Harris or Sam Young.

The staff was careful with Bars this spring, not rushing the 320-pounder back until his surgically repaired ankle could handle it. And while they explored the idea of keeping him inside at the vacant right guard position, it’s only to obvious that Bars’ skill-set—not to mention the remaining personnel—needed him to play on the edge.

With three years left there’s plenty of time to grow at the position, while also building from a position of strength. That’s the sign of great positional depth.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I assume a healthy, strong season from Bars. I think the time working inside could help him in the running game, while his athleticism should make pass blocking feel natural, especially with great length and feet.

Of course, he’s still a first-year starter. Expecting a year like Quenton Nelson or Mike McGlinchey had might be too much, but there’s no reason not to set a similar bar. From the moment Bars stepped foot on campus, Kelly knew he had a special player.

Hunter Bivin can play tackle in a pinch. Freshman Tommy Kraemer might be able to as well. But for the Irish to have their best offensive line, they need Bars to anchor the right side. I expect him to do so in 2016.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas