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.

Path to the Draft: Jaylon Smith

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 06:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates a tackle for a loss against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium on September 6, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Michigan 31-0.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Part three of our Path to the Draft series. See earlier entries on Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller

 

JAYLON SMITH
No. 34 to the Dallas Cowboys

From the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus, most saw the linebacker’s NFL future clearly. A physically gifted freak athlete who excelled as the exact type of linebacker the NFL covets, Smith’s rare mix of size and speed—not to mention a clean on and off-field reputation—made him the closest thing to a lock we’ve seen at Notre Dame in decades.

So while Smith did all we could’ve ever asked from him—Butkus Award and All-American status on his way to a three-and-out career at Notre Dame—we shouldn’t take for granted the fact that he did exactly that.

Set aside the knee injury that’s hogging all the headlines. That Smith went from being one of the best high school football players in the country to being one of the top players at his position drafted (even with a “career threatening” knee injury) is an extraordinary accomplishment.

At pick No. 34, only Ohio State’s Darron Lee came off the board ahead of Smith as a true linebacker. Considering that a healthy Smith would’ve been in competition to be the first overall pick, that’s probably the best barometer of the player that he’s become under head coach Brian Kelly and two different defensive coordinators.

Do you credit the program for developing Smith? You have to. Especially when you look at the other top-of-the-pile recruits that didn’t do as well after being heralded as high school players.

The 2013 recruiting class is a rare group that saw their Top 10 talents play up to their potential—and even that needs some qualifying. Robert Nkemdiche, Vernon Hargreaves, Laquon Treadwell and Jalen Ramsey all turned into first round picks. Kendall Fuller went in the third round.

From there, it remains to be seen. Auburn’s Carl Lawson needs to put a healthy season together to play up to his reputation. Kenny Bigelow and Max Browne need to kick-start (and turn around) their careers at USC to establish NFL dreams.  Derrick Green has proven to be a washout, leaving Michigan after failing to make an impact and hoping to succeed as a graduate transfer.

The point of that exercise isn’t to cry about Smith’s injury but rather to compliment his development. Especially when the track record of five-star recruits is hardly a smooth path to NFL success.

Now consider some of the challenges Smith faced. He came into the program as a drop linebacker in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme. It’s a position where sometimes the best work went uncredited on the stat sheet. But even as a freshman learning a difficult spot on the job, he was one of the defense’s best playmakers.

From there, Smith was asked to transition under Brian VanGorder. A natural outside linebacker, Smith retrained himself, play inside-out in a new scheme that also forced Smith to learn how to play in the trenches, not just as an exceptional athlete in space. Regardless of the assignment or scheme, Smith’s elite traits were always evident.

Named a captain heading into his junior season, Smith was given a leadership position because he was clearly a standout on the field. And that added responsibility only seemed to mature the Fort Wayne native, growing into that leadership role and also turning into a assignment-correct football player who lost some of his free-styling tendencies as a sophomore.

Deficiencies in personnel (and structure) likely limited Smith from doing some of the things that could’ve turned his impressive numbers into something even more game-wrecking. For all the skills many expect Smith to flash in the pass rush game, his value in coverage—especially after Notre Dame’s nickel and dime packages went up in smoke—kept him from chasing down quarterbacks. Also limiting Smith’s productivity? The fact that teams wanted nothing to do with the Irish All-American.

Take this quote from Navy’s Keenan Reynolds:

“He’s the best player I’ve ever played against,” Reynolds told The Sports Junkies (via Irish247). “He had the mental and the physical. I mean, mentally he was on another level. Physically, he was a freak. He was faster than everybody. Stronger than everybody. He was bigger than everybody. He just dominated. We centered our offense away from him when we played them.”

Smith’s knee was protected by a loss of value insurance policy that kicked in after he wasn’t selected in the first round. But Dallas made sure to lock up Smith in the opening minutes of round two, leaning on their team doctor’s look at Smith on the operating table before making the gamble.

All those doomsday reports we heard during the run-up to the draft? Sure, they could end up being true. But more likely? They were NFL reporters being played by teams wanting the chance to gamble on Smith.

Already, the news is trending in the right direction, with Cowboys owner and GM Jerry Jones saying he’ll keep Smith off the I.R. so he could “be back for the playoffs.”

That’s a long way off for a linebacker who is still waiting for his nerve to fully recover and allow him full functionality with his foot. But not many people have succeeded by doubting Jaylon Smith.

So as we continue to see Smith attack rehab in the days and weeks following his life-changing injury, the former Notre Dame linebacker is well on his way back to being the football star we knew he was from the moment we first spotted him.

Path to the Draft: Will Fuller

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 14: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on November 14, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish won 28-7. (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Part two of a seven-part series looking back at Notre Dame’s impressive 2016 draft class. 

 

Will Fuller
No. 21 overall to the Houston Texans

For as much flack as Will Fuller took from the moment he declared for the NFL Draft until his named was called after Houston traded up to land him with the 21st pick, most of it missed the biggest story of them all. We were talking about Will Fuller.

Perhaps Notre Dame’s least likely All-American since Shane Walton ditched his soccer cleats for the gridiron, Fuller was an unlikely superstar, all but a recruiting afterthought who had a mostly anonymous freshman season before two years of productivity never seen in South Bend.

While Fuller ended up a four-star prospect, he was a regional recruit if there ever was one. Pulled away from a Penn State program that was amidst chaos, Fuller picked Notre Dame over other offers from schools like Boston College, UMass, Rutgers, Temple and Delaware. Like Ronnie Stanley, he was another invite to the Semper Fidelis All-American game—a second-tier All-Star game— but on Signing Day, Kelly sounded like he knew that his staff had landed a big-time talent.

“He’s also a young man that we believe that if there’s a guy that flew under the radar a little bit, it was William Fuller,” Kelly said. “The thing that really clearly stands out is his ball skills. He can run and catch the football. Any time that we got a chance to observe him, he was running and catching, just terrific ball skills. We think as he develops physically, he also has that speed, that top‑end speed that can obviously impact football games.”

Kelly’s crystal ball couldn’t have looked more prescient than it did in that moment. While he only managed to make six catches as a freshman, the 46-yard deep ball Fuller reeled in from Tommy Rees after play-action was a sign of things to come.

Fuller’s development was hardly just an arrow up proposition. The drops that had so many draft analysts talking about his hands plagued him throughout both his prolific sophomore and junior seasons. But even amidst that self-inflicted inconsistency, the game-to-game productivity is astonishing when you look at the two-season run Fuller put together.

You can learn a lot about how little analysts have seen Fuller by the criticisms they lay on him. Ted Ginn? Former top-ten bust Troy Williamson? Fuller’s hardly a one-trick pony—playing opposite DeAndre Hopkins won’t just make life easier for the Texans’ Pro Bowler, it’ll allow Fuller to see man coverage and get back to terrorizing defenses in the screen game as well.

Selected at No. 21 as just the second receiver off the board, Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after just his third season looks to be a great one. With a blazing forty time and his lack of size not changing with another season in college football, Fuller struck while the iron was hot after two of the best receiving seasons we’ve ever seen.

Not bad for a skinny kid out of the Philadelphia Catholic League.

***

Looking for more discussion on Notre Dame’s 2016 NFL Draft (as well as a bunch of other stuff), here’s John Walters and I chopping it up on our latest episode of Blown Coverage. 

 

Path to the draft: Ronnie Stanley

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Your name didn’t have to be Mel Kiper or Mike Mayock to understand that from the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus at Notre Dame he was destined to be an early-round NFL draft pick. But as the dust settles on the Irish’s impressive 2016 draft haul, a look back at the developmental process of the team’s seven draft picks serves as a wonderful testament to Brian Kelly and the program he has built.

Notre Dame’s draftees come in all shapes and sizes. Fifth-year seniors like Nick Martin. Three-and-out stars like Jaylon Smith and Will Fuller. Consistent four-year performers like Sheldon Day and one-year wonders like C.J. Prosise.

But each followed a unique path to the NFL, one that was fostered by a coaching staff that allowed each athlete to develop at their own pace and ascend into a role where an NFL team thought highly enough to select each player in the first 103 picks of the draft.

Let’s take a trip down (recent) memory lane, as we connect the dots from recruitment, development and playing career as we look at Notre Dame’s seven success stories.

 

Ronnie Stanley
No. 6 overall to Baltimore Ravens

The first offensive lineman selected in the 2016 draft, Stanley’s recruitment saw the Irish find their first bit of success at Bishop Gorman High School, leading the way to Nicco Fertitta and Alizé Jones. A four-star prospect who hovered between a Top 100 and Top 250 player depending on the evaluation, Stanley was invited to the Semper Fidelis All-Star game, a second-tier game that all but signified his status outside of the elite, at least on the recruiting circuit.

That’s not how Notre Dame’s coaching staff felt about him, though.

“He’s probably as gifted of an offensive linemen that we have seen in many years,” Kelly said on Signing Day in 2012.

Stanley proved early that Kelly wasn’t blowing smoke. He saw the field in 2012’s first two games, earning reps against Navy and Michigan before he suffered an elbow injury that allowed him to save a year of eligibility.

But even offseason surgery didn’t prevent Stanley from stepping into the starting lineup, flipping to right tackle and playing 13 games in a very successful sophomore campaign across from first rounder Zack Martin.

Even though Stanley was blossoming into one of college football’s best players, we still openly wondered who would slide to fill Martin’s left tackle spot. (That’s how it goes with offensive linemen, their work only truly appreciated by those with either inside information or a coach’s eye of evaluation.)

In his opening comments before spring practice in 2014, Kelly named Steve Elmer, Christian Lombard and Mike McGlinchey as candidates along with Stanley, so it wasn’t necessarily a lock for the staff yet either. But it took just a few practices for the Las Vegas native to solidify his spot on the left side.

Stanley’s first season at left tackle was so solid that some wondered if there’d be two. While some of the online analysts saw Stanley as a potentially elite draft pick, the NFL Advisory Board came back with a second-round grade, perhaps all Stanley needed as he made his decision to stick around for his senior season. Still, Notre Dame took no chance. Kelly, Harry Hiestand and Jack Swarbrick traveled to Las Vegas to sell Stanley on the virtues of a final season in South Bend.

It worked. With a healthy offseason and weight-room gains needed, Stanley stuck to the script and played a mostly anonymous 2015 season. That was a very good thing—only along the offensive line can All-American honors and being named Offensive Player of the Year be considered ho-hum.

Add in the vanilla off-the-field life, and an elite academic profile that’s a comfort to teams investing millions in a potential cornerstone, Stanley’s placement as a Top 10 pick should have never been in doubt. While he lacked the dominance at Notre Dame that we saw from Zack Martin, he possesses athleticism and a body that Martin wasn’t given—a big reason the Cowboys shifted him inside to guard from day one.

Picked instead of Laremy Tunsil amidst a bizarre scenario that’ll go down as one of the draft’s cautionary tales, John Harbaugh talked openly about his relationship with Harry Hiestand and the comfort that came from Notre Dame’s offensive line coach as they pulled the trigger on Stanley. And Stanley, almost epitomizing that faith that the Ravens showed, all but embodied that when he told Joe Flacco in his first visit to Baltimore that he celebrated his selection by heading back to his hotel room and going to sleep.

Counted on by Baltimore to be a key piece of the puzzle as the Ravens look to rebuild an offensive line tasked with protecting a franchise quarterback in his prime, now it’s up to Notre Dame’s highest draft pick since Rick Mirer to continue his ascent.

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.