If anything, Tommy Rees worked too hard in his first season as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator, an understandable mistake for someone still a month shy of turning 29 and with a life admittedly singularly focused on football.
“I don’t have a family. I don’t have many obligations besides this job,” Rees said Thursday. “So I’m fortunate that I’m able to pour a lot of time into studying the game of football.”
But in his first season calling an offense, some of that time studying went wasted. Rees would burn the proverbial and literal midnight oil working on third-down calls only for half of them to go unused come Saturdays. As prepared as he was, the Irish offense was going to stick with what it did best, what it knew.
“It’s understanding that these things that we’re going to rep during the week need to be ones that we’re going to rep on game day,” he said. “I thought we did a good job of that last year. It’s something that I’m going to continue to push myself to make sure that we hone in on those specific things we want to get accomplished so the detail of those plays can be emphasized.”
In short, players, not calls. And repetition makes perfection.
Judging by the B-roll footage Notre Dame has released this spring, those players are who you might expect but the repetition includes them in different alignments than seen in years past. While it may again focus on rising junior running back Kyren Williams, sophomore tight end Michael Mayer and fifth-year receiver Avery Davis, 2021’s will not be a rerun of 2020’s offense.
“This system is one where we are always going to play to our strength,” Rees said. “We’re not handing them a playbook and say, ‘Hey, you fit into this peg.’ That’s not what we’re about.
“We’re going to evaluate where our strengths are. We’re going to evaluate where we need to improve, and that’s how we’re going to build the offense.”
In theory, those strengths and respective improvements could lead to a more explosive 2021 offense — in part because 2020’s largely lacked that aspect — and the general public thus thinking Rees has drastically improved in his second year as an offensive coordinator. He may have, he may not have. A more explosive offense will be less a reflection of that and more a reflection of the different personnel Rees has on hand to work with.
“Last year, we were a veteran offensive line, a veteran quarterback, a great tight end group and we were able to run the football. We were able to control games and control the line of scrimmage. We had a shortened offseason that didn’t allow us to develop some of the areas we needed to improve on,” he said.
“… This year is a new team, a completely new team. We have more speed than we had a year ago. We have multiple running backs that we want to feature. We have a hell of a tight end we want to feature. Right now, we’re trying to create as much space on the field as we can to allow our players to go be explosive.”
This being the second article in a row here discussing Notre Dame’s want to use space to be explosive, a discerning reader will recognize that will be a theme throughout the offseason and right up to Labor Day Eve. Sure, Rees was an informative interview on Thursday (and classy, opening up his Zoom session with an appropriately nice nod to the loss of Lou Somogyi a week ago), but the concept goes beyond useful quotes.
The Irish need to once again score more than 30 points per game, if not more than 35, and close in on 500 yards per game if they want to reach a New Year’s Six bowl, let alone the Playoff. Without the most veteran offensive line and winningest quarterback in school history, they need to find other strengths. That may be more jet sweeps for senior receivers Braden Lenzy and Lawrence Keys, as well as Davis. That may be jet sweeps for Williams coming from a wide alignment with sophomore running back Chris Tyree in the backfield. That may be Mayer isolated on the boundary side of the field, matched up one-on-one with a cornerback.
Some of those concepts (receiver jet sweeps) could be found in recent Notre Dame playbooks. Some (a tight end split wide) from Brian Kelly’s play-calling a decade ago. Some may be more original than that. It will all come from Rees’ midnight oil, once again, though hopefully with a more effective result.
“As you study different people and what they’re doing and how people are creating opportunities, the creativity and ideas start to flow,” he said. “… As you study other people and as you study yourself, you figure out what can fit some of our personnel, what can fit some of the things we want to do and how do we apply that to the system that’s in place. That’s going to be never-ending for me. It’s always going to be striving to find the best ways to get our players opportunities to be successful.”
Therein lies Rees’ primary obligation.