Tommy Rees throws to players during Notre Dame Pro Day on March 20 inside the Loftus Center at Notre Dame.

SOUTH BEND — It is as challenging to find someone who has intimate knowledge of Tommy/Tom Rees’ body of work as a coach who believes the big headline on Jan. 14 won’t end well as it seemingly is finding someone with no knowledge of it believing it will end well.

The latter is more Twitter-driven than fact-driven and admittedly embellished. The former is essentially hyperbole-free.

The reality, though, in elevating 27-year-old quarterbacks coach Rees to offensive coordinator and 36-year-old running backs coach Lance Taylor to run game coordinator is that there’s still a puzzle piece missing when it comes to Notre Dame football’s big picture on offense.

Who that pending outside hire turns out to be and what roles that person is expected to fill not only more conclusively frames the Rees promotion, it defines who Brian Kelly wants to be — on game day and during game week prep — in presumably his last few years as ND’s head coach as well as the ones in which his rosters are the most loaded for success of any during his regime.

Kelly, since the post-2016 reboot, has remained committed to being more connected to his players, more available for input on defense, more balanced in his practice and meeting room approaches that for years were perhaps too quarterback-centric.

Not that a heavy hand in the offense wasn’t a Kelly strength at some of his previous stops and potentially at ND too, but the taffy pull that makes Notre Dame different in terms of demands coaxed that approach into obsolescence.

So simply hiring a tight ends coach who’s an elite recruiter and little else would seem to be a misguided step if that’s all there is. A true collaborator on offense, someone who can set the practice schedule and other time-consuming logistics would seemingly help Rees be the best he could be, and Kelly too in the new offensive alignment.

There are always significant takeaways from the team that emerges as national champion, and in ND’s case this season even more so, given that two Januarys ago the Irish held LSU to 17 points and less than 400 yards in total offense in a 21-17 Citrus Bowl victory.

Where the Tigers, 42-25 victors over defending champ Clemson on Monday night, looked the most different than the last version to face the Irish is at offensive coordinator, or rather offensive coordinator and passing coordinator/wide receivers coach.

Though the pairing of 61-year-old Steve Ensminger and 30-year-old prodigy Joe Brady lasted just one season — Brady reportedly is off to the NFL again, this time to be the Carolina Panthers’ offensive coordinator — it’s one that has set a template for success for LSU head coach Ed Orgeron and validated his decision to cut ties with 2017 big-splash hire Matt Canada after a single season.

“Circumstances were different when I got the (head coaching) job,” Orgeron told The (Baton Rouge) Advocate months after the divorce. “I went out and tried to get the best coordinator in the league, and possible for our football team it didn’t work. And all the while I was saying: ‘You know what? Steve Ensminger is the guy, and if I have a chance, I’m going to hire him.’”

The Brady hiring came one year after Ensminger took over as offensive coordinator. Brady won the Broyles Award, kind of the Heisman Trophy for assistant coaches. Ensminger, meanwhile, put ego aside, and he and LSU became better for it — way more enduring than a trophy.

Remember, Chip Long, the man Kelly bounced a little over a month ago, was a Broyles finalist in 2018. A year later, he had a better year with his X’s and O’s in some respects, but a deteriorating relationship with his fellow coaches and the Irish players overpowered his assets.

Once again, Orgeron’s words regarding Canada seem apt when looking at the Kelly/Long breakup.

“It’s tough when you make a mistake,” Orgeron said. “It’s tougher when you can’t admit you made a mistake.

“It just wasn’t a good fit. And I had to do the best what I thought was for the LSU program, and that’s why I did it.”

Another takeaway from the LSU title run is the evolving metrics of what a champion looks like. In the 16 years of BCS-formula championship games and six years of the College Football Playoff, rush offense, pass-efficiency, total defense, rush defense and turnover margin have been the dominant metrics.

The Tigers became the first of those 22 titlists to also lead the nation in total offense. Just four years ago the 2015 Alabama championship team was 45th. The 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes won it all with a national total offense ranking of 70th.

But perhaps it’s no longer that defense wins championships, but defense AND offense wins championships in the 2020s.

If that holds true than the Irish — 18th in total defense and a school-record fifth in pass-efficiency defense under coordinator Clark Lea — there’s more work to do on offense to evolve into a playoff contender than there is on defense.

Yes, Notre Dame finished with a school-record 36.8 points per game, good for 13th nationally. Some of that was a product of the Irish leading the nation in fumble recoveries (19) and 28 turnovers gained overall, tied for fourth nationally.

The Irish were tied for sixth in defensive touchdowns scored (4).

Yet in total offense, Notre Dame ranked a modest 43rd, its worst ranking of Long’s three years with Kelly at ND.

What the offense needs to look like under Rees in 2020 if Notre Dame is going to get back to the playoff is:

• Third-year starting quarterback Ian Book needs to make the leap from a top 25 QB (he finished 24th in passing efficiency in 2019) to a top 10 as the last two third-year starters at ND, Jimmy Clausen and Brady Quinn, were able to do.

• The offensive line, ranked second nationally by analytics-based Pro Football Focus in pass protection, needs to have a similar grade in the run game.

• And a young wide receiver group that includes Kevin Austin Jr., Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III, Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts among others can’t get stuck in developmental traps. There is speed and athleticism in abundance, even if experience is lacking.

Miami (Ohio) head coach Chuck Martin held the title of offensive coordinator at ND under Kelly in 2012 and 2013 after being promoted from defensive backs coach. He had to demote Rees as the starting QB in 2012 and then reinstate him to that status in 2013 when incumbent Everett Golson got into academic hot water.

A peek into Martin’s priority list for hiring his own offensive coordinator at Miami sheds some light on what Kelly found most appealing about Rees.

“The X’s and O’s are always important. They’re ever evolving,” Martin said on NDInsider’s Pod of Gold Podcast. “How much has offense changed the last five to eight years?

“It’s ever-changing, and the things that don’t change is you’ve got to be able to communicate. Because you’re a product of the whole offense and you’re in charge of the whole offensive staff.

“You (also) have to be a good communicator, because talking to Zack Martin and Chris Watt is a lot different than talking to Cierre Wood or Theo Riddick or Tommy Rees or Everett Golson. You’ve got to have the ability to manage all these different personalities.

“You need someone who can get everybody going in the same direction at the same time.”

(18) comments


EH is absolutely right in his basic premise, but I would disagree with the assessment about the offensive coordination being the biggest difference between these programs. The biggest and most glaring difference, the one that absolutely jumps off the screen with all of the playoff teams, is Quarterback ... directly followed by Athletes! Also... Jimmy Clausen and Brady Quinn were able to evolve because, among other things, they could actually throw a deep ball accurately. Book has no arm strength and no accuracy beyond 20 yards, especially against good defenses, and he is simply not good enough and not skilled enough to even approach the level of being a playoff quarterback. Ever. just look at some of the replays from the quarterbacks that played last night. to insinuate that he could ever approach that level is a joke. Care to make it interesting? We might have two or three athletes tops that would start on either of those teams. So please, keep telling us that we are just a few moves away from being that good. it’s getting kind of insulting. We are not an ignorant fan base. Anyone who knows football realizes we are not on the cusp of being a championship team. We are not a couple of recruiting classes and a couple of coaching changes away. We are not close at all. we wouldn’t stay in a game with either one of the teams that played last night for more than 10 minutes. The gap between being a borderline top 10 team with a borderline top 15 coaching staff - which is all we are - and being a championship contender is bigger than the Grand Canyon, and we are not bridging that gap without fundamentally changing how we do things. So why don’t we stop celebrating mediocrity and start demanding excellence again. A couple of half empty stadiums again this year should hopefully start doing the trick. Money is the only thing that motivates these people, they don’t care about winning anymore. #FireKelly


Interesting post from many angles. I'll make it much more simple: Burrow and his LSU OC, Lawrence and his offensive minds at Clemson, Fields and the Buckeye OC, Hurts and the Okie offense, Alabama and Saban's aggressive offensive approach...........then, there's the two three-star talents, Book and Rees. You do the math.

larry D

You can say that again. This is why ND ends up between 10 to 15 year in and year out. Go Irish

Bob R

I'm sorry, but this is absurd. How many stars did any of the other OCs you mention have when (if) they played college ball? As for Burrow, he was barely a four-star recruit at .9003, and his stats in 2018 were similar to Book's except he had half as many TD passes. Sure, five-star recruits work out more often than three-star recruits, but go look at how many recruiting stars each of LSU's "real" stars had. None of us know how Book and Rees will do this season.


Looking for some more of that Clausen-Quinn Chuck Weis magic? Hey, remember all those Super Bowl rings and 5 star QB’s

Bob R

Book's stats last year were a good deal better than Burrow's in 2018. Also, I can see that you feel insulted. If you didn't, you wouldn't feel so free to insult everyone who disagrees with you. (To say that "anyone who knows football" agrees with you is insulting to people who make a profession of knowing football and who disagree with you. Not that they care that you're insulting them, but you still are.)


Let's face it, the bottom line is Joe Brady went back to the NFL and Joe Moorhead took the Oregon OC job. We got what was left!

Bob R

I guess you know all about it.


Well, we just don’t know how this will turn out. Rees may become an OC prodigy. It’s easy to be critical of this move, but I’m going to say, that I want to be happily surprised. It certainly seems that he has the support and good will of the team. The Irish will be a good team next year, and my hope is that they become Very good and get to the playoff. That will be tough considering the schedule but it is doable with the talent and the will of the players and coaches. GoIrish.

Tom M

10-2 again in 2020 would be a good year. Get over the National Championship. ND is a great academic institution that has a competitive athletic program - not the reverse.


I tend to think you’re right, but if that’s the case they should be honest enough to say that and stop BSing everyone that they’re trying to compete. And then we can decide whether or not to go to the games, and they can decide if they want that big stadium to be half empty every week

Ludwig von Football

Tom M and OverAll are perfect examples of the problem at my alma mater. Elite academic institutions are never going to win a national championship for the simple reason that God didn't create enough people with elite academic ability and elite athletic ability. I am sick and tired of hearing that we have to find athletes who are good fits for the university. I don't want a bunch of thugs playing on our football team but if they have to retake high school level courses and entry level college courses that's fine with me. Many inner city kids attend poor high schools. Let's work with them to give them the good high school education they never had a chance to receive. Let's allow them to take college classes that give them a good chance at success. Overall is correct. Let's be honest and admit that we are not really interested in national championships but we are interested in being a snob school like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

Bob R

@Ludwig This argument has been going on since I was a teenager in the early 70s. When the football team was doing really well, it was that basketball players are dumber on average than football players, so it was harder to find recruits. I'm sure that in another 50 years people will be saying the same thing, especially when our team isn't right there at the top.

Bob R

Don't tell me what to do. :)


Burrow was a 2-star recruit ... took him 5 years to be a rock star. Nothing says that Book/Rees cannot hammer out a similarly-impressive 2020 season. We just have to wait and see.



Nothing except athletic ability, skills, and coaching.

Bob R

Burrow's ranking was .9003. I looked it up. Obviously, you didn't! But I still agree with your point.


On a clear fall day in our ND stadium you stand for the presentation of our US flag --the singing of our national anthem -the flag of the United States of America is slowly raised- and then

the band of the Fighting Irish plays the most beautiful and inspirational song in America

The Notre Dame Fight Song always makes me cry - one more time -one more time for the next year

There is noting more beautiful than those 10 minutes any where any time

God Bless Notre Dame and those that love us - and be sure it still p s off those that hate Notre Dame

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