Notre Dame football: Rees has endured ups and downs

Bob Wieneke

SOUTH BEND - He’s been the guy who replaced the starter, and he’s been the guy given the hook.

He’s earned headlines for engineering big victories, and he’s also had his name in the police blotter.

He’s looked, at times, very, very good. There have been times when it’s been not so good.

For as much as Tommy Rees has been through in his three years at Notre Dame; for as often as he’s been in and out of the lineup; for as many ups and downs as he’s experienced; there’s one thing that has not been written about the senior from Lake Forest, Ill.

Starting quarterback to start the season.

Until this season, that is.

“To be quite honest,” Rees said, “it’s a pretty good feeling.

Imagining a year ago that Rees, at that time facing a one-game suspension after a run-in with police, would be sitting in the interview room on the eve of 2013 fall camp as the starter, seemed at the least a longshot. Particularly with the way Everett Golson, who won the starting job in camp last year, played during a season that culminated with a trip to the national championship game.

Even Rees, as steady and low-key as they come, couldn’t balk when the words “new lease on life” were tossed his way.

“I never really anticipated it working out like this,” he admitted, “but I’m definitely excited about the opportunity.”

It’s an opportunity that arose after Golson in May was suspended for the season because of an academic matter. Irish coach Brian Kelly initially didn’t name a starter from a group that, in addition to Rees, included classmate Andrew Hendrix and freshman Malik Zaire, before this summer anointing the 6-foot-1½, 215-pound Rees the starter for the Aug. 31 Temple game.

“You never want something like that to happen to a kid,” Rees said of Golson and the suspension he’s serving, “but I’m ready to go. I’m excited for the season and I’m ready to be the leader and just move this thing in the right direction.”

Rees, last year in a backup role, helped the Irish move in the right direction, particularly when the training wheels were on as Golson grew. Rees appeared in all 12 games after the opener, completing 34 of 59 passes for 436 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.

It was Rees who led the game-winning drive against Purdue. It was Rees who again came off the bench to steer the way against Michigan. And it was Rees who helped the Irish to a riveting victory over Stanford after Golson was knocked out of the game.

But when Rees trotted on the field, fans still seemed to remember the guy, who in 2011, started the final 12 games, leading an offense that had some firepower — Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert — but also seemed to be one that wasn’t at a championship level. Rees as a sophomore threw 14 interceptions and lost five fumbles. Rees, however, insists that 2013 Tommy is different than Retro Rees.

“Way different. Way different,” he said. “You know, I’m not 19 anymore. I’ve grown up a lot in the past couple years. I’ve dealt with some adversity. Learned a lot about the game. Learned a lot about this place.

“I’ve just grown with my teammates. Two more years in the program and just learning everything that I could. I’m really excited about this year. I’m really excited to show all the ways that I’ve developed and grown.”

“Tommy, we’re not going to miss a beat. That’s my dude,” senior wide receiver TJ Jones said. “He’s going to make the plays that we need to be made. And he’s going to lead us.”

One category in which you probably won’t see Rees leading the Irish is in rushing yardage. In fact, Golson and Rees aren’t exactly in the same area code when it comes to running ability. Rees, however, doesn’t see that as a reason to redo the offense.

“I think Everett and I had different skill sets, obviously, but I don’t see the structure of the offense changing all that much,” Rees said. “There were things that he could do with his legs that I can’t do, and I think there’s some things that I can prove to do that maybe he couldn’t do at this stage of his career last year, and I’m excited with the direction that it’s going to go.”

The physical part of the game aside, Rees sees the older version of himself one that is far better equipped to handle the mental part of being the Notre Dame quarterback.

“Really, just try to not pay attention to a lot of the media — no offense — but try to block that out. Not pay too much attention to social media,” he said. “Kind of just rely on what’s going on in this building. Lean on my teammates, lean on my coaches and just stay ingrained in football.”

Where Rees’ senior season goes beyond Week 1 remains a bit of a mystery. Kelly, who two years ago anointed Dayne Crist the starter for the entire season before yanking him at halftime of the season opener in favor of Rees, said last week that Rees is his starter for the opener, not promising anything beyond that.

If there’s a player on the team equipped to handle what’s being thrown at him — starting job, scrutiny, criticism, praise, etc. — it’s Rees, whose career has had its ups, and its downs.

“It’s been a lot of different things. I’ve grown up a lot in the past four years and I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “I try to keep an even head through it all. I’m just excited for my senior year. I’m back ready to help this team win and be a leader.”

Notre Dame Quarterback Tommy Rees answers questions during a media day event at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex on the University of Notre Dame Sunday, August 4, 2013. SBT Photo/MIKE HARTMAN