FOOTBALL

Notre Dame football: Is it time for Rees to rise?

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Chuck Martin paused, switched his mental hard drive to the defensive side of the ball — where he had spent so much of his college coaching career — and paused again.

“That’s a good question,” Martin mulled when asked recently whether refurbished Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees’ arm strength had progressed to the point that opposing defenses and their coordinators were going to respect it.

Another pause.

“(As a) defensive guy, would I respect Tommy Rees’ arm strength?” said Martin, entering his second year as the Irish offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

“Probably not.”

That’s not to say that the tsunami of chatter about the emergence of a true Tommy Rees version 2.0 is more embellishment than genuine, but it does underscore what’s been percolating since 2012 starter Everett Golson’s academic misconduct bubbled out of the rumor stage and into reality one late Saturday night in May:

Rees is the ultimate wild card in a 2013 season that kicks off at home Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT) against Temple.

More than the bushel of turn-key freshmen like Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston, Jaylon Smith, Cole Luke, Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson. More than a surging Ishaq Williams, DaVaris Daniels, Nick Martin and Sheldon Day. More than any of the few dangling question marks or possible potholes of misfortune.

Even with what appears to be an impressive array of star-powered absolutes on the defensive and offensive lines, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior quarterback is the variable, for better or worse, that could just as likely point the 14th-ranked Irish postseason destination toward Shreveport as he could to New Orleans.

“I don't think the story's written,” Irish fourth-year head coach Brian Kelly said of Rees’ ceiling. “I think you write the story after he completes his journey here at Notre Dame, and you know what? It could be a really interesting story.”

The most compelling chapter to this point has been how Rees handled being No. 2 last year. Given Rees’ over-the-top unselfishness after his demotion in 2012, it would seem like he’d be due some positive boomerang karma. Even as Golson is serving a university-imposed suspension/expulsion until mid-January, Rees has been in regular contact, offering words of encouragement.

“The progression Everett had at the end of the year had a lot to do with being young and (then) growing up, “ Martin said, “but it (also) had a lot to do with he started trusting Tommy.

“(Rees) was a backup quarterback. He was an assistant coach. He kind of made everything go. If he had taken a different stance, the season’s probably completely different. It could have easily ruined the whole deal for everybody.”

Now his destiny is back in his own hands — and so is Notre Dame’s.

“I think he's had a great camp,” Kelly said. “I think he's really developed his skill, which I think is very important as part of this story because, look, we could talk about the off-field stuff (helping Golson), and that's really neat. But that doesn't help our football team win games (in 2013).

“He had to develop his skill in the offseason, and I've seen tangible evidence of it every day in practice in the way he is throwing the football, getting us in the right place. Now I want to see it on Saturday. So I think, at the end of this season, we could have a really good story about Tommy Rees.”

Right now he is a jumble of contradicting numbers, of uncanny guile and guts, of tangibly better footwork and decision-making in practice — perhaps the most stark contrast to the Rees whose fade at the 2011 season was so pronounced that it opened the door for Golson to leapfrog him the following summer.

“One, he’s really taken the past couple of years, particularly this past offseason, to improve physically,” Martin said of Rees. “Is he still on the short end of size, strength and speed? Yeah, that’s never going to change, but he’s better.

“Two, I think he has more confidence in his ability to move, so I think some of the things that maybe he felt two years ago, when he was our every-down starter that he kind of accepted about his game, he’s not accepting about his game (now) in that he was a sitting duck all the time. ....

“Now, does he look like Everett back there flying around? No, nor will he ever, but if you were there every day with us, you would see OK, he’s making plays for us, scrambling and making plays. He ran a ball in the end zone. It was like a 14-yard touchdown run. I don’t think he makes that play two years ago. I don’t think he would have CHOSEN to make that run, let alone whether he could have.”

Which coaxes a look at Rees’ somewhat twisted numbers, the most compelling of which frame his uneven past and cast a skeptical light on his future.

Rees, as a freshman pressed into four games as a starter late in 2010 when No. 1 QB Dayne Crist’s knee crumpled, had a significantly more impressive debut season from a passing-efficiency standpoint (132.0) than recent Irish quarterback standouts and high-round NFL draft choices Brady Quinn (93.53) and Jimmy Clausen (103.85).

But while the latter players’ numbers dramatically improved in their respective sophomore and junior seasons, Rees was level, in part because of a penchant for turnovers.

He carries a 14-4 record in 18 career starts, but his last five — including a cameo start against Miami (Fla.) and a full game against BYU last season when Golson was injured — all included pass-efficiency ratings lower than 114.0, kind of a Mendoza Line for quarterbacks.

That included a career-worst 69.54 against Stanford in the 2011 regular-season finale. To give those numbers a little context, a 114 carried over an entire season would have ranked that quarterback 96th nationally last season.

Rees’ career efficiency rate, heightened by the fact his career rushing yardage total is deep in the red, is 132.7. Alabama’s A.J. McCarron had a nation’s best 175.28. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel fashioned a 155.32 as a first-year starter.

In 2011, Rees led the Irish to a No. 88 standing in red-zone offense — with All-America receivers Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert in the lineup. Now he has neither.

“As much as I could have improved, I feel like I have,” Rees countered.

And he admitted much of that came in the film room, mental gains being the most significant in his mind.

Yet there is a book on how to mitigate his cerebral strengths — or at least there was.

The 10 worst extended performances of Rees’ career — starts or long relief appearances — have no pattern to them when you look at opponents’ pass-defense standings or even overall defensive rankings. In fact, four of the 10 games came against bottom 60 pass defenses — and his absolute worst performance was against a pass defense ranked 73rd (out of 120 FBS teams).

The common thread among the teams that gave him the most trouble, though, was strong run defense. Not one of those was in the bottom 60 in that category, and six of them ranked 21st or better in that particular season. Connecting the dots, those teams were able to force what was considered a game manager into a QB that had to make plays to win or lose the game.

“I think the quarterback position is so much more than a physical-limitation type job,” Rees said. “It has a lot more to do than just how strong, fast and big you are.

“Obviously, maybe I’m a little physically limited compared to some of the other guys, but I don’t think that makes up the quarterback position. I think a lot of the troubles that happened in 2011 didn’t maybe have as much to do with that. But I felt I continued to grow where I felt I needed to improve.”

Which takes the conversation back to arm strength, and Rees’ lack of it earlier in his career was something teams particularly at the end of the 2011 season, discovered they could scheme against and exploit.

How does that relative arm strength play out comparatively with other recent Irish QBs? First, a caveat, not all 40-yard pass plays are created equal. Some travel 40 yards in the air. Some travel two, and then the receiver garners the rest on his own.

Still, there have been 13 quarterbacks in the 2000s at Notre Dame who have thrown more than 10 passes in at least one game. Two of them, one-time walk-ons Pat Dillingham and Nate Montana, each had only one such game, and neither had a pass play of 40 yards or more in those particular games.

Of the remaining 11, Rees has by far the lowest ratio of games in which his longest completed pass play was 40 yards or more — one in 21 games of extended playing time. Compare that to Golson (4 of 11), Carlyle Holiday (7 of 23), Quinn (25 of 47) and Clausen (16 of 34), to name a few.

“He’s not close,” Martin said when asked how Rees’ arm strength compares to Golson and current backups Andrew Hendrix and Malik Zaire.

“You ask Tommy that. We’re not letting out a secret. It’ll be interesting. We’ll see how that plays out. I’ll tell you by week six if they’re respecting Tommy’s arm strength.”

Martin, though, had a similar player at QB his final three seasons as head coach of Division II power Grand Valley State. And Rees-esque quarterback Brad Iciek led GVS to a 36-4 record over the 2007-09 seasons.

“He could beat you, but not impress you,” Martin said. “We just like good quarterbacks. We don’t care what style they are. There are a lot of ways to skin a cat on offense.”

Rees has fought perceptual battles ever since he stepped on campus in the winter of 2010.

Kelly pleaded with Rees to enroll early, given that Clausen left early for the NFL, Crist had undergone recontstructive knee surgery and the only other option on campus, until more-vaunted freshman signees Hendrix and Luke Massa arrived in June, was Nate Montana.

But by the end of the first spring in South Bend for both of Kelly and Rees, the coach largely dismissed Rees as a realistic option for the future, and pushed the arrival date for Hendrix and Massa up a couple of weeks.

It was not an uncommon perception.

“We always joke about this,” said fifth-year senior offensive tackle and two-time captain Zack Martin. “I had a biology class with him, and we didn’t think much of him when he first got here. And then I don’t think I talked to him much the first semester.”

In the summer, Rees’ dorm room happened to be next to the one shared by Martin and offensive guard Chris Watt. The QB kept inviting himself over and eventually won the team over on and off the field. By August, he had jumped Montana to be No. 2 on the depth chart.

“I thought he looked like (baby-faced actor) Michael Cera,” recalled Watt of his first impression. “Sort of like a scrawny guy and kind of like a funny, soft-spoken guy, but he’s changed. He’s going to be a good leader for us.”

Beyond Rees’ purported physical gains and boosted confidence, there are a handful of factors that could make the most unimpressive of the stats in his past irrelevant. For one, Martin was a defensive coach in 2011, but is now a transformative force for Rees.

So might be toying with the Pistol formation, pushing the offensive tempo and/or greater offensive balance.

What’s inside Rees, a player who never seriously contemplated walking away through some pretty steep valleys mixed in with the peaks, may be his best potential trump card.

“He’s probably the most resilient guy that I know,” Martin said. “To go through some of the things that he’s been through is pretty remarkable. And the way he’s just bounced back and the way he’s accepted his roles is something the guys on the team admire.

“Now he’s in the position to be the leader and to lead this offense to a successful season.”

Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees speaks to the media on Thursday. Can ND's reinstated starter transcend his past?