Notre Dame football: Aggressive Spartans defense will test Rees, Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND - During those frantic seconds just before the football is snapped, Tommy Rees is at his best.
He has to be.
The Notre Dame quarterback isn't the most mobile. His minus-20 net rushing yards this season attest to that. He doesn't have the strongest of arms. When the Irish wanted to air out a long one against Michigan, they brought Andrew Hendrix off the bench.
Rees' quick release and an even quicker mind are his most important weapons to guard against the sack.
That arsenal will be put to the test Saturday by an aggressive Michigan State defense. In three victories, the Spartans have rung up nine sacks and three times as many quarterback hurries. Meanwhile, the Irish have yielded just three sacks.
Thanks to a cohesive offensive line and his own attributes, Rees hopes to stay clean against the top-ranked defense in the country.
"As a quarterback, it all starts with protection," Rees said. "That's something that can get overlooked. You have to prepare to protect yourself and move from there.
"I pride myself at being pretty good at it. Obviously, there are times when you miss it. It's all about understanding when you're not protected: What do you do from there?"
Guess who taught Everett Golson about protections last season.
"Tommy gets us into the right protections nine out of 10 times," said Irish coach Brian Kelly. "Whereas last year, Everett (Golson) was still learning and sometimes he wasn't able to slide the right way and give us the best look possible."
"(Rees) uses the clock a lot, checking a lot, doing those types of things," said Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio. "The ball can be snapped at any time. That's the tough thing about it.
"Sometimes you have to show things, get out of things, make adjustments."
"(Dealing with disguises) is something you have to work on throughout the week," Rees said. "You have to understand what they're trying to do, and the different looks they pressure from."
"We've been studying a lot of film (on Michigan State's disguises)," said Notre Dame left guard Chris Watt. "It basically comes down to execution on the field. Communication is the biggest thing that will help us get the blitzes and different types of looks blocked."
"I've been impressed with (Rees) standing in there and taking a hit, getting out of a bad play, getting into another one," Dantonio said. "But, that's experience. You see that happening.
"The guy does a lot of things at the line of scrimmage. But I think that's their system, too. They've been asked to do those things. That's coaching."
Dantonio and his staff have done a little coaching of their own. They have developed a defensive surge that can hone in on a quarterback. Shilique Calhoun, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound sophomore end, has two sacks, three fumble recoveries and eight quarterback hurries already this season.
"You'd better know where (Calhoun) is," Kelly said. "He's tall, he's long, extremely athletic. You've got a guy like (end) Marcus Rush (6-2, 245), who seems to have been there forever; who is a tenacious, physical player. It's just a really good football team across the front.
"You know, they lost some veterans up front, but it looks like they have just reloaded up front with the same kind of guys."
"Last year, as a redshirt freshman, (Calhoun) was primarily playing a backup role," Dantonio said. "He didn't have as much success as he's having now. Completely different person. He has more confidence now. Still a redshirt sophomore. He has a lot of charisma. That rubs off on everybody else. He's a positive thinker. That rubs off on everybody, as well.
"When you're in a position of leadership, you've got to be playing well. I think he's playing well. Last year, he was just sort of feeling his way through things."
"(Calhoun is) a good player," said Irish left tackle Zach Martin, who will be matched up with Calhoun often. "They don't really have a guy on their defense that you could say, 'There's the little weak spot.' Their ends are experienced and their tackles (Tyler Hoover, 6-7, 290; Micajah Reynolds, 6-5, 307) are big; their linebackers get to the football. It will be a challenge for us on the line."
The burden to contain the Spartan surge will be on the broad shoulders of the Irish offensive line. Veterans Watt, Zach Martin and Christian Lombard (right guard), along with newbies Ronnie Stanley (right tackle) and Nick Martin (center), along with tight end Troy Niklas, can be a formidable unit to challenge.
"There's a lot of communication that goes on between myself and the offensive line," Rees said. "That's something we work very hard at during the week. When we get to the sidelines, we talk about the different looks.
"A lot of those protections, we have to call on the fly."
"Ronnie coming in as a first-time starter, and Nick, you don't know what you're going to get," said Kelly. "We had a glimpse toward how good they could be in preseason camp and the way they handled Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt; so we were hopeful, but you don't know until it happens.
"It's a combination of having some veterans there, a guy stepping up in Troy Niklas and two freshmen have really blended into a group there, and then finally Tommy's ability to get us into some really good looks."
Even for the big guys in the trenches, it all starts with Rees.
"(Rees) is a great student of the game," said Zach Martin. "He knows a lot of little details that most people don't know. He's able to get us into those looks.
"Sometimes he'll check us into a play that we're thinking isn't going to work, then all of it (works). He knows what he's doing back there. Whatever he checks, we're confident it will be the right call.
"(Getting the right call) makes us look good. If we can run a play away from pressure, it makes it work."
"(You have to think) quickly, especially when he changes a play and you're in any loud environment. You have to react quicker," Watt said. "It's something we didn't do as well in the first half (against Purdue, as the second half).
"We weren't executing or communicating as well as an offensive line. In the second half, we settled down a little bit and were able to execute a little bit better. We got calls relayed across the line, which helped us get our guys.
"Tom's going to make the call, but we've all gotta be on the same page. If we're seeing something with the defense, we're all gonna talk."
Communication is where it starts.
It's what Rees does best.