Notre Dame football: Rees’ value can’t be overestimated

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - After the final 24 minutes and 16 seconds of last week's win over Southern Cal, a stunning observation became quite evident.

Tommy Rees is the Notre Dame football team's most valuable player.

Make that prediction a year ago, and it might have been grounds for a full battery of tests in a psychiatric evaluation.

Remember, this is Tommy Rees we're talking about: Tommy Turnover; at one time, the guy most apt to drop a biscuit or pass the butter to the wrong person at a dinner table; the guy who has minus-119 yards on 54 rushes (mostly sacks) in his career; and in one very forgettable moment, was caught from behind by an old and out of shape (by college football standards) police officer at a time of bad judgment.

After the way Andrew Hendrix performed following Rees’ injury — and given coach Brian Kelly's reluctance to strip the redshirt status from Malik Zaire — Rees is the one player the Irish cannot afford to lose.

One aspect of Rees' composition that never can be questioned is his character and integrity. He's the same fellow who, for the good of the team, taught the guy who took his job last season how to play the position.

He's a guy his teammates trust and rally around.

One of the most significant differences at the quarterback position this year compared to last is that there's no Tommy Rees to come off the bench and settle the choppy water. With Everett Golson under center, Rees was the insurance policy the Irish turned to when they struggled — especially against Purdue and Michigan.

Hendrix's performance suggested that Rees and the Irish are on a tight rope without a safety net. Either walk the walk or crash and burn.

All indications are that Rees will be hunky-dory for Saturday's thin-air opportunity against Air Force. His injured neck seems to be fine and his confidence, at least publicly, doesn't appear to have been shaken by the high-but-legal hit from Southern Cal linebacker Lamar Dawson.

Just goes to show that the senior quarterback is tough. And resilient. Heck, if he could weather the low blows he has taken from Irish fans throughout his career, one high hit ain't nothin'.

The intriguing subplot to the scenario is that the Irish offense was just beginning to show signs of being what Kelly had envisioned. The drive to start the game: 71 yards, 12 plays; quick tempo; seven runs, five passes. Only problem, on fourth-and-goal from the Trojan 1, the Irish forgot to score.

That's kinda an important omission.

"It's definitely a good asset," Rees said of the up-tempo, limited-huddle attack. "It worked pretty well throughout the game. It's something we'll continue to fine-tune.

"The thinking (at the line of scrimmage) is taken out of it. You can just go out there and play and go fast. It's not necessarily easier or harder, but it has its advantages."

Rees, who had struggled somewhat against Southern Cal in his first two tries (2010-11; 43-of-69, 339 yards, four interceptions, two TDs), was on track to have a pretty good day (14-of-21, 166 yards, no interceptions, two TDs) before giving way to Hendrix.

Rees is a different quarterback from the one who was a regular as a sophomore in 2011.

Through seven games (the Irish were 4-3) in 2011, he had completed 160 of 250 passes (64 percent), for 1,693 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

This season, with Notre Dame at 5-2, Rees has completed 119 of 224 passes (53 percent) for 1,660 yards, 15 TDs and six picks.

The run game in 2011 averaged 160 yards, while this year it's 137.

"There are a number of differences," Rees said, comparing the two years. "As a program, we've grown and matured together. We're at a different place now.

"From my standpoint, I've got more of a leadership role on this team. Guys look to me to communicate. I take a lot of pride in being the best leader I can be."

"(There's) a lot more man-to-man coverage (now compared to 2011)," said Kelly, offering a reason for the completion-percentage deficiency. "The last couple of years in college football, teams are going away from playing zone coverage. Offensive passing schemes have gotten to the point where everybody's getting five (receivers) out, plugging zones. It's impossible to run zone coverages and keep the passing percentages down and get teams off the field.

"Consequently, much more on-body (defenders on receivers). Much more 'cover-one' (man-to-man). Penalties are not as severe; hugging and holding. So you're seeing a lot more man coverage — consequently your percentages are going down.

"But your big-play opportunities can go up. And plays, chances of big plays go up, scoring can be quicker, things of that nature."

Rees completed eight passes for double-digit yardage before leaving after two-plus quarters.

There's more to the 6-foot-2, 215-pounder than just a game manager. Though there's no captain designation on the front of his jersey, Rees takes the role of team leader quite seriously.

In fact, during the Southern Cal game — before his injury — he stepped out of his comfort zone in a way he had never before done.

"At halftime, I called up the guys. I wanted to speak what was on my mind; kind of rally the guys together," Rees said. "Something inside told me it was the right time to do it. I've addressed smaller groups and made speeches; rallied the guys on the sideline. But calling the whole team up in the locker room is something that doesn't happen very often."

Beyond throwing the ball and managing a game, Rees' contributions to the team go much deeper.

That's why he's the MVP.

Who knew? Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees would be the team MVP. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER