What Tom Rees learned from his first season as Notre Dame's quarterbacks coach

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book weren’t the only guys in Notre Dame’s quarterbacks room that experienced growing pains last year.

Though, unsurprisingly, those two were the most visible. In his first season as the Irish starter, Wimbush — a 6-foot-2, 228-pound junior — completed just 49.5 percent of his passes, throwing for 1,870 yards with 16 touchdowns and six interceptions. His pass-efficiency rating, 121.4, ranked just 86th nationally.

Granted, it was still more than two points better than Book (119.3), the sophomore who made one start at North Carolina last season and rescued the Irish in a 21-17 Citrus Bowl victory over LSU on Jan. 1.

Still, the most inexperienced member of the Irish quarterbacks room — in terms of his position, at least — may have been Tom Rees, who assumed the role of quarterbacks coach after previously spending one season apiece as an offensive assistant for the San Diego Chargers and a graduate student at Northwestern.

So, what was the biggest surprise for the 25-year-old former Notre Dame quarterback in his second go-round in South Bend?

“The daily interactions, how involved you are with everything in their life,” Rees said on Wednesday, after Notre Dame wrapped up a 27-player signing class that included four-star quarterback Phil Jurkovec. “You know academically what’s going on, socially what’s going on, if there’s a family issue. So I think when you look at being more than just a coach but a mentor and someone they can look to and lean on, that’s something that surprised me this year and something that I really enjoyed.

“You build a really great relationship with your players, being someone that they can trust and come to with really anything. With my situation here, being that it wasn’t too long ago that I was a player, I really think that gives us a unique angle to talk about things that come up with school and handling the different pressures it takes to be a quarterback here.”

Indeed, there are few more credible resources when it comes to the life of a Notre Dame quarterback. In his four-year playing career under Brian Kelly, Rees passed for 7,670 yards and 61 touchdowns, compiling a 23-8 record as the Irish starter.

He also coughed up 37 career interceptions.

As a player, and as a coach, things haven’t always been easy.

“You face ups and downs throughout a year. I’d be the first one to tell you that,” Rees said standing in the same auditorium, wearing the same colors, as in his first run from 2010 to 2013. “But I think the way you handle that with your teammates, it’s just as important as a coach that you handle that the right way.

“That’s something I learned throughout the year: you always need to stay positive, to give them the best outlook so even when things aren’t going perfect, they know that you have their back and you’re in their corner. You knew there were going to be challenges, but how you react and how you interact, how you keep them up really makes a difference.”

That difference will be measured in passing yards, touchdowns, pass-efficiency points and wins in 2018 … regardless of who ultimately lands the starting job. Wimbush, Book and sophomore Avery Davis will compete for reps this spring, before Jurkovec arrives with a heaping helping of recruiting hype this summer.

First, it’s up to Rees to learn and grow in his second season in his second home.

Then, if all goes well, he can pass on that improvement.

“It’s definitely more important than even as a player to be even-keeled, because you need to be the same person every day,” Rees said. “When you step into that meeting room, they need to know who they’re getting and who to expect. My biggest thing (last season) was to be consistent for them so there was never any surprises. I think they reacted well to that.

“I want to keep pushing them with their competitive fire and their energy levels and continue to grow that way. I think they’re taking strides, and I think in year two — for two kids who really haven’t played a lot of snaps at Notre Dame — you’ll see more of a step forward in that direction, just because of the comfort level and the experience they gained this year.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book (12) gets jokes around with quarterback coach Tommy Rees during the Notre Dame-North Carolina NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, NC. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN