For Tommy Rees, evolving ND QB Brandon Wimbush's game starts with transcending the noise

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Of all the layers that go into coaxing a quarterback to evolve and develop, perhaps the most compelling involving Notre Dame senior Brandon Wimbush this spring took Irish quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees to a dark place.

His own dark place.

That’s when he, first, didn’t want to find the volume control on the mostly sharply-critical outside noise that became the soundtrack of his early playing days, then later couldn’t find it.

“You’re tempted. ‘Hey what are people saying? I care what people think,’ ” Rees, who played at ND from 2010-13, related Tuesday morning after practice No. 6 of 15 this spring.

“As you get older, you start to learn that all that really matters when I’m in this building, when I’m on the field with my teammates is their opinion and how I’m working and how I’m preparing myself. And everything else will take of itself.

“My freshman year, even 2011 — my sophomore year — that stuff got to me a little bit. It probably took, to be honest, making a mistake off the field to learn how to block all that out.”

This is the trump card ND head coach Brian Kelly counted on to offset actual hands-on coaching inexperience when last spring he tabbed the then-24-year-old to replace Mike Sanford in taking the lead with the QBs, that Rees’ knowledge of the uniqueness of the Notre Dame experience would meld with and elevate the common quarterback experience sooner than later.

That Rees has moments in his past such as getting booed intermittently by his own fans throughout his playing career and getting arrested in May of 2012 and initially facing four criminal charges became valuable as a coaching commodity in the way Rees transcended them.

He pleaded guilty in July of 2012 to a single charge of resisting arrest and one charge of minor consumption of alcohol. A battery charge and a second charge of resisting arrest were dropped. Rees was ordered to perform 50 hours of community service, to write a letter of apology to the officer involved, and to be on probation for nearly a year.

The scrutiny of the fan base was the greater challenge. And it started off with the uproar over Rees being suspended for the 2012 opener with Navy in Dublin, Ireland.

For Wimbush, in his first season as a starter, the ongoing critique from the outside was all about on-field performance, specifically a 121.4 pass-efficiency rating that ranked 86th nationally in 2017. And it was most painfully apparent in ND’s three losses (Georgia, Miami of Fla., and Stanford), despite consistent and prolific rushing and red zone proficiency.

At stake in both scenarios was the QB’s confidence.

“We talk about it every time,” Rees said of Wimbush. “When you step on the field, you should have the belief that you’re the best player on the field. And there are games where he takes over the game because of his ability.

“And so just to continue to harp on the confidence. I think confidence is a huge part of playing the position — especially at this university, especially when the stakes are high. That’s something you continue to build, but something as you get older that comes more naturally.”

Actually it was the first message Rees delivered after backup Ian Book replaced Wimbush and rallied the Irish in a 21-17 upending over LSU in the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Fla.

“Listen, nothing changes,” Rees said. “You step into the building. You expect to be the guy. Same with Ian. You expect to be the guy. You come to work with that mentality. You come to work with that attitude.

“The good thing in our room is we have an extremely close-knit group. Ian and Brandon and Avery (Davis), everyone is extremely close. We’ve built those relationships so that when situations like that come up, it’s a team decision. We’re in this to win this game.

“As soon as that game is over, you’re ready to step in the building and ready to be the guy and ready to roll.”

From that foundation comes a checklist of improvements Rees is charged to help Wimbush — and Book — make in other areas, most notably speeding up the playbook recognition/pre-snap read/field vision process at which Rees, the quarterback, became so adept.

“Well I couldn’t run, so the ball had to come out quick,” said Rees, with a career minus-127 yards on 58 carries to his credit, eliciting chuckles from himself and the media.

“If you understand what the defense is trying to do and where you answers are, it gives you the opportunity to play fast, and the game starts to slow down for you. My job now is to get those guys to (that) point.”

And Wimbush’s progress in that area from late last season to almost halfway through spring practice has been “exponential” in Rees’ estimation, with still more work, though, to be done along those lines.

Perhaps that’s why Wimbush continues to get most of the reps with the 1s this spring in what was initially billed as an open competition between he and Book.

“Brandon’s done a ton of work — here, elsewhere, on the field, off the field to put himself in a position to be successful,” said Rees, who never acknowledged who actually was No. 1. “When you work that hard, usually good things happen.”

Rees is counting on his own hard work to mitigate his own learning curve, as a coach.

“I think one of the things I learned is I’m going to push myself even harder than I did as a player,” he said, “because I want to make sure when these guys take the field, that they’re prepared, that they’re fully ready to go.

“I think I learned there are different angles you need to take to reach other people. When there are some struggles, you learn how to keep guys confident and teach in different ways to keep them learning, to keep them excited.

“(I also learned about) adjustments throughout games. ‘Hey, this isn’t working quite the way we planned on it. What’s our second option? We have to find a way to win this game.’ ”

Rees said he did enjoy being on the sideline with direct access to the quarterbacks during the Citrus Bowl, as opposed to up in the press box, where he spent the other 12 games. But he said whether that continues is up to Kelly and offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“Wherever they want, I’ll be receptive,” he said, “ready to work and ready to help us win games.”

Even if that means allowing his QBs to work with and listen to outside QB coaching sources, as Wimbush did during spring break with private coach Taylor Kelly. That is as long as the message is consistent with what he’s being taught at ND.

“That’s never been an issue in terms of him getting an outside voice and having it contradict or change anything we’re doing,” Rees said.

“In terms of just getting extra work, the ways the rules are set up, I’m very limited when we break for spring ball and what I’m able to do with the quarterbacks. So when he gets into a routine and when he gets into a good rhythm, he’s putting in that work to prepare himself.”

And sometimes apparently it is beneficial to hear the same message from another voice.

Rees grew up in a coaching household, with father Bill still adding to a long résumé of coaching, scouting and player personnel positions both in college and the NFL. He joined the ND football staff last spring, in fact, as the director of scouting.

The younger Rees admitted Bill was the first to deliver the message to him about squelching out the outside world when his Irish playing career was starting off.

“Yeah,” he said with a wry smile, “but you don’t listen to everything your dad tells you.”

Notre Dame QBs coach Tommy Rees (center) and Ian Book (12) look on as quarterback Brandon Wimbush (7) gets set to throw the ball during a recent Irish spring football practice inside the Loftus Center. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)