How the Tommy Rees-Ian Book connection continues to elevate Notre Dame’s offense
Tommy Rees sat hunched over, holding his head with his hands. In a moment captured by a photograph, the Notre Dame quarterbacks coach looked like he was going to hurl.
Rees sat there, in the visiting locker room of Wake Forest’s BB&T Field last September, waiting for Ian Book’s debut as the new full-time starting quarterback. News had leaked earlier that week that Book, a junior, would replace senior Brandon Wimbush, despite a 3-0 start to the season — a depth-chart shuffle that Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly wouldn’t confirm publicly.
Book already had made his first career start the prior year in a 33-10 win at North Carolina when Wimbush was dealing with a foot injury. But this time was different. Book was inserted into the lineup as a long-term move to jump-start an inconsistent passing game.
Rees, who started 31 games in his four-year quarterback career at Notre Dame, couldn’t hide his pregame jitters.
“I was nervous as s---,” Rees said. “More so because I wanted it to go well for Ian. Not because I didn’t believe it was going to, but because when you make a change, if things didn’t go well, everything was going to fall on him.
“That’s unfair. I just wanted it to go well for him. I believed it would.”
Of course, the decision played out even better than Rees could have imagined. Book completed 24 of 34 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for three more in a 56-27 victory. Book continued to make the Irish coaching staff look smart as Notre Dame rode a 12-0 regular season to a spot in the College Football Playoff.
Book certainly needed help from a stingy defense — and a spot start from Brandon Wimbush against Florida State as Book dealt with a rib injury — but his play at quarterback gave Notre Dame the kind of efficient, accurate passing game that offensive coordinator Chip Long craved. Book finished the season 214-of-314 passing for 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns to seven interceptions.
Even though Book proved to be the right guy for the job, an early quarterback change could have backfired. Two quarterbacks fighting for one spot can create tension and divide a locker room.
That never became an issue, Rees said, because of the relationship Book and Wimbush had developed. Everyone in the quarterback meeting room remained supportive.
“You never stepped in this room and felt like you were in a toxic place,” Rees said. “Maybe in years past here, that wasn’t the case. That was something I talked to these guys about. The culture we’ve had and built in this room over the last two years has allowed us to get to the place where we want to be.
“I talked to them at the end of the year when we were getting ready for the bowl game,” Rees said. “Brandon’s selflessness and Ian’s ability to not become arrogant and not overstep created a culture in this room and allowed us to get to where we were.”
Quarterback competitions were nothing new to Rees. He’d been in similar situations to both Book and Wimbush during his career.
As a sophomore in 2011, Rees lost the preseason quarterback battle to senior Dayne Crist. The previous season, Rees started the final four games — all victories — after Crist suffered a knee injury. But Crist’s return to the starting spot was short-lived in 2011. He was pulled at halftime of the season opener, a 23-20 loss to South Florida, and Rees took over as the starter for the rest of the season.
In 2012, Rees was suspended for the opener following a May incident that resulted in guilty pleas to charges of minor consumption and resisting law enforcement. That opened the door for Everett Golson to take over the starting role. Golson started 11 games and Rees started the other two — and sometimes relieved — in Notre Dame’s 12-1 season that ended with a loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.
It wasn’t until Rees’ senior season in 2013 — with Golson expelled from the university that season for academic misconduct — that he was able to start and end the season as the No. 1 quarterback.
Handling the ups and downs of quarterback play is just one item in a conglomeration of experiences Rees can relate to his quarterbacks.
“There might be some specific things that I can think about like, ‘Hey, this happened to me. This is how I handled it.’ Or, ‘this is how I handled it and I wish handled it differently.’ ” Rees said. “There are times when I know exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, because I can picture myself back there.”
So Rees knew what it meant for Wimbush to start and win on his Senior Night last November.
“When Brandon played against Florida State, I’m in the box getting emotional at the end of the game because I’m so happy for him,” Rees said. “Yeah, of course I wanted Ian playing. I wanted him to be OK. But that moment for Brandon meant so much to us a whole.”
Those are the kinds of moments Rees didn’t anticipate when he took the job in 2017. He’s developed such close relationships with his players that he’s experiencing the ups and downs with them all over again.
“I didn’t realize how much the kids in the room were actually going to matter to me and mean to me,” said Rees, who worked as a Northwestern graduate assistant and San Diego Chargers offensive assistant before returning to his alma mater. “When you have that motivation from them because you care, it really drives you to want to do a really good job.
“I found myself harder on myself as a coach than I ever was as a player. I’ll be up thinking, ‘OK, what can I do to help these guys? Did I do enough this week to help them?’ If something’s going on and I can’t fix it, it kind of eats at you.”
Ian Book remembers sitting on the couch watching a Notre Dame football game with has dad in 2011. Book, who was heading into eighth grade, had no real reason to be watching the game. He wasn’t an Irish fan. The El Dorado Hills (Calif.) product’s dream at that time was to play in the Pac-12.
Yet there was Book watching a young Notre Dame quarterback by the name of Tommy Rees fall short of a comeback victory against South Florida and being yelled at by a purple-faced Brian Kelly. The Irish head coach went viral for his sideline outbursts that rain-soaked Saturday.
Book believes that was the last Notre Dame game he watched before the Irish started recruiting him in 2015. He’s not quite sure why the memory stuck with him.
“I don’t remember thinking, ‘Oh, that’s what Coach Kelly’s like,’ or anything like that,” Book said. “I was just like, ‘Wow. That sucks for that guy.’ ”
Book hasn’t been on the receiving end of a Kelly reprimand quite like that — at least not during a game. Kelly’s sideline demeanor has mellowed in recent years. But Book isn’t worried if a tirade comes his way.
“That’s a coaching moment. It happens sometimes. I can’t blame him,” Book said. “You know when you’ve done something wrong. You know you’re going to get yelled at a little bit. When that happens in games, it’s less than 15 seconds long. You move on and have to forget about it.”
Rees tends to be much less animated as a coach. Though he may use colorful language, he tries to be purposeful with how he communicates with his quarterbacks.
On game days, Book said, Rees has a knack for delivering motivational lines before and during the game. Those resonate with Book whether Rees offers them in the locker room or on the phone when he calls down from the press box during games.
Rees said he’s studied other coaches, including defensive coordinator Clark Lea, to see how they communicate with players during the week and on game days.
“I’ve learned that you can’t really get complacent as a coach,” Rees said. “You can’t act like you know everything. You can’t be closed off to learning new ideas. The more that I can learn from other people, the better off these guys are going to be.”
Striving to be better in 2019 won’t be easy for Rees and Book. Certainly, Book has room for improvement, but he completed at least 64 percent of his passes in six of his nine starts.
Book finished eighth in the FBS in completion percentage. At 68.2 percent, he was ahead of, notably, Georgia’s Jake Fromm (67.3 percent), Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence (65.2), Stanford’s K.J. Costello (65.1) and Michigan’s Shea Patterson (64.6).
Book credits Rees for preparing him to excel last season. Aside from the work the two do together on the practice field and in the film room, Book finds other opportunities to be around Rees.
If Book wants to get away from everything, he’ll spend time listening to music in Rees’ office on the second floor of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex while Rees works on something else.
“He’s always up there,” Rees said. “That’s what’s built our relationship.”
Book also is not afraid to request lessons on certain game scenarios. Rees will have answers and likely past experiences he can use to guide Book.
“I pretty much give all my credit to him — not all of it, obviously coach (offensive coordinator Chip) Long has done a lot too, but I work with Tommy every single day,” Book said. “Being able to work with him and learn from him, I pretty much learned everything beyond the basics with him since he got here. I really can’t say enough.
“He’s probably the best coach I’ve ever had, and I’m not just saying that. It’s just the way he can simplify it for me and the other quarterbacks in the room.”
Tommy Rees didn’t have to say anything. All he had to do was pause the film at a certain point, and Ian Book knew why.
“It’s getting there,” Book said.
The two in mid-June were watching film from the first drive of Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game staged this past April. On first-and-goal, Book took the snap from under center and spun around to hand the ball to running back Jafar Armstrong. As Book extended the ball with his right hand for the handoff, he didn’t keep his left arm tight enough to his body for Rees’ liking.
“Not good enough, right?” Rees said.
A 15-minute film session with Rees and Book covered a lot of ground. They discussed the play call, the defensive alignment, the coverage look, the pre-snap reads, the post-snap progressions, the placement of a pass and any small detail that could make a difference on a fall Saturday.
Even a 14-yard completion to wide receiver Chase Claypool received a critique. Instead of leading Claypool, Book hit Claypool a little high and behind on a shallow right-to-left crossing route. That prevented Claypool from making the catch at full speed and getting upfield quickly.
“Good ball, not a great ball,” Rees said.
The drive ended with a 12-yard touchdown catch by wide receiver Michael Young. Book progressed through his reads while stepping up into the pocket before finding Young to the right cutting into the middle of the field in the end zone.
The defense doubled slot receiver Chris Finke with rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and safety DJ Brown. That allowed Young to come open with single coverage.
But Rees took the time to remind Book of a similar scenario from preseason camp in 2017. In that instance, nickelback Shaun Crawford was part of the double coverage in the slot, but he slipped underneath the outside receiver to intercept a Wimbush pass.
That’s the kind of memory Rees has. He has impressed Book with the way he can recall specific instances like that whether it’s from a practice two years ago or a game Rees played in for Notre Dame. It allows Rees to pull from a giant catalog of past plays. Then he can find the film and show his quarterbacks.
“It’s crazy,” Book said. “He knows them exactly. He has a really good memory.”
The film studies Rees directed last season led to multiple moments in games that set Book up for success. In the game, Book could recall the previous discussions or practice scenarios and use those experiences to convert against the defense. Book said there were too many moments like that to name.
“That happens in every game almost,” Book said later that day. “Some things happen, and I’ll come back to the phone and Tommy will call down and he’ll say, ‘See that? We practiced that all week. The safety moved this way and the play worked out.’ It’s good, because you know you repped that a handful of times that week in practice.”
Book’s dedication to committing those lessons to memory allows for everything to come together. He’s a perfectionist in practice, and that translates to games.
“The reason he’s had a lot of success is because of the work he’s put in and the way he’s handled practice,” Rees said. “He handled practice very professionally. He doesn’t want to miss. If something’s not right, he wants to do it again. He wants to get reps afterwards.
“We’re going to go as he takes us. Practice is going to be as sharp as he is. He’s really taken that upon himself to be a leader by example and be out in front.”
Returning starting quarterbacks have struggled to improve in the second of back-to-back seasons at Notre Dame during Brian Kelly’s tenure.
Through nine seasons, only one quarterback has started the majority of games in consecutive seasons: DeShone Kizer in 2015 and 2016. Despite the experience, Kizer’s passing efficiency fell from 150 in his sophomore season to 145.6 in his junior season. Then Kizer left early for the NFL and was drafted in the second round in the spring of 2017 by the Cleveland Browns.
Only two starting quarterbacks have improved in passing efficiency later in their careers at all under Kelly at ND: Tommy Rees and Everett Golson. But in both cases, those improvements came two years later.
Rees registered a passing efficiency of 133.4 in 12 starts in 2011, lost the starting job to Golson in 2012 and bumped his passing efficiency up slightly to 135.4 in 13 starts in 2013.
In 2012, Golson made his debut with a passing efficiency of 131 as a sophomore. That number jumped to 143.6 in 12 starts in 2014 after he sat out 2013. While passing efficiency accounts for interceptions, of which Golson threw 14 in 2014, it doesn’t account for Golson’s eight fumbles.
Last season, Book logged a passing efficiency of 153.9, a Kelly Era high, in nine starts. Can he buck the trend and find immediate improvement as the returning starter in 2019?
When presented with the recent trend for Notre Dame’s quarterbacks, both Book and Rees said they weren’t aware of it.
“I guess that’s just one more thing we’re going to have to debunk,” Rees said. “If you were at spring practices, you only saw improvement from (Book). He was even sharper than he was last year.
“Physically, he’s in a really good place from where he was at developmental-wise. Mentally, he’s light-years from where he ever was.
“If you watch us in a team scenario, he is in complete control every time we step on that field. There’s never anything that seems like we’re rushed or out of place. Yeah, there are things we need to continue to improve on, but I can’t imagine him taking anything but a step forward. That’s not ever going to be something we even discuss.”
Book’s primary focuses this offseason have been in taking on a greater leadership role and improving his knowledge of the game. He wants to know as much as he can about the Irish offense and the defenses he will see. That’s why he’s put an emphasis on film study.
“There’s a little bit more to going out there and knowing exactly what they’re doing, seeing all these post-snap reads more and never guessing and totally understanding exactly what’s going on when I’m out there,” Book said. “That just comes with repetition.”
This spring, Rees worked to find ways to simplify how Book can think about the playbook. Rees took the passing concepts and put them into three categories: progression with an option, pure progression and pre-snap matchup and leverage. Each category lets Book know what mental checkpoints he needs to run through before and after the snap.
A progression with an option gives Book one specific pre-snap read as his option before entering his progression of other routes. If he prefers that pre-snap option, he should take it and ignore the progression.
A pure progression concept reminds Book to identify which routes to consider and in which order after the snap. A pre-snap matchup and leverage combination requires Book to select the best route based on the pre-snap defensive alignment.
Book appreciated the new classifications so much that he passed on the concept to his high school coach at El Dorado Hills (Calif.) Oak Ridge when he was home late in spring.
“It doesn’t matter what play you call,” Rees said, “but if you can categorize it into one of those three areas, it’s going to be much easier for you to be able to go through the right mental checkpoints.”
One thing Book and Rees aren’t as concerned about is Book’s ability to throw the deep ball. Book has been asked about it by reporters so much that it’s become a running joke in the quarterback room.
“Like if we miss one,” Rees said, “it’s ‘Ah, can’t throw the deep ball.’ Or if he hits one, it’s more like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you could throw that far.’ ”
Joking aside, the numbers show that Book’s completion percentage took a serious dive on throws more than 30 yards down the field. According to ND Insider’s film analysis, Book completed just 23.8 percent (5-of-21) of his throws at that depth in his nine starts. He completed 71 percent (206-of-290) of his throws 30 yards or shorter in his nine starts.
“My perspective of it is it’s not an issue,” Rees said. “Yeah, we’ve missed deep balls. Does that mean Ian Book can’t throw the deep ball? No. I’ve seen him throw better deep balls than anyone on the team. I’ve seen him make throws over 30 yards that a lot of guys can’t make.
“Now, we didn’t execute them in the game, and there are some technical things and some footwork things that we have to get corrected, but this whole narrative of Ian Book can’t push the ball down the field is false. I’ve seen him make the throws 100 times.”
Said Book: “I don’t even believe in it, so I don’t really talk about it that much. Yeah, I hear it. You guys ask about it.”
Perhaps that’s another chip on the throwing shoulder of Book, who has been doubted since his days as a three-star recruit. Hype typically trumps doubt in conversations about Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.
Life changes once you start leading the Irish on Saturdays. That’s something Rees knows well. Book learned that lesson quickly last season.
Now the starting job belongs to him. Yet Book knows how hard backups Phil Jurkovec and Brendon Clark will be fighting behind him to move up. The margin for error is slim.
“There’s no spot for complacency,” Rees said. “I’m not worried about that because of who (Book) is. If anything, he’s probably working harder right now in the offseason workouts than he has in the past. He is an extremely driven person. His goals are in front of him. Everything he wants to accomplish is attainable.”
The ND Insider 2019 Notre Dame Football Preview
Our annual season preview magazine can now be purchased online and in stores locally. You can order copies here to be shipped to you. If you'd like to pick up a copy, you can find them at these local stores.
But what exactly will you be getting in this year’s magazine?
• Our cover story is on senior defensive end Julian Okwara. When he first came to Notre Dame, he wanted to make his own name and not live in the shadow of his older brother, Romeo. Now he has his sights on setting the Irish single-season sack record.
• Senior wide receiver Chase Claypool is on track for a big season in a new role. Learn how a meal with offensive coordinator Chip Long changed their relationship and set the table for more success.
• Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton arrives at Notre Dame as a five-star talent with a three-star mindset. That combination made him the perfect match for the Irish in the pursuit of top prospects.
• Encore seasons haven’t been great for starting quarterbacks at Notre Dame in recent years. Quarterback Ian Book and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees plan to break that trend even if they weren’t aware of it at first. Get an inside look at how the two are preparing Book for an even better senior season.
• In his first months at Notre Dame, Lance Taylor had to hit the ground running on the recruiting trail. The new Irish running backs coach appears to be the right fit on Notre Dame’s coaching staff and in its offensive scheme. Hear from Taylor for the first time since he was hired in February.
• Mike Elston has created a culture of caring with his defensive linemen. The decision to connect so deeply with his players has positively impacted the product on the playing field. That’s just part of the reason the Irish defensive line coach has stayed so long in South Bend.
• Notre Dame’s quarterback recruiting has shifted, with accuracy taking top priority. The attributes of Ian Book can been seen in the quarterbacks the Irish have taken commitments from in the past two recruiting cycles.
• Brian Kelly goes one-on-one with Eric Hansen on a variety of topics, including retirement and karaoke.
The rest of the magazine includes our annual staples: predictions from our staff, an analysis and player feature for each position group, profiles on the freshman class, a recruiting roundtable with national analysts, breakdowns of all 12 opponents and much more.
Don’t miss out on this top-notch product from our award-winning staff. Click here to order your copy today.
The following story appears in the 2019 ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview magazine. Copies of the magazine can be purchased here.