Hansen: Tommy Rees emerges as key figure for Notre Dame this spring and beyond

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

In a college football season where schedules were etched in pencil and a Notre Dame team doctor and team trainer were deservedly awarded a game ball, it’s kind of only fitting that the 2020 Irish have yet to get around to naming a 2020 team MVP.

Whoever that turns out to be — and it should be rover and unanimous All-American Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, among a handful of deserving candidates — identifying who needs to be the 2021 offseason MVP is a little more urgent at this point.

Or at least relevant.

That’s no disrespect to the former three-star prospect Owusu Koramoah, who in roughly three months is expected to become the first Notre Dame linebacker to be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft since Bob Crable in 1982.

Yet this offseason belongs to second-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. Or at least it should.

In the meeting rooms. On the recruiting trail. In spring practice. In coaxing 12th-year head coach Brian Kelly to evolve his vision about what a College Football Playoff offense needs to look like.

Call it the Tribune’s way-to-early projections for spring football and beyond. Or better yet, only mildly absurdly early projections, given that spring practice will be a reality but the starting and ending points are still fluid.

All are still tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and how its spring numbers translate to college life.

Talk to anyone who played or coached with Rees prior to his elevation last winter from Irish quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach, and his promising future seemed undeniable.

Yet his present felt like a bit of a gamble, given his lack of coordinator experience.

You could see both points of view in 2020’s bottom line.

Which is why 2021 must represent more of the former and less of the latter. ND’s key offensive metrics, in particular passing efficiency, remain the area in which the Irish are furthest removed from what a national champion looks like statistically.

If 2020 is framed by the coaching staff as a necessary incremental step in where they ultimately want to take the offense, then consider ND’s ball-control model, that helped get the Irish to the playoff, a savvy use of personnel and a success.

Rees was able to infuse some needed physicality into the offense and revive the Irish running game with two inexperienced backs, no less.

But if 2021’s version isn’t significantly more explosive and can’t take advantage of the young speed on the roster at the wide receiver position, it’s fair to ask if conceptually the offense needs an overhaul more than just tweaks.

And then there’s this: In Rees’ 13 games as Notre Dame’s primary offensive play-caller — Camping World Bowl 2019 included — the Irish offense exceeded in points and yards what opposing defenses yielded on average 61.5% of the time.

That’s down from 73.1% points/71.1% yards from deposed predecessor Chip Long and way down from the best numbers from Irish play-callers 2005-present — Mike Denbrock (88.5%/76.9%) — who will be back at Notre Dame Stadium Oct. 2 calling plays for Cincinnati against the Irish defense.

play callers

You could argue that perhaps that ND’s more deliberate offensive pace this season might have tamped down Notre Dame’s offensive bottom line.

Yet in a year when the Irish improved in three of six key offensive categories and set Kelly Era highs in two (26th in total offense, eighth in third-down conversions), they regressed in six offensive categories, including a 92-spot plummet in the national statistical rankings in red zone offense (10th to a Kelly Era low 102nd).

Most importantly for Rees and Kelly is the opportunity in 2021 to reimagine quarterback development, with regression being a common criticism of, at least, Kelly. They’ll do so with either essentially a second-year starter in Wisconsin transfer Jack Coan or a first-year starter in one of the other four options.

That’s not necessarily a bad place to be. Of the 13 quarterbacks who started for the last 13 national titlists dating back to 2009, four have been second-year starters and the other nine have been first-year starters.

On the recruiting trail, Rees has a chance with the 2022 class to make more of an impact as the offensive coordinator than he did as a position coach. In that sense, he’s a bit of an unknown in terms of how aggressive he’ll be in targeting elite prospects and his ability to close in tight battles for them.

It’s a big spring/offseason for new defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, too. And he’s been recruiting like he knows it in his first few weeks on the job.

On the field, he’ll follow the most successful of Notre Dame’s non-interim defensive coordinators, in Clark Lea, in terms of holding opponents under their averages (86.9% points/76.3% yards) and against the highest percentage of elite offenses.

Lea left to become Vanderbilt’s head coach after Notre Dame’s 31-14 College Football Playoff semifinal loss to eventual champ Alabama on Jan. 1.

Five who could thrive

As Notre Dame presses to upgrade its talent in recruiting, complementing its proven player-development model at most positions, the Irish still need to have a handful of players who make the kind of one-year quantum leap sophomore running back Kyren Williams did this past season and Owusu-Koramoah did in 2019.

Here are five that are both poised to do so in 2021, and who need to do so if the Irish are going to have higher postseason aspirations than a bowl game in Orlando.

Kevin Austin, wide receiver: Much of the fan base would clamor for former five-star prospect Jordan Johnson instead, and a healthy Braden Lenzy offers more pure speed. But heading into his senior season, Austin has the most complete and dynamic skill set of ND’s 2021 receivers.

Wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. runs a drill during Notre Dame’s first and only practice of the spring of 2020. He missed all contact drills during this past spring's 15 practices due to injury.

You wouldn’t know it from his career line — six catches, 108 yards, zero touchdowns. Immaturity, injuries and season-long suspension in 2019 have mitigated Austin’s production, but not his promise.

And there’s nothing that says those other two, Johnson and Lenzy, couldn’t be key contributors as well. In fact, that would be a positive sign.

Jordan Botelho, defensive end: The Irish have ascending talent in projected starters Isaiah Foskey and Justin Ademilola. But Notre Dame likes to bring defensive linemen in waves, and three of the six edge reserves are true freshmen.

Another, junior-to-be NaNa Osafo-Mensah, has one career tackle and missed the 2020 season because of knee surgery.

Athletically, the 6-3, 248-pound sophomore-to-be from Hawaii looks ready for prime time and he’s wired to be disruptive. But sometimes Botelho can be disruptive to himself and his team.

If he can learn to play with more discipline and more maturity, look out.

Cam Hart, cornerback: The former wide receiver’s 2020 season at cornerback might have looked a lot different with a full complement of spring practices at the new position. He still got some valuable reserve time in nine games.

At 6-3, 207-pound Hart has size and potentially the physicality that none of the other cornerbacks have. He’s in fact, bigger than all the safeties on the roster, save All-American Kyle Hamilton. Could he pair with 2020 cornerback surprise, sophomore-to-be Clarence Lewis?

New coordinator Marcus Freeman will have numbers at cornerback, but not a lot of experience or depth.

Houston Griffith, safety: Freeman, along with Terry Joseph’s successor as safeties coach, will need more from that position group than just Griffith to emerge, but a renaissance season for a player who spent 18 days this month in the transfer portal is a good place to start.

At the very least Griffith should be a starter opposite Hamilton, but he has the athleticism and attitude to be a star, and optimally that would be the next step for him.

Quinn Carroll, offensive lineman: The 6-6, 306-pound junior-to-be’s inclusion here is more symbolic than actual, though it could certainly turn out to be both.

Carroll was the highest-rated offensive line prospect coming out of high school, per Rivals, among the non-freshmen (No. 68 in 2018) who aspire to move up into O-line coach Jeff Quinn’s top five, along with Jarrett Patterson, Josh Lugg and Zeke Correll.

You could throw Dillan Gibbons, Andrew Kristofic, Tosh Baker and freshman Rocco Spindler in that mix as well.

Jeff Quinn needs at least two of them to shine this spring and help reload on an offensive line that loses four starters to the NFL and a fifth temporarily (Patterson) this spring as he recovers from a foot injury.

Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has begun his second season in that role for Notre Dame.