Hansen: Tommy Rees 2.0 has the makings of true offensive evolution for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — For those planning to peek in on the May 1 Blue-Gold Game hoping to catch glimpses of Tommy Rees 2.0, here’s a spoiler alert:

The Notre Dame offense will likely appear even more out of context than normal when it comes to spring football wrap-ups. That has less to do with paranoia and more to do with the process 12th-year head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Rees have committed to this offseason when it comes to true evolution.

“Look, I don’t have a family. I don’t have many obligations besides this job,” Rees said Thursday in a Zoom conference with the media. “So I’m fortunate that I’m able to pour a lot of time into studying the game of football.

“As you study different people and what they’re doing and how people are creating opportunities, the creativity and ideas start to flow.”

Expect them to start congealing in August if everything goes according to plan in the interim.

The most significant things to see in April — even if most of them come second- and third-hand this spring — are signs of why Kelly rolled the dice 15 months ago in elevating Rees to his current position and what their shared vision conceptually is supposed to look like eventually.

Rees, a month away from his 29th birthday, held back enough nuances, in what felt like a clinic Thursday morning after practice No. 12 of 15, that Florida State defensive coordinator Adam Fuller should still feel like he’s on a blind date Sept. 5.

That’s when the two teams open their 2021 season in Tallahassee, Fla., with the Irish pushing for an offensive dynamic that more resembles the one Alabama used to score 31 points Jan. 1 in its College Football Playoff semifinal win over the Irish than the one ND labored with to get to 14 points.

By then, two of Notre Dame’s best eight players on its entire roster, offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson and wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr., are expected to be healthy coming off foot injuries. And both of them are expected to up the potency of the new-direction offense.

In the meantime, senior wide receiver Lawrence Keys has done so, per Rees, the past four weeks with as strong a spring as any player on the Irish offense. That’s a mouthful when you consider tight end Michael Mayer is still on the team and surging.

Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees says senior receiver Lawrence Keys III (13) has had as good a spring as anyone on the ND offensive roster.

“We’re gonna ask him to do some different things,” Rees said of a player who in 2020 set the standard for catches in a season by a freshman tight end at Tight End U with 42. “We’re moving around quite a bit, and that’s all new for Mike. That’s stuff that he’s eager to do and hungry to attack.”

And Wisconsin grad transfer quarterback Jack Coan is hungry to get the ball to Mayer. His advanced pocket presence is his stamp on the evolving Irish offensive identity.

Meanwhile, Rees looks to maximize opportunities for the 1-2 running back punch of Kyren Williams and Chris Tyree, including more touches on the perimeter with room to run.

“The biggest farce going is that to create explosive (plays), every throw has to be 55 yards,” Rees said. “That’s not really the case. You can watch whoever you want.

“A lot of those explosive plays come in creating opportunities for your best players to have space and to be in a one-on-one opportunity.

“If we can create space using the width of the field to create opportunity, if we can also then attack vertically with the speed we have, that’s what leads to explosives. That’s been obviously an emphasis for us.”

The overarching emphasis from Rees is tailoring the offense to Notre Dame’s existing personnel, which is markedly different from the 2020 rendition that regressed notably from 2019 in scoring points, passing efficiency and red zone proficiency. It also set Kelly Era bests in national statistical rankings in total offense, third-down efficiency and time of possession.

That doesn’t mean Rees hasn’t and won’t try to address offensive progression through recruiting.

“We have more speed than we had a year ago,” he offered.

And a lot more offseason than a year ago with which to explore how best to use its strengths, because of loosening COVID-19 restrictions.

Rees also has 12 more games on his résumé as a play caller, to go with his Camping World Bowl trial run at the end of the 2019 season. A quarter of his 2020 experiences came against two of the finest defensive minds of our generation, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables and Alabama head coach Nick Saban.

Those who criticized Kelly for not plucking someone older, more seasoned and less connected to Kelly’s past and comfort zone than Rees had their told-you-so moments after the final two such encounters.

But Kelly bet Rees would have the bandwidth to process those X’s and O’s confrontations in the offseason faster and more deftly than more established options that Kelly could have chosen from in replacing exiled predecessor Chip Long.

Right now, all that exists along those lines for public consumption is rhetoric, but it’s impressive rhetoric coming from Rees. Impressive vision. Impressive pacing.

“You go through a whole season calling it, you’re going to learn a ton,” he said. “You’re going to reflect. You’re going to watch them again. You’re going to think about it.”

Then the picture starts to change.

“That’s going to be fluid throughout spring and throughout May and June,” Rees said of ND’s offensive identity. “And obviously as we head into camp and we get a better feel for who we are, that’s when we start to tailor down in what we want to do.”

Rees said both the process and the guy guiding it benefit from having had two ascending defensive minds, Clark Lea — now at Vanderbilt — and first-year defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman to go against in practice every day.

“Clark Lea, what he did here at Notre Dame with the defense, it really took this program to the next level and it made me a better coach,” Rees said. “It made me strive to be better. Everyone that Clark came in contact with was better for it.

“I became a better coach in a year going against Clark every day, because you’re constantly trying to find ways to better the offensive system. Seeing how successful in the way he approached his job motivated me to be in that same light, to approach work in that same way.

“Again, we’re extremely fortunate to have Marcus Freeman to step in. He’s really carrying on that tradition on defense. Although it may look different and it may be a different scheme, the same strengths in terms of going against a great coordinator every day has continued to push me, continued to urge me to want to be better and to find ways to get our offense in successful opportunities.”

In an offseason that started off feeling that 2021 would turn out to be a transition year to something better in 2022 and 2023 at least is showing promise that maybe that premonition was a big miss.

Beyond Brian Kelly, there’s no one this offseason at Notre Dame in a more pivotal position to help pull that off than Rees.

“It’s our job as coaches to find what our guys do well and put them in position to be successful,” Rees said, “based on matchups, based on space, based on leverage and all those different things.

“So as you start to see this offense unfold, you’re going to see some different things. You’re going to see some other ways we’re able to be efficient on early downs. Other ways to stretch the field. Other ways to create one-on-ones for our explosive guys to be in space.

“This thing is never-ending. We’re always striving to find new ways to create opportunities to give our players the success they’ve earned and deserve.”

Second-year Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees is applying the lessons learned in year 1 to the direction he wants to nudge the Irish offense in 2021.