Notebook: For Notre Dame OC Rees, the summer push to get better starts with himself

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame offensive coordinator Tommy Rees is flanked by QBs Drew Pyne (10) and Jack Coan (17) during a spring practice session.

SOUTH BEND — As the blurry world of name, image, likeness clumsily stalks into reality Thursday and 27 days of non-Zoom recruiting gives way to exhilarating verbal commitments and heartache, Tommy Rees reminds himself that there’s another facet of college football worth paying attention to between now and training camp, roughly five weeks from now.

Actual football.

Rees, Notre Dame’s second-year offensive coordinator and fifth-year QBs coach, is limited by NCAA rules as to how much and what kind of interaction he can have with the three Irish quarterbacks stacking the top of the depth chart at this point in the offseason.

But the directive about what should be happening is clear, even when Rees is not allowed to be present.

“I would like to have a little more leadership — not in a negative way, but just now they can come into their own a little bit more,” Rees said of Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan, sophomore Drew Pyne and freshman Tyler Buchner. 

“They're going to be in charge of running (players-only) practices, running throwing sessions, and it’s their time to take ownership of the offense.”

Rees is taking ownership, too.

“For me, I’m extremely motivated and extremely hungry to continue to improve myself,” the 29-year-old former Notre Dame quarterback said. “I’m never going to pretend I have all the answers or none of that. That never crosses my mind. 

“You’re always trying to get a little better every day. And for me, it’s something we preach to our players. But it’s something, as the leader of those guys, that I’m constantly making sure and checking myself to make sure I’m giving them opportunities to be the best version of themselves.” 

So what does the push to get better look like for the man who presided over the nation’s No. 30 scoring offense in 2020?

Rees plans to watch and study 5,000 to 7,000 clips of other teams in July and take notes on them.

“If I have questions, I’ll reach out to those coaches and get more detail,” he said. “So there’s a lot of film study on my own. 

“There’s a lot of time talking to other coaches. Some of it might be very specific to concepts or schemes. Some might be more, ‘How do you manage your week? How do you look at a team when you game plan? How do you help prepare the players?’”

And there’s some parts of Rees’ summer schooling that will be a big departure from the X’s and O’s — something he learned from former Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea.

“So that’s something I’ve put a lot of time into this offseason: How can I learn in other ways? Is there somebody outside of football that I can talk to that has been successful, whether it’s coaching or whether it’s another venture about leading people?” 

Notre Dame senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. is getting  back up to speed after breaking his left foot twice in 2020.

Austin playing catch-up

A modest six catches, 108 receiving yards and not one time crossing the goal line into the college career of Notre Dame senior wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr. hasn’t mitigated an ambitious vision — from the media, from his teammates and from the Irish coaches — of what’s still possible.   

“I don’t think any of us have really seen what he can be,” Rees said of Austin, who lost his sophomore season to a suspension and most of his junior year and this past spring’s practice sessions to a twice-broken foot.

“There are certainly flashes dating back to his whole time here,” Rees continued. “This is the guy who’s next in line. This is the guy who’s the alpha. Miles (Boykin), Chase (Claypool), and now it’s Kevin, right? It’s a natural progression.

“Unfortunately for him, he’s had some bad luck here, and I don’t ever want to paint expectations for someone until we get a little further down the road. But, I mean, you can’t deny the physical strengths that are there.”

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When the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Austin has been healthy and in good standing — and that’s finally the case again — his teammates almost universally have raved about what a difficult player he is to cover.  

“I mean, he looks the part,” Rees said. “He’s a good kid. He’s eager to do it, he wants to do it. Even when he was kind of starting to come back last year, going into that Pitt game, there was a lot of stuff in for Kev, because he has the ability to do it. And then he gets hurt again.

“I’m excited for him. We want to take it slow. We want to make sure we monitor and protect him a little bit, but the expectation, as we get going, is that he can really be a threat in a lot of different ways for us.”  

Virtual improvement

While 14 members of Notre Dame’s 27-player freshman class formed the largest football midyear enrollment pool ever and got a head start, the 13 June arrivals were following along with director of football performance Matt Balis’ workout program at home.

Some with seismic results.

Offensive tackle Joe Alt checked in at 6-8, 298 pounds in mid-June for summer school. He was listed at 6-7, 280 when he signed in December. Audric Estime, 215 pounds in December, has bulked up to 228 on his 6-foot frame.

Other notable gains include wide receiver Jayden Thomas (6-1, 185 to 6-2, 214), offensive lineman Pat Coogan (6-4, 290 to 6-5, 310) and defensive lineman Jason Onye (6-5, 245 to 6-5, 286).

“I just think kids are preparing now at a different level, at a young age,” Rees said. “They’re focusing on a sport. They’re focusing on training, so guys are coming in ready to play. And guys are physically coming in ready to play.

“Audric looks like he’s 35. The wideouts, all of them, have the right mentality. And that's something that’s super important.”  

Camping at home

For the second straight year, Notre Dame will skip staging the opening few days of training camp at the Culver Academies in Culver, Ind., about an hour’s drive south of ND’s campus.

“Culver is under construction for their fields, so it would not suit us to be there for their renovation,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said.

In 2020, the Irish stayed home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Irish didn’t consider other alternatives this year for a remote experience to start camp.

“It just works too well there for us to pick another place,” Kelly said.. 

Flemister update

The next court date for Notre Dame senior running back C’Bo Flemister is Aug. 4 in connection with charges of leaving the scene of an accident after an April 25 wreck involving only his vehicle.

The misdemeanor charge against the 21-year-old was filed in early May. According to court documents, Flemister crashed his 2014 BMW around 3 a.m., April 25 on South Bend Avenue near Corby Boulevard.

The university’s disciplinary arm conducts its own hearings into cases such as these, and Kelly said Flemister won’t be facing any severe disciplinary action that will affect his standing with the football team. 

“This is one of those situations that could have been avoided,” Kelly said. “He had a vehicle that was illegally parked and moved a barrier to put his car in a position so he didn’t have to walk so far.

“This is not being very smart. So he’s going to be accountable for what that situation is.”

Flemister, who was not arrested, is a key reserve for the Irish. He rushed for 299 yards on 62 carries in 2020.

Newcomer Madden impresses

Marshall grad transfer offensive guard Cain Madden is garnering quite a bit of preseason love on a national scale.

Both the Walter Camp Foundation and Pro Football Focus has named the 24-year-old as a preseason first-team All-American. Athlon named the 6-2, 306-pounder to its second team.

“So we’ve gotten what we thought — a kid that has real strength, physicality, and moves really well,” Kelly said of Madden, who started summer school at ND in mid-June. “In our team runs so far, we really like the way he moves.

“He’s got the right demeanor. He fits in really well with the guys. Look, we were looking for some depth and the ability to compete for a starting position, and a guy with a lot of experience.

“He's got a lot of experience. He’s very strong. He moves pretty good. Now he’s got to go earn that position. We're not giving it to him. But everything we’ve seen kind of fits what we saw on film. Now we’ll go to camp and see how that plays out.”

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @ehansenNDI