Before Tommy Rees was ready to take the stage as a leading man, he needed support from a few old friends.
So on a warm March afternoon, Rees and two of his former teammates, Connor Cavalaris and , played catch on an indoor field at .
, and Dever, a Michigan recruit, ran fade routes, short slants and posts, Rees worked on planting his feet and hitting his receivers in stride. Between throws, they joked as old friends do who are familiar with each other’s company.
Having taken divergent paths since they were teammates in 2009, football provides the ties that bind. But neither Cavalaris nor Dever can ever relate to the scrutiny Rees has faced in his two years as the quarterback of Notre Dame.
“It’s a place like none other. That’s the way it is, that’s the way we want it,” Rees said.
Rees used the workout to prep for spring practice, which this year came with an entirely new set of challenges. No longer the baby-faced early enrollee, the 6-foot-2 Rees is now a more hardened and chiseled 210 pounds. Technically still a teenager (he turns 20 in June), he is the most experienced quarterback on the Irish roster. Whether he can hold off three upstart triggermen for the starting job will be one of college football’s most debated summertime story lines.
Back Under Center
When you open the Irish spring media guide and scroll to the page with the school’s offensive record holders, one name is consistently in bold: Tommy Rees.
Touchdown passes, season (5th, 20)
Passing yards, season (5th, 2,871)
Completion percentage, career (1st, 64.2)
Winning percentage, career (10th, .750)
The names Rees holds a higher position over have won Super Bowls — Montana, Theismann. While Montana carries the lauded nickname “Golden Joe,” Rees has been labeled the less reverential “Tommy Turnover” by impatient Irish fans on Twitter. It’s hard to argue when you look at this statistic: in 2011, Rees was responsible for 19 turnovers (14 interceptions, five fumbles), the last a bad interception in the end zone to seal Notre Dame’s 18-14 Champs Sports Bowl loss to Florida State in December.
Almost four months later, on a gorgeous Saturday in front of 30,000-plus fans at Notre Dame Stadium, Rees saw his first live action April 21 since the bowl game, leading the Irish offense in its first series against the defense in the annual Blue-Gold scrimmage.
“It’s a bigger deal to the outside than internally,” said Rees. “It’s an opportunity under a live atmosphere, a way to get better, another step in the process.”
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After a three-and-out his first series, Rees did nothing to quell the critics in his second series. On a third-and-15 pass, he forced a seam pass to receiver John Goodman that was picked off by Matthias Farley in tight coverage. On his way back to the sidelines, Rees angrily jammed his mouthpiece into his facemask, knowing those are throws he can’t afford to make.
“Zero’s a better play than a turnover. He’s got to tuck it and fight another day,” said coach Brian Kelly. “We’ve seen that movie before.”
Said Rees: “It’s definitely not a, ‘Here we go again.’ I let the ball go a little high and if it’s down a few inches it’s a first-down completion and we’re not having this conversation.”
Later, Rees would show the competitive resolve familiar to his fans, leading the Irish on two scoring drives in the second quarter. A perfectly timed fade route to Vernon Hills High School graduate DeVarias Daniels for a 29-yard completion could be the type of chemistry-inducing play Rees needs at wide receiver after the departure of NFL first-round draft choice Michael Floyd.
His 7-for-14 passing day (84 yards) was neither awe-inducing nor confidence-draining. What we do know is rather than face one challenger (Dayne Crist), as he did in 2011, this season Rees faces three, none of whom possesses his body of work, yet bring more speed and athleticism to the position.
The candidates: Andrew Hendrix saw action last year, finishing the Stanford game in November after Rees was knocked out and splitting reps against Florida State. Everett Golson is in his second year and piled up the best numbers from the spring game (11of 15, 120 yards, two touchdowns). They are the two most likely candidates to unseat Rees. Early enrollee Gunner Kiel brings his five-star rocket arm to South Bend but is not a threat in 2012.
No returning Irish receiver has caught more balls from Rees the last two years than tight end Tyler Eifert. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound Eifert is also one of Rees’ best friends, the two rooming together this year along with offensive lineman Chris Watt and Zach Martin. While he wants his friend to succeed, he understands the dynamics of the quarterback race.
“All the QBs are my friends, but I hang out with Tommy the most. We pretty much started out at the same time and I’d like to see him do well,” said Eifert, a sure fire high NFL draft choice in 2013. “Whoever the QB is, if we don’t support him 100 percent, it’s not going to be good for our football team.”
It is a team Rees hopes to lead. With a new offensive coordinator, Chuck Martin, the Irish have simplified their offense. The ability to read defenses always has been one of his strengths, and another year of film work will enhance Rees’s plus-intellect. He even broke off a four-yard run early during the spring game, showing never-seen explosiveness that assuredly brought a higher grade in film study, if not a few respectful chuckles.
But what Rees did in two quarters of play in April will not matter nearly as much as what he does over the next three months.
“You have to approach it as the starter. I think you have to have that mentality, you have to be the leader out there,” said Rees. “Summer’s a big time for individual development. A lot of it falls on your shoulders as the coaches aren’t with you. It’s a lot of weight training, time to get physically better.
“It’s been a big time for me in the past to try and grow.”
Don’t be surprised if this summer, Rees, in the fight of his young football life, gets the old band back together for a workout.
What did Tommy Rees say about his spring game performance? Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Patch was in the Notre Dame locker room. (VIDEO)
- See this video on the Notre Dame quarterback competition from The Bleacher Report.