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Ready for Rees

Sam Werner | Thursday, November 18, 2010

Tommy Rees walks into the interview room, and the assembled media immediately flock to the freshman signal-caller. For someone who was in high school just a year ago, he handles the situation with complete aplomb and nonchalance.

“It’s a change of pace from what I’m used to since I’ve been here,” Rees said with a smile. “It’s kind of cool to have the attention, but at the same time it’s not that big of a deal.”

It’s all part of the job description for the man who probably never expected to be here. Entering the season, junior Dayne Crist was firmly entrenched as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback and Rees was competing with junior Nate Montana for the back-up spot. Suffice to say, the freshman has come a long way.

Getting a jump start

Last season, when it became apparent that former Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen could leave early for the NFL, the Irish coaching staff approached Rees about possibly enrolling in January. Seeing an opportunity to get a leg up on learning the Irish offense, the Lake Forest, Ill., native got his academics in order to get to South Bend in time for spring practice.

Even though he was initially recruited by former Irish coach Charlie Weis, Rees elected to stay committed — and follow through on his plan on early enrollment — when Weis was fired in December. Rees said new coach Brian Kelly’s past success sealed the deal for him.

“The first thing that jumped out at me when I met [Kelly] last winter was how much of a winner he was and how committed he was to bringing Notre Dame back,” Rees said. “That’s something I really wanted to be a part of.”

Throughout spring practices, Rees and Montana split practices reps with the second team. In the 2010 Blue-Gold Game, Rees completed all three of his pass attempts for 18 yards, but was outshone by Montana, who threw for 223 yards and three touchdowns.

Still, Rees said the experience he gained in spring practice was invaluable in preparing him for the real game action.

“[Spring practice was most helpful for] just the little things within the offense, like getting the footwork down, getting your reads down and all that,” he said. “It’s a little different [during the season] when you’re game-planning for an opponent.”

The experience Rees gained in spring practice would come into play earlier than anyone could have anticipated. In Notre Dame’s second game of the season against Michigan, Crist went down with an apparent head injury and Rees was forced into action. On his first career passing attempt, Rees threw an interception to Wolverine linebacker Jonas Mouton. After one more incompletion, Rees was pulled for the rest of the half in favor of Montana. After the Irish lost 28-24, Kelly admitted he “did a poor job” preparing both backups.

For his part, Rees said he didn’t let the poor first performance get him down.

“Against Michigan there were some butterflies going, some pre-game jitters,” Rees said. “You’ve just got to keep working hard after that and keep preparing like you know you can play.”

Even though he wouldn’t admit it at the time, Rees said the trial by fire helped prepare him for the rigors of big-time college football.

“Now, I’d say yes, [it helped],” he said. “But at the time you obviously want to do a little better. In hindsight, it’s probably helped out getting that out of the way.”

All about confidence

After struggling in his first action against Michigan, Rees began to work his way back up the depth chart. Against Navy, with the game out of reach, Rees came in to relieve Crist. Displaying a poise that was noticeably absent against the Wolverines, Rees went 6-of-7 for 79 yards. Even if it was in garbage time against a second-string defense, he said he could feel his confidence starting to build.

“Getting some more game experience along the way really helped,” Rees said.

On Oct. 30 against Tulsa, Crist went down again — this time for the season. The game reps against Michigan and Navy appeared to have paid off, as the freshman played with maturity beyond his years. Crist’s injury may have set off a panic among Notre Dame fans around the country, but Rees stayed cool under pressure, and became the first Irish freshman quarterback to throw four touchdown passes in a game. Even though the game ended on a costly interception, Rees drew rave reviews from Kelly after his 334-yard performance.

“Awesome,” Kelly said of Rees in the post-game press conference. “Are you kidding me? I couldn’t be more happy for the kid. True freshman going out there, hasn’t played. He just competes. Took some big hits, got right back up. I don’t know if he knew where he was a couple of times. Got right back up, said some things. I knew that he was going to compete again.”

Rees admitted he surprised himself a little bit with his performance, but added that he felt prepared for the situation.

“I had a lot of confidence in what I can do going out there, and to play as I did is something I worked hard for and something I couldn’t do without all my teammates’ support and help,” Rees said. “They should get a lot more credit than I have — the line, the receivers — they’ve done their job and adapted to a freshman quarterback being in there.”

In his first career start against Utah, Kelly and the coaching staff implemented a slightly more run-based offensive system. Rees only threw the ball 20 times, but completed 13 passes for 129 yards and three touchdowns. More importantly, though, the Irish dominated the No. 14 Utes for a 28-3 win. After the win, Rees said he was shaking hands with Utah players when he noticed something unusual.

“I see a couple of students that I know, and I’m kind of confused as to why they’re on the field, then all of a sudden the whole student section is out there going nuts,” he said. “It was really great.”

His team now

With the Irish now one win away from bowl eligibility, Rees said he was just focused on his job on the field.

“You stay with what you’re doing in the program, stay within your offense and working hard through football and try not to let all the outside effects get to you,” he said.

That could be difficult this weekend, with the pomp and circumstance surrounding Notre Dame’s first game at Yankee Stadium since 1969. Kelly acknowledged that it is quite a way for Rees to start his college football career.

“Last year at this time he was in high school,” Kelly said. “And he’s going to get a start at Notre Dame, Yankee Stadium and the [Los Angeles Memorial] Coliseum. That’s not too bad.”

To be successful in such high-profile environments, Rees must be comfortable in his role as Irish starter. Even though it took a while, he said he finally feels like it’s his team now, and he’s not just filling in for Crist.

“Dayne would probably say the same thing,” Rees said. “That’s kind of the mentality you have to have as a quarterback. You’ve got to come in, be in charge and be a leader.”

Other players are buying into Rees’ leadership, too.

“He sees the field very well, and I like him a lot out there,” junior receiver Michael Floyd said. “And I feel confident with him — everybody out there does feel confident with him out there, too.”

Rees said Crist has been more than helpful in his development both as a quarterback and a leader.

“He’s been great,” Rees said. “We watch film together and we talk after practice. He’s been there for me every step along the way.”

Another confidant for Rees has been his father, Bill, a former NCAA assistant coach at UCLA and Northwestern.

“We talk once or twice every day and the bulk of the conversation is football,” Rees said. “It’s great to have him there supporting me and it’s great to have another person I can turn to to talk about the game.”

The attention can be overwhelming at times, but Rees is keeping calm under pressure, both on and off the field. With so many possible external pressures, it’s all about keeping an even keel.

“We’ve got to prepare just like we did last week, have a consistency with how we play and just try to stack some wins here at the end.”