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Back in the spotlight

Joseph Monardo | Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tommy Rees has been a starter before. He’s also been a backup. He’s been a sparkplug, a lightning rod, a leader, a scapegoat, a winner, a disappointment, a steady hand, a question mark and a closer. 

Most Notre Dame fans know their starting quarterback’s story well. What it basically comes down to is this: Tommy Rees has been through it all, and now he’s back. To be more precise, he’s back under center, the spotlight and the microscope as Notre Dame begins the follow-up act to its undefeated regular season. 

It could be called a comeback story, but Rees never really left. 

“I don’t think about it as a comeback story as much as I am just trying to take it one week at a time and just put myself and this team in a good position,” Rees said. 

For all he’s been through, Rees has never before entered the season as the No. 1 quarterback. For the senior with 18 career starts, that disclaimer will officially become a thing of the past come Saturday.  

Following the announcement of junior quarterback Everett Golson’s one-semester suspension for undisclosed academic violations in May, Irish coach Brian Kelly named Rees the starting quarterback in the first week of June. Since the announcement, Kelly has been adamant that the quarterback who has been praised as a locker room-treasure will be a gem on the football field as well.

“I think he’s had a great camp,” Kelly said. “I think he’s really developed his skill, which I think is very important as part of this story because, look, we could talk about the off-field stuff, and that’s really neat, but that doesn’t help our football team win games. He had to develop his skill in the off-season, and I’ve seen tangible evidence of it every day in practice in the way he is throwing the football, getting us in the right place.”

On or off the field, the going occasionally got tough. The Lake Forest, Ill., native’s career began inauspiciously when he came off the bench in the second game of his freshman year; he threw an interception and failed to complete either of his two pass attempts in a loss to Michigan. After capturing four consecutive wins as the freshman starter to end the season, Rees began as the backup quarterback in 2011 – although he supplanted incumbent Dayne Crist at halftime of the first game – and again in 2012 behind Golson. 

“It’s definitely been challenging at times,” Rees said of his career. “But I’ve had a great support system over all. And just trying to stay even-keeled throughout it and, you know, being persistent.”

At least part of the reason Rees found himself behind Golson on the depth chart at the start of last season was his arrest stemming from charges of underage drinking and resisting law enforcement prior to the season. Following the incident, Kelly suspended his most experienced passer for the season-opening matchup with Navy. Rees didn’t even travel to Dublin, Ireland with the team.

Throughout last season, though, Rees showed his teammates and coaches a level of maturity rarely seen. By all accounts the consummate teammate and consistent leader, Rees took to mentoring Golson, effectively helping the first-time starter retain his primacy on the depth chart. 

“It wasn’t all that difficult,” Rees said of assisting Golson. “That’s kind of what’s expected out of all of us. We’ve got a next-man-in philosophy, and at the end of the day it’s a team game and we want the team to do well. And I felt like that role that I had was the best chance to make the most of it and just give the team another outlet.

“That’s something I’ve always tried to be, is a team-first guy, lead the offense and the team and be the best teammate I can be. Because there are 100 guys counting on each other.”

Rees also earned high praise from his offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Chuck Martin, who said he viewed Rees’ role last season as a key piece to the team’s success.

“He was a backup quarterback and he was an assistant coach and made everything go,” Martin said. “If he had taken a different stance the whole season is completely different.” 

Rees, the son of a former football coach, also took the opportunity to look at the game from a different angle, he said.

“Just taking a second look at the big picture and understanding kind of just what was going on around me, it kind of gave me a different view of the game, kind of like a coach’s aspect,” Rees said.

But the second-string veteran also spent plenty of time off the sidelines and on the field. Aside from coming off the bench cold following multiple Golson injuries, Rees was called upon in relief at clutch times throughout the year, albeit not to the initial relief of Irish fans. When No. 11 entered with the score tied and 2:12 remaining in the second game of the season against Purdue, much of the Irish home crowd greeted him with boos, right before he led a game-winning scoring drive. What was an ugly moment for Rees caught the attention of his coaches.

“I think, when he stepped on that field against Purdue and got booed and responded to that, you know, I was going to be in his corner all the way,” Kelly said.

It was a moment of maturity and poise, a signal of a lesson learned.

“It’s hard to lead a two-minute drive at home when you’re getting booed off the field,” Martin added.  

Rees then helped lead the Irish to an iconic overtime victory Stanford after coming into the game in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, steady performances against Michigan and Pittsburgh and a a full game against BYU added to his role as a janitor of sorts. By evolving into a closer of sorts, Rees found another way to help his team win games from the backup position. His late-game heroics cemented what had already become a widely-accepted tenet, supported by his 12-4 record as an underclassman. 

Tommy Rees was undeniably a winner.

“You know, at the end of the day, winning is the most important thing when you go out there,” he said. “And I think it really comes from my teammates and my coaches and I think that they do a great job preparing us. And we’ve got a bunch of guys that make plays. And just trying to figure out ways to win close games. I take a lot of pride in pulling those close ones out.”

Now Rees will have an opportunity to be a leader, veteran and starter at the same time, for the first time. That he is even in this position may come as a mild surprise in an environment when quarterback transfers are hardly uncommon. The Irish fanbase in just the past three years has witnessed the departures of Dayne Crist and Gunner Kiel, neither of whom saw a clear path to the starting job. 

For Rees, transferring was never an option, he said.

“I never really considered that seriously,” he said. “I signed a four-year commitment to stay here and I wanted to see this thing through.”

Instead, Rees turned to those closest to him for support. 

“Besides my parents, I have great teammates and great coaches here,” he said. “You know, guys like [graduate student offensive lineman] Zack Martin, who’s been a captain for two years and one of my closest friends, he’s kind of always been a good support for me. And that’s kind of what makes Notre Dame, Notre Dame. There’s so many different outlets that you can go to [in order] to get help.”

Chuck Martin said Rees’ loyalty towards the University and for his teammates tied the quarterback to the program, even when his future as a starter appeared unclear.

“He was never going to quit on those guys,” Martin said. “He was always adamant with me from the first time I moved over to offense [before 2012] and said, ‘At the end of the day I’m going to fight for my teammates to the end and no one’s going to take that from me.’ I think that was amazing.”

As they look to improve on what was an historic 2012 season, the Irish again face what appears to be a daunting schedule. But they can at least take comfort from an unheralded leader, who never left and has been fighting all along. 

After all, he wasn’t even fighting for his job. At times a loyal son was even helping his predecessor secure the role. Tommy Rees was fighting for his team. 

And now he’s got it  back – and the spotlight that comes with it.

Contact Joseph Monardo at jmonardo@nd.edu