Rees’ revenge: First-year OC out to right Notre Dame-Alabama series wrongs
Ellen Geyer | Friday, January 1, 2021
Tommy Rees has seen this film before.
An Irish quarterback himself in 2012-13, he has far from forgotten what happened the last time Notre Dame and Alabama met with a national championship on the line.
This time around, having traded in his helmet for a headset, the Irish offensive coordinator believes his team has what it takes to create a different result.
“I think the program’s come a long way under [head] coach [Brian Kelly]’s leadership,” Rees said. “There’s a belief within the program that we’re consistently one of the best five teams in the country, and we handle ourselves that way and we have that belief. And that’s really the standard and the work ethic that we come into this building with every day.”
Rees, 28, is just seven years removed from playing in the Notre Dame system, making it easy for him to understand the nuances of the Irish offense. But his age is not always advantageous, bringing with it certain doubts from others about his relative inexperience.
“Coming here as a young coach, I think anytime there’s some skepticism there,” he said. “You really prove yourself by your work ethic and the way you build relationships. And that’s something that I’ve always tried to put first and foremost … ‘How can I make sure that I’m doing everything I can to show that I’m here to work and that I’m here to make this program better?’ I think it’s really just being authentic. If you have some authenticity to yourself and if you’re true to your word, true to who you are, those things are easy. The fortunate thing for us is we have such coachable and good kids here that it makes our jobs much easier.”
Rees said authenticity helps in building relationships with his players. The quarterbacks coach since 2017 and offensive coordinator since the departure of Chip Long in 2019, Rees has come to grasp the importance of understanding each and every one of his players.
“The relationship with [graduate student quarterback] Ian [Book] is critical, but it really takes all 11 to be on the same page,” he said.
All 11 players on offense will win or lose the game, not just Book alone, he explained.
“I don’t think there’s anything heroic [Book] needs to do that’s going to single-handedly win us the game,” Rees said. “I think if he operates the system and makes decisive and good decisions to put our offense in the position to be successful, then we’re going to have a chance to win the game. There’s a level of trust with a veteran team and veteran quarterback and offensive line that allows for some of that growth.”
Rees believes one of the key pieces in creating that success will be efficiency on third down, a strength the Irish offense has possessed all year. Notre Dame has been better on third down than its opponent in every game this season except one — the ACC Championship. Clemson converted on eight of 14 attempts (57%) while the Irish reset the downs on just three of 12 tries (25%). That was a reversal from when the teams met for the first time in November: Notre Dame was 10-19 (53%) and Clemson 4-15 (27%). Winning the third down battle, then, will be critical for success Friday.
“The weeks we’ve been really good on third down, we don’t put ourselves behind the chains and we don’t put ourselves in situations that are harder to convert,” he said. “Third down has been something that’s unique to us, week in and week out, and our guys are going to prepare the right way and make sure we’re hitting on all cylinders.”
Rees said the ACC Championship was also valuable in teaching his team the importance of making every possession count. Though Notre Dame moved the ball well on its first three drives against Clemson, it translated to just three points in one made field goal.
In order to have success against Alabama, “it’s critical to — as a team, as an offense — to understand where those points were left, how did those points get left on the board, and how as coaches can we put our guys in better positions to make sure that we’re finishing drives with six,” Rees said.
He believes the solution to finishing those drives is simple — focusing on the fundamentals.
“Staying on schedule and giving us as many positive plays in a row as we can have [will be key],” Rees said. “I know that sounds simple or it sounds almost elementary, but I think when you play great teams, the more positive plays you can string in a row, the better you’re going to be.”
The young offensive coordinator believes his team is perfectly capable of doing just that, which in turn will translate to the outcome he couldn’t attain as a player himself eight seasons ago.
“Each week is a new challenge. Each week presents different opportunities,” he said. “The most important thing is that your players understand what the call is and that they have belief that it’s going to work. And that’s something that we’ve built throughout the year … this is not a one-man army here. It takes every player. It takes every coach. And it’s been fun for me and special for me to see everyone buy into the vision we’ve had and continue it into the [College Football] Playoffs.”