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September 21, 2013

Follow the leader

As the Irish try to regain the chemistry and leadership that led them to one of the greatest defensive performances in the history of the storied football program, quarterback Tommy Rees left little doubt in the second half of the come-from-behind victory over Purdue who’s handling those duties on the offensive side of the football.

Following his 82-yard touchdown pass to DaVaris Daniels, which gave the Irish their first lead of the day - a lead they would not relinquish - Rees gathered nearly two dozen offensive players around him to share a message.

Every individual in that group stopped what they were doing, ceased talking, and dialed into the quarterback’s words. It was a turning point in the game and a poignant moment along the sideline.

“Tommy is our quarterback, plain and simple,” said tri-captain/wide receiver TJ Jones. “He’s the leader of this offense. He’s the guy you look to for anything, whether it’s advice, leadership, making a clutch play…he’s the guy who leads us on that field.

“It shows the command and the trust that we have in Tommy. If he says he wants the offense to jump, we jump. We don’t ask questions. You stop what you’re doing and listen to your quarterback.”

It’s an interesting dynamic considering the difficulty Rees has had in winning over Irish followers. He was considered a liability and a detriment to the offense during his first full-time duty as a starter in 2011. Boos cascaded down from the seats in Notre Dame Stadium when he came on in relief against Purdue in 2012. And when Everett Golson was suspended for the ’13 season, the wind blowing the sails for another national title run fell silent.

Go inside the Irish locker room, however, and you’ll find an attitude diametrically opposed to the attitude toward Rees on the outside.

“He’s the quarterback of Notre Dame and he has everyone’s respect,” said tri-captain/left tackle Zack Martin. “When he talks, especially in that kind of setting, everyone’s going to listen.

“I know I’m listening when he’s talking. I may throw my two cents in and then when he leaves, I’ll talk to the o-line. But when he’s talking, I’m listening.”

Added Jones: “We’ve always had a high level of respect for Tommy. I think this year it might be a little different just with the fact that he’s been a bona fide starter since Coach Kelly named him. You can look to him for direction or advice for leadership as opposed to earlier years when he was trying to learn the offense, learn his role.”

Rees has always felt the love and respect of his teammates. But until this year, one would be hard-pressed to get Rees to discuss his leadership role within the team.

Not anymore. Rees knows how important he is to the offense and appears much more comfortable in his skin than at any time before.

“I think I’ve proved myself as a leader and a guy they can trust and look to,” Rees said. “As a senior and as the quarterback, it’s one of my roles. I have a really good relationship with a lot of the guys.”

Rees literally brought the team together early in the fourth quarter last week after his second touchdown pass to Daniels within a 1:57 span took the Irish from a 17-10 deficit to a 24-17 lead.

What did Rees says to his offensive teammates on the sideline?

“We knew at that moment we had gone up for the first time, and we needed to rally around and stay focused,” Rees said. “I just reminded them that it was still about us and that we needed to get the ball back and score again. The guys responded great. That’s something as the leader and as a quarterback that I’ve always felt I had the confidence in myself to do.

“It’s not something that needs to happen every game. But I feel it’s important when you get the entire offense together. Zack and I were on the same page. He was trying to call together the offense and I kind of (said), ‘Zack, I’ve got this one.’”

Part of the respect his teammates have for him is connected to Rees’ journey. It’s been rocky at times. He’s struggled against the better competition the Irish have faced. He’s lost his starting job. He’s felt the scorn of the fans.

But through it all, Rees has faced the music without creating a stir, which played a key role in Notre Dame’s undefeated 2012 regular season. His offensive cohorts respected the manner in which he took on the adversity.

“Things haven’t always gone his way and he made some mistakes,” said fifth-year senior left guard Chris Watt. “But he’s learned from them and moved on, and he’s done a really good job of leading this team so far.

“I think everyone respects the way he’s handled things and the way he’s worked. During seven-on-seven this summer, he brought all the guys together. Just how he carries himself on and off the field…He’s worked really hard to be where he’s at.”

“He’s a great student of the game,” Martin added. “He studies the tape. He knows a lot of details that most people don’t know, and he’s able to get us into those looks.”

As a well-tested veteran himself, Martin doesn’t always agree at first blush with every decision Rees makes, and invariably, Rees proves him wrong.

“Sometimes he’ll check us into a play and we’re not thinking that’s going to work,” Martin smiled. “Then all of a sudden at the snap, they’ll have people bluff out and guys come from the sight check, so he knows what he’s doing back there.

“We know if he’s making a check, he’s making it for a reason, and it’s pretty much 100 percent of the time the right reason. It’s a credit to him being in the film room all week and seeing those looks and getting the calls to us. If we can run a play away from a blitz, it makes us look good.”

Rees is far from a finished product. How he and the Irish perform over the next four games - Michigan State and Oklahoma at home, Arizona State in Dallas and USC at home following a bye week - will go a long way toward determining his legacy, which at the present time has a huge question mark hanging over it.

But Rees has never been so confident in his standing within the program.

“Oh, yeah, I’m absolutely comfortable in that role,” Rees said. “It’s something that I’ve worked hard at and developed over the past couple of years, even going back to last year. Being more vocal and taking that accountability and the responsibility to be the guy that brings the team together.

“I guess you’d have to ask the guys, but I think they have confidence in me and I have the confidence in myself to do the job.”

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