One career ended for Notre Dame senior starting quarterback Tommy Rees after a 29-16 victory versus Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 28, 2013, but head coach Brian Kelly already had the seeds of a new one germinating for him.
“He used to joke all the time, ‘I’m going to hire you back,’” Rees recalled shortly after being announced in January as Kelly’s new quarterbacks coach. “After the Pinstripe Bowl at his press conference he said, ‘I’d hire him in a heartbeat,’ and that’s something that meant a lot to me.
“I didn’t know it would be this quick. … Coach has meant a lot to me as a player and as a young man growing to who I am today. Just his trust in the level of comfort he has with me has really spoken volumes to the relationship that we have.”
Now referred to as “Tom,” the 24-year-old Rees (he will turn 25 on May 22) is as seasoned a veteran as it gets when it comes to understanding the Notre Dame/Kelly offense, and dealing with peaks and valleys on and off the field.
He is the youngest Notre Dame full-time on-field staff hire since 1978 — when current Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith was hired by Dan Devine as the junior varsity coach at age 23. (Smith signed with Notre Dame as an Ohio lineman in 1973 and was a graduate assistant for the 1977 national champs.)
Lou Holtz in 1990 added 26-year-old son Skip to the staff in 1990 as the receivers coach — and one could argue that Rees is a football surrogate son for Kelly.
Limited in mobility, size and arm strength, Rees was an overachiever with his moxie and football IQ. Although he started 31 games during his Notre Dame career (23-8 record) from 2010-13, Rees was most renowned as the ace relief man out of the bullpen:
• After a 4-5 start in 2010, the freshman Rees stepped in for the injured Dayne Crist and the Irish surprisingly finished 4-0 while defeating No. 15 Utah, winning at USC to snap an eight-game losing streak to the Trojans, and toppling Miami in the Sun Bowl.
• Prior to the 12-0 regular season in 2012, incumbent quarterback Rees was supplanted by the more dynamic redshirt freshman Everett Golson. Yet when Golson struggled or was injured, Rees provided clutch play in 11th-hour, game-winning drives versus Purdue and Stanford (in regulation and overtime, respectively), had a steadying hand the final three quarters in the win over Michigan after Golson threw two early interceptions, and started in the 17-14 victory over BYU after trailing 14-7 at halftime. Golson lauded Rees for his unselfishness and in the way he helped instruct him for the better of the team.
• With Golson ineligible in 2013, Rees started throughout the 9-4 season en route to the Irish finishing in the Associated Press top 25 in consecutive years for only the second time in the past 20 years (2005-06 the other).
It seems apropos for Rees to return to help "save" Kelly and Notre Dame after the throes of a 4-8 season. At most any Power Five conference school, Rees’ hire would be a head scratcher because of his limited experience as a coach. At Notre Dame, it is not.
“There’s nobody better to teach that position than somebody who has done it here at Notre Dame, and he’ll be able to mentor our quarterback group in a manner and fashion that nobody else in the country can,” Kelly said.
Rees served as a graduate assistant at Northwestern in 2015 and was hired as an offensive assistant by the San Diego Chargers last February. His father, Bill, was an esteemed college assistant and recruiting coordinator at UCLA from 1979-93 before working in the NFL a couple of decades.
“I knew it was something I wanted to do from a young age,” Rees said of coaching. “I had been around the game with my dad coaching and being in personnel. When I was helping ‘Ev’ out, it came easy. I always had a good understanding of the game, and I always felt like I communicated well with my teammates and can bond with them.
“It came natural to me. It’s something I wanted to do and it’s something I felt I was pretty good at.”
Until the NCAA passes legislation this April that allows for a 10th full-time on-field assistant coach (a move that is expected), Rees will be more of a graduate assistant in waiting.
“My role is not going to change regardless of the title,” said Rees of his current situation. “I’m here to coach the quarterbacks. … That’s why I came here. I wanted the fulfillment of, ‘Hey, I get to meet with those quarterbacks, I get to prepare them, I get to coach them, I get to build that relationship.’ ”
Rees will step into a situation where he is going from Notre Dame having a veteran, potential first-round pick in DeShone Kizer to one where the position is the least experienced unit on the team.
Although senior Montgomery VanGorder is the starting holder on field goals and extra points, only junior Brandon Wimbush has taken any QB snaps — 22 against UMass and five versus Pitt as a 2015 freshman before redshirting in 2016. After that there is redshirted freshman Ian Book and incoming freshman Avery Davis this summer.
The five career passes Wimbush has thrown are the fewest by an entire Notre Dame quarterback lineup entering a season since 2007, when the trio of junior Evan Sharpley (two passes), sophomore Demetrius Jones (zero) and freshman Jimmy Clausen (zero) had two.
With quarterback the most inexperienced unit on the 2017 team, Rees said he will feel right at home.
“It’s exciting because I get to start from ground zero,” he said.
Maybe Rees can even produce his best save of all at Notre Dame and for Kelly.
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