NOTRE DAME — Tommy Rees has seen the highs and lows of being quarterback at Notre Dame the past three years.
He won his first four starts as a freshman at Notre Dame Stadium, Yankee Stadium, Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and the Sun Bowl. Last season as a junior, he helped rally the Irish to victories against Purdue, Michigan and Stanford and started in a victory over BYU as Notre Dame ultimately advanced to the national title game.
The lowlights? An embarrassing 28-27 loss to Tulsa in 2010 when Rees threw three interception, fumbling the ball on first-and-goal from the 7 in the fourth quarter in a 35-31 loss to Michigan two seasons ago and being pulled at halftime while struggling against Stanford in the 2011 regular-season finale. He was also arrested a year ago after running away from an off-campus party and knocking the wind out of a police officer who caught up to him, and then he was booed by the Notre Dame fans moments before entering the game in the fourth quarter against Purdue and leading the Irish to victory.
He won the starter’s job back by default after Everett Golson was suspended for the semester because of academics. But Rees believes he’s ready, saying all he’s been through has taught him lessons.
“It’s a journey. I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “The past year’s been pretty crazy. I would never have guessed that coming in here. But you just deal with everything one step at a time and lean on the people you care about and care about you. I’ve had a great support system throughout it all.”
The 6-2, 215-pound senior heads into the season as possibly the biggest question mark facing a Notre Dame squad eager to show last year’s 12-0 regular season wasn’t a fluke. Rees showed last season he could come in when Golson was struggling or injured and provide a spark.
But can he provide the same consistency when opposing coaches are game-planning against him? He doesn’t have Golson’s arm strength or running ability. In the only start last season when he played the entire game, Rees was 7-of-16 passing for 117 yards with one interception in a 17-14 victory over BYU, missing seven straight passes and attempting only three overall in the second half.
While those numbers aren’t inspiring, coach Brian Kelly said with Rees at quarterback he knows what to expect.
“If you use a word, very comfortable starting the season where maybe there was a little anxiety last year not knowing what we were going to get from Everett,” he said.
Kelly acknowledges the Irish need to score more points after averaging 25.8 points a game last season, ranking 78th in the nation — the lowest among BCS teams. But the Irish were only slightly better when Rees was the starter for most of 2011, averaging 29.2 points a game. The last four games Rees has started and played extensively, the Irish haven’t scored more than 17 points.
The biggest knock against Rees as a starter was that he turned the ball over too often with 14 interceptions and five fumbles in 2011.
Although Rees’ performance that season is generally considered disappointing, his 65.5 percent completion rate was the second best in school history, trailing only Jimmy Clausen at 68 percent in 2009. His career completion rate of 64.2 percent is the best in Notre Dame history. His 20.7 completions per game in 2011 rates fourth in school history, while his yards per game of 220.8 that season ranks eighth.
He did much of that, though, in connecting with Michael Floyd and Tyler Eifert, two first-round NFL draft picks. He might not have that caliber receiver this year, but he may have more overall talent to throw to.
Rees has 18 career starts and has appeared in 33 games overall. Kelly believes Rees learned by being on the sideline last season. The biggest lesson, Kelly said, is that the Irish don’t need to score every possession and that sometimes it’s about minimizing losses.
“You’ve got to pick your times on when you need to fit one in there and when it’s safer to take a check down,” Rees said.
Rees believes he’s grown up since he was last the starter and is better prepared to deal with adversity.
“Not playing every snap, you take a different look at things,” he said. “You learn a lot about football, a lot about defenses. I think I’ve got a better grasp of the whole picture.”
Teammates are glad to see a popular teammate who stuck it out get another opportunity. They say Rees, who has coaching aspirations, has become a more vocal leader.
“He’s the guy you go to if you have a question. He’s the guy that if you do make a mistake, he’ll come over to you and say, ‘Next play. It will be all right,’” running back Amir Carlisle said. “He has a real command of the offense.”
Kelly said the Irish won’t have to drastically change the offense with Rees at quarterback, but concedes the Irish will need to be more effective passing He’s indicated he may call on backup Andrew Hendrix to change things up if the Irish need a more mobile quarterback.
Rees said he never gave up hope he’d get a second chance to be the starter, although it didn’t come about as he had hoped.
“Whenever my time was going to come, I was going to make the most of it,” he said. “It shows that sticking around and putting the team first has worked out for me. I’m not sure that’s for everyone, but it’s worked out for me.”