NOTRE DAME — At the beginning of the season, it was easy to vilify Tommy Rees.
He was “Turnover Tommy,” the poster boy for Notre Dame’s shortcomings a year earlier.
He wasn’t the explosive, exciting player Everett Golson was in the Blue/Gold scrimmage in April.
He got arrested in the off season for fleeing the scene of a party before kneeing a pursuing police officer, sinking his popularity amongst the fan base to an all-time low.
When head coach Brian Kelly decided to yank Golson for Rees against Purdue, an ornery Notre Dame crowd booed unapologetically.
And yet, Rees still led a game-winning drive. Two games later, against Michigan, he subbed in again for a struggling Golson and scored the only touchdown of the day.
If there’s a person who can empathize with Rees’s new role among this year’s undefeated Notre Dame squad, it’s former Irish quarterback Evan Sharpley.
Granted, Sharpley was never a starter who fell from grace in a flurry of turnovers and an off-season arrest.
But he was an upperclassman with game experience playing back up to a freshman (Jimmy Clausen, in Sharpley’s case) still learning the ropes, occasionally called upon when the younger starter starts showing his youth.
“You gotta feel bad for Everett at times, who is the starter and is getting pulled out,” Sharpley said. “But you also have to feel for Tommy, who has been the starter who has had some success in the past but had some turnover woes in the red zone last year.”
Sharpley, who started against USC in 2007 and saw action in seven other games that season, said that often times the backup only gets two or three reps during the week of practice but has to be as prepared as the starter on game day.
He applauds Notre Dame’s efforts and coaching decisions thus far — after all, the Clausen/Sharpley tandem yielded a 3-9 campaign in 2007 while the 2012 squad is 4-0 – but wonders how the uncertainty wears on the psyche of Golson and Rees.
“(Coaches are) walking a fine line with their mental state,” Sharpley said. “It’s tough. Being quarterback is a different breed. Everyone wants to be on the field, but there can only be one guy.”
Sharpley nodded to Kelly’s 2009 Cincinnati team, who finished 12-1 with a dual-quarterback system. Notre Dame could experience similar success with Golson as the starter and Rees batting clean-up, but Sharpley says it depends on how well the two players buy into it.
“It really comes down to the psyche of both quarterbacks,” Sharpley said. “Is Everett comfortable with knowing there’s a possibility of being taken out? Is Tommy comfortable with not starting and coming in off the bench? If both of those guys buy into that, they’ll be able to be very successful.
“But if at any time any of those guys doubts that, which you might run into with a young quarterback, ‘Why should I be looking over my shoulder if you’re continually saying I’m the starter?’”
Kelly has said multiple times that he’d prefer to have a definitive starting quarterback who played the entire game. Sharpley believes Rees is seeing action just to preserve Notre Dame’s undefeated record.
“If we were 2-2, I think we’d see Everett Golson play every down,” Sharpley said. “But ultimately, it’s the coaching staff’s job to win ball games.”
Sharpley also has a word of advice to restless fans who are ready to jump off the Golson bandwagon: “Patience.”
“I watched Jimmy for three years, and there were a lot of growing pains,” Sharpley said. “Even as much publicity he got and the apparent accolades he had, these quarterbacks the past three years have been almost doubly successful in the win column as he was, and that’s a huge credit to the staff and development.”
All in all, Sharpley thinks this year could be a special one for Notre Dame. He thinks the team’s make-or-break moment will come against Stanford in two weeks.
“The type of momentum you can create with beating a team like Stanford … their confidence level has to be so high right now, especially as a defense,” Sharpley said. “When you have guys playing like that, you’re going to be in a lot of ball games. If the offense can follow suit and if they’re clicking on all cylinders by the end of the year, I think it could be very special.”