NOTRE DAME — On Saturday, Sept. 7, Tommy Rees will walk into Michigan’s screaming Big House with an air of calm and confidence.
He’ll have spent the entire week leading up to the rivalry showdown studying film and mentally preparing himself for the 100,000 hostile fans releasing enough pent-up venom to last until the next time the Irish come to Ann Arbor (whenever that may be).
He doesn’t need a pre-game ritual. The full week of focus and relaxation puts him in a Zen-like state of mind by the time he straps on his helmet.
In fact, keeping a cool head under fire was pretty much Rees’ job description in 2012. The consummate closer, Rees cleaned up tight games against Michigan, Purdue and Stanford and became a crucial yet oft-maligned player in Notre Dame’s 12-0 regular season.
His ability to slow down chaos stands out to receiver and classmate TJ Jones as one of Rees’ greatest assets.
“He’s able to keep his composure in these kind of environments,” Jones said. “He is going to calm the offense down and run it the way it needs to be ran and not let the environment effect us.
“Being able to keep his composure in times of adversity or tough situations — like Michigan Stadium at night — it’s one of his strong points,” Jones said.
In 2011, Jones and Rees started in Michigan’s first-ever under-the-lights game against Notre Dame.
Though the final eight seconds of the game are forever unwillingly burned into the minds of Notre Dame supporters, it’s important to remember the minute before Michigan scored the infamous Hail Mary touchdown.
Rees, then a sophomore who had already thrown for more than 300 yards and two touchdowns, calmly led the Irish on a 61-yard, 42-second drive for the go-ahead score with 30 seconds left.
Rees and Jones return for what will be Notre Dame’s final scheduled trip to the Big House, but this time, the cast of characters is vastly different.
Instead of offensive staples like Michael Floyd, Tyler Eifert, Cierre Wood and Braxston Cave, Rees has freshmen Will Fuller, James Onwualu, Corey Robinson, Greg Bryant and Tarean Folston to work with in one of the most hostile environments Notre Dame will see this season.
Ten freshmen saw the field against Temple. Robinson and linebacker Jaylon Smith started. It wasn’t a gimmick or a one-game test against a subpar opponent. Unlike two years ago, freshmen will play a big factor in Notre Dame’s trip to Michigan.
“We didn’t feel as though they were at a point where they were ready to play,” Kelly said of the 2011 freshmen class. “We’ve already shown that...We’ve played 10 freshmen already. They got their opportunity to play. We expect all those young men to play again.”
Rees has faith in the young players, saying that he has “all the confidence in the world in” receivers Fuller, Onwualu and Robinson.
“There’s a lot of us seniors up there who have played through the experience,” Rees said of playing at Michigan. “I think if need be, to kind of talk the young guys through some things to help calm them down.”
After all, he thrives in the chaos.
“I think the noise in that stadium and just the atmosphere is definitely going to help him because it is obviously an incredible atmosphere there,” Kelly said of Rees. “It’s loud, the fans, it’s a night game. I think any time that you put a veteran quarterback in that situation, it has a calming effect to everybody because he’s been through it. There’s no question that that’s going to help in this instance. He’s still going to have to play through that, but it definitely helps in this instance.”