2020 Notre Dame Football Preview

Digital Edition

Blue & Gold Illustrated: 2020 Notre Dame Football Preview

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Page 44 of 163

BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED 2020 FOOTBALL PREVIEW ✦ 43 sure that they get their jobs done. From the top down, there are very few guys who don't understand our standards and what we're trying to accomplish. "There's a tremendous level of trust with everyone in our locker room to make sure that we are handling our business and doing things the right way." • And from a team bonding and chemistry building standpoint? "The best thing we've done is just being in constant communication with our guys. We've really had an open dialogue there," Rees explained. "There are so many un- knowns here, and I would like to think the habits and the traits instilled in our guys give us an advantage. "Our guys are special, and they under- stand that there is a lot of work to be done right now." What To Expect Because of a long working history that dates back 10 years, Rees was promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coor- dinator. The move was as expected as it was risky when Irish head coach Brian Kelly made it official in January. With 31 starts as the Irish quarterback from 2010-13 and then three seasons spent as the Notre Dame quarterbacks coach from 2017-19 — all seven of those years with Kelly — Rees earned his stripes and the head coach's full confidence. Regardless, with only three seasons as a full-time assistant coach, Rees faces a seis- mic career jump while taking the reins of an offense that has helped the program to at least 10 wins in three consecutive seasons. "I think a lot of the skills that I have de- veloped the last 15 years of playing sports, and obviously being here at Notre Dame and playing here, has prepared me for this," Rees insisted. For background, after his Notre Dame playing career, Rees began coaching as a graduate assistant at Northwestern in 2015. The Wildcats went 10-3 that season. A year later in 2016, Rees was an offen- sive assistant for the San Diego Chargers of the NFL. The Chargers ranked fifth in the AFC in points per game and seventh in yards per game that season. Rees was lured back to Notre Dame in 2017 as the quarterbacks coach and then was promoted by Kelly when previous offensive coordinator Chip Long left last December after the 2019 regular season ended. Under Long's guidance, the Irish aver- aged 36.8 points per game last year, the best scoring output during Kelly's 10 seasons on the job, leaving Rees substantial shoes to fill with limited coaching experience. "Everybody gets a first time. We all had first times," Kelly explained. "So what do you need to be prepared for that first time? You've got to have, first of all, a great background. "He had a great background leading up to this. He's been in this arena before. He grew up in this arena of college football, and he'll be well supported." The prime challenge for Rees — and perhaps the truest measure of success on his new job — will be highlighted in two games this season: Wisconsin (Oct. 3) and Clemson (Nov. 7). Notre Dame went 33-6 in the three sea- sons while Rees was its quarterbacks coach. But in those six losses — all against top-tier competition — the Fighting Irish averaged only 13.5 points and never scored more than 20 in a game. Rees believes he is capable of taking this program to new scoring heights and more marquee wins. "I have always viewed myself in a leader- ship capacity, and commanding a room has never been something that I have dreaded," Rees said. "It's something I actually like to take ownership of." Blending a familiarity with Kelly's sys- tem alongside a deep roster of returning offensive talent should help Rees flatten his learning curve, even with the challenges COVID-19 back-dropped on all the Irish coaches since March 5. Given the isolation between coaches and their players from then to mid-June, imple- menting an entirely new offense with unfa- miliar coaches, new voices, and different styles could've become complicated had Kelly hired outside his program. Instead, working relationships and sys- tem familiarity allows Rees to better keep the message and momentum moving for- ward. Notre Dame returns a three-year starting quarterback in fifth-year senior Ian Book and five starting offensive lineman, which constitutes what many preseason publica- tions believe will be the best blocking unit in the nation. Given the added challenges Rees and his staff face in terms of compressed practice time because of coronavirus, keeping the message consistent and the continuity in place should invite a smooth transition and a robust offense. "We have some coaches who have some really great messages and can be really good in front of the team," Rees explained. "It was my plan to get all of us in front of those guys throughout the spring and make sure that they heard it. "And again, what we are really trying to build is all of our guys on offense working toward the goal together." ✦ Passing His Play-Calling Test In the three-plus weeks from when former Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Long departed last De- cember and former Irish quarterback and quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees filled the vacancy in January, head coach Brian Kelly provided an important occupational test to his new OC candidate, naming Rees the play caller for the Camping World Bowl Dec. 28. Rees admitted feeling some anxiousness, but also becoming calm and confident as bowl prep rolled along. "I knew our guys were prepared. I knew that they put a lot of pride in playing that game specifically as well as they could," said Rees, whose offense rolled to 33 points and a 24-point rout of Iowa State in Orlando, Fla. "I am undoubtedly appreciative of not only the players and their buy-in through that time, but to our entire offensive staff and how committed they were to that game." Perhaps that game also provided a glimpse into what to expect when Rees calls plays full-time this fall — an approach that may feel different than expected from a former quarterback and quarterbacks coach. "People would probably look at my background and think, 'passing game,'" Rees explained. "But I am a firm believer in running the football, and I am a firm believer in that you are only as good as you run it." In the Camping World Bowl, Rees ended up with 37 running plays for 208 yards and 28 passing plays for 247 yards. "I truly believe in establishing the line of scrimmage. There's a toughness that comes with that," Rees said. "We're smart, and we have tough guys and the best damn coach in the country. "We're strong up front, and I think we are going to be able to take advantage of that." If Rees and his Irish can pull it off, perhaps this season is the first step to his next job — successor to Kelly? "We want to be the toughest, smartest and most-disciplined offense in the country," said Rees, not budging on the notion. "And if we can do those three things, it will yield pretty good results. "I want our attention to detail to be through the roof." — Todd D. Burlage "To look at this period as lost time or a hindrance would be a mistake. … We need to look at this as an opportunity to continue to improve, to continue to implement the things we need to." REES

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