Blue and Gold Illustrated

January 2021

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 14 of 47 JANUARY 2021 15 The public is often the last to catch on. He bounced between hero and goat as a player. His promotion was met with some skepticism surrounding his qualifications and capabilities. Even now, his offense began the postseason coming off a distressing 34-10 loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship. "Anytime there's some skepticism there, you really prove yourself by your work ethic and the way you build relationships," Rees said during Rose Bowl media days. "And that's some- thing that I've always tried to put first and foremost, is just how can I make sure that I'm doing everything I can to show that I'm here to work and that I'm here to make this program better?" CALMING FIGURE Yes, Rees hit all the clichés about work ethic as a player, but where he diverged into the uncommon is how far the appreciation for his invest- ment traveled within Notre Dame's roster. His reputation could spread because he was never siloed off in the quarterback bubble, worried about only his slice of responsibility. He craved chances to learn about other positions. He once told teammates he would come back as an offensive line- man if given another football career. "He always had an incredible gift of, 'I'm going to understand every piece of this, how it fits together and how to put everyone in the best position,'" Golic Jr. said. "The guy roomed with two offensive linemen, a tight end and a linebacker. "He was around a lot of different views of football all the time. He had that ability to move from every room, know all the parts of the machine." Whenever Rees was thrust into the starting job midseason or came in for a play off the bench, teammates rec- ognized his fast mastery and holistic approach. Quarterback shuffling and harmonious offenses go together like tornadoes and lawn chairs, but Rees had a way of contriving continuity and putting teammates at ease. "You never had to worry about Tommy," Golic Jr. said. "You never had to overcompensate. You knew exactly where he was going to be, when he was going to be there and you knew he had a handle on ev- erything. So you just had to focus on what you needed to do. That's a tremendously valuable feeling in a football locker room and any offense. "In those chaotic moments, when you need him, he's going to be a guy you can count on." Naturally, Rees' offense stands out in its executional abilities and syn- ergy between the 11 members. Rare are the moments where two players are pointing at each other, wondering who missed an assignment. That's a byproduct of experienced starters and the clarity with which they're taught. The temptation for a coach not far re- moved from playing is to rely too heav- ily on demonstration, to pick up the ball and defiantly show how it's done when someone doesn't understand. It makes the most sense in the coach's mind. Not necessarily to the players, though. Kelly lauds Rees' ability to teach through different mediums and understand players' learning styles. For Book, that's often visually, in the film room, where Rees displays h i s f a r- re a c h i n g memory by pull- ing a clip from one of his own games to further illustrate a teaching point. How a coach gives criticism and fosters improvement is a critical component of trust. College football players know when they misstep. They want to focus on fu- ture prevention, not past infractions. "As a quarterback, you're going to miss throws," Book said. "There's not an answer to everything. He's not going to over-coach or change your motion, not going to talk about the throw as much. You're at Notre Dame, you should be able to make these throws. Let's talk about how we can make that easier for you." Added Golic Jr.: "It's, 'Alright, something's going wrong. This is what you saw, this is what I saw, how do we fix it?' Have that conversation, get onto the next play." At Northwestern, Rees worked with Wildcats' quarterback Clayton Thor- son, then in his first year as a starter. When Thorson jogged off the field after a drive, it was Rees who was often first to greet him with words of encouragement or observations. Nothing was too minute or off lim- its for instruction. And Thorson, a redshirt freshman trying to learn the finer points, welcomed the expertise of someone two years removed from a similar spot. Rees' name earned him initial attention. His style kept it. "In spring ball, one of the first few practices, I was handing the ball off," Thorson remembered. "He texted me later and said, 'Make sure your off hand is tight to your stomach.' "We knew he was a smart guy and we could trust him with things." MOLDING THE OFFENSE To say Rees was schematically green when Kelly promoted him to offensive coordinator is to undersell his sponge- like ability. Everywhere he went, start- ing as a player, then at Northwestern and in the NFL, he soaked up the of- fenses and stored them in his reserves. Notre Dame's current offense — an outside-zone-based rushing attack that spends more than half its time in multi-tight-end sets — is the output. "Each system I've been a part of or learned from has contributed to what you see now," Rees said. Beyond that, Rees tailored to the personnel. Notre Dame has skilled tight ends and a physical offensive line. The up-tempo spread is college football's eye candy, but deploying it with this group is square-peg-in-round-hole thinking. The roster was set. Rees adjusted to it. The evaluation of him as a play caller remains ongoing, but his sense of player strengths and ability to high- light them is well displayed so far. At the same time, this is only year one for one of the country's youngest coordinators. There's growth still to come. Rees made up for lack of experience with his understanding of the duties and pressures a Notre Dame quarterback faces. But as his career goes on, the relatability factor rooted in his youth theoretically becomes less of a selling point. That was a reason to hire him and overlook the shorter résumé, not one that will keep him employed as long as he wants to be. Relationship building is an ageless art, though, and one Kelly has em- phasized and improved now in his late 50s. Curiosity, the desire to put in effort, gregariousness and poise have no expiration dates either. Those are as much of Rees' framework as his playing career. Maintenance of them just requires Rees to be Rees. "If you have some authenticity to yourself and if you're true to your word, true to who you are," Rees said, "those things are easy." ✦ "In those chaotic moments, when you need him, he's going to be a guy you can count on." REES' FORMER TEAMMATE, MIKE GOLIC JR.

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