Cue mixed emotions from a fan base still reeling from all the off-season drama.
For all his experience, his 18 starts and 14-4 record as a starter, his 4,000 throwing yards, 35 touchdowns and his dues ex machina style of late-game relief last season, Rees’s deficiencies are pronounced. He isn’t the heir Brian Kelly likely had in mind (See: Malik Zaire) for an offense taking shape under a strong-armed, fleet-footed signal caller. He isn’t fast or particularly efficient outside the pocket. He won’t scramble for an 8-yard gain if the play collapses. He doesn’t have a consistent deep-threat arm.
But he’s confident, and his teammates trust and respect him. And those traits, while not found on any stat sheet, are crucial in quarterbacking. When Rees subbed in for Everett Golson during the Purdue game last year, Notre Dame fans – still sore from his 30 turnovers in 2011 – booed. Loudly. Rees led the game-winning drive anyway.
Without Rees, Notre Dame wouldn’t have gone 12-0 last year. They might not even have finished 10-2. That’s the difference between the BCS National Championship and the Champs Sports Bowl.
Rees has never been the marquee name on the roster. In his three seasons at Notre Dame, he’s been a consummate “next man in.” As a freshman, he replaced an injured Dayne Crist and won the last four games in the 2010 campaign. When Crist won back the starting spot at the beginning of 2011, then promptly lost it in the opening game against South Florida, it was Rees who picked up the reins for the rest of the year. When Golson showed his youth against Purdue and Michigan and was injured against Stanford and BYU last season, it was again Rees who pitched relief.
I spoke with former Notre Dame quarterback Evan Sharpley shortly after the Irish beat Michigan and moved to 4-0 last year. Sharpley had said that while a two-quarterback system worked for Kelly at Cincinnati, the uncertainty that both Golson and Rees faced walked “a fine line with their mental state.”
Three years of that has to build some kind of mental toughness. The fact that Rees came in cold last year after losing his starting spot to an up-and-coming, flashy freshman and was still able to lead game-winning drives has to give him some kind of rapport with supporters. He already has it with his teammates and coaches.
So – with all of his talents and limitations – Rees will head the offense this season. It’s probably good that he’s an underdog among fans and critics. That’s when he thrives the most.