Earlier today Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly confirmed what many had speculated since Saturday night’s season opening loss to South Florida when he named sophomore Tommy Rees his starting quarterback for this weekend’s showdown with Michigan.
“We’re going to start Tommy Rees against Michigan,” Kelly answered to the first question he knew would be coming his way at his weekly Tuesday press conference. “As we had talked about relative to Dayne, we talked about production. You know, Tommy was very productive in the second half, and he’ll get a chance to start against Michigan”
While the production from Rees Kelly referred to was hard to ignore (296 yards passing and 2 TDs with 2 INTs in just a half of football), the decision to change his starting quarter a week into the season after a heated battle in camp wasn’t easy. “Any time you take your quarterback out those aren’t easy decisions, because they impact so many things that you’re doing,” Kelly said. “I think I said after the press conference, any time you take your starting quarterback out, that’s not a good situation. So, yeah, very difficult situation that I felt needed to be addressed.”
The change to Rees isn’t intended to be a temporary fix just as naming Dayne Crist the starter two weeks ago was not intended to be a short term answer. “Nobody wants to go in and change their quarterbacks each and every week. That’s just not the way you play this game. So our hopes are Tommy is productive and can play at a high level week in and week out,” Kelly said. “We don’t come to this decision thinking, well, he’ll give us one game and then we’ll go back to Dayne. That’s obviously not why we made this decision. We believe that Tommy is capable of leading this football team, just as I believed strongly that Dayne is capable.”
Kelly and his staff intend for Rees to be their starter moving forward, but the position is not set in stone – just as it wasn’t last week when Crist got the quick hook at half-time. “He knows what I’ve told him: You got to be productive. If you’re not, you should be looking over your shoulder,” Kelly answered when asked how secure Rees’s spot as the starter is at this pint. “If you’re a productive quarterback doing the things we ask you to do, you should just go out there and play the game the way you know how to play it.”
One of the key areas in which Rees out produced Crist was in finding All-American candidate Michael Floyd – Notre Dame’s biggest playmaker. Rees was able to connect with Floyd 10 times in the second half leading to a career high in receptions for the senior wide receiver. Two of those 10 receptions occurred in the end-zone adding to Floyd’s already established school record for receiving touchdowns.
“I don’t know that Tommy has a better relationship than Dayne with Mike,” Kelly said. “He seemed to find him at the right times. Maybe some times that he threw the ball to him he shouldn’t even have thrown it to him.
So I think I’ve got to be careful that we’re not trying to feed the ball to Mike when he’s being doubled. Those other guys need to step up: T.J., Theo, Tyler Eifert,” he would add.
For all of the good things that Rees did on Saturday, he did have a few errors of his own that proved costly. With Notre Dame still stuck at zero on the scoreboard and driving towards their first score, Rees fired a pass to TJ Jones that bounced off the sophomore’s head and into the arms of a South Florida defender for a third red-zone turnover. When asked what happened on the play, Kelly explained that the fault for the play lied with both players.
“It’s on both of ’em really. When it comes down to it, the quarterback can’t throw the ball to a receiver that’s not giving him his eyes. At the end of the day, the responsibility of the football remains with the quarterback,” Kelly said. That being said, the play and route in question is something the Irish practice everyday without error… until Saturday. “One of those things that you scratch your head, because we’ve run the route so many times and it’s never happened before; it happened on Saturday.”
While Kelly is certain that Rees is his starter going forward at this point, he isn’t certain what exactly happened that cause the offense to stall under Crist’s guidance. “I don’t know that there is one specific thing that we would point out. I think it was just a number of things that came together,” explained Kelly. “If one thing comes out differently, you know, whether it be a catch or a penalty that’s not called or holding on to the football or making a field goal, I could go on and on — and I’m not making this stuff up — and is possibly still your starter.”
For Rees, this won’t be the first time he has faced Michigan. Last season Rees made a brief cameo against the Wolverines when Dayne Crist was knocked out of the game in the first quarter. Rees was inserted into the game as the backup at the time and threw an interception with the first pass of his college career on a flea flicker. Now that he is locked in as the starting quarterback for this weekend, Rees will have a chance for redemption against a defense the Irish should be able to move the ball and score some points on – assuming they take care of the football and maximize their opportunities this week.
For Crist, it’s not clear where the senior quarterback goes from here. If Rees seizes the opportunity that has presented itself to him, it’s hard to imagine him getting another crack at the starting job barring an injury. If that’s the case, this would be a rather disappointing way for his career to end especially when you consider how good of a leader and representative of Notre Dame the California native has been over the last four years. People tend to forget that Crist held together the strong recruiting class of 2008 throughout Notre Dame’s dismal 2007 season. Hopefully Crist keeps his head up and prepares each week as though he’ll get into the game because even if Rees excels in his new role, Crist will be just an injury away from entering the game.