SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Two years ago at this time, Tommy Rees stepped in for fired offensive coordinator Chip Long and helped guide Notre Dame past a first-time Big 12 opponent (Iowa State) in the Camping World Bowl.
Rees, the former Lake Forest High School and Notre Dame quarterback, passed that audition with ease. The balanced Irish piled up 455 yards of total offense in a 33-9 victory that cemented Rees’ promotion to the full-time job at age 27.
Now, in the wake of another high-profile departure, along comes another distinct challenge for Rees in a Fiesta Bowl matchup on New Year’s Day against ninth-ranked Oklahoma State, another Big 12 opponent the Irish have never faced before.
Brian Kelly, now at LSU, used to sit in on quarterback meetings with Rees just to make sure everything was going the way it should. Even during the October bye week that launched an impressive stretch drive for the 11-1 Irish, Kelly’s stamp on the offense was at least as prominent as that of Rees.
New coach Marcus Freeman comes from a defensive background, which only adds to the newfound freedom Rees is experiencing in these bowl preparations.
“He’s probably 60-40, still slanted toward the defense,” Rees said this week in a media session. “As the game plan stuff started, [he’s] probably a little bit more back with the defense than with us.”
If you want to know what Notre Dame’s offense might look like next year, take a good look at the play calls Rees makes against the stingy Cowboys. Not only will the Irish be without leading rusher Kyren Williams, their high-energy captain who opted out of the bowl game to prepare for the NFL Draft, but freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner figures to get an even longer look than normal as graduate transfer Jack Coan wraps up his one-and-done experience in a gold helmet.
Former USC quarterback Kedon Slovis, who announced his transfer to Pittsburgh on Tuesday, told a Trojan-centric podcast that Notre Dame was the first school to contact him after he entered the transfer portal on Dec. 12. Slovis, who passed for 554 combined yards but lost both starts against the Irish, has two years of eligibility left.
A Slovis arrival might have pushed Buchner back into a special-package cameo role, but now the floor is wide-open again for the run-first quarterback from San Diego to put his Tim Tebow-esque mark on the offense. If that means an uptick in called runs and quick screens to speedy receivers like Lorenzo Styles Jr. and Deion Colzie, well, that makes plenty of sense for a young pilot still polishing his footwork and release to gain better accuracy.
“Ty has a grasp of our system and what we’re running,” Rees said. “There’s a couple things that are in the game plan that are specific [to Coan]. Outside of that, Tyler really has to know the full plan. That just speaks volumes about him and his preparation and his capacity to mentally handle everything.”
Freshman back Logan Diggs, who averaged 4.8 yards per carry in spot duty this year, should get more chances against the Cowboys. Chris Tyree, slowed by turf toe much of the year, figures to take up the slack in the passing game, where Williams’ 42 catches were tied for second on the team.
The biggest void Williams leaves, besides his leadership, is his pro-ready blitz-pickup skills. Rees said he’s already challenged the remaining backs to step up and keep extra pass rushers away from Coan and Buchner.
Even after losing quarterback Ian Book and 80 percent of his offensive line to the NFL, Rees’ second edition of the Notre Dame offense averaged 35.3 points and was tied for 20th in the nation.
The running attack rallied after a miserable start and finished 65th nationally with 4.25 yards per carry. Through the air, Notre Dame suffered just nine interceptions and ranks 32nd at 8.3 yards per attempt but is tied for 98th with 33 sacks allowed.
Losing Williams hurts, but Rees believes the Irish can take up the slack.
“We feel like we have other backs that possess a similar skill set, both run and pass,” Rees said. “So we don’t want to change a whole lot based on that.”