SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s offense might not be as flashy or as productive in 2021, but Tommy Rees isn’t about to concede that now.
As he prepares for Saturday and his first Blue-Gold Game as offensive coordinator, spring ball having ended abruptly last year because of the pandemic, the Lake Forest High School grad vows to keep searching for new ways to keep the Irish prolific.
“Look, I don’t have a family,” Rees, three weeks from turning 29, said recently. “I don’t have many obligations besides this job. So I’m fortunate I’m able to pour a lot of time into studying football. I’ve been around the game my entire life. It’s something I’m extremely passionate about, something I love to do.”
Bill Rees, his father, remains on staff as director of scouting, and the familiarity and trust that come with having played quarterback for coach Brian Kelly a decade ago work in the younger Rees’ favor, as well.
But there’s no denying this will be his greatest challenge.
Record-setting Ian Book, 30-5 in his three years as Notre Dame’s quarterback, is gone. Wisconsin grad transfer Jack Coan is the leading candidate to replace him.
Four multiyear starters off one of the nation’s top offensive lines have departed.
Tight end Tommy Tremble, a beastly blocker, was a surprise early applicant to the NFL Draft, and the combined 71 catches and eight touchdowns of last year’s wide receiver tandem of Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek must be replaced.
Even with a one-year crack at a full ACC schedule, Rees’ first outfit as coordinator dropped 17 spots in the national scoring rankings. Thirteenth nationally at 36.8 points per game in Chip Long’s final season, Notre Dame dipped to 30th and 33.4 points per game in Rees’ debut season.
No one must explain this to the fertile young mind at the controls.
“This year it’s a new team — completely new team,” Rees said. “We understand wholeheartedly we do not have the offensive line that we had last year. We’re going to have to create opportunities to be efficient but also create explosive [plays].”
Troubles in the red zone in 2020 are being addressed. Rees is reminding his new crop of quarterbacks, including five-star freshman Tyler Buchner, that there’s nothing wrong with completing a pass short of the goal line.
Losing Tremble hurts, but Rees already is scheming to get as many single-coverage looks as possible for rising sophomore tight end Michael Mayer, a matchup nightmare who quickly earned the nickname Baby Gronk.
Rees didn’t hesitate when asked if a tight end could be the focal point of his reconfigured offense.
“It was in 2012, I can tell you that,” he said, referencing Tyler Eifert and the 50-catch season that helped Notre Dame reach the BCS title game. “I don’t see why it should be any different in terms of being able to feature someone. Last year was only a brief glimpse of how good this kid can be.”
Kyren Williams is coming off an 1,125-yard rushing season, but his skills as a receiver (35 catches) will be highlighted even more. Look for Williams and/or Mayer to line up in the slot frequently as Rees seeks to stretch the field horizontally as much as vertically.
Coan isn’t nearly as mobile as Book, but he does stand in the pocket better, so look for more short drops and quick-release plays that should take some pressure off that youthful group up front.
And don’t be surprised if Buchner, an “elite athlete” in Rees’ estimation, forces his way onto the field as the season moves along.
“Everybody has their core beliefs and [says] this is what we’re going to do,” Rees said. “But as you study different people and what they’re doing, the creativity and the ideas start to flow. What can fit our personnel? How can we apply that to the system that’s in place?”
Rees, a football junkie with nothing but time, vows to keep searching.
“That,” he said, “is going to be never-ending for me.”