SOUTH BEND -- Chuck Martin paused, switched his mental hard drive to the defensive side of the ball — where he had spent so much of his college coaching career — and paused again.
“That’s a good question,” Martin mulled when asked recently whether refurbished Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees’ arm strength had progressed to the point that opposing defenses and their coordinators were going to respect it.
“(As a) defensive guy, would I respect Tommy Rees’ arm strength?” said Martin, entering his second year as the Irish offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.
That’s not to say that the tsunami of chatter about the emergence of a true Tommy Rees version 2.0 is more embellishment than genuine, but it does underscore what’s been percolating since 2012 starter Everett Golson’s academic misconduct bubbled out of the rumor stage and into reality one late Saturday night in May:
Rees is the ultimate wild card in a 2013 season that kicks off at home Saturday (3:30 p.m. EDT) against Temple.
More than the bushel of turn-key freshmen like Greg Bryant, Tarean Folston, Jaylon Smith, Cole Luke, Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson. More than a surging Ishaq Williams, DaVaris Daniels, Nick Martin and Sheldon Day. More than any of the few dangling question marks or possible potholes of misfortune.
Even with what appears to be an impressive array of star-powered absolutes on the defensive and offensive lines, the 6-foot-2, 215-pound senior quarterback is the variable, for better or worse, that could just as likely point the 14th-ranked Irish postseason destination toward Shreveport as he could to New Orleans.
“I don't think the story's written,” Irish fourth-year head coach Brian Kelly said of Rees’ ceiling. “I think you write the story after he completes his journey here at Notre Dame, and you know what? It could be a really interesting story.”
The most compelling chapter to this point has been how Rees handled being No. 2 last year. Given Rees’ over-the-top unselfishness after his demotion in 2012, it would seem like he’d be due some positive boomerang karma. Even as Golson is serving a university-imposed suspension/expulsion until mid-January, Rees has been in regular contact, offering words of encouragement.
“The progression Everett had at the end of the year had a lot to do with being young and (then) growing up, “ Martin said, “but it (also) had a lot to do with he started trusting Tommy.
“(Rees) was a backup quarterback. He was an assistant coach. He kind of made everything go. If he had taken a different stance, the season’s probably completely different. It could have easily ruined the whole deal for everybody.”
Now his destiny is back in his own hands — and so is Notre Dame’s.
“I think he's had a great camp,” Kelly said. “I think he's really developed his skill, which I think is very important as part of this story because, look, we could talk about the off-field stuff (helping Golson), and that's really neat. But that doesn't help our football team win games (in 2013).
“He had to develop his skill in the offseason, and I've seen tangible evidence of it every day in practice in the way he is throwing the football, getting us in the right place. Now I want to see it on Saturday. So I think, at the end of this season, we could have a really good story about Tommy Rees.”
Right now he is a jumble of contradicting numbers, of uncanny guile and guts, of tangibly better footwork and decision-making in practice — perhaps the most stark contrast to the Rees whose fade at the 2011 season was so pronounced that it opened the door for Golson to leapfrog him the following summer.
“One, he’s really taken the past couple of years, particularly this past offseason, to improve physically,” Martin said of Rees. “Is he still on the short end of size, strength and speed? Yeah, that’s never going to change, but he’s better.
“Two, I think he has more confidence in his ability to move, so I think some of the things that maybe he felt two years ago, when he was our every-down starter that he kind of accepted about his game, he’s not accepting about his game (now) in that he was a sitting duck all the time. ....
“Now, does he look like Everett back there flying around? No, nor will he ever, but if you were there every day with us, you would see OK, he’s making plays for us, scrambling and making plays. He ran a ball in the end zone. It was like a 14-yard touchdown run. I don’t think he makes that play two years ago. I don’t think he would have CHOSEN to make that run, let alone whether he could have.”