Pass protection strong for Irish early

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tommy Rees is not the most mobile of quarterbacks. This does not exactly qualify as breaking news. But Rees has stayed on his feet more than most this season.

Notre Dame has surrendered just three sacks in three games. By comparison, Everett Golson, a far more elusive signal caller, took seven sacks through three games last year, including five in a Week 2 win over Purdue.

Coach Brian Kelly is pleased with the improved pass-protection this year, citing a number of factors for the early production.

"It's been really good," Kelly said. "I think we've been able to maintain a consistency obviously at that end of things with the development of our tight end and Troy Niklas' ability. As you know, last year he struggled at times. I think the Stanford game was one where he got beat a couple times. I think that has helped us a lot."

The Irish broke in two new starters up front this year, just like last year. The offensive line, Kelly said, benefits from facing preseason All-America defensive lineman Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt every day in practice, though both players were starters last year, too, albeit not as far along in their development.

The biggest factor this time around may be the man under center, regardless of the lack of run threat with Rees in the backfield.

"Tommy gets us into the right protections nine out of 10 times," Kelly said, "whereas last year, Everett was still learning and sometimes he wasn't able to slide the right way and give us the best look possible."

Much of that likely comes down to veteran savvy and communication skills -- Rees entered this season as a senior with 18 career starts under his belt, including 14 with the left side of the line, Zack Martin and Chris Watt, two of his roommates. Golson, meanwhile, had never taken a college snap before last year.

Rees has attempted 107 passes this season. Through three games last year, Golson has attempted 81 throws.

Though early, very early, the Irish are currently in a 22-way tie for 18th in the nation in sacks allowed. And they overcame a rough start last year to finish 28th nationally in that category, shoring up communication mishaps and surrendering just 11 sacks over their final 10 games.

The biggest test will come this Saturday, against a top-ranked Michigan State defense that has tallied nine sacks through three games.

"You've got to be able to protect your quarterback," Kelly said. "Again, you've got to play tough, physical football for four quarters. You've got to take care of the football. All of the little things matter in matchups like this."