Improved Rees finally enjoys a 'debut'

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tommy Rees stood on the sideline during the game's final minutes, laughing it up with Dan Fox and other teammates while donning a visor and watching Andrew Hendrix lead the Notre Dame offense on its final drive.

He received the post-game television treatment as the game's marquee player, was the recipient of a handful of high-fives on the way up the Notre Dame Stadium tunnel and even made one fan's day by tossing him a towel before disappearing into the locker room.

The senior's debut, or re-debut, or whatever you want to call it at this point (re-re-debut? re-re-re-debut?), could not have gone any differently from his last three home openers, particularly last year's.

And though it is just one game, and it was just a 28-6 win over a Temple team that probably stuck around longer than it should have, Saturday provided a breath of fresh air for a program that has dealt with quarterback uncertainty in one form or another throughout Brian Kelly's previous three years.

"I think we answered a lot of those questions right away with his ability to push the ball down the field," Kelly said. "I thought his patience was better, and it will continue to get better. So I was pleased with his performance, and he knows he can play better."

Rees had one of the top performances of his career against the Owls. He completed five of his first six passes, with the only incompletion coming on a balancing act from DaVaris Daniels that landed just outside the hashmark. He finished the day 16 of 23 for a career-high 346 yards with three touchdowns. He did not turn the ball over. He was sacked just once.

"We had hoped he'd throw the ball to us once or twice, and he didn't," Temple coach Matt Rhule said. "He maybe had one overthrow. But he didn't give us any throws.

"He's a poised player. He understands their system. Some of our guys, we were showing the blitz, and we showed it, and he checked. So he's obviously well coached in that system."

That was evident to more than just Rhule in his head-coaching debut. Just ask captain TJ Jones, whose six catches for 138 yards made him the main beneficiary of Rees' strong outing.

"I think this year he was just a lot more comfortable at his position," Jones said. "He owned it. He owned the offense. He owned his checks. He was confident in knowing what the defense was going to do before they did it, and it allowed him to kind of just play football. It wasn't as much thinking; he was a lot more relaxed."

How so?

"You can sense his body language," Jones said. "The speed at which he makes checks when he reads the defenses. And when the ball's in the air -- he puts the ball away from the defenders. He knows where they're going to be and how to get the ball away from them."

Rees improved his career record as a starter to 15-4, and he was able to get his coach his 200th career victory on a day Kelly also received a five-year contract extension.

In the locker room after the contest, Kelly received a surprise game-ball from the man who led him to the first of those wins back in 1991, former Grand Valley State signal caller Jack Hull.

Irish sports information director Michael Bertsch had invited Hull earlier in the week, with the current investment adviser making the short trip with his wife and kids from St. Charles, Ill.

Hull, who was a redshirt senior during his year under Kelly, joked that the coach's infamous red-faced tirades are no different now than they were two decades ago, and that it wasn't long before he learned, like all of Notre Dame's quarterbacks have, that the only way to avoid them is to not mess up.

"That's kind of the 'it' thing that he kind of has," Hull said. "He kind of gets it from a football standpoint: If you can't do it, he's not going to force it, and he's going to figure out a different way to get it done."

Never might that be more evident than this season, as Rees entered camp as the unquestioned starter only after Everett Golson got booted from school for the semester after a 12-1 season.

Whether it was replacing an injured Dayne Crist or an ineffective Dayne Crist, whether it was throwing too many interceptions or coughing up too many fumbles, whether it was replacing Golson fresh off a suspension with boos raining down from the stands, Rees had yet to have a clean entrance as a starter.

That changed Saturday. The improved Tommy Rees that everyone had been hearing about throughout preseason camp was finally on display for all to see. And that could mean more special things for the Irish this year, though the man who holds their fate tighter than most is not about to say he told you so.

"No, none of that," Rees said of extra gratification given all he has gone through. "The pleasure for me was being able to go out there and play well enough to get a W. Playing for my teammates, playing for the coaches, playing for the University, the student body was great out there. They had unbelievable support. There is no added benefit for me for some of the hard times I've fallen on, but it's gone well."