Tommy Rees' college career has been anything but conventional. At different stages of his Notre Dame tenure, Rees has been hailed as a rookie savior, a turnover machine and an elite closer. He led the Irish as a freshman to their first victory at rival USC in 10 years. He took over for Dayne Crist in Game 1 of a sophomore season that ended with 20 turnovers. He saved three of the Irish's first six games during their undefeated regular season in his junior campaign.
He has been arrested and booed by his home crowd, too.
Now, through circumstances beyond his control, Rees enters his final year as the odds-on favorite to open the 2013 season as Notre Dame's starting quarterback. His 18 career starts are 18 more than any other signal-caller on the roster, and he has a chance to enhance his complicated legacy by leading a team coming off a BCS title game appearance.
"It's tough, but you definitely don't take anything for granted," Rees said April 19, when asked about approaching his senior year. "You come out there every day excited because you never know when your last practice might be. And the group of guys that I've come through with and developed with, it's exciting and it's bittersweet, but we've got a lot of time left here and we're looking forward to a really good season."
Rees will likely be a big key if the Irish are to have that kind of season, though coach Brian Kelly was noncommittal about naming a starter during a Tuesday conference call that addressed the school suspension of Everett Golson this fall. The fourth-year Irish coach said that Rees, redshirt junior Andrew Hendrix and true freshman Malik Zaire would all have opportunities to compete for the No. 1 role.
"It’s certainly going to be a challenge -- he was our starting quarterback, he started in the national championship game," Kelly said of moving forward without Golson. "But we’re very fortunate that we’ve got experienced quarterbacks in Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix. … These guys have been in the program now, they’ve been with us going on our fourth year. We have great relationships, a great understanding of our offense."
Rees has embodied Kelly's count-on-me mantra every step of the way. He has won the team's official Next Man In award twice in his first three years with the program, and the mentality that has earned him that hardware is the same one that can help minimize concern about Golson's departure.
"It's a team game; there can only be one quarterback," Rees said last month. "But all four of us go out there and compete like we want to be the guy. And we've done a good job balancing that out, and the coaches have done a good job of communicating and splitting the reps. I feel really good about the spring. I think all of us got better and all of us have been the best we have been, and I'm excited to move forward."
No one will mistake Rees' arm strength and agility with those of Golson, but the aspiring coach has the football IQ to overcome those deficiencies. Coaches and players talked last season about nuances that Rees would point out to Golson on the sideline and in the locker room during games, part of a relationship that carried over from when the two roomed in camp -- time that Golson used to ultimately win the job.
Now the opportunity is there for Rees to step in again, to prove that the "Turnover Tommy" moniker from 2011 is a thing of the past and that he can effectively guide a team with BCS aspirations for an extended period of time.
"Tommy knows exactly what the expectations are for him," Kelly said Tuesday. "He was a huge part of our undefeated season. He’s going to be a part of this season as well. He knows what we expect of him on a day-to-day basis. And just like a guy who can’t make tackles, you're probably not going to be on the field if you can’t tackle, and you’re probably not going to be on the field if you throw interceptions -- whether you’re Tommy Rees or Malik Zaire or Everett Golson. So that’s pretty established within our program as to what the expectations are."