Analysis: Breaking Down Tommy Rees To Offensive Coordinator
As expected, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has promoted quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees to offensive coordinator. Like I’ve done with other “candidates” for the position let’s take a look at the pros and cons of this move.
THE REES RESUME
Evaluating Rees’ resume for this position must begin back in 2010 when he was a freshman quarterback for Kelly. That is when the connection between Kelly and Rees began, and what Rees showed intellectually and as an on-the-field leader during his playing career obviously made an impression on the Irish head coach.
After his playing career concluded, Rees began his coaching career as a graduate assistant coach at Northwestern. The Wildcats went 10-3 that season but averaged just 19.5 points and 327.1 yards per game.
The following season Rees was an offensive assistant for the San Diego Chargers, where he worked with veteran coaches Mike McCoy and Ken Whisenhunt. The wide receivers coach for the Chargers that season was Nick Sirianni, who is now the offensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts. The Chargers ranked fifth in the AFC in points per game and seventh in yards per game.
Rees spent the last three seasons coaching the quarterbacks at Notre Dame. In 2018, quarterback Ian Book set a program record by completing 68.2-percent of his passes. In 2019, Book became the first Irish coaching to pass for over 3,000 yards and rush for over 500 yards.
Notre Dame has gone 33-6 the last three seasons with Rees on staff.
There are certainly strong opinions about this hire for Notre Dame, ranging from extreme frustration or disappointment to excitement, and everything in between. Whatever side of the argument you land on, there is certainly a legitimate discussion to have about this hire, and strong arguments to make for Rees being the hire, or why Notre Dame should have gone in a different direction.
Let’s look first at the reasons why this hire makes a lot of sense for Notre Dame.
Timing — It’s obvious Kelly is very high on Rees as a coach. That was evident when he made the 24-year old his quarterbacks coach prior to the 2017 season. Rees becoming the offensive coordinator at Notre Dame seemed inevitable. Anyone that studied him as a player had to know that he would eventually become a coach, and that he would likely be quite successful.
Timing for a coach can be so important, especially when the role is one of authority, which the offensive coordinator is. When you take jobs you want to make sure it is a place that gives you the best chance at being successful. A smart coach can find himself starting over if he makes the wrong decision.
Just ask Bret Beilema, Rich Rodriguez, Randy Edsall and Tom O’Brien about that from a negative standpoint. Former LSU pass game coordinator Joe Brady is a positive example of that. If he takes the job a year later after Joe Burrow departed Baton Rouge the odds are strong we aren’t talking about the young coach setting the college football world on fire. That’s the positive example.
There are two ways to look at the timing of this hire, and one of them is incredibly favorable for Rees. In fact, it’s perfect for Rees, who enters his first year as a coordinator and just his fourth as a full-time assistant coach. Notre Dame will have five starting offensive linemen returning next season, it returns a 23-game starter (with a 20-3 record) at quarterback that is quite familiar with Rees, and there is a lot of talent returning at the skill positions.
Notre Dame also has a lot coming back on defense, and that unit is led by on the best coordinators in the country in Clark Lea. The Irish defense should once again be very good next season.
If this happened a year from now then Rees would be walking into a situation where the Irish were replacing a 36-game starter at quarterback and at least three starting offensive lineman, and the odds are quite strong that athletic directors from around the country will be knocking down the door at Notre Dame in an attempt to hire Lea as their next head coach.
That is not the kind of situation you want a 28-year old first-time coordinator to walk into. The present situation is much, much better for Rees.
System Continuity — Kelly has always been a fan of continuity. He made that case when he promoted Lea after former defensive coordinator Mike Elko departed for Texas A&M. The Rees and Lea resumes aren’t similar, but the continuity aspect of this is the same. Kelly clearly wants to keep things the same, and he wants to build on the 2019 offense, which averaged 36.8 points per game and ranked 25th nationally in offensive efficiency, instead of overhauling it or changing it.
By staying within the program it is guaranteed that many things won’t change for the players, which increases the comfort level and means less mental work. That means the focus this spring can be on enhancing technique, not learning a new system. Book gets to keep the same position coach, and now the position coach he trusts so much is leading the entire offense. Book knows how Rees likes things to be done and Rees knows what Book does well, and what he doesn’t do well.
There will be no new terminology for the players to learn, a new coach won’t have to adapt and adjust what he wants to the players, and the assistant coaches won’t have to learn new things a coordinator from the outside would want to install. All of that is already in place, which will make for a smooth transition for the players and staff.
Football Knowledge — If you’re going to hire a young, unproven and inexperienced coach he better be really, really smart, and Tommy Rees is really, really smart. Anyone that I’ve ever spoken with about Rees, who has been around him for any period of time, will tell you he knows the game and is quite advanced for his age.
Spending just a little bit of time around him at the Notre Dame Coaches Clinic and observing Rees in practice this is obvious. When you watch Rees in practice he is not shy, he doesn’t sit back and let things play out, which many young coaches do. He’s vocal and active in practice, and he clearly has a great deal of confidence as a coach.
Rees will certainly have a strong foundation to build upon as he adds experience in this role.
Greater All-Around Staff Involvement — As a head coach, when you make this kind of hire you don’t just install a 27-year old into the OC role and say, “Good luck.” This kind of move impacts the entire staff. It’s like when you install a freshman quarterback into the lineup. You know he has the talent and tools to lead your team, but now the offensive line, skill players and even the defense have to up their game to take the pressure off the rookie quarterback.
The same thing applies here. Offensive line coach Jeff Quinn has been with Kelly longer than anyone on the staff, having spent 22 years as Kelly’s offensive coordinator at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati. He will be a great resource for Rees. Wide receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander has been a coach for 23 years; he is someone Rees can lean on. There is another position coach spot to be filled, and adding a veteran to the staff would be an asset for Rees.
Then there is running backs coach Lance Taylor, who was promoted to run game coordinator the same day Rees was promoted to offensive coordinator. Taylor staying on staff means he’s on board with the latest moves, and that means he’ll be willing to work side by side with Rees.
Assuming his promotion is genuine, Taylor brings a lot to the staff. One of the reasons I wanted Kelly to go outside the program was I felt Notre Dame needed new ideas. It needed a shake up offensively, especially in the pass game. Notre Dame needs to adjust its pass concepts in order to become a more explosive offense, and it needs to do a better job creating more cohesion between the run game and pass game.
If Rees is willing to lean on Taylor and they can form a strong coaching bond, this is another area that Taylor can bring tremendous value to the staff.
Taylor is the running backs coach and run game coordinator, but he was a wide receivers coach in the NFL for three seasons and played the position at Alabama. Taylor also worked for David Shaw (Stanford), Norv Turner (Carolina Panthers) and Brian Schottenheimer (NY Jets), which gives him a far more diverse background, having worked with a number of excellent football minds. Taylor could very well be the coach that brings the “outside ideas” to the staff, assuming he’s given that kind of authority.
Upside — Sometimes a coach will recruit a player who might not be ready to play as a freshman, but he has tremendous upside, so you take a chance on him. Sometimes you play a talented young player, not knowing what he’ll do, because you know he has the potential and upside to be really good.
Most head coaches aren’t willing to take that kind of chance on a coach, but Kelly is showing a willingness to do just that. The reality is no one knows how this will pan out. Not Kelly, not me, not any of Rees’ detractors and not any of his supporters. It could blow up in Kelly’s face, or Rees could reward Kelly’s confidence and loyalty, and make his boss look like a genius. It all depends on how quickly Rees can adapt to the job, which goes far beyond just play-calling.
Kelly is betting on Rees’ talent and potential meshing well with a veteran staff and a veteran football team. If you’re going to take a chance on a young coach, you do it with someone who you know as well as Kelly knows Rees, and you do it on someone that you believe has a lot of potential and upside as a coach. I don’t think anyone can make a case that Rees doesn’t possess a great deal of potential as a coach.
Recruiting Potential — One of the best things former offensive coordinator Chip Long brought to the program was outstanding recruiting ability. The talent Notre Dame added since Long arrived has been outstanding, and the roster is in great position for Rees to make a smooth transition because of the job Long and the offensive staff did the last three years.
Rees quickly adapted to recruiting. I did an interview with 2020 signee Jordan Johnson back when he was a sophomore and Rees was still a first-year coach. Johnson raved about Rees back then, and recruits now sing his praises. Rees can relate well to players, and his own background as a player at Notre Dame certainly allows him to make a strong recruiting pitch for his alma mater.
Rees will have to learn how to develop a broad recruiting plan that fits what they want to do on offense. That’s a huge part of being a successful coordinator. He’ll have help doing that, but he needs to be able to get that done. At that point he’ll need to be a strong individual recruiter, and Rees has the tools to thrive in this area, and if he does that he’ll have a very talented roster to work with the next few years.
Of course, there are potential negatives to this hire as well.
Timing — While Rees taking over such an experienced and talented roster is great for him, the counter argument is that is exactly why he should not have been hired, at least not yet. Hiring a more established and successful coach and giving him the roster Rees is inheriting was a proposition many, including myself, were attracted to.
It’s not an anti-Rees sentiment at all. The vast majority of people I speak with that are against this hire right now admit that Rees is someone they’d eventually like to see at Notre Dame. This is about understanding the opportunity that is in front of Notre Dame in 2020. The roster and schedule are such that Notre Dame has a legitimate chance to compete for a national title in 2020.
Now, Notre Dame will go into the season looking to accomplish that with a 27-year old (he’ll be 28 before the season starts), first-year coordinator that has been a college assistant coach for just three seasons. While many will point to the Brady situation at LSU, the reality is Brady brought the ideas, but he didn’t call the plays. That was left to 61-year old offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger.
System Continuity — Scheme continuity might be good for the players from a mental standpoint, but is scheme continuity going to be what gets Notre Dame over the hump? Maybe, but based on the last decade it’s understandable to question that.
Notre Dame has averaged just 24.7 points per game against ranked opponents in the last decade, a number that falls to 23.5 points per game against ranked Power 5 opponents. Notre Dame averaged just 24.0 points per game against teams that finish ranked in the Top 15 and just 21.2 points per game against opponents that finish ranked in the Top 10. The Irish have averaged just 11.3 points per game in three games against Top 10 teams with Book at quarterback and Rees as the quarterbacks coach.
Only once (2015) has Notre Dame shown the ability to move the ball and score against the best teams on the schedule. The 2017 offense had some big moments against highly ranked teams (49 points vs. Top 15 USC and 38 points vs. Top 15 Michigan State), but it also failed late in the season in losses to Miami and Stanford.
There are a number of reasons why the offense came up short in so many big moments, but overall the offense has lacked the explosiveness to thrive against better teams. The offense has often lacked the creativity and diversity to thrive in the bigger moments, from both a schematic, philosophical and execution standpoint. Notre Dame has rarely done enough schematically to really stress the better teams, often simply relying on having better players to get the job done.
This was the justification behind me being so adamant that an outside voice/mind was needed in 2020. If Taylor can fill that void, and if Kelly fills out the staff with another assistant that brings that to the table, Notre Dame could still get this, but the point is simply doing what they’ve been doing won’t result in Notre Dame taking the next step as a program.
A Lack Of Coaching Experience — There is no debating Rees’ football knowledge, but knowledge is only a part of the equation when talking about being ready for this kind of role. Overall coaching experience is vital to success as a coordinator, and that is something Rees lacks, and there is no way around that.
Play-calling experience isn’t something I put as much value on. I’ve always believed if you have the chops you have the chops, but that also comes with coaching experience. The reason I felt Lea would thrive as the defensive coordinator, even though he had never held that role, was that he was groomed by a number of coordinators that are well-respected in the game (DeWayne Walker, Scott Shafer, Mike Elko).
Lea had been an assistant coach (non-GA) for 11 years, and that experience gave him plenty of opportunity to learn what goes into being a top coordinator, which comes through success and failure. It comes through multiple learning experiences (Lea coached at five different schools before coming to Notre Dame), it comes from working in a number of different systems.
Rees lacks that experience. He’s been a coach for just four seasons, and three of those are in the Kelly system, which is the same system he played in. He lacks the depth of experience that so many coaches rely on when building an offense or defense. You’ll hear story after story from coordinators who will bring up something they did a long time ago that they went to in a key situation. Rees won’t have that experience in 2020. It will come in time, but again, Notre Dame has a lot at stake in 2020, and it’s not the ideal time to have a coaching cutting his teeth.
I expect Rees to be a fast study as a play-caller, but that is not at the top of the “must have” list when evaluating a coordinator. There is so much work that goes into building an offense in the offseason and during the season, and if a coach isn’t great in those areas it doesn’t matter how good of a play-caller he is. I could write a couple thousand word article talking about what a coordinator must do to be successful without writing a single word about play-calling. Play-calling is the byproduct of all the other traits, and Rees has very little experience in these areas.
There is nothing Kelly can do about this, he made this decision knowing Rees lacks that experience. He chose to bypass coaches with far more experience, and experience of success, to promote a young coach that is quite green. My guess is Kelly is going to rely on the experience the rest of his staff brings to the table in hopes of overcoming what Rees lacks.
The key to this working is Rees being willing to learn from those around him. That means leaning on the knowledge and experience of coaches like Taylor, Quinn, Alexander and whoever the final offensive hire is. It means sometimes deferring to those assistants, both out of season, during the week of preparation and during games. Of course, Rees must also be convicted in what he’s doing, but he must be willing to be open to leaning on his assistants much more than coordinators usually do.
Another part of this is Rees must now juggle coaching quarterbacks with running the entire offense, which is not an easy task, especially when there is so much work that needs to be done with continuing to develop the starter, but especially when it comes to developing the young quarterbacks on the roster.
This is a risky move by Kelly, and I suspect to some degree he knows that. He clearly has a great deal of confidence in Rees and the rest of the staff. Of course, Kelly is another resource that Rees can lean on, and hopefully this is the kind of move that reignites Kelly and gets him back to being more involved in the day-to-day football aspects of the team.
There is potential for success with this hire, even immediately. Rees and Long have completely different personalities, and perhaps Rees taking over will provide a spark for the talented roster he inherits. Perhaps Notre Dame can catch lightning in a bottle and the offensive staff can build a unit that can score over 40 points per game, and be much better against the best teams on the schedule.
Right now, I believe this was a missed opportunity for Kelly. Doing what it takes to bring in a coach like Joe Moorhead or Todd Monken, to me, would have been a much better move for 2020. Those are two veteran coaches who have a proven track record of building truly elite offenses, and Notre Dame has a chance to build that kind of offense in 2020.
Kelly decided to go in a different direction. He knows what’s at stake, so him making this move tells me he truly believes Rees is ready to not just be a coordinator, but to be a successful coordinator of a team that is competing to win a national championship.
Today, January 15, I believe there were better options, and it has nothing to do with a dislike for Rees. He’s a coach with a great deal of talent and potential. My issue is all about timing and opportunity.
A year from now we’ll be able to look back and evaluate further whether this was the right move or not. If Notre Dame is 10-2 again and fails to make the playoff the critics of Kelly will point to this move as a big part of that reason. If Rees is a quick study, and if Rees is more ready for this than I believe, the offense will be elite, the Irish will get back to the Playoff and both Kelly and Rees will look like geniuses, and people like me who so harshly criticized this decision will look foolish.
One thing all Notre Dame fans should agree on and rally around is the possibility that in a year from now the staff will be able to point to my criticism, shake their heads, laugh and say, “You were so wrong.” If that happens it means Notre Dame fans just experienced a fun and exciting season that saw the Irish offense score a lot of points and win some big-time games.