Still growingHe takes a lot of heat for a guy that's 3-0 and set single game passing records in his only extended backup appearance.
Such is life for a Notre Dame quarterback that doesn't look the part or have enough stars attached to his high school resume.
Tommy Rees will make his fourth start tomorrow. His third start was the roughest of his opening set. Then again, with significant help from the running game, he did help the Irish upset USC, something his four predecessors had failed to do in a collective eight attempts.
How does head coach Brian Kelly feel about his young passer heading into a matchup with the nation's No. 2 ranked pass defense?
"The one thing that Tommy has been able to get is real experience," Kelly began. "Three weeks of watching film and looking at (his) mistakes at USC, it's been a great teaching time for him; you can slow things down a little bit and really look at all the things he's capable of doing and things that he can do better.
"I probably feel as confident in his development as any player because he's had that real experience in those (previous games)," Kelly continued. "So going into this game, Tommy has to be part of the equation. We can't go in there and say ‘Well, he just has to distribute or manage the game.' Tommy has to play well and if we're to win this football game he's got to use the experience he's gained and go play the way he's capable."
For that to happen, Notre Dame has to enjoy continued excess in the running game. And if you think that's sportswriter supposition, consider the following:
- Notre Dame finished 0-4 in 2010 when passed for more than 300 yards.
- The Irish finished 4-0 when the offense ran more than it passed. 5-0 if you include the near 50/50 split (34/32) at USC.
- ND finished 1-4 when attempting 40 or more passes (in each they attempted at least 45). The only win occurred vs. Boston College – the nation's top ranked rush defense.
"In any game that you play, you've got to be able to (run the football)," Kelly said. "We're not a one-dimensional football team, and when we were, we lost. We're finding ourselves as well."
To the rescueInterim head coach Jeff Stoutland had the unenviable task of leading his former boss's players through the bowl season. One of three current assistants to be retained by incoming Miami head coach Al Golden, Stoutland considered the last month to be an honor…and a challenge.
"As coaches, most of us played college football, high school football. I was fortunate I happened to be a captain of my high school and my college team.
"Whenever you're put in a situation (replacing the fired Randy Shannon) that might not be the most comfortable, you kind of reach inside a little deeper. And when the timing is there, some really good things can happen," Stoutland began of his experience at the helm.
"The one thing we did from Day One was work on academics. We wanted every single player to be eligible for this bowl game. In Week One I said ‘I don't even want to look at film right now; I want everybody to focus on finish (finals).' We did that and moved onto the practice phase."
(Miami ranks as the AFCA's co-defending champions in terms of graduation rate – tying Notre Dame for a 100 percent mark regarding players who enrolled in school in 2002).
"I told them, ‘We're all in this together, that's the only chance we have,' Stoutland said of the sometimes dysfunctional role of an interim leader. "And I thank the coaches and the players from the bottom of my heart, because we had no incidents; no one splitting from the team. To me that's a sign of guys caring about each other…it was definitely a challenge."
Kelly came away from his Sun Bowl experience with a better understanding of the program his will encounter in future seasons.
"I think I learned more about the coaches than the players; you don't get the interaction with the players," Kelly said of the teams' shared events of Bowl Week. "But it's no coincidence that Miami shares one of the highest graduation rates, because the coaches that they have care about those things."
As for the renewal of the on-field rivalry, Kelly noted that his players were well aware of the game's magnitude among the Irish fan base…though they view the ‘Canes history from a different angle.
"Whether they remember the Catholics vs. Convict is immaterial," Kelly said of the infamous bad blood that existed between the programs at their collective peak. What (Notre Dame players) remember is the 2001 National Championship for the University of Miami and the great players that come from (Miami). They've been nationally regarded as one of the top programs so that's been exciting for our players."
Personnel updatesStoutland announced today that 8-game starter Jacory Harris would start, but that backup (4-game starter) Stephen Morris would be available. Morris suffered an ankle injury earlier this week.
For the Irish, freshman wide receiver T.J. Jones returns to a starting role. Senior Duval Kamara did not make the trip due to personal reasons. Jones started eight games this season.
"As you know he has been a starter for us. He hit the wall a little bit as a true freshman – about mid-season – but it's really worked out well that now he had a chance to take a step back and now reemerged as the starter," Kelly said. "We feel really good about him. And (junior) John Goodman gives us great flexibility that he can play on either side of the ball (flanker or split end).
Walk-on short snapper Bill Flavin missed the season's final four games due to an ankle injury. He's back in the fold but starting center Braxston Cave is likely to hold onto the snapping role for the Sun Bowl.
"We're not sure whether we'll start Cave or Flavin at that position," Kelly said. "We're probably leaning toward Cave. We were concerned because he injured his hand in the USC game. He's healthy and we think we'll role in that direction but Flavin is ready to go if we need him."
"The NFL has done their evaluations on their draft status. We'll share that information when we get back, with both of them," Kelly offered. "There are so many different factors that go into making that decision: graduation, playing for Notre Dame, wanting to be here…as well as (the fact) that you go to college with hopes of a good job, too."
Recent history suggests that "good job" might be difficult for either to pass up.
The Notre Dame program has had seven true juniors forgo their senior seasons and declare for the NFL Draft: Rocket Ismail (1991), Tom Carter (1992), Jerome Bettis (1993), Bobby Taylor (1995), Darius Walker (2007), Golden Tate (2010) and Jimmy Clausen (2010).