Senior quarterback Tommy Rees has earned his first career opening game start. That effort and 12 games thereafter will determine his legacy after a career of remarkable highs and lows.

An interception that proved costly on career pass No. 1. A four-game winning streak to save a season. An inspired, albeit flawed and futile effort in relief to begin the next. 20 seconds from hero status in the Big House. An uneven 11-game run through a frustrating 2011 season thereafter.

An arrest. Embarrassment, suspension, exile.

Riding to the rescue beneath a chorus of boos. A nearly perfect season of relief.

And now, the unquestioned senior starting quarterback for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

If the past is prologue, Tommy Rees and Irish fans everywhere are in for a rough ride in 2013.

But if his head coach Brian Kelly is correct, and if Rees' self-evaluation, sense of self-improvement, and self-confidence are to be believed, and if Notre Dame is again "a program" rather than a school that randomly produces good football teams, the full Tommy Rees legacy will rank among the most uneven, vexing, and ultimately inspiring in Irish lore.

But first, he has to help his team start 1-0.

"We're really focused on Temple. We want to get Media Day behind us, get through tomorrow's practice, and getting into the game plan next week."

After watching friend Dayne Crist earn the starting nod twice, and last year Everett Golson from across the pond, the upcoming home opener against the Owls offers the long-time contributor his first opening day nod. Not that the moment or any of the myriad in prime time vs. top tier foes should bother him.

"He doesn't get overwhelmed with the moment," said offensive coordinator Chuck Martin. "He went in as a freshman and beat USC (in Los Angeles). And you've known Tommy long enough to know, it's just his demeanor. He has that even-keel demeanor. Throw the ball down and let's play. He's that kind of guy."

Kelly's Constant

Rees' 14-4 record as a starter over the last three seasons doesn't fully illustrate his impact over the 39-game Kelly era.

Whether in emergency relief, long relief, or as the lead triggerman under center, Rees has contributed greatly to 18 wins, 7 losses, and perhaps most important, three consecutive comeback victories (Purdue, Michigan, and Stanford 2012) after twice before failing to pull out the W (Tulsa 2010 and USF 2011) off the bench.

That's a healthy 25-game impact heading into his final season, one that promises a 13-game run as the lead quarterback if in good health this fall.

Pressed to pinpoint his strengths, Rees first deferred, then offered, "I think I really understand the game of football. I'm fairly accurate throwing the ball, I can take a hit, I'm pretty tough, and at the end of the day I can be a leader and someone the guys can turn to to rally the team."

Part of that leadership is his preparation. Always conscientious between the lines and in the film room, Rees added off-season diet and increased weight room dedication to his repertoire.

"He lifted more than he has and he definitely watched what he ate all summer, making healthy stuff," said roommate and returning captain Zack Martin. "He's added a little strength out there. I'd say the biggest thing is when he's on the run, he'll throw a hard ball with some zip on it. That's (a by-product).

"Me and (Chris) Watt would head over to Chipotle and get a burrito and Rees would be grilling chicken and home, trying to be real healthy."

Strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo came to the program in step with Rees and the rest of the senior class. He too has noticed a change, though attributes much of it to a cumulative effect in the program.

"He's another year older, it's to be expected," said Longo. "He'd been a three-sport athlete and never lifted weights. We knew we could get him bigger, stronger, and faster and that would also result in better footwork for the system.

"It's not like he hasn't been working on it for three years, he's been working diligently on it for three years. You're seeing it now in a position (quarterback) that you don't see it quite as much."

The fruits of Rees' labor will begin to play out next Saturday when Temple makes its first visit to the House that Rockne built. Much tougher tests await thereafter, with the ultimate still three months down the road in Palo Alto. The trials he's experienced to date have him well-prepared to handle the moments that await.

"He's probably the most resilient guy that I know," said Martin. "To go through some of the things that he's been through in the last four years is remarkable. The way that he's bounced back and the way that he's accepted is his roles is something that the guys on the team admire. Now he's in a position to be the leader and to lead this offense to a successful season. "

Everyone loves a good comeback story. The conclusion to Rees' will play out between the lines.

"I think he's had a great camp," said Kelly. "I think he's developed his skill, which I think is very important. We can talk about the off-field stuff, and that's really neat, but that doesn't help a football team win games. He had to develop his skill in the off-season and I've seen tangible evidence of it in the way he is throwing the football, getting us in the right plays, now I want to see it on Saturday."

As does everyone else.

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