The Irish Nation has spoken. Again.
After Notre Dame fell to 3-2 and out of the national rankings (and out of national relevancy), everyone's favorite whipping boy, Fighting Irish quarterback Tommy Rees, is taking the brunt of the criticism from his supposed fan base for being the main impetus for their disappointment.
“Look, if you're the starting quarterback at Notre Dame and you can't handle those things that are inevitably going to come your way after a loss, then you can't be the quarterback at Notre Dame,” Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly said. “It comes with the business of being the quarterback at Notre Dame. You have to avoid the noise, when it's good and when it's bad. And that's just the nature of it. It comes with being the quarterback at Notre Dame.”
Rees has been in the fish bowl long enough to comprehend that. But he hasn't been the lone failure on this squad this fall. Not by a long shot.
“Look, Tommy is a bog boy, he can take care of himself and he knows that he has to play better,” Kelly said. “But the last two weeks with Michigan State and Oklahoma, two very good defenses that play a lot of man coverage, you have to be a lot more precise.”
Rees has been the first to point a thumb, not a finger, all season. So he would certainly agree with that assessment. After completing less than 40 percent of his passes (23 of 58) in his last two games (a win over Michigan State and a loss to Oklahoma), the senior has now completed just 53.5 percent of his passes through five games and has five interceptions to go with his 10 touchdowns.
Part of the reason for that mediocrity is the Spartans and Sooners have significantly better defenses than earlier opponents Temple, Michigan and Purdue. And according to Kelly, there are other reasons.
“We have a lot of young guys (wide receivers) running around that have to be more precise,” Kelly said. “We have to be more precise across the board.”
Notre Dame faces another aggressive defense Saturday as it travels to Arlington, Texas, to face 22nd-ranked Arizona State (7:30 p.m., NBC) at AT&T Stadium.
The Leprechaun Legion can cry in their beers regarding Rees' play. One thing that isn't going to change is the fact that Rees is, and will continue to be, the starter – barring injury. Kelly simply has no other viable option.
The coach inserted senior Andrew Hendrix into the game against Oklahoma, but Hendrix did little to show that he is capable of being anything more than a randomly used run threat. The only way that true freshman Malik Zaire burns a year of eligibility is if this season goes completely awry with a couple of more defeats.
“He certainly is,” Kelly answered emphatically whether Rees will remain the starter, “with the recognition that Andrew is going to be able to help us out as well. But there is no question that the quarterback that's going to start for us is Tommy Rees.”
As he should.
Notre Dame has faltered much of this season in exhibiting any serious threat to run the ball, and Rees has often been asked to do way more in carrying this offense than Kelly ever envisioned.
“I didn't want this to become Tommy Rees throwing it 50 times a game,” Kelly said. “But that's the way that it's turned out in the first couple of weeks, because it was pretty obvious the way teams were going to defend.”
That's where Hendrix comes in – to a degree.
The Irish did get an offensive jolt from junior running back George Atkinson III, who had a career day against the Sooners, so if Atkinson can continue to play to that level, as well as an occasional series with Hendrix adding to that scheme, perhaps Notre Dame can feature a more balanced offense than it has thus far.
“I think Andrew gives us that dimension that allows us to run the football,” Kelly said. “He helps us out in some short-yardage situations where we know it's been difficult for us with so many guys on the line of scrimmage that it doesn't turn into throw the football every time.
“We'd like to expand it where we get (Hendrix) to have some play-action pass and some passing game, as well. We don't want this to turn into the Wildcat (offense).”
But Hendrix will have to perform better than he did against Oklahoma.
“I hope that and the way we presented it to Andrew is, look, you've got to help us win,” Kelly said. “You've got to help us win football games.
“So his mindset has to be, look, I want to keep adding more to my plate. I want more and more. But he's got to be more effective than he was on Saturday. He can't go in there and we get two false start penalties. We can't miss a wide open receiver. We've got to do a better job on our zone read.
“So if he's going to get more on his plate, he's got to be more productive, and we need him to be more productive.”