You know it by now: the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have a new offensive coordinator, and his name is Tommy Rees. This is a monumental career step for a guy who has only been a coach for a few years, and a major show of faith from Brian Kelly. If we, too, are to put our trust in Reesus, we must learn more about his disciples. To that end, we’re going to be breaking down the offensive roster by position group in a new series I’m titling Rees’s Pieces.
Full disclosure: I can’t take full credit for the name of this article series as it was suggested to me by my buddy Gabe, a fellow Domer and longtime OFD reader who would be bummed if I didn’t give him a shoutout here. Also, the correct pronunciation is Rees-es Piece-s, not Reesees Piecees, you lunatics.
Anyway, let’s start with Tommy’s former position and the most important one on offense: quarterback.
QB1: Ian Book
Book was probably already rock-solid as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback heading into 2020, but Phil Jurkovec’s decision to take the backup (ahem) route to playing time by transferring leaves no doubt. Barring an injury or an unprecedented drop in the quality of his play, Book will be the man in 2020.
Book garnered no shortage of criticism from fans - yours truly very much included - for his play in the first two thirds of this season. In my own high point of frustration after the Michigan game, I hoped Coach Kelly would decline his fifth year and let us start with a clean slate in Jurkovec in 2020.
Watching all of us sip that haterade must have awakened something in Book, because starting with the last drive of the Virginia Tech game, he looked like a completely different player. He finally started showing improvement on deep balls, his pocket presence and progressions improved, and his playmaking ability while scrambling and running the ball reemerged. He looked like the quarterback we hoped he would be, and you have to respect the determination and resilience it took for him to do that amidst the highly public and personal criticism of him that was swirling around the Notre Dame football world at the time.
Will Book have a Joe Burrow-esque renaissance in his fifth year? Not likely (though not impossible!), but I think he will show progress and have his best year yet - and it can’t hurt to be coached by a guy who knows better than anybody what it’s like to be a heavily criticized starting quarterback at Notre Dame.
Expect Book to continue beating the teams he is supposed to beat, making the throws he has to make, and surprising opponents running the ball. He will probably not show transcendent pocket passing ability or drops dimes 40 yards downfield on a consistent basis, but he should improve enough in those areas that they stop being glaring weaknesses. I fully expect him to get rattled and make mistakes against the Clemson Tigers and Wisconsin Badgers; the question is whether he will have improved enough to put them behind him and respond. The answer to that may determine the course of the season for the Irish.
QB2: Brendon Clark
The new no. 2 quarterback is something of a mystery. He has two in-game appearances for Notre Dame, the most notable of which came in the 4th quarter of the September 13 massacre of the New Mexico Lobos. Clark threw a touchdown pass to Braden Lenzy in that game that told us a lot more about Lenzy’s ability than Clark’s, but nonetheless got the young QB very fired up and gave us an amusing glimpse of his competitive spirit.
Clark projects as a traditional pocket passer with ideal size (6’2”, 217 lbs.) for that role and enough athleticism to become an effective bruiser of a runner, although he will never be a true playmaker on the ground. His high school coach called him “Tim Tebow who can throw the ball,” so there’s an image to work with.
I would be lying if I said I’ve never been guilty of overlooking Clark. It’s entirely fair considering the talented passers beneath him on the depth chart and in future recruiting classes. However, it’s important to remember that the current QB1 was once sandwiched between two “sure-thing” prospects in Brandon Wimbush and Phil Jurkovec. We never know how these things are going to shake out. Clark has a prime opportunity to prove himself as the backup in 2020. He will see significant mop-up action, and I hope Tommy gives him some space to make plays during that time so we can see what he can do. If he is determined and continues to progress then the younger guys may find themselves having to wait a year or two to start themselves.
QB3: Drew Pyne
If Pyne were to see significant action in 2020, it would mean things had gone incredibly sideways, so we should all hope he spends a year learning in practice and getting stronger in the weight room to get ready to compete for the job in 2021.
That said, there is a lot to like about Pyne’s game, and a guy who loves Notre Dame as much as Pyne does will surely welcome the chance to learn directly from a former Irish quarterback. To quote from my own Early Signing Day assessment of his game:
When it comes to pure pocket-passing ability, it’s hard to do better than Pyne. His touch and ball placement make him infuriating for opposing defenses, who often play good coverage and still surrender a first down on a perfectly thrown ball. His ability to move in the pocket and quick release also impress, and his proficiency on RPO (run-pass option) plays should satisfy fans who have been pining (sorry) to see the Irish run them effectively.
Pyne is a little on the small side at 6’0,” 194, so he should have a lot to learn from his new offensive coordinator, who learned a thing or two about maximizing physical tools that were far, far more limited than Pyne’s. It’s going to be great to see such a gifted pocket passer develop under a former quarterback who, for all his limitations, was an incredibly intelligent and tough player. Expect Pyne to compete for the starting job in 2021 and beyond.