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Notre Dame Fiesta Bowl Notebook: Tommy Rees says they underestimated QB Jack Coan

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Better than advertised

NCAA Football: Notre Dame Spring Game Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Tommy Rees was made available to the media on Tuesday as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish prepare to take on the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the Fiesta Bowl.

Rees was asked about his quarterback Jack Coan, and basically, what Notre Dame thought they were getting versus what they actually got. Tommy was quick and direct about it, and the overall message was that they [Notre Dame] underrated the Wisconsin transfer.

So I think everything that we thought we were getting in Jack, we underestimated. I think he was more than we thought we were getting. I think, from an intangible standpoint and a personality standpoint, leadership, being the guy in the room, being the guy in front of the offense, that was all more than we anticipated.

From a physical standpoint, I said it from the first practice we had with him, he’s physically more gifted than he was advertised. His ability to make all the throws, his ability to stand firm in the pocket, his mental capacity to play this position is as high as anyone in the country.

I think he’s been extremely underrated throughout this entire season. I think when you look at the last six or seven games of the year, his production, his completion percentage, his ratios from touchdown interceptions, his ability to get us into good plays, he’s going to make a roster next year in the NFL. I have no doubt about it. And I think us as a program are very fortunate to have him come through.

I said it a couple weeks ago — our biggest regret is that we only get one year with him, because he represents what Notre Dame is about and he represents our room in as positive a way as possible.

There were a lot of onlookers throughout the season that felt Jack Coan was OVERRATED by the staff, and pushed for either Drew Pyne or Tyler Buchner to get the starting nod. Coan certainly had his moments — but the overall product ended up being quite good. In South Bend, wins over stats has been the major focus at quarterback over the years, and it’s served Notre Dame pretty well.

The 2019 numbers include 14 total games while 2021 still has just the 12.

Notre Dame has a big challenge in this game. As good as Coan has been, the times where he hasn’t looked good is when the offensive line struggled. With true freshmen at both left tackle and right tackle in this game — as well as the departure of Kyren Williams — Jack is going to a tough task against a very good Cowboys defense.

Full transcript with Rees:

OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR TOMMY REES: First and foremost, I want to thank everybody for being on the call today and giving us an opportunity to talk about an exciting match-up here. I think I speak for our entire program, the hospitality has been unbelievable, and we’re all very excited to be here at the Fiesta Bowl and represent our university and represent such a storied game, and obviously against a great opponent in Oklahoma State.

We’re fortunate to be here, and we’re looking forward to the week ahead and the game Saturday. With that, I’ll open it up for any questions.

Q. You’ve been involved with the Irish as a coach and a player. I know Brian Kelly is not necessary a popular figure these days around South Bend. But it seemed like, in the last 10 to 12 years, he and his staff and players have sort of revived Notre Dame football. You guys have been national contenders several times. What’s been the process to get Notre Dame football back to the level where it you obviously believe it should be?

COACH REES: Yes, I’ll start off by saying I still think Coach Kelly is pretty popular and held in high regard in a lot of people that are part of this program. And then people that he’s impacted, myself included; played for him. He hired me back here as a young coach, promoted me as a young coach. I know there’s a lot of other individuals within our program that have been here that share that sentiment towards Coach.

And there’s really no ill will towards him throughout this entire change and process. I think what Coach [Kelly] did over his time at Notre Dame needs to be respected in the way that it is. Look, he built this program back up. He had two playoff appearances, a BCS championship appearance, undefeated seasons.

But past all of that, he built the culture into a place where it’s really strong. And he built the culture into a place where it’s strong to the point where we felt like we can seamlessly get into this transition because there’s a very strong culture already laid down. I believe Coach [Kelly] is going to do the same thing down in Baton Rouge. We wish him nothing but the best.

Q. I think when this game was announced, it was a chance for you guys to sort of stress-test the offense, going back to Cincinnati, Wisconsin, early year. Now that it’s two freshmen tackles, no Kyren Williams, has that perspective changed any more? What are you hoping to learn most about the offense against Oklahoma State?

COACH REES: Yeah, the perspective hasn’t changed. Our goals are still our goals. We want to go out there and put together a good performance. We’ve had a next-man-in mentality all year. So I think it’s fitting here down the stretch that we’re faced with more challenges.

We have a ton of belief in the guys that are here to play. We have a ton of belief in Chris [Tyree], in Logan [Diggs], in Audric [Estime] to go out there and represent that room and our level of play to a high level.

We have a ton of belief in our young offensive linemen. We’re excited as heck to see others contribute and fill in for Josh [Lugg]. Obviously, you never want to see something like that happen, especially to a veteran, but it gives more opportunities to go play at a high level.

And we know how talented they are on defense, and we got to put our players in a position to be successful. And that’s what we aim to do. I know we have a lot of guys that are extremely hungry to go get after it and play this game.

Q. Just now kind of looking back on what Jack [Coan] has been able to do over 12 games, and then this kind of being his last shot, I’m curious how you look at that now that you’ve seen what you did over the regular season, versus kind of what you guys were expecting and kind of looking for when you wanted a graduate-transfer quarterback to potentially come in and start this year.

COACH REES: Well, he’s standing about 7 feet from me right now. So I think everything that we thought we were getting in Jack, we underestimated. I think he was more than we thought we were getting. I think, from an intangible standpoint and a personality standpoint, leadership, being the guy in the room, being the guy in front of the offense, that was all more than we anticipated.

From a physical standpoint, I said it from the first practice we had with him, he’s physically more gifted than he was advertised. His ability to make all the throws, his ability to stand firm in the pocket, his mental capacity to play this position is as high as anyone in the country.

I think he’s been extremely underrated throughout this entire season. I think when you look at the last six or seven games of the year, his production, his completion percentage, his ratios from touchdown interceptions, his ability to get us into good plays, he’s going to make a roster next year in the NFL. I have no doubt about it. And I think us as a program are very fortunate to have him come through.

I said it a couple weeks ago — our biggest regret is that we only get one year with him, because he represents what Notre Dame is about and he represents our room in as positive a way as possible.

Q. I’m curious, with Oklahoma State having so much time to game-plan some sort of scheme to try and prevent you getting the ball for Michael Mayer, what kind of challenge is that in sort of being creative to get ways to get him open?

COACH REES: Yeah, they’ve shown it throughout the year. They’ve played other good individuals. The kid from Iowa State, they had some things on third down to double him. That’s clearly part of what they do.

I think the biggest focus for them will probably be third down; how do we get a couple people around him on third down? The kid at Iowa State, they literally put two guys on him and said, “Hey, we’re going to take him away.” If you watch the NFL, you saw that against the Packers a couple weeks ago. Clearly, third down, critical downs, maybe red zone, that will be part of what they want to do.

There’s a lot of unknowns right now with their defense, obviously with the change in coordinator and extra time to prepare and what they want to do. We got to be multiple in how we use Michael [Mayer] and make sure that we don’t become stagnant with where we want to play him and find ways to create opportunities.

Look, if they want to double him, that usually means we got a favorable match-up somewhere else. So we got to make sure that we’re seeing that and adjusting to it.

Q. Can you talk about the dynamic of being the offensive coordinator for this particular game as opposed to preparing for previous games? And then, secondly, what is the point of emphasis and practices for the offense this week?

COACH REES: Yeah, I don’t feel a whole lot different. I think we still are going through our same process of making sure that, as a staff, we’re all on the same page; making sure that our players understand what we’re trying to accomplish; making sure that they’re prepared to go win a football game.

I think, for this game, it starts controlling the line of scrimmage, both run and pass; doing a good job protecting the quarterback and giving our running backs an opportunity to get to the second and third levels., They’re extremely talented. They’re good up front. They have some depth.

For me, this game starts in the trenches, and that’s not just a line. It’s the tight ends. It’s the quarterbacks making sure that we’re in the right protections and the right calls. It’s the running backs chipping in. So that takes a collective group to make sure that we’re able to protect and run the football. The wideouts have to get open and they have to block for the running backs as well.

So when you talk about winning at the front and winning at the line of scrimmage, it really comes down to all 11 of us being on the same page.

Q. They had two losses. You’ve got 13 games to look at. What did you learn from maybe the Iowa State? You kind of hit on that a little bit with the tight-end situation with [Charlie] Kolar, and then the Baylor game. The other aspect, their defense, how multiple it is, but how much of an X factor it is as far as who is calling the shots, and how that changes things on any defense you face?

COACH REES: Yeah, first off, I think you look at the Iowa State game, they hit a couple chunk plays. That was probably the difference in the game. They hit a couple of big throws and got down into plus territory and were able to finish that. And that’s probably the difference in the game.

I thought Baylor, they had a couple of turnovers defensively that put them in good field position, and they were able to execute and had a really good plan on where they wanted to attack.

The unknown of the coordinator spot, when you have 13 games, that’s the only thing you have to look back on. And as a coach on a staff, I was in a similar situation a couple of years ago. You have an opportunity to call it after being a position coach. You are not going to deviate too much from who you are for the players, right? You don’t want to start putting too much different in there, because you want your players to still be able to go out and execute at a high level.

So when we look at it, we want to make sure that we are preparing for what they have shown and their tendencies. If something pops up in game, I feel like one of our strengths is being able to adjust the second half and figure out what teams are trying to do to us and adjust to that. We will adjust accordingly.

But all we have to go off of are the 13 games. We have got to trust that we are putting our players in the right positions.

Q. Coach, Notre Dame’s football brand is self-explanatory and well-established. I’m wondering what you think of when you think of Oklahoma State’s football brand. Does anyone or anything come to mind?

COACH REES: Yes, I think the tradition of winning there has been — I don’t know if there’s eight to then schools over the last 15 years that have won more consistently than they have.

Obviously Coach [Mike] Gundy has been there a long time and has done a great job. I grew up watching really great Oklahoma State football teams, right? I grew up watching teams that were competing in the BCS year in and year out. Obviously very talented on offense in that era with the quarterback play and the receivers.

It’s been cool to see them shift and become this defensive team, right? I have always incorporated Oklahoma State with high-powered offense. And to see them finding ways to win under the same regime, but doing it on the other side of the ball as their main focus, that shows the culture they have. That shows the commitment to the winning standard they have.

And to me, like I said, you probably don’t get past eight teams before you say, okay, over the last 20 years, this is who has the highest winning percentage. They have done a great job year in and year out finding ways to be competitive and finding ways to give themselves opportunities for double-digit season wins.

Q. I just wanted to ask a little bit about prepping. This is kind of your first experience prepping for a game under maybe a much more defensive-minded coach. What has [Coach] Marcus’s [Freeman] involvement been in the offensive game prep, and how has it been working with some of the coaching changes on that side of the ball?

COACH REES: Yes, everything has been very smooth. I think one of the things Coach Freeman does from the top down is he gets everybody on the same page, right? We meet as a staff every day now to make sure that we are all communicating and we are all on the same page; highlighting points of emphasis, highlighting different periods of practice, what we are trying to accomplish. From that standpoint, I feel like we’re very much aligned.

As far as the Xs and Os and those things, it’s not as much of his focus right now. I think he trusts what we are doing and what we are trying to accomplish. We’ve had some conversations about some different looks and things that we want to get done. But for the most part, it really starts in those meetings of saying: Hey, from the top down, let’s be aligned. Then once we get into the flow of things: Hey, Tommy, you got it? I trust you. Which as a coordinator working for him, that belief and trust goes a long way.

Q. I’m curious what you saw in Logan Diggs throughout the season? That when obviously Chris Tyree went down, he was in a position to become that Number 2 guy behind Kyren [Williams]. and now that Kyren has declared for the draft, he’s kind of been a 1A, 1B-type role with Chris Tyree. Just over the course of his true freshman season, what were the telltale signs that you saw that he’s ready for this big moment?

COACH REES: We need to go back to the Virginia Tech game. Our season is on the line. Chris and Kyren are both out. Logan’s in there — game on the line, two-minute drives, protection, receiver out of the backfield. He was able to step into that moment and really own it.

From there, I thought you saw week to week his game improve. There’s a maturity and patience to his game. His ability to see things, react, keep things vertical on the front side when he needs to, not afraid to find the backside cut for a home run. We saw that early in camp.

And so we saw week to week, his preparation leading him to an opportunity to play. And we’re excited for him and Chris to get this opportunity to go play an extended number of snaps.

Then the same thing for Audric [Estime]. He’s going to have an opportunity to make an impact. You saw him play well in some limited snaps down the stretch here. And we want to see that moving forward with the first group and going against the first defense.

Q. How does this defense stack up with Cincinnati and Wisconsin’s defense? Two pretty good defenses that you played in the past. What did you learn from those games that you can use on Saturday?

COACH REES: Yeah, they’re similar to both. I think they are almost a combination of the two. Whereas they have the stout front that Wisconsin does, right? They have the veteran presence. They have the two real good inside-inside linebackers. They are strong, and they are aggressive at the point of attack. Similar to Wisconsin.

And then they are very multiple like Cincinnati was, right? You got three down, four down, three-high safety, movement all over the place. So it’s almost a blend of the two, which presents a lot of challenges in itself.

I think we have grown a lot since that part of the season. We’ve learned how to combat some of those pressures and fronts and ability to react at the quarterback position and the ability to get us into the right play and get the ball out on time, something that we have stressed throughout the season. We have learned who we are through that stretch. We felt like we have improved in a lot of spots. That’s led to the success down the stretch.

So it’s a great challenge that we’re excited for. It will definitely be something that gives us a little bit of a measuring stick for how far we have come, but we have a ton of belief in our guys.

And we talk a lot about their defense and them being a great defense, which they are. But I tend to think we have great players on our side of the ball, too. So I’m excited to see the match-up. I’m excited to see the challenge that presents itself.