Notre Dame Football: Tommy Rees and Biggest Questions Surrounding Fighting Irish

Chris RolingFeatured ColumnistAugust 31, 2013

Sep 22, 2012; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Tommy Rees (11) signals a first down for the Irish in the fourth quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Notre Dame Stadium. Notre Dame won 13-6. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame starts the season off against Temple, a far cry from the challenge the rest of the 2013 schedule represents, with huge matchups against Michigan, USC, Stanford and others. 

If the Fighting Irish are going to survive and come close to the success of the 12-1 squad from 2012 that made it to the BCS Championship Game, some serious questions are going to need answers as soon as possible. 

Notre Dame lost plenty of talent to the NFL this offseason, highlighted by tight end Tyler Eifert, linebacker Manti Te'o and center Braxston Cave. 

How the team responds to these losses, among other things, will ultimately decide the fate of the 2013 Fighting Irish. 

How Will Jaylon Smith Fare?

Freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith highlights what was an exceptionally strong recruiting class for Notre Dame this year, and he'll go a long way in helping fans forget about Manti Te'o despite not playing the exact position. 

While Te'o wrote his legacy in the middle, Smith is an athletic outside linebacker who is talented enough to have already been named the starter this season, making him the first freshman linebacker since Kory Minor in 1995 to receive the honor:

Head coach Brian Kelly has already praised Smith throughout the offseason, per's Matt Fortuna:

He had to work for it — it was Danny Spond, it was [Ben] Councell and it was Jaylon Smith; it didn't start the other way around. So [Smith] was No. 3 on the depth chart when he ran out there...He went out and he did his job, so he comes from a good family, he comes from a great program where they obviously did a great job of teaching him how to go about and do his thing and he's been great and he's put himself in a position now to do some great things.

Smith was a 5-star recruit thanks to his ability as a pass-rusher, which is something the Fighting Irish defense has not seen in a long time. 

If Smith can come on and immediately make a difference when it comes to getting to the quarterback, the unit as a while will have a much easier time recovering from the loss of a playmaker like Te'o. 

Will Nick Martin Pick Up Where Braxston Cave Cave Left Off? 

One of the underrated issues going into the season for the Fighting Irish was whether or not the offensive line would be able to recover from the loss of Braxston Cave. 

The man to step up and seize the starting role is Nick Martin, and as offensive line coach Harry Hiestand describes, per Bill Beck of the Elkhart Truth, Martin has made the transition easily:

He was going to do everything in his power to take the position, and he’s done it. He did it in the winter, he did it all spring and he’s had great summer training. He’s just kept himself in a position where he’s been steady to not open it up for anybody else to have a shot. He’s made mistakes, he’s got to get better, but he’s done enough to maintain the position all the way through and he gets a little better each day.

Martin performing well against highly regarded nose tackle Louis Nix every day bodes well for the future. It also helps that he is surrounded by returning guards Chris Watt and Christian Lombard, not to mention his older brother Zack, who's holding things down at left tackle. 

Notre Dame needs Martin to continue to play at a high level when it matters, especially to help the next guy on the list answer questions of his own. 

Can Tommy Rees Carry the Team? 

Tommy Rees is back as the starter for the Fighting Irish with Everett Golson ineligible to play

The thought alone may make the Notre Dame faithful shudder. Rees was the starter in 2011 and threw for 2,871 yards with 20 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. The team went 8-5 primarily because Rees struggled reading defenses. 

Rees is back, and this time he will have to put the team on his shoulders. Golson excelled last year as a mobile option who could alter coverages by scrambling. Rees does not offer that and is better off in the pocket, so the offense needs to be tailored to his abilities. 

Much of Rees' success will hinge on the coaching staff and its ability to give him digestible assignments and high-percentage opportunities. Rees is a game manager in the utmost sense who does not raise the play of those around him; instead, he relies on it. 

The Notre Dame offense will largely hinge on Rees' ability to play at a high level. Defenses will key on the run until he shows he can beat teams with his arm. 

Time will tell if Rees has the answers for the Fighting Irish. 

Follow B/R's Chris Roling on Twitter for more news and analysis: @Chris_Roling.