Notre Dame Football: Is the Tommy Rees Era Over?

Gerard MartinCorrespondent INovember 27, 2011

STANFORD, CA - NOVEMBER 26:  Ben Gardner #49 of the Stanford Cardinal sacks Tommy Rees #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Stanford Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Stanford, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Andrew Hendrix’s second-half performance against Stanford may spell the end of the Tommy Rees era at Notre Dame. I certainly don’t want to overreact to one half of football, but the Irish looked like a different team with Hendrix at the helm.

Rees is a good quarterback. He has his faults, but in general he’s done a nice job for the Irish.

Rees showed incredible poise in leading Notre Dame through the end of a tumultuous season in 2010, and he’s helped the Irish to a winning season once again in 2011. But for all his successes, it’s clear that Rees has a ceiling—a ceiling that he’s probably already reached.

Rees will always struggle to defeat a fast, attacking defense because he has no way to diffuse pressure. He doesn’t have the speed to take off when the pocket collapses, nor does he possess the arm strength to fit the ball into tight windows. When given time to throw, Rees can break down a defense, but when defenders are bearing down on him, he makes too many mistakes.

Overall this season, Notre Dame’s offensive line has been brilliant. Heading into Saturday night’s game at Stanford, the Irish line had allowed fewer than a sack per game, on average.

Against the Cardinal, the offensive line cratered. Rees was sacked twice and knocked down on at least four other occasions. Under constant pressure, Rees delivered his worst performance of the season, completing just six of his 13 pass attempts and tossing an interception. With Rees as the triggerman, the Irish looked completely lost on offense.

Heading into halftime, it was clear that Rees had no chance to even keep the Irish close, let alone lead his team to a win. Brian Kelly had no choice but to give his starter the hook.

STANFORD, CA - NOVEMBER 26:  Andrew Hendrix #12 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs with the ball against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Stanford, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Hendrix is far from perfect. The pass that he threw directly into the chest of a Stanford defender illustrated that fact very well. Playing behind the same struggling offensive line, Hendrix was sacked even more often than Rees.

However, he made plays in the second half that Rees just isn’t capable of making. On back-to-back plays in the third quarter, Hendrix zipped a perfect pass to Michael Floyd’s back shoulder for a 25-yard completion, and scampered 17 yards on a quarterback draw. Rees doesn't have the arm nor the legs to make either of those plays.

Hendrix is a bit of a project, but after last night, Irish fans are drooling over his potential. Hendrix has a combination of size, speed and arm strength that could make him unstoppable in Kelly’s spread offense. The ABC announcers repeatedly compared him to Zach Collaros, who excelled under Kelly in Cincinnati back in 2009.

Rees is not going to get much better than he is now. If coached properly, Hendrix can improve by leaps and bounds.

With that in mind, there’s no way that Rees can start the Champs Sports Bowl.

wrote a couple of weeks ago that I agreed with the approach that Kelly has taken with Hendrix, using him only in advantageous or emergency situations to protect him from developing bad habits. After seeing Hendrix’s performance in Saturday night’s emergency, it seems my definition of an advantageous situation was a bit too narrow.

While it’s been clear all season that Rees isn’t the long-term answer at quarterback, it's starting to look like he isn’t the short-term answer either.

Hendrix should get the start in the bowl game because he’s the future at quarterback from Notre Dame, but even more than that, he gives the Irish the best chance to win against a swarming Florida State defense.

Rees deserves a ton of credit for helping to stabilize a Notre Dame football program that was gasping for air midway through last season, but it’s time for the Irish to move on.