SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Tommy Rees remembers stepping onto an NFL field with his dad when he was 4 or 5 years old and knowing immediately he'd found the love of his life.
Football has always been part of who he is. His father, Bill, spent 15 years as a scout and player personnel director in the NFL, and another 15 years as an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at UCLA. Bill Rees is currently Northwestern's assistant director of football operations.
Now Tommy Rees is ready to step into a spotlight all his own. At 18, as a freshman who left high school early to enroll at Notre Dame, he'll be the starting quarterback for the Irish when they face No. 15 Utah on Saturday.
Starter Dayne Crist is lost for the season after surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon in his left knee. Rees, who filled in when Crist was hurt Oct. 30 against Tulsa, will get his first start Saturday in front of 81,000 fans. After that come games in Yankee Stadium and the Coliseum in Los Angeles against Army and USC, respectively.
Three notable venues for a young quarterback to navigate.
"I've been around the game since I was born," said Tommy Rees, whose brother Danny is a punter and holder at UCLA. "It's something that's been the focal point of my life pretty much the whole time growing up around football. I'm just familiar with everything — how coaches work and how defenses play and all that. It's the game I love and I love being around it."
Rees was recruited by the previous coaching regime under Charlie Weis and left Lake Forest (Ill.) High School and his prep basketball team early to enroll at Notre Dame last January. Lake Forest is the home of the Chicago Bears, for whom Bill Rees once worked.
"In hindsight, it's obviously paying off tremendously for me. The toughest thing was just kind of leaving home, leaving your friends and family," Rees said. "But I have a such a great support staff back there it helps, and the guys here welcomed me with open arms."
When Rees got to Notre Dame, there was a new coaching staff in place and he found himself learning Brian Kelly's spread offense.
"Tommy needed to develop physically. That was the first thing that hit me in terms of just his body type. Could he stand up to taking some hits?" Kelly said of the 6-2, 210-pound Rees.
"Those were the things that I really wasn't certain. I knew this: He had a great understanding of the game. He grew up around the game. So it was easy for me to understand in very short conversations that he had a great understanding and that if presented with the opportunity, he could probably do some things for us."
That first opportunity came in the second week this season and a nervous Rees was not ready when Crist was shaken up against Michigan and had to leave the game. Rees attempted two passes in a short stint and one of them was picked off before he was replaced by Nate Montana.
Rees had to wait six weeks to get back on the field. During mopup duty in a lopsided loss to Navy, he completed 6 of 7 passes, helping his confidence. And then two weeks ago when Crist was hurt early against Tulsa, Rees got a taste of it big-time.
He completed 33 of 54 passes for 334 yards with four TD passes, but the final of his three interceptions came in the end zone during the closing seconds. The pick wiped out any chance of an Irish field goal and sealed Tulsa's 28-27 win.
"You got to have a short term memory as a quarterback. Obviously it didn't turn out the way we wanted but you got to forget about it and move forward," Rees said.
His father has been a big part of his transition and his development.
"He might not be the biggest guy or the strongest guy in the building but he anticipates and he understands," Bill Rees said of his son. "He's always been competitive in everything. ... He worked hard at being a quarterback. It was important to him and he made it a priority."
With help from Crist and the coaching staff, Rees knows he'll have to play well Saturday against a Utah team coming off an embarrassing 47-7 loss to TCU.
Rees also realizes that despite his age and inexperience, it's up to him to lead the offense. Kelly likes his ability to get rid of the ball in the fast-paced offense.
"He flings the ball out there quickly," said Irish star receiver Michael Floyd, who will be Rees' primary target Saturday. "And once you get out of your break, you've got to be ready for it."
So is Rees ready for this moment that came so early in his career? Being a backup is tough when you are pressed into duty quickly. But now it's his gig from the start.
"At Notre Dame you are playing in front of a lot of people," Rees said. "It's still football and it's still just a game and you got to prepare like that. You can't get caught up in all the things going on around it."
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