SOUTH BEND – Tommy Rees is a new man.
Gone is the skinny high school kid who threw an interception on his first college pass attempt against Michigan in 2010.
In his place is a quarterback who is bigger, more mature and ready to lead the Irish as the starter from the first to last game for the first time in his career as No. 14 Notre Dame opens the season against Temple on Saturday.
As much as I feel I could improve, I feel like I have, said Rees, who was named the starter after last year’s starter, Everett Golson, was suspended for the semester because of an academic issue.
One of the biggest improvements for Rees has been his body.
He had been listed at 210 pounds since arriving at Notre Dame. This year, the 6-foot-2 senior is up to 215 pounds.
Rees concentrated on squats to improve his lower-body strength and hang cleans to help his upper body. He cut down on his body fat by adjusting his diet in the offseason.
The way he has changed is unbelievable, left guard Chris Watt said. He was a really skinny kid coming out of high school. He’s put on a little bit of weight since then.
Rees also gained a lot of perspective of what it means to be a quarterback.
Rees went 4-0 as a starter as a freshman after replacing an injured Dayne Crist. In 2011, Rees was the starter again after Crist was ineffective in the first half of the season opener.
Rees went 8-4 as a sophomore, but he split time with Andrew Hendrix in losses to Stanford in the season finale and Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
Rees lost the starting quarterback battle last season to Everett Golson, in part because he was taken out of the running to play in the opener after an arrest at a party during the offseason.
But Rees proved valuable during the Irish’s 12-0 run to the BCS national championship game last season.
Coach Brian Kelly dubbed Rees the team’s long reliever. He came in to boos to lead the game-winning drive against Purdue in Week 2, and in Week 4, he replaced an ineffective Golson in the first half in a win over Michigan.
Rees started against Miami in Week 5 when Golson was disciplined for being late to a meeting, took over at quarterback when Golson suffered a concussion in a 20-13 overtime win over Stanford and started in a 17-14 win over BYU.
Regardless what was going through his head during a moment or day when he heard something in the dorm, something he read, or anything yelled from the stands, he just looked at his teammates and fought for them until the end, offensive coordinator Chuck Martin said.
What the fans typically forget is that when he entered the game (against Purdue) that they booed him. It is tough to lead a two-minute drive when you are getting booed off of the field.
Rees has one more chance to make sure fans never boo him again and to improve on his 14-4 record as a starter with 4,413 passing yards, 34 touchdowns and 24 interceptions.
And the Irish believe that this version of Rees will be better than anything he has shown before.
I don’t think the story’s written, Kelly said. I think you write the story after he completes his journey here at Notre Dame, and you know what, it could be a really interesting story.