It wasn't clear which was the bigger surprise, Brian Kelly calling a run play for Tommy Rees or Notre Dame's incumbent quarterback actually running it.
Either way, toward the end of last Saturday's practice Kelly called Rees' number on a zone read play, one the junior kept and sprinted about 30 yards down the right sideline virtually untouched. Rees never ran more than eight yards at a time last season, at least moving forward.
"To be honest, I didn't expect to get that far down the field," Rees said. "I was a little tired at the end of it."
Stamina shouldn't be a problem for Rees as he enters his second oxygen-sucking quarterback competition in as many years. Last year he was the underdog to prototype lookalike Dayne Crist, losing the job two weeks before the opener and winning it back at halftime. Now he's going against three quarterbacks who've never started a game.
In other words, Rees has walked this path before even if the route is a little different. Noticeably thicker than the sophomore who threw six touchdowns against eight interceptions in the season's final seven games, Rees should know how to take a hit this spring. And as much as the coaching staff talks about a four-man competition, Notre Dame wants Rees to see the job as his to lose.
"I think from Tommy it's 'You gotta beat me out.' That's his mentality," said offensive coordinator Chuck Martin. "That should be his mentality. I think his mentality is was I a Heisman Trophy winner, have I locked the vault shut and I'm the guy? Maybe not, but I know I'm ahead of these guys and I'm going to stay ahead of these guys.
"He's not worried about the competition."
Maybe because Rees knows the competition won't be over even when it ends. As a freshman Rees took over for Crist after he went down with a ruptured patellar tendon against Tulsa. The Irish won all four of Rees' starts to close the year.
Last season Rees replaced Crist at halftime against South Florida, then threw 14 touchdowns in the next six games. If not for Notre Dame's defensive collapse at Michigan, Rees' touchdown pass to Theo Riddick in the final minute would have pushed Notre Dame to a 5-1 start.
"With Dayne last year he was the upperclassman, he was the guy I looked up to," Rees said. "Now it's kind of switching that role and kind of helping some of the younger guys and trying to be the older guy in the room and trying to help everyone out.
"I think it's an open competition but you want to compete and you want to have that mentality that you're going to take over the job. There's definitely a competitive attitude. You understand that a decision is going to be made for whatever's best for the team and you go out and just compete."
Rees wants to show Martin that he's as capable of making the big play as he is at not making the awful one. Rees struggled in the red zone all last season, throwing interceptions either at the goal line or in the end zone. His untouched fumble at Michigan was part of the Wolverines' comeback. His only touchdown pass in the final three games was one Michael Floyd basically intercepted from a Florida State cornerback.
"A lot of the turnovers come when there's a breakdown from another position," Rees said. "I get frustrated and try to force something. I've got to understand that I've got to make the smart play or throw it away or find a check down, not force the ball in there."
That might include more of a running threat this season, although Rees knows he'll always be fourth of four quarterbacks in athleticism. Still, he said there were times last year when he didn't look to run and times when the coaching staff simply told him not to.
Based on glimpses of spring practice, if Rees isn't getting the green light now he's at least not stuck on red.
"I think there's opportunity that I didn't have last year to run when I could have," Rees said. "Teams would be dropping into coverage when I could have taken off and gotten eight yards and moved the chains.
"Running is definitely something that I've focused on, getting stronger in the lower body. It's something that I know I can do and it's something that I try in practice to improve on. It's just a matter of knowing when to run."
Now might be that time.
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