Brian Kelly Must Stick with Tommy Rees and Save Malik Zaire's Redshirt

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistSeptember 9, 2013

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 07: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish
talks to quarterback Tommy Rees #11 before the game against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium on September 7, 2013 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Notre Dame travelled to an impossible environment on Saturday, playing before 115,000 Michigan fans in the final home game of—no matter what anyone says—a historic and powerful rivalry.

The Irish defense, which dragged Notre Dame to the BCS National Championship last season, was porous and soft, allowing 460 yards and 41 points to a largely unproven Michigan offense. And Notre Dame still had a chance to win five minutes left, when it trailed by just four points.

Yet apparently, if you listen to the not-so-silent whispers, it's all Tommy Rees's fault.

The senior quarterback, overtly known as "Tommy Turnover" in many a South Bend drinking establishment, is an easy and predictable scapegoat.

Notre Dame had a different starter, redshirt freshman Everett Golson, in 2012, and he led them to an undefeated regular season. But now he's suspended, and two games into the Rees era (part deux) the Irish have already graced the loss column.

Rees did make some mistakes against Michigan, earning (in part) his nickname with two interceptions. After the first, a particularly ugly one, searches like "Bench Rees" and "Rees Sucks" both took a predictable spike on the Twittersphere (note: potentially NSFW tweets).

No one seemed to care that the second was not his fault.

Bad Tommy was there, in spots, on Saturday night, but he was often overshadowed by Rees's good alter ego. The quarterback was called upon to pass 51 times, something he was not prepared to do, and finished with 314 yards and two touchdowns.

He wasn't elite, but no one ever asked him to be. Rees' job is to move the offense along, get the team over 28 or 30 points on the scoreboard and let a defense full of supposed All-Americans handle the rest. He did his job on Saturday.

That "blue-chip" defense betrayed him.

Brian Kelly has some recalculations to make with this team, but yanking Rees from under center isn't one of them.

He still gives Notre Dame its best chance of winning—again, it was down just four points with five minutes left on Saturday—and benching someone who fits that description would effectively be giving up on the season.

Which is crazy since, in case you haven't noticed, it's only Week 3! Rees has played one great game and one decent game in two weeks of action, a batting average that most Irish fans, before the season, would have been fine with.

But now the reality of a regular-season loss—their first since November 2011—has set in, so they're reverting to their primal instincts and scrambling for the panic button.

Malik Zaire, a highly touted prospect, is often lobbied as a replacement under center. "Put Zaire In" was another prevalent Twitter belief on Saturday.

But he's not even No. 2 on the depth chart, sitting at No. 3 behind Andrew Hendrix. If Kelly asked Zaire to suit up, not only would he be throwing a true freshman into the fire (which rarely brings good results), he'd be burning an all-important redshirt.

Zaire has been compared to Golson physically, and just like Golson, he probably needs the redshirt year to mature. By gaining an extra year of eligibility, Zaire would set himself up to be a multi-year starter in South Bend.

Once Golson comes back, he'll be a redshirt junior. If Zaire is as good as everyone (or at least those calling for him to play) thinks he is, he should be the starter, at latest, by his own (hypothetical) redshirt junior year. Maybe even sooner than that.

Why should Kelly roll the dice with him this year and forfeit that added eligibility? He and Golson are both talented and have similar physical tools; why not stagger them and ensure that one can play for as long as possible?

Moving Zaire into the lineup would hurt Notre Dame both long-term (in a couple of years) and short-term (in 2013). Replacing Rees with Hendrix might not satisfy the former, but it would still impose the latter. Don't blame the quarterback for the 41-30 loss in Ann Arbor; blame the defense that couldn't tackle Jeremy Gallon.

Until Rees actually—repeat: actually—blows a game, he's technically doing his job.