No position will be more crucial to Notre Dame's success in 2013 than quarterback.
Notre Dame hoped to build off an undefeated regular season and berth in the BCS Championship behind Everett Golson, but his semester-long suspension halted those efforts for 2013. Now, the Irish will call upon Tommy Rees to lead the charge this fall -- as he did in 2011, when Notre Dame went 8-5.
After pleading guilty to two misdemeanors and serving a one-game suspension to open the 2012 season, Rees served as Golson's backup/safety net while the young quarterback went through some growing pains. He logged action in nine of Notre Dame's 13 games, starting against Miami (if for only one series) and BYU.
Overall, Rees completed 34 of 59 passes for 436 yards with two interceptions and two touchdowns. The turnover woes that plagued him in 2011 weren't present, although he didn't see extensive playing time.
His crowning achievement came Sept. 22 against Michigan, when Rees relieved a struggling Golson in the second quarter and completed eight of 11 passes and rushed for a touchdown in a 13-6 win over the Wolverines. He also led the Irish on a final-minute drive against Purdue to set up a game-winning field goal, and threw the game-winning touchdown in overtime in Notre Dame's epic overtime win over Stanford.
"I feel the best I have since I've been here," Rees said prior to Notre Dame's Blue-Gold game in April. "I'm excited with my progress and I'm excited to keep moving forward."
Rees is well-respected in the Notre Dame locker room, and he has an excellent grasp of Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin's playbook. But neither of those positives will matter for Notre Dame's 2013 outlook if Rees plays like he did in 2011.
"Tommy knows exactly what the expectations are for him," Kelly said after Golson's suspension was announced. "And he was a huge part of our undefeated season, he's going to be a part of this season as well. He knows what we expect of him on a day-to-day basis, and just like a guy who can't make tackles, he's probably not going to be on the field if he can't tackle -- and you're probably not going to be on the field if you throw interceptions, whether you're Tommy Rees or Malik Zaire or Everett Golson. That's pretty established in our program as to what the expectations are."
Plenty has changed in the last two years. Notre Dame has a new offensive coordinator in Martin. Tyler Eifert, Rees' favorite target, is off to the NFL, and the Irish don't have an experienced backfield. The defense is better, and the team now knows what success looks like after making it to the BCS Championship against Alabama.
Rees is two years wiser, too, and will have to prove he's grown to the point where forced throws and bad reads in high quantities are a thing of the past. That's not the only key for 2013, but it's the most important for Notre Dame's quarterbacks.
If Rees severely struggles, gets hurt or has his helmet pop off, Andrew Hendrix -- who appeared in all of three games in 2012 -- will get the call. He played in five games in 2011, including the entire second half against Stanford.
That gives him more experience than Malik Zaire, who enrolled early at Notre Dame and threw the only touchdown of this year's Blue-Gold game. But Notre Dame coaches probably hope to avoid using the talented dual-threat freshman in 2013 to preserve a year of his eligibility: Assuming Golson returns for the 2014 season, he'll have that and 2015 to start for the Irish; if Zaire is used in a game this fall the only year he'd be on track to start would be 2016.
But it's a thin depth chart, so Zaire may be forced into action. Walk-on Charlie Fiessinger may merit a look if the Irish are in dire straits.
And for the Gunner Kiel crowd: Had he stayed in South Bend, chances are, he wouldn't have beat out Rees in August for a starting gig. There's a reason why he transferred before spring practice even began, so five-star pedigree aside, the best-case for him would've been being another body to keep Zaire from seeing the field in 2013.