SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tommy Rees could've transferred, and done so without much backlash.
Following his arrest in May of 2012, it was clear Rees wasn't going to come close to the playing time he saw his freshman and sophomore years. He could've packed his bags and left South Bend, perhaps for a school with a quarterback opening in 2013.
But Rees said he didn't put much thought into transferring last summer.
"I signed my letter of intent to come here for four years, I didn't want to back out on that," he said Sunday. "Notre Dame's a special place. I love it here, have a really good relationship with my coaches. I just wanted to finish what I started."
And as it turns out, Notre Dame has that quarterback opening this fall.
With Everett Golson expelled from the school for the fall, Notre Dame's goal of making it back to the BCS Championship -- and winning it, too -- falls on the shoulders of Rees. Coach Brian Kelly named Rees his starter soon after Golson's expulsion, pointing to his senior quarterback's experience, knowledge and leadership.
The last time Rees was a regular stater, he threw for 2,871 yards with 20 touchdowns, but 14 interceptions set the tone for a disappointing 8-5 season in 2011. But couple that experience with seeing the game from a different viewpoint -- the sidelines -- and Rees' teammates are confident he'll mold it all together into a successful season.
"Not being a stating quarterback, it's sort of pushed him to become more of a leader and more of a coach," offensive lineman Chris Watt said. "I think that helped him see the game a little bit differently than before."
When asked how he's grown over the last two years, Rees pointed to nothing more than growing up.
"I'm not 19 anymore," Rees said. "I've learned a lot from all the different experiences I've gone through, learned a lot about football, how to be a leader and just aspects of the game. I'm really excited to put all those things out there this season and have a great year."
Despite his decreased on-field role, Rees continued to be well-respected by his teammates last fall. His attitude toward his demotion behind Golson crystallized that respect, even as the noise outside the locker room was turned up.
"He's very thick-skinned," wide receiver T.J. Jones said. "He doesn't listen to a lot of the criticisms he has, he doesn't listen -- I remember one game (the Purdue game last fall), he came on the field and got booed. And I think he came back and brought us to win that game. He has faith in his skills, as we do. So regardless of what outside opinions may be, he's going to do his best to play to the best of his abilities and to lead our team."
"To be as resilient as he was, the way he accepted his role on the team last year without complaining -- he never came out and said it's bogus that he's doing this, what he has," offensive lineman Zack Martin added. "He went out there, accepted his role, came in and won two or three games for us and he's accepted his role now. He knows he's the guy, he knows he's the leader. So we're excited to see him play."
Rees has become a more vocal player, too. Watt has seen him be vocal in the right situations -- yelling at receivers to get back to the line of scrimmage, but not always being the rah-rah, pump-up guy. It plays into the belief held by plenty of Irish players that Rees will someday be a good coach.
Still, for all the respect he has, Rees and Notre Dame know he can't have another season like he had in 2011. No matter how good Notre Dame's defense is this fall, it'll struggle to keep opposing teams off the board when faced with far too many turnovers from the offense.
If Notre Dame is able to make it to Pasadena for a shot at a championship in January, it'll be on the back of Rees. For those inside the program, there's a confidence he can get them there.
"Again, as long as I think he continues to continue where he picked up where he left off last year making good decisions, we'll be in good shape," Kelly said, later adding, "I think you're going to see the very best in Tommy Rees."