- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tommy Rees appeared to be his same old self Sunday, handling questions from reporters on the eve of fall camp pretty much the same way he has these past three years at Notre Dame.
This year, however, is a bit different. Eighteen career starts have prepared the senior to take control on a moment's notice, but he has never had the benefit of entering a season as the No. 1 quarterback.
Never was that more evident, apparently, than during 7-on-7 work this offseason with his receivers where Rees' command of the offense took shape behind closed doors.
The response was all the validation that he needed.
"It's important to have a similar atmosphere of practice," Rees said. "I was never too mean to them, but I would yell and get them back when I needed to. I think that's a personality you guys probably haven't seen. I have a lot more fire to me than most people would think. Showing that when the time is right, and guys responded great. It was just me trying to coach them, to make sure we were doing things the right way, that our offense wasn't going to take a step back."
Such is the balance Rees has struck since being named the Irish's starter after Everett Golson's academic misconduct forced last year's signal caller out of school for at least the fall semester.
A two-time winner of the program's "Next Man In" award can save the Irish one last time -- if, in fact, they even need to be saved.
This is where the importance of these past two months and the next 21 camp practices comes into play.
"I think it's going to help just confidence a lot," receiver T.J. Jones said. "He knows his place now. He can go into camp being that leader, knowing he's the starter and knowing that we're going to look to him in times of need and for whatever. He knows that he's the guy that we're looking up to and he's the guy that leads this offense, so it kind of puts him in a different spot, whereas before he was competing for a spot.
"Until you're a defined starter, at least in my opinion, you can't feel like you can lead the team because the team doesn't know that you're going to be there when that first game comes."
Added left tackle Zack Martin: "His leadership's going to be a big part of our success this year."
Rees was there for four starts when Dayne Crist tore his patellar tendon in 2010, and he was there for 12 more the following season after a lackluster opening half from Crist. He saved Notre Dame in its first three home games last season -- starting two others when Golson was disciplined and hurt -- and now he's one of the driving forces behind a team coming off a national title game appearance.
With a collegiate career not short on drama -- 19 turnovers in 2011, an arrest and ensuing one-game suspension in 2012 -- entering its final chapter, Rees is confident that the head-start the summer months have provided him can validate coach Brian Kelly's claim that Notre Dame is "going to see the very best in Tommy Rees" this fall.
"I'm a way different person, I'm a way different player, I've grown up a lot, 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, aspects of the game. I'm really excited to put all those things out there this season."
15dEdward Aschoff and Greg Ostendorf