What Tommy Rees’ hiring means for Alabama, Nick Saban and Notre Dame
On Friday, Alabama offered its offensive coordinator job to Tommy Rees and he accepted, making him the Crimson Tide’s ninth different OC since Nick Saban became head coach in 2007. Rees spent the previous three years in the same position at Notre Dame.
Rees is replacing former offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who left Alabama for the same position with the New England Patriots.
So what does this mean for both Saban and the Crimson Tide and Marcus Freeman and the Fighting Irish? Our reporters break it down.
What prompted this move from Alabama?
Whether Bill O’Brien left on his own terms or not — ultimately returning to the New England Patriots — Alabama had to change offensively after a disappointing 2022 season. The Crimson Tide had become too one-dimensional and too reliant on stellar quarterback play to generate points. The creative playcalling under former OC’s Steve Sarkisian and Lane Kiffin was missing. Receivers couldn’t get open and the running game was inconsistent at best, especially between the tackles and in short-yardage situations. On third and fourth down with 2 yards or less to go, Alabama picked up a first down rushing only 60% of the time — which ranked 11th out of 14 SEC teams. The balance that Saban craves was missing. So were the explosive plays. Despite dropping back to pass 56.6% of the time — compared to Georgia at 50.3% — Alabama ranked fourth in the conference in plays of 20 or more yards.
— Alex Scarborough
What does this mean for the Tide moving forward?
I’m not sure exactly how far the pendulum is getting ready to swing back in the direction of a more traditional offense, but I am confident we’ll see a more pro-style approach moving forward. Just look at the numbers from last season. With Rees calling plays, Notre Dame was under center 58 times last season compared to Alabama at 12. Notre Dame also utilized 12 personnel — two tight ends and one back — on 302 plays compared to Alabama at 166. Finally, Notre Dame went into a pistol formation 129 times compared to Alabama at 84. In other words: Expect fewer empty sets and a more traditional running game. And with a new quarterback and a deep group of running backs — not to mention Saban’s proclivity for playing ball control offense — it makes sense that Alabama’s playbook will look more like 2012 than 2022.
What does the hire say about where Saban thinks the program is?
Saban could have done almost anything with this hire. Schematically, it might have made sense to pursue a more modern run-pass option offense with someone like Oklahoma O.C. Jeff Lebby. Sarkisian had a lot of success with the RPO at Alabama, and Mike Locksley before him. According to Al.com, Saban spoke to former Mississippi State coach and RPO proponent Joe Moorhead about the job. But Saban landed on Rees, who has a more pro-style approach compared to some of his contemporaries. That’s no accident. Saban is after more balance and ball control. Alabama ranked 80th in time of possession per play last season. Notre Dame ranked 19th. If Saban is looking to fix a defense that’s struggled to meet expectations in recent years, a good first step would be fielding an offense that chews up some clock and limits the opposing team’s possessions. — Scarborough
What were his strengths and weaknesses as an OC at ND? What will he bring to Alabama?
In Rees’ three seasons as Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator, the Irish averaged 2.75, 2.55 and 2.53 points per drive, respectively. That’s a show of both success (all ranked top 40 in FBS) and consistency, despite losing a longtime starting QB, a bunch of talented O-linemen, and some terrific skill position players along the way. What does Rees do well? The first thing to note might be his adaptability. He’s designed offenses built around Ian Book’s mobility, Kyren Williams and a power run game and Michael Mayer‘s dominance at tight end. His best skill, however, might be his intimate knowledge of the QB position. As a player at Notre Dame, Rees was under the microscope and dealt with his share of backlash and frustration from fans and questions from the media. At Alabama, a new QB will be stepping into some very big shoes, and his performance will face the same type of scrutiny. Rees helped develop Book into a star, groomed Tyler Buchner for the starting job, then pivoted to Drew Pyne and got the most out of his far different skill set, too. His hands-on work and deep knowledge of the modern QB makes him well suited to handle what might be the Tide’s biggest challenge entering 2023.
— David M. Hale
Where does Notre Dame go from here?
Notre Dame won six of its final seven games, including a 45-38 win over No. 19 South Carolina in the Taxslayer Gator Bowl, and can reassert itself in the national picture with the right hire. It’s a critical decision and one that needs to lend itself to stability as the Irish continue to develop the program under Freeman. One thing Notre Dame won’t do is change its pro-style offensive identity, which is driven by its offensive line and exceptional tight ends.
The question is if Freeman wants to promote from within at the expense of experience or look elsewhere for a more proven candidate. Irish tight ends coach Gerad Parker spent two years as offensive coordinator at West Virginia before Freeman hired him in 2022, and in 2019 Parker was Penn State‘s passing game coordinator. He’s well-respected within the program, and has coaching history with Freeman.
Washington offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb would make a strong outside candidate, though he has seemingly pledged allegiance to the Huskies after reportedly being Nick Saban’s first choice at Alabama.
The acquisition of Wake Forest transfer quarterback Sam Hartman has created a buzz, as the veteran has thrown for almost 13,000 yards and 110 touchdowns in five seasons, but Hartman has also been plagued at times by turnovers (26 in the past two seasons). He’ll compete with Tyler Buchner, who had five touchdowns in the bowl win. The next coordinator will have to judge a quarterback competition at a program that needs an elite passer to elevate the entire team.
— Heather Dinich