Just what Notre Dame's offense will look like next Saturday when the Fighting Irish travel to Air Force is just about anyone's guess. The Irish offense came to a virtual halt early in the second half of Saturday's 14-10 win over USC when quarterback Tommy Rees was knocked out of the game. Head coach Brian Kelly was no closer to knowing Rees's immediate status Sunday afternoon than he was immediately after the game.
"He was feeling better today," Kelly said of Rees during his Sunday media teleconference. "He's still a little sore, but it'll be a day-to-day situation."
Kelly said Saturday night that Rees had a strained neck after taking a hit from Trojan linebacker Lamar Dawson in the third quarter. With Rees out, Andrew Hendrix became the next man in at quarterback, but the offense did next to nothing the rest of the way.
Notre Dame netted just 47 yards of offense in the second half, and 22 of that came on the first drive of the half when Rees was still in the game. The Irish punted on five of Hendrix's six drives and fumbled on their second to last possession (not including the final 54 seconds they ran out to end the game).
"He's gotta have at least a couple of practice days where he's leading the offense," Kelly said when asked what Rees needs to do this week to be able to play next Saturday. "We had this situation with Everett (Golson) a couple times (last season)."
"The quarterback really needs to get into a rhythm out there (in practice)," Kelly continued. "We're not at a point where we can afford to just roll out there on Saturday, so he's going to need a couple of days of practice."
Rees has always had the mental aspects of the game down and Kelly is not worried about that. Even with a sore neck, Rees would still be able to get in film study this week, which is also fall break on the Notre Dame campus. The bigger issue is timing and being in step with the receiving corps.
Rees was solid before he was knocked out of the game. The senior completed 14-of-21(66%) of his passes for 166 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. His completion percentage Saturday night is 15-percent above his average for the season.
"We liked the way he played," Kelly said of Rees's play against USC. "I thought we had the kind of mix that we wanted. We were running some tempo, some play-action, ran the ball (and) made some throws under duress - the things that we were looking for him to improve on after the Arizona State game."
Hendrix was 0-for-4 passing and rushed for just five net yards on six carries in his first extensive turn at quarterback since the end of the 2011 season. His play may have been enough to give many fans a different appreciation for Rees, but Kelly says he does not look at it that way.
"We've really kind of gone through this before," said Kelly. "We just talk about what Tommy does for us and we let our fans and those that evaluate - we let them come up with their own conclusions. We just don't spend that much time worrying about that stuff."
Kelly does remain hopeful that Rees will be able to practice by Tuesday, but if he cannot go that would mean Hendrix would be at the top of the depth chart for now and freshman Malik Zaire, who has not played so far this year, would need to see more action this week in practice.
"Malik will have to get some reps obviously if Tommy can't practice on Tuesday," Kelly said. "We're expecting that he can, but if he couldn't, hypothetically, Malik would have to get as many reps as necessary to get him ready to compete (next Saturday)."
Zaire suffered with a bout of mono early this season and the freshman who enrolled early and went through spring practice with the Irish earlier this year has never risen above second on the depth chart this fall.
"It didn't set him back as much as it gave Andrew more of an opportunity to solidify himself as the second quarterback," Kelly said of the impact of Zaire's mono. "So, Andrew was able to get all those reps and solidify himself in that position."
Despite a 5-2 record after Saturday's victory, Notre Dame still finds itself on the outside looking in for both the AP and Coaches top-25 rankings this week.
"Must be a conspiracy," Kelly snapped when asked about being left out of the polls.
The Irish are 27th on this week's AP ballot this week with 82 points - 26 points behind the team they beat two weeks ago - Arizona State. Notre Dame is 28th in the coaches' poll this week with 62 points. They are 40 points behind Michigan State on that ballot. The Irish, of course, beat the Spartans in the fourth week of the season.
"I've had us in the top-25," Kelly said when asked if he thinks his team is worthy of a national ranking.
Safety Elijah Shumate missed Saturday's game due to a hamstring injury Kelly says the sophomore suffered on Thursday. Shumate's injury meant Eilar Hardy and John Turner both saw action in the secondary along with starting safeties Austin Collinsworth and Matthias Farley.
"We've gone through a lot of guys back there, you know," said Kelly. "They've held their own back there, there's no question."