Replacing quarterbacks not always easy


When Jimmy Clausen announced that he was forgoing his senior season at Notre Dame, any chance that the Irish offense would keep pace with the 2009 edition left South Bend as well. With the ascension of Dayne Crist to the starting role, coming off major knee surgery and into a completely new offensive system, it was hard to know what kind of team the Irish would produce when Notre Dame had the ball.

We’ll have most of the offseason to critique the eight games Crist played, but a much fairer measuring stick for Crist is comparing him to the quarterbacks that stepped in and took over programs where other star quarterbacks departed for the NFL.

Quarterbacks Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Jimmy Clausen and Colt McCoy were the only four quarterbacks taken within the first 100 picks of the NFL Draft. Each quarterback left behind a top-30 college offense and a successor with different levels of experience.

At Oklahoma, Bradford’s senior season was one wrecked by injury. After coming off an incredible Heisman winning season, Bradford lasted only 14 throws in a season opening loss to BYU, knocked out with a shoulder injury that would limit him to only three games for the season. In his place, quarterback Landry Jones filled in admirably, beating teams like Idaho State and Tulsa before losing to Miami and giving the starting job back to Bradford. Thrown back into action against Texas, Jones led the offense the rest of the season, throwing for 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in conference play before leading the Sooners to a win over Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford squad in the Sun Bowl.

In Florida, Tim Tebow left the keys to Urban Meyer’s offense with heralded recruit John Brantley, who apprenticed for two seasons under Tebow, throwing for 10 touchdowns and only one interception during mop-up time. Brantley had two years under Meyer and company’s tutelage, and his advanced passing skills were expected to add another dimension to a Florida offense that was young but filled with playmakers.

At Texas, Longhorn fans got an early look at the quarterback of the future during last year’s national championship, when Garrett Gilbert filled in for an injured McCoy after the opening drive of the BCS Championship game. Gilbert only completed 15 of his 40 pass attempts against Alabama, but seemed to improve as the nightmarish game went on, leading many to think he was poised for a breakout after throwing 66 times during 2009.

Meanwhile in South Bend, Crist became the unquestioned starting quarterback after Clausen decided to leave for the draft. He only threw 20 times in 2009, having completed two short throws in the opening win against Nevada, filled in briefly against Michigan State when Clausen injured his foot, and then got the most action of his career against Purdue. Ironically, Crist was at his best when he ran a small package of zone-read plays, driving the Irish to two straight touchdowns in the second quarter against the Boilermakers before sputtering and being relieved by Clausen, who rallied the Irish in the end for a victory. Crist’s next action was his last before his season-ending knee injury, completing just two of six throws in mop-up duty against Washington State, though one was a long touchdown pass to wide receiver John Goodman.

Comparing Crist with the situations Jones, Brantley, and Gilbert walked into helps add some much needed context for what should have been expected out of Dayne as a first time starter. In fact, when you look at the work Crist (and as an extension, Rees) did, there’s reason to be impressed with the coaching staff’s ability to prepare their newbie quarterbacks and have great enthusiasm for the future of Notre Dame’s offense as the depth chart continues to develop.

If we’re comparing apples to apples, it’s better to throw Jones either out completely, or compare his work in 2009 to that of Crist’s. Even then, Jones was captaining the ship for an elite team — the 2009 Sooners were a preseason #3 team, and the 2010 edition was voted top ten in both the AP and Coaches Poll this preseason.

Here are Crist’s 2010 numbers for eight games, matched up with Jones’ ’09 stats:

Crist: 15 touchdowns, 7 interceptions. 59%, 6.9 YPA, 129.34 QB rating.
Jones ’09: 26 touchdowns, 14 interceptions. 58%, 7.1 YPA, 130.83 QB rating.

Jones put up huge chunks of those numbers against a 5-7 Tulsa team and Texas A&M, throwing for 11 TDs and just 3 INTs in those two games. But either way, the numbers are remarkably similar for Jones in 12 games compared to Crist through 8, and it bears mentioning that the ’09 Sooners had four first round draft picks.

Even more interesting is comparing Crist’s season to those had by Brantley and Gilbert, two quarterbacks that also were put in charge of consensus top five teams.

Here’s Crist’s season when compared with those had by the starting quarterbacks at Florida and Texas:

Crist: 15 touchdowns, 7 interceptions. 59%, 6.9 YPA, 129.34 QB rating.
Brantley: 9 touchdowns, 9 interceptions. 61%, 6.4 YPA, 118.79 QB rating.
Gilbert: 10 touchdowns, 17 interceptions. 59% 6.2 YPA, 110.99 QB rating.

Crist’s season, only eight games compared to full seasons for Brantley and Gilbert, is superior to two quarterbacks that were expected to pilot national championship contenders. Crist had far less grooming than either first-time starter, learned a vastly different offense from a new coaching staff while rehabbing a major knee injury, doing it with a team that was unranked at the beginning of the season, approximately 30 or so spots behind the Gators and the Longhorns. When framed this way, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Crist can take a great leap forward next year, with just about his entire offensive line returning and potentially Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph.

With Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa taking off the redshirts, Tommy Rees showing he can win football games, and Everett Golson entering the fray, there will be plenty of time to debate next season’s depth chart at quarterback. But Crist’s performance in his opening season at quarterback shouldn’t be discounted, especially when considering his cohorts.

Mailbag: The head coach, Malik and the running game

Notre Dame offensive line

bearcatboy:  The “fire coach Kelly” thing is getting a bit over-blown, particularly in the twitter-verse (ad nauseum). I hate asking this question (I think its reached the point where it’s warranted), but as a rational person, what has Kelly done to make you truly believe he can win a title, or even big games for that matter, at ND?

Consider this an answer to the roughly 40 different posts asking the same question. So apologies if this gets a little meandering.

The big thing for me—and something that most people calling for change are doing their best to ignore—is that Brian Kelly already got his team to one title game. If you’re trying to run him out of town based on this season, you can’t ignore that season. This isn’t figure skating, where you throw out the high score but not the low.

Ultimately, my biggest reason for sticking with the status quo, is that it’s hard to win. Period. And it’s really hard to win at Notre Dame. Besides that, all coaches, at least when they’re under your microscope, are going to have flaws that drive you nuts.

Let’s go through the wish list of Notre Dame coaches: Urban Meyer just lost to a 20-point underdog this weekend, and he’s still one of the game’s two best coaches. Dream candidate Tom Herman lost to Navy and just got blown out by SMU, another huge underdog.

You want someone who has some tenure? Well, former Irish assistant Dan Mullen lost a few terrible games this year that are head-scratchers and Dak Prescott is getting smaller in the rearview mirror. David Shaw’s team is losing. Mark Dantonio’s team is losing. Dave Doeren’s team is losing. Jim Mora’s team is losing.

This isn’t the old college football. This isn’t even Lou Holtz’s college football. It’s a hyper-competitive industry, and while there are a few institutional advantages that Notre Dame still certainly has, there are quite a few negatives that are truly barriers to winning.

We’ve watched Kelly and Jack Swarbrick attack some of the major ones—and Kelly has it better than Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis when it comes to others. But certain things—academics, the way the university handles  student life, fifth-years and redshirts—they might not ever change.

Ultimately, I don’t know if Notre Dame can compete with Alabama—if that’s the standard you want to set. But then again the Crimson Tide had a star defender arrested for drugs and guns on a Thursday and he played on Saturday. Max Redfield is looking for a place to finish up his degree.

I think Brian Kelly’s a good football coach having a really tough season. Can he bring Notre Dame to the promise land? Not sure.

But he had them within 60 minutes once and last year had a roster that was ravaged by injury and had his team within a field goal of probably getting an invite to the playoff. So I’m not rolling the dice yet, and wouldn’t unless the change is a clear upgrade. And I’m not sure who that’d be.


blackirish23: Malik Zaire has been less than impressive when given the opportunity. Do you think Malik’s heart just isn’t in being a back-up QB and thus has lost a bit of his passion for the game which affects his play when given the opportunity?

If somehow Kizer decides to return to ND next season, should the coaching staff discuss a position switch with Malik similar to what happened with Carlyle Holiday and Arnaz Battle (and even Braxton Miller at Ohio State)? If so, what position would Malik be best suited to switch to?

Thanks for the question, it’s certainly not the first time someone has wondered how to utilize Malik if it isn’t at quarterback. To address that point first, Malik isn’t Arnaz or Carlyle, and he certainly isn’t Braxton Miller. Those guys have the speed to be NFL receivers, something Malik doesn’t possess. Does that make him a tight end? H-Back? Running back? Probably not one who is good enough to get onto the field for the Irish.

As for his heart, I don’t think that’s something I can speak to with any certainty, though I do think he’s pressing. Give a guy known for “making plays when things break down” a limited amount of reps and it’s human nature to press. That explains to me why he’s breaking out of the pocket and scrambling when the initial look isn’t there. Or trying to juke a defender and make a play instead of throwing the ball away on a reverse.

Lastly, if Kizer stays-or-goes, I think Zaire would owe it to himself to look around and check out his options after he earns his degree. A graduate transfer might be the best thing for his football career if he wants to be a starter. Because Brandon Wimbush is a very talented quarterback with an elite set of skills and there’s no telling if Zaire will beat him out for the job next year, let alone Kizer.


ndgoz: ND has consistently been producing high-level NFL draft picks on the O-line. The running game is predominantly zone read plays, which rely on isolating and attempting to deceive a defender. If ND has the quality offensive line that the NFL draft suggests, why doesn’t ND put more emphasis on a power running game?

If you have more size and skill than your opponent, you don’t need to trick them – just overpower them. You can still take advantage of the QB running ability with bootlegs and rollouts to keep the defense honest.

I’m not the guy to go to if you’re looking for astute offensive line breakdowns. For a while, I think there was some validity to the criticism that Notre Dame’s ground game was a bit too vanilla. Inside zone, outside zone, repeat.

But I don’t think the zone read game is as simple as you make it out to be. Deception is a piece of it, but there’s plenty of physicality and winning at the point of attack, something we just haven’t seen that much of this year.

Kelly’s running game looked great last year, a big-play machine with a talented offensive line.  No, they weren’t a lock to convert every short-yardage attempt, but then again—Alabama isn’t either. And with CJ Prosise and Josh Adams and a very nice offensive front, these guys were hitting home runs.

The zone read can drive certain fans nuts. But asking why Kelly doesn’t put more of an emphasis on the power running game kind of ignores the fact that he’s not running that system. So when you say that the offense could get production from DeShone Kizer on bootlegs and rollouts, I think you’re discounting just how impactful Kizer has been as a runner these past two season. He’s run for 17 touchdowns in the 19 games he’s played since Virginia last year and he’s on pace for double-digit touchdowns again this season.

We’ve seen Kelly and Harry Hiestand do things to help get the ground game going—pistol, pulls, traps, and a few other wrinkles. But a lot of the issue is breaking in four starters at new positions with only Quenton Nelson in the same position as last year. This group will gel. But it might be a while before they can just go out and dictate terms.



How we got here: Roster Attrition

Rees Golson Kiel

There is the team you recruit and then the team that you coach. And for Brian Kelly, the team he could be coaching certainly isn’t the one that’s taking the field.

Turnover on the Notre Dame roster is by no means exclusive to the Kelly era. For as long as you’ve likely been following Irish football, players have been coming and going–often times sooner than four or five years.

But as we look at the sources of this disappointing season, how this became Notre Dame’s youngest roster since 1972 is worth a look. Because as Brian Kelly struggles to win with a team that’s playing a stack of underclassmen while his fourth and fifth-year classes are all but gone, it’s amazing to see the attrition that’s struck this roster, especially considering this should be when the Irish are feeling the benefits of their national title game appearance.

From fifth-year candidates to sophomores, 20 signees have left the Irish program. That includes transfers, dismissals, withdrawals, injuries or walking away. (It doesn’t include leaving early for the NFL.)

The talent drain has taken big names and small, included five-star prospects like Gunner Kiel, Eddie Vanderdoes, Greg Bryant and most recently Max Redfield. It’s featured shortened career of projected 2016 starters Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson, and shown the bad luck the Irish staff has had bringing in pass rushers.

Let’s look at how this team got so young.


Gunner Kiel, QB — 5 star
Tee Shepard, CB — 4 star
Davonte Neal, WR — 4 star
Will Mahone, RB — 3 star
Justin Ferguson, WR — 3 star

Recap: The second phase of Brian Kelly’s star-crossed quarterback run came after Gunner Kiel transferred after a redshirt season, leaving before Everett Golson was declared academically ineligible. Had Kiel stuck around, who knows what would’ve happened. The departure of Tee Shepard was also costly, the highly-touted cornerback never dressing for the Irish after his early enrollment didn’t help clear up academic issues that seemed to plague him for the rest of his football playing career.

Neal reemerged at Arizona, moving to the defensive side of the ball. Mahone’s high-profile dismissal came after an ugly incident in his hometown of Youngstown, but resulted in a life-changing turnaround. Add in the early departures (though successful careers) of Ronnie Stanley and CJ Prosise and you begin to see how this group certainly accomplished plenty, but left a ton on the table.


Greg Bryant, RB — 5 star
Max Redfield, S — 5 star
Eddie Vanderdoes, DT — 5 star
Steve Elmer, OL — 4 star
Corey Robinson, WR — 4 star
Mike Heuerman, TE — 4 star
Doug Randolph, DL — 4 star
Rashad Kinlaw, DB — 3 star
Michael Deeb, LB — 3 star

Recap: This group could’ve redefined the roster. While Bryant and Redfield never played up to their potential before being cut loose from the university, a front-line defensive lineman like Vanderdoes would’ve changed the complexion of the Irish defense.

Below the radar, the losses of Steve Elmer and Corey Robinson certainly hurt more than we expected. Neither were breakaway talents, but both more than good enough to been veteran starters on a team that clearly needed a few more of them.

The bottom half of this list almost stands out just because they were big swings and misses. With the Heuerman, Kinlaw, and Deeb, the Irish took shots on a few less-than-elite names and came up empty, with Heuerman and Deeb never able to shake off injuries before eventually going on medical hardships. A big recruiting class coming off a historic season, this group had plenty of success, but could’ve been more.


Nile Sykes, LB — 3 stars
Grant Blankenship, DE — 3 stars
Kolin Hill, DE — 3 stars
Jhonathon Williams, DE — 3 stars

Recap: Four defenders, four front seven players, three pass rushers. When Irish fans wonder where the pass rush is, it’s misses like this that end up really hurting. Sykes, Hill and Williams were hardly national prospects. Blankenship was an early target with modest offers, though a strong senior season brought interest from Texas.

Hill’s pass rush skills were evident from his situational use as a freshman. His departure left a hole, and he’s now the second-leading tackler behind the line of scrimmage for Texas Tech. Sykes never made it onto the Irish roster, and is now the sack leader for Indiana. Williams is now in the mix at Toledo, a reach by the Irish staff who saw him as a developmental prospect.


Mykelti Williams, DB — 4 star
Jalen Guyton, WR — 3 star
Bo Wallace, DE — 3 star

Recap: Three wash outs that seemed like promising prospects when they committed. Williams was especially important, a key piece at a position of need who is now reviving his career at Iowa Western CC. Guyton is also taking the Juco route, the leading receiver at Trinity Valley CC in Texas. Wallace is an edge rusher now at Arizona State, never making it to campus after Brian Kelly spoke highly of the New Orleans prospect on Signing Day.


Swarbrick: Kelly will be back in 2017

SOUTH BEND, IN - AUGUST 30:  Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish watches as his team takes on the Rice Owls at Notre Dame Stadium on August 30, 2014 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Brian Kelly will be coaching Notre Dame in 2017. That’s according to his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

So even with a 2-5 record and a difficult slate still to come, there will be no change atop the Irish football program.

“Brian will lead this team out of the tunnel opening day next year,” Swarbrick told

Swarbrick’s vote of confidence is nothing new—he’s taken a similar stance in his weekly appearances the past few weeks. But it likely became necessary as the season continues to frustrate, and Notre Dame’s head coaching position becomes part of the hot seat discussion.

But even with plenty to accomplish during this week off, both on the field and in the classroom, Kelly was out front and on the ESPN airwaves, openly shouldering the blame of this season’s failures, while also mentioning this is the youngest team at Notre Dame since 1972.

See the entire segment here:


Bye Week Mailbag: Now Open

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 15: DeShone Kizer #14 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish runs the ball during the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Notre Dame Stadium on October 15, 2016 in South Bend, Indiana. Stanford defeated Notre Dame 17-10. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

It’s been too long. Or maybe it hasn’t.

Against my better judgment, I’m opening up the mailbag. Drop your questions below or at Twitter @KeithArnold.