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Kelly declares 2011 quarterback derby open

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Brian Kelly met with the media today as the Notre Dame student body finished up with their final exams and addressed one of the million dollar questions that’ll take over once the Irish play Miami in the Sun Bowl: Who will be the starting quarterback against USF to kickoff 2011?

“I think we have a lot of players that I believe we can develop into being front line quarterbacks,” Kelly said. “We clearly have a number of quarterbacks and it’ll be competitive. That’s exciting for me. I hope that it’s not murky. I hope it’s just a great competition, and whoever wins that slot is better because it’s a very competitive situation.”

In other words, Kelly was unwilling to name Dayne Crist, or any of the quarterbacks on the roster, the frontrunner for the starting job come spring practice.

While it’ll probably be an exercise we’ll repeat a half dozen times before the spring, let’s take a good look at the quarterback depth chart and lays some early odds on who’ll end up starting against Skip Holtz and the South Florida Bulls next September 3rd.

DAYNE CRIST
(Odds — 5:2)

A couple of weeks ago we crunched Crist’s numbers against three high profile quarterbacks that replaced Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy and Dayne more than held his own. But watching the season play out, it was obvious that Crist wasn’t fully comfortable running Kelly’s spread option yet, and the first year starter showed some growing pains that many hoped the junior quarterback wouldn’t experience.

With Crist battling his second major knee surgery in as many football seasons, his mental and physical ability to battle back from a torn patellar tendon will determine if he can return as the starting quarterback.

“If he comes back physically able to compete at the highest level, he’s got obviously a great deal of experience,” Kelly said about Crist. “There’s a lot of time that we spent together. A lot of information he’s been able to digest in his first year as a starter. As long as he’s physically able to come back, and I believe he will, he’s got a great amount of experience that’s going to serve him well.”

Kelly disclosed that Crist suffered an infection in his surgically repaired knee that set him back 7-10 days in his rehab, and the timeline on his recovery will largely determine whether or not Dayne will fully participate in spring practice.

Crist lacks the true mobility needed in a spread quarterback to do damage on the ground, but he possesses all the arm strength needed to pilot a Notre Dame offense that could have a ton of weapons back in 2011. Was his first year starting what optimistic Irish fans hoped for? Probably not. But Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar have far too good of a track record with quarterbacks to count Crist’s ability to develop into a great one out, especially if Dayne responds to another bump in the road.

“From everything I’ve seen from the way he’s rehabbed, he’s already past that mentally because he had to go through it the first time,” Kelly said. “I see in him a different look in his eye like, ‘Coach, I’m going to get through this and be stronger because of it.’ Once he’s healthy, he’ll have a chance to compete and be a starter.”

TOMMY REES
(Odds — 4:1)

If Rees didn’t struggle mightily against USC, I’d be inclined to put him in a dead heat with Crist. But the freshman showed his age in the Coliseum, and reminded those that forgot what a true freshman quarterback looks like playing on the road.

Even with his struggles against USC, it’s hard not to be impressed with what Rees has done in such a short time on campus. The freshman enrolled early at Notre Dame, walking away from a senior season of high school basketball because the Irish depth chart was so precarious. Described as drinking from a fire hydrant by Kelly in the preseason, Rees’ career began as inauspiciously as it could, misplaying a two-step read on a trick play against Michigan and throwing an interception on his opening series.

But Rees’ development was impressive, and Kelly and company prescient decision to put the freshman in against Navy in mop-up time could be one of the key coaching decisions made all year. Rees completed six of seven throws as he marched the Irish offensive down the field for a touchdown, a meaningless score in a lopsided game, but an incredibly important one in developing a backup quarterback that would take the reins as number one just a week later.

Rees has had a month to prepare for his next start, and his skillset will come in handy against a Hurricane pass-rush that is among the best the Irish have seen.

“Being in the shotgun allows us to get the ball out on time and quicker,” Kelly said. “Tommy is good about getting the ball out of his hands. We’re going to rely on some of his strengths, and that is, he’s pretty accurate and can get it out quickly.”

Again, Rees isn’t one of those quarterbacks that’ll wow you with his physical attributes and will pilot a two-dimensional spread attack. But if we’ve learned anything since he took over against Tulsa, he’s got the ability to win football games, a skill that this coaching staff truly values.

ANDREW HENDRIX
(Odds — 6:1)

Even with Crist going down with a season-ending injury, Kelly has been careful to save the eligibility of Hendrix, who became the emergency third-string quarterback for the game against Army. But it’s hard not to be intrigued by the raw freshman’s skillset, which Kelly described when comparing him to Rees.

“You can see the athleticism of Hendrix, strength of arm, and then you can see the strengths that Tommy has in picking up a game plan, where it comes natural to him,” Kelly said. “You go into a practice and he understands what you’re trying to accomplish. He’s got to be able to accomplish those things, but his recognition is really good for a true freshmen, and you can see the athleticism of an Andrew Hendrix, but it’s hard to put it all together right now because he has a very, very shallow base of what we want to accomplish.”

Having watched Hendrix from the sideline throwing the ball with the other quarterbacks, he’s got every bit the arm and athleticism of anyone else on the roster. But there’s no question that he’s the rawest prospect on the Irish roster, even if you include soon to be incoming freshman…

EVERETT GOLSON
(Odds — 8:1)

If you’re a betting man, you’d be wise to throw a little money on this darkhorse candidate. While he’s undersized to play D-I quarterback in a system that requires the quarterback to take some hits, Golson is probably the ideal fit for Kelly’s offense and has all the tools necessary to walk in and compete for a starting job.

I’m not one to wax on about a quarterback that I’ve never seen in person and whose only game footage I’ve seen comes via highlight tape, but Golson’s offer to play North Carolina basketball, his leadership and ability to overcome an injury plagued season and lead his team to a South Carolina state championship (and a very good head on his shoulders) has me about as excited for a incoming freshman quarterback since a spiky haired Southern California kid flashed some state championship rings at the College Football Hall of Fame.

LUKE MASSA
(Odds — 15:1)

He’s been a bit of a forgotten man behind fellow freshman Rees and Golson, but Luke Massa has plenty of the tools that are needed to be a starting college quarterback, and you’d be silly to count out anyone when you’re dealing with Brian Kelly and quarterbacks.

Kelly singled out Massa early in preseason camp for doing some great work, and had this to say about the freshman quarterback when he signed his letter-of-intent.

“Very smart, very disciplined,” Kelly said of Massa. “He’s 6-5, 205-pounds. He’s going to be really big. He’s going to be a strong player. He’s got great feet, he’s an outstanding basketball player.”

Massa winning the job out of camp next year would be an incredible upset. But who thought that Tommy Rees would lead the Irish to an undefeated November? If anything has become apparent this season, it’s that have the head to run Kelly’s offense is far more important than having the body. Kelly had a long time to evaluate the Ohio native, had recruited him as a quarterback when he was coaching at Cincinnati, and obviously saw enough in him to bring him to South Bend. What that means for his future, we’ll find out.

NATE MONTANA
(Odds — 25:1)

While it’d be the best story to cover, I just don’t see how Nate Montana battles his way up the depth chart with the stack of recruited quarterbacks in front of him. That said, watching Montana in the tail end of the season, I was impressed with how fluid he threw the football, and I get the feeling that Kelly could figure out how to win a football game with Nate behind center, something the Irish obviously couldn’t do earlier in the year.

The fact that Nate’s in the two-deep and able to play serviceable minutes is an accomplishment in and of itself, especially considering he struggled to play even mediocre football when he transferred to Pasadena City College for playing time instead of being buried on the bench under Charlie Weis, and didn’t play much football at even the high school level.

So while we won’t get much time to write about how the Son of Joe woke up the echoes and lead the Irish to victory, Nate’s done everything asked of him, even with a lot thrust on his shoulders.

 

 

 

 

Even with talent drain, Irish can be CFB Playoff contender

LANDOVER, MD - NOVEMBER 01: Head coach Brian Kelly of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish looks on from the sidelines during the first half against the Navy Midshipmen at FedExField on November 1, 2014 in Landover, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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Brian Kelly’s next football team might have less talent than the group that produced seven of the first 103 picks in the NFL Draft. But it might have a better chance to make it to the College Football Playoff.

It’s a trendy thought lately. The kind of thing you do when it’s May and we’re still a long way away from any football this fall.

But there’s good reason to be bullish on the Irish. And SBNation’s Bill Connelly providing the thinking man’s rationale for the optimism last week when he unveiled his preview of the 2016 Fighting Irish.

The entire preview is very much worth your time, but here’s the synopsis:

  • Brian Kelly is an excellent coach. (Sorry complainers.)
  • Whoever wins the quarterback job is going to be really good.
  • An offensive line that’ll reload.
  • Tons of skill talent.
  • A defense trending in the right direction.
  • A good close game team.
  • A schedule that’s more conducive to winning.

Again, go read the article. (You’ll be smarter for it.) But after crunching many of the variables, here’s Connelly’s mighty optimistic conclusion:

There isn’t a sure loss on the schedule. In fact, there’s only one game in which Notre Dame has a worse than 59 percent chance of winning. But operating in close games will be critical. That means finding go-to receivers for the quarterback in times of need, continued quality from Yoon, and a defense that improves up front despite turnover and holds steady in the back despite freshmen on the two-deep.

All of the “ifs” are realistic, and while the defense still has plenty to prove, I’m not going to doubt Kelly after last year. If I had a poll vote — and thank goodness I don’t — I would seriously consider Notre Dame in the preseason top five.

With Notre Dame’s two regular-season losses coming in the final moments of road games to top-five teams, this isn’t the type of “Here Come the Irish” headline that invaded our psyche and ruined the enjoyment of seasons under Bob Davie, Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis, the later still finding his way into the schlock headlines thanks to Notre Dame’s latest tax return release.

But Brian Kelly’s consistency has turned proclamations like Connelly’s into a decidedly uninteresting one. And at the same time that we go inch-by-inch through the roster, it’s helpful to see what the Irish look like from a 30,000-foot view—a better vantage point to evaluate progress than the perch most of us inhabit.

So while all previews in May expire by the time the calendar hits August, let’s go through the bullet points (as appropriated by me, not Connelly) just to add to the discussion.

 

Brian Kelly: elite coach. (No question mark) 

Right now, that’s a fairly undeniable assertion. And for those of you who’ll haggle about the definition of elite or harken back to a two-point conversion chart or the selection of the team’s defensive coordinator, this might be the best question to ask yourself: “After Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who else do you want running your program?”

 

The quarterback battle.

If there’s something that I find reassuring, it’s the fact that Connelly hasn’t lost the plot on this. Whoever wins the quarterback battle will play at a very high level. Or they won’t play at all.

As Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford showed last season, the Irish will coach up a quarterback and get very productive play out of them. (Unlike what happened at Ohio State last year.) And with Brandon Wimbush putting the redshirt on, Notre Dame has one of the country’s most dangerous weapons waiting in the wings.

 

The offensive line should be good again.

Remember all those data-driven pieces about minutes-played correlating to excellent offensive line play? I still believe them. But I also think the Irish will produce a very, very productive offensive line even with three new starters, thanks to two starting NFL linemen on the left side of their center and Alex Bars likely on his way, too.

 

Those skill players? They’ll be good.  

I’m bullish on the ground game. I’m high on the young talent in the secondary. And I’ll give the benefit of the doubt to a receiving corps that I think is still a little more unsorted than I’d guess this staff wants.

Torii Hunter should lead the unit. After that, I’m not sure what to expect.

The move of Alizé Jones to the “W” (boundary side) receiver gives you an idea that this staff is preparing to go forward if Corey Robinson steps away from the game because of concussions. It also might point to an offensive direction that’s more similar to 2012, a physical approach that could put more tight ends on the field and would allow the Irish to lean on a very strong running game and a quarterback who’ll be able to take deep shots down the field.

 

The Defense?

How you improve after losing headliners like Sheldon Day, Jaylon Smith, Joe Schmidt, Elijah Shumate and KeiVarae Russell is hard to comprehend. But I think this unit will have more versatility, as injuries and certain personnel limitations really hamstrung a unit that was maddeningly inconsistent at times.

Can they improve against the run? I think the answer starts with Jarron Jones and Jerry Tillery, two stout guys who’ll hold up in the trenches in front of Nyles Morgan. That’ll serve as the critical building block to the scheme, with pieces added and subtracted to make sure the Irish can be multiple and match-up with opponents on a weekly basis.

I’m punting on this topic (for now), while acknowledging that improvement on this side of the football is critical to success and the biggest unknown heading into the season.

 

Good play in tight games

Remember those heart-stopping finishes in the Weis era? Or that dreadful feeling you got every time a game got close and an opponent mounted a comeback?

For some, it’ll never go away. But under Brian Kelly, the Irish have been a very good close game team—even considering the two tight losses last year.

I appreciate the comparison Connelly made in his piece to a baseball team with a good bullpen. When the Irish have been at their best, they’ve been able to control the game late with solid quarterback play, a dependable running game and a defense that held up.

Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome play an important part in this process, too. The specialist duo will help control field position and make critical kicks, with Yoon putting together a really respectable freshman season and Newsome showcasing a booming leg.

 

The Schedule

I haven’t fully dug into the intricacies of the schedule, but just at face value it’s a much less daunting climb that years past. The Irish get Michigan State and Stanford at home (and under the lights) and replace Clemson with North Carolina State. Army comes back onto the schedule and Navy loses the majority of its team, including star Keenan Reynolds.

There is no shortage of coaching pedigree that Brian Kelly will face. Mark Richt, David Cutcliffe, and some young rising talent like Justin Fuente and Clay Helton in a regular season finale in Los Angeles.

But you can only win the games you play, and you can only play the teams on your schedule. (Thanks, Yogi.) As Connelly mentioned, there’s no “sure loss” on this slate, and I think Notre Dame will be favored every time they take the field next year.

 

Jurkovec’s commitment as solid as it can get

Phil Jurkovec 247
247 Sports
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In a sport like college football, not much is certain. Coaching changes, recruiting battles, it is a week to week sport in nearly every sense of the word.

So when coveted 2018 quarterback Phil Jurkovec chose Notre Dame last week, many kept their enthusiasm tempered. Especially with memories of prospects like Blake Barnett fresh in their minds.

But Jurkovec seems to have his priorities aligned. And a recent comment to Matt Freeman of IrishSportsDaily.com should have Irish fans feeling very good about their young QB-in-waiting.

For as long as Notre Dame has recruited, teams have recruited against Notre Dame. And in recent years, the sales pitch has changed—not from worries of a head coach or assistants being fired, but rather the chance that they may leave for greener pastures.

In this case, you have to feel good that Jurkovec seems to understand the realities of the situation. Because even if Brian Kelly is in the NFL or Mike Sanford is running his own program, the Golden Dome will still be standing.

Of course, it doesn’t do anything to guarantee Jurkovec will be in South Bend come 2018, but it certainly points to a kid and family having done their due diligence before making such an important decision.

Irish A-to-Z: Hunter Bivin

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Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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One of many heralded offensive line recruits to follow Harry Hiestand to South Bend, Hunter Bivin has bounced inside and out on Notre Dame’s offensive line, looking for a home. After serving as a back-up to talents like Zack Martin, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey at tackle, Bivin might have the inside track to earn his first starting experience at right guard.

After three years of hard work—and Steve Elmer deciding to cut short his college career after three seasons—Bivin looks like a true contender for a starting role. Now he needs to continue the work he put in this spring over the summer months, holding off a group of young talent to finalize the fifth starting job on a rebuilt offensive line.

 

HUNTER BIVIN
6’5.5″, 308 lbs.
Senior, No. 70, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bivin was an elite prospect. 247 ranked him as one of the top offensive linemen—and overall prospects—in the country. He was an All-State performer in Kentucky, an Under Armour All-American, and played for the USA Team.

Bivin chose Notre Dame over offers from Florida, LSU, Oklahoma, Ohio State and Michigan. He was a starter on a Kentucky state championship basketball team and also the state’s best shot putter.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2013): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2014): Made his Irish debut in the second half of a lopsided victory over Rice. Played in five games, including on special teams against Florida State.

Junior Season (2015): Played in five games, serving as a backup at left tackle for Ronnie Stanley. Notched a season-high 25 snaps against UMass. Played 14 snaps in a convincing season-opening win over Texas.

 

WHAT WE PROJECTED LAST YEAR

The crystal ball appeared to be working last year when it came to Bivin’s playing time.

Bivin’s got everything you’d want—on paper—when it comes to an offensive line recruit. That said, it’s time for those qualities to translate to the field, something we haven’t seen yet.

It’s not necessarily fair to call Bivin an underachiever, especially when you want to have the type of depth Notre Dame has developed up front. It’s also worth noting that the two positions the Irish have worked Bivin have required some difficult playing time battles: Matt Hegarty just moved to Oregon and was inserted as the team’s starting center after he couldn’t beat out Nick Martin. And Ronnie Stanley will follow Zack Martin into the first round of the NFL Draft.

So let’s hold our breath a little bit longer.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

It’s clear that Bivin has some ability, with the staff entrusting a second-string tackle job to the Kentucky native the past two seasons. But it’s also clear that he’s not the caliber of tackle prospect that Alex Bars is, with Bivin making the slide inside, hopefully solidifying the starting lineup with the team’s five best offensive linemen.

Right now—especially after Colin McGovern struggled through injuries this spring—Bivin has a grasp on that job. But after another summer competing with Tristen Hoge and incoming freshman Tommy Kraemer, that might not be as clear.

Hiestand and Brian Kelly both prefer playing veterans—especially along the offensive line. We’ve seen guys like Mike Golic, Christian Lombard and Matt Hegarty keep talented young players on the sideline as trusted veterans. Bivin likely can do the same as a senior with a fifth-year available, though he’ll need to be the best player for the job.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I have Bivin penciled in at right guard for the start against Texas. Whether he stays in the lineup will likely be dictated by how quickly this offensive line gels. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that Kelly and Hiestand reshuffled their starting lineup, 2014’s offensive line swapped out mid-season after a disappointing start to the year. That’s a real scenario that could take place if this line doesn’t come together.

Being the fifth-best starter on an offensive line that features guys like Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson is no shame, especially when we’ve seen and heard such good things about first-time projected starters like Bars and Sam Mustipher. Bivin is a big body—he’s got prototype tackle size—and that’ll make the transition inside easier.

But I’m still waiting to see how he does as a mauler. There’s not much room for finesse at right guard, especially with the Irish wanting to establish a ground game early and often in 2016.

If Bivin brings that type of aggressiveness to the job and takes to guard over the summer, he’s a potential two-year starter. If not, he goes back to being a sixth man, capable of backing up essentially every spot on the offensive line.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal

Irish A-to-Z: Asmar Bilal

Asmar Bilal 247
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It is freshman year all over again for linebacker Asmar Bilal. The rising sophomore, who wore a redshirt in 2015, likely spent more time working with Brian VanGorder’s defense in 15 spring practices than he did all of last season.

That’s what happens when Jaylon Smith departs for the NFL and Te’von Coney and Greer Martini spend the offseason recovering from injuries. Those circumstances cleared the way for Bilal to take center stage at Will linebacker this spring, a position that’ll look quite different than it did the past two seasons when America’s most talented linebacker roamed the field.

No slouch himself, Bilal has more than just long dreads in common with Smith. With a body that also looks chiseled from granite and the speed of a safety, there are great expectations for the Indianapolis native.

 

ASMAR BILAL
6’2″, 230 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 27, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, Bilal picked Notre Dame over Michigan after a competitive recruitment. He had offers from Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee and a dozen other programs, too.

Bilal was an Army All-American, second-team on the MaxPreps All-American team and was Indiana’s defensive player of the year on the American Family Insurance All-USA team. He was a four-star prospect and a 247 composite Top 200 player.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

The year of eligibility was saved, keeping Bilal off of special teams. But all else held true:

At the very least, I see Bilal wreaking some havoc on special teams. But if there’s an opening on the field with this defense, it’s at safety. Perhaps Bilal could serve as a situational defensive back, the type of in-the-box plugger that Drue Tranquill excelled at in 2014.

The reality of the situation is a year of learning and gaining weight for Bilal. With Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace departing after this season, and Jaylon Smith having quite a choice on his hands as well, the depth chart could turn over after this season—turning next spring into maybe an even more critical time than this fall in Bilal’s development.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bilal’s primary competition at Will linebacker is classmate Te’von Coney, who had worked his way into the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith, playing briefly in the Fiesta Bowl before suffering his own major injury. While Coney had to watch spring ball as his shoulder healed, Bilal took reps for the two of them.

While it’s far from decided, Coney looks like the first choice in the starting lineup for VanGorder and Mike Elston. That’s not to say that the rotation will be as limited as it was last season—this group of linebackers might very well be patched together by scheme and circumstance.

None of that changes Bilal’s potential. A football player who came to Notre Dame needing to add mass to his frame and learn the intricacies of playing linebacker, Bilal’s high school exploits included a lot of time at safety, a tackling machine that looked more search-and-destroy than fully understanding the nuances of gap control and positional responsibilities.

Bilal put on the weight, up to 230 pounds this spring, looking like a linebacker not a DB. Now the mental aspect of the game will likely dictate how quickly Bilal’s able to deploy his physical skills and use them for good. We’ll get a nice progress report on where the coaches think he is come Texas.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Bilal looks like a four-unit coverage contributor on special teams from game one. He also has the type of speed and skill that he could find a role in a sub-package (remember those?) for VanGorder, if the defense is able to keep enough guys healthy to play multiple schemes.

The redshirt was the best thing to happen to Bilal in that he’s essentially starting his college career now. We’ve seen too often the difficulties that come with using talented young defenders in bit roles, robbing years of eligibility from guys like Kona Schwenke and Romeo Okwara, removing a fifth-year opportunity that could have really helped all parties involved.

Positional depth helped save Bilal in 2015. Now he’s going to need to be part of the solution in 2016, when a new cast of characters needs to step forward and lead with captains Joe Schmidt and Smith long gone.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars