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Expectations all hinge on the man behind center

Jul 5, 2011, 1:17 PM EDT


It’s getting difficult to ignore the trajectory this offseason is taking. Quite simply, Year Two of the Brian Kelly era has expectations. Great expectations. Eric Hansen expectations. Even Mark May expectations.

Because it’s July, it’s that time of year where we spend most of our time analyzing the past in hopes of predicting the future. As many do over holiday weekends, I spent my time watching from the sidelines and monitoring a few highly spirited debates about debut seasons of Notre Dame head coaches. It’s too soon to forget that Kelly’s debut season was worse than Charlie Weis’ 2005 campaign. But it was also less successful than Ty Willingham’s and only one victory better than Bob Davie’s. (Looking back at that 1997 season, it’s almost a microcosm of the Davie era, and should be Exhibit A on why it’s so hard to be a first-time head coach at Notre Dame.)

Still, for those looking back at eras of recent Irish past, it’s pretty easy to sense the separation between Kelly’s first season and those that came before him. In Eric Hansen’s recent article about the evolution of Brian Kelly (a must read), Lou Holtz pointed to the development of his 1986 team, a parallel that’s been drawn by many as they watched the 2010 Irish develop.

“There were so many things about his first year that reminded me of my first year at Notre Dame,” Holtz said of his 5-6 Irish in 1986. “By the end of the season, we could play with anybody in the country. So could Brian’s team.

“I just think that the program has never looked more hopeful than it does at the present time.”

Holtz’s 1986 squad finished with an uninspired 5-6 record, but lost five of those six games by a total of 14 points. Helping the narrative even more, that season planted the seeds to an eight-win 1987 season, and the undefeated national championship campaign in 1988.

Charlie Weis didn’t leave behind the team that Gerry Faust did. It also bears mentioning that Year Two of the Charlie Weis era had the Irish on the cover of major publications as a legit national title contender, and a ten-year contract that wasn’t universally hailed as being stupid yet.

Weis’ failures at Notre Dame can be pointed, quite fairly, to the defensive side of the football. To his detriment, he failed to develop a defensive identity similar to the one that made his offensive football teams impressive. Rick Minter, Corwin Brown, Jon Tenuta — Weis too often thought philosophy and identity could be easily interchanged, and the result was a defensive football team that was mediocre both developmentally and physically, a damning blend for a team that had championship aspirations.

Still, for those that happily kick dirt on the grave of Weis, I’d direct you here for the first and foremost reason Weis failed to put together a defense. Maurice Crum. Terrail Lambert. That’s it. That’s all that Notre Dame got defensively out of the 2004 recruiting class. Add in Darius Walker, and a great Blue-Gold game from Junior Jabbie and that’s really all the Irish got from Ty Willingham’s final recruiting class, putting a sizable hole in a program that left Weis little room for growing pains and a razor-thin margin for error.

But that’s ancient history for an Irish football program at an inflection point. Put together a season like many suspect is in the future and the Irish could make a true leap back into national contention, and potentially stake its claim as the preeminent northern prestige football program, with Ohio State in disarray and Michigan a year behind in its reclamation efforts.

So where could it all go wrong? Keeping the focus off a schedule that opens with four very losable games, the Irish need to find stability at quarterback — a position where Brian Kelly brings four guys into fall camp with a chance to win jobs.

Sure, Kelly met with Urban Meyer to discuss his implementation of the two-quarterback system that featured senior Chris Leak and freshman battering ram Tim Tebow, a combination that powered the Gators to a national championship. But remember, Charlie Weis met with Rich Rodriguez and his West Virginia staff to discuss the spread offense in life after Brady Quinn, a system that Weis employed for half-a-Saturday with quarterback Demetrius Jones before imploding his 2007 blueprint.

There’s twenty years of evidence that Brian Kelly understands his offensive system, and I’ll be the first to admit that I absolutely agree with the strategy Kelly is implementing. More importantly, Kelly has a defense that should be improved from last year’s unit — a group that finished the season embodying its maxim B.I.A (Best In America), not aspiring to it.

We’ll spend the rest of the week looking at the position groupings that’ll have to power the Irish through a tough four-game opening stretch. But if there’s one place where the fate of the 2011 season lies, it’s on the shoulders of the quarterback behind center for the Irish.

The fact that the Irish could be running four different guys out there shouldn’t just be a headache for opposing defensive coordinators as they prepare for the best Notre Dame team in the last five years. It should also be a hair-puller for Irish fans, who’ll likely have to wait until early September to see if Kelly’s plan will work.

  1. notredave - Jul 5, 2011 at 1:53 PM

    I know coach hasn’t shown his cards, but I really believe a healthy Dayne Crist gets the start against USF. If he moves the offense well -with very few costly mistakes- I also think the job stays his. Tommy…and Andrew and Everett as well, just have to be prepared when and if they are the next man in. Confident they will be.

    I’m school girl giddy about this upcoming season.

  2. mattnef - Jul 5, 2011 at 3:21 PM

    I thought this piece would have a bit more analysis of the QB race.
    I would put my money on Crist with a dose of Hendrix. And hopefully a year for Golson to learn and grow. Crist/Hendrix, a healthy run game and the defense (I’m also secretly hoping for some three TE packages) … all our eyes should be smiling.

  3. 60sdomer - Jul 5, 2011 at 4:03 PM

    Let me preface by saying I am confident that BK is the guy to bring ND back to elite status. That doesn’t mean I don’t have some concerns, such as how he is handling the QB situation. Crist is the best combination of talent and experience among the 4 QBs, despite his occasional hesitancy to decide where to throw the ball after the snap. Whether it is confusion in reading the defense or discomfort with the spread or some other factor, that periodic lack of quick decision making is the only major factor that stands in the way of Crist living up to his potential. He has the arm, the leadership skills, the drive, and the intangibles of an elite QB. Yet, BK continues to publicly make statements that indicate a lack of confidence in Crist, while at the same time praising the other three (e.g., “I have four quaterbacks we can win with”). Oh, how lucky Tommy was that the defense came alive, the O-line matured and BK finally decided to try running the football.

    If this is to motivate Crist, as Kelly did last year with his statements about Floyd, it is undeserved. There is a stubborn streak in BK that cost us two games last year, and we were told to get used to it. (I know he had a plan on how to build a winning program and 20 years of success at doing just that. But, dammit, just kick the field goal!) The only experience Hendrix has is one good spring game. Kelly is not going to burn a year of eligibility for Golson. Tommy has the best grasp of the spread but has no arm; nice kid but his ceiling is too low. So, who’s left? Oh, that same guy that started the first nine games last year; you know, the one with the most combined talent and experience. Kelly needs to quit the public psychological games with his best QB, and give Crist at least the same support he gives the other three. He’s earned it.

    • nudeman - Jul 5, 2011 at 4:13 PM

      Crist is the obvious best choice at this point and I think he’ll have a solid year.

      Having said that, I keep reading how Andrew Hendrix is the most talented of the group and the best fit for Kelly’s spread O. I have to confess I’d like to see him play at least a little, before he gets pissed off and transfers.

    • notredamegrad - Jul 5, 2011 at 8:07 PM

      60sdomer, I agree entirely with your analysis of the four QBs and their relative strengths – and also that Brian Kelly knows what he’s doing. I disagree that Kelly’s public comments have expressed any lack of confidence in Crist, with the possible exception of his suggesting that the Irish have no Andrew Luck on the team – this is a thoroughly fair claim, though. His praise of the other three actually usually strikes me as relatively tepid.

      I don’t think this strategy is intended to motivate Crist like his last year’s comments about Floyd; nor do I think Kelly is being stubborn about giving Crist a needless hard time. Rather, Kelly has himself pointed to the enormous pressure under which Crist stepped behind center last year, as the “anointed” successor of Clausen, and identified that “anointing” as one source of Crist’s hesitancy. If relieving him of that pressure by insisting that there is real competition among all four QBs creates an environment in which Crist can thrive, can maximize his own skills, and act as a leader and teacher to the others, wonderful! It has the added benefit of keeping opposing defenses a bit in the dark, as Keith points out.

      I can only imagine that there is more understanding among the QBs and between each QB and Kelly regarding where everyone stands and how Kelly is working to make them better football players and men than we can guess from the stands. Kelly tried the “Crist is it” approach last season and expressed regrets about that; it shows a flexibility of temper, rather than stubbornness, for him to try a different approach this time around. I am absolutely rooting for Crist to have a healthy, blow-out season, and for the other QBs to grow in skill and experience behind him.

  4. nudeman - Jul 5, 2011 at 4:10 PM

    Sorry, did I miss something?

    I thought, based on the headline this was a piece about the ND QB situation,

    Maybe my PC is acting up, in a Rosemary Woods, 18 minute gap sort of way.

  5. 1historian - Jul 5, 2011 at 4:31 PM

    Keith – I think you are making a big mistake comparing first seasons of recent ND coaches. The more accurate measure IMO would be to look at BK’s 2nd seasons after his team has had a year to get used to his system.

    Last year he was getting to know them and they were getting to know him.

    • paiten34 - Jul 5, 2011 at 5:10 PM

      I do agree that the comparison of recent ND coaches is misleading. Last season the ND team was improving as the season went along. Ty, Charlie and Bob’s teams all got worse as the season closed. Comparing Davie to Kelly is night to day. Bob was never a head coach while Brian has 20 years as a head coach.

      As for the QB situation, I think Crist should have the job to start the season. If Kelly wants to put Hendrix in for a few snaps a game or even Golson I have no problem with that. I think that’s the only way a 2 QB system will work. I don’t think a true 2 QB system will work. If Kelly plays whole quarters with different QBs it will not work.

      Just let Crist do his thing for his senior season. Crist looked good through out the spring with a knee that wasn’t fully healed. QBs in the second year of a system have historically been successful. I trust BK to do the right thing. GO IRISH!!!!!!!!!!

      • pathiman - Jul 5, 2011 at 6:39 PM

        correct me if I’m wrong but is it still possible for Crist to have a 5th year of eligibility? I know it would be far fetched, but do you think that its possible for him to be the QB next season as well?

      • notredamegrad - Jul 5, 2011 at 7:38 PM

        To the question about Crist having a fifth year of eligibility – yes, he does, and I believe he’s intending to take it, based on a comment he made in an interview about having “only two more years.” Hey, if he excels this year and really puts his talent to use, it would be great to have him run the offense again, perhaps with increased play time for a second QB (Hendrix or Golson).

  6. jerseyshorendfan1 - Jul 5, 2011 at 10:56 PM

    Dayne is no slouch, I believe he was a 5 star recruit out of California when he committed. He knows the offense, has a lot of game experience and the team looks up to him as its leader. Kelly better work long and hard with him, however, because most of my 2010 memories of him consist of him skipping the ball in front of an open receiver. If he can rise to a BCS level QB this year….watch out people. It will help his numbers to have Floyd on the field as well. I will be lighting a candle before the USF game.

  7. schuey73 - Jul 6, 2011 at 10:35 AM

    My biggest memory of Dayne was taht 90 yard TD pass to Kyle Rudolph against UM after coming back from a head shot that caused blury vision.! He has earned my respect after coming back from 2 major knee injuies with the same positive attitude. I truly believe for ND to compete for a BCS bowl game or better, Dayne will be the man to take us there. My only question is will he be gun shy at all? I don’t believe so because he is tough.

  8. loganweeks - Jul 6, 2011 at 12:35 PM

    I was at the Western Michigan game last year and I’m telling you, Dayne Crist has everything you want in QB physically. Now he still has to put it together up stairs. Luckily the physical part is something you can’t teach, but with an excellent teacher like BK i think Crist will be fine. I also feel pretty comfortable with a winner like Rees hanging around if we need him as well.

  9. bernhtp - Jul 6, 2011 at 12:41 PM

    Dayne is a big, strong, and highly-talented guy. He seemed uncomfortable out there at times and don’t know if his lapses (e.g., missing easy throws due to bad footwork/balance/timing) will evaporate with more reps and familiarity. I certainly hope so because he has huge upside.

  10. irishking - Jul 6, 2011 at 1:52 PM

    I am holding my breath about ND’s quarterback this season.

  11. irishfan2791 - Jul 6, 2011 at 2:12 PM

    Dayne Crist was a five star recruit out of Southern California when he committed to the Irish. He has the ability to make all the plays, He’s big, has some speed and is an intelligent kid. He was thrown as the starter of a completely new system while trying to rehab from a knee injury and become the leader of the offense and a leader on the team. It wasn’t shocking that he made some bad reads and mistakes, but he also, made a lot of good stuff happen. Unlike Tommy Rees who had the luxury of being surrounded by players who knew what to do Dayne didn’t really have that and the Defense when Dayne was playing compared to when Tommy was playing is night and day. Dayne Crist is the guy you want leading the Irish down the field, he looks like a Notre Dame QB, and I hope he is the guy this season. GO IRISH!!!!!!

  12. footballace - Jul 6, 2011 at 3:43 PM

    I like Crist alot at QB, but he just doesn’t fit into what Coach Kelly truly wants to do on offense. Coach Kelly is smart enough to run an offense that plays to Crist’s strengths which is good.

    Am I confident Crist is the quarterback to lead the Irish to a National Title in 2011? Not really, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I do expect Crist to be more comfortable with the offense in year 2.

  13. alsatiannd - Jul 6, 2011 at 4:01 PM

    Crist is great on paper and did well lots of last season, but he still has that glaring and inexplicable difficulty with the 5 yard outlet pass. That’s the type of play that keeps a drive alive; it’s what gets you 7 yards when it’s 3rd and 4. Crist’s passes hit the ground as much as they hit the receiver in those cases.

  14. 60sdomer - Jul 6, 2011 at 5:29 PM

    It looks like my comments, yesterday, on Kelly’s approach to the QB situation got a pretty even split between negative and positive. That means I touched some nerves. Good. Notredamegrad, I appreciate your comments the most. The point I was trying to make is, perhaps, made better by Eric Murtaugh over at OFD. In Eric Hansen’s excellent article about Kelly, Murtaugh points out that Crist couldn’t feel too happy about BK saying he really didn’t have a legit No. 1 QB when he was comparing his QB situation with Stanford’s Andrew Luck. Kelly has made comments in other places that implies Crist gives us no greater chance to win than, say, Golson. I just wonder why?

    Did Dayne bury a few throws at the feet of a wide open receiver? Yes, but I seem to recall Brady Quinn still doing the same in his senior year. Better a bullet at the feet, than a floater over the head. Crist’s first year as a starter, surpassed many excellent ND first year starters from the past, despite playing in a different offense for which he was recruited, coming off an ACL, new coach, and-on-and-on. I guess I am old school, or maybe just old, but players should not lose their starting position due to injury. Okay, every rule has an exception, but Dayne did nothing last year or this spring to lose his position (or a game, for that matter). No one last year or this spring did anything to rip the starter’s position from him (but one did play so poorly that he could, probably should, have cost us the game). I really don’t understand what BK gains by saying that all four quarterbacks are so close, when, clearly they are not.

    • paiten34 - Jul 6, 2011 at 6:58 PM

      Why did coach Kelly say what he said in comparing Luck to ND’s 4 QB’s? Well, Andrew Luck has played in 25 games in two seasons at Stanford. His record is 20-5. Golson 0, Hendrix 0, Reese 5, 4-1 and Crist 13 8-5. Dayne has the next season and if he wants the 2012 season to better his record.

      However for now I can see what BK is talking about if you just look at the numbers. The game is more than just numbers so I think Crist a 5 star talent is better than his numbers. Dayne made some good throws and some bad. Just remember that Crist was starting his first games this season. He has only 8 true starts when he played the majority of the game minutes. Dayne was also learning a new system under a new coach. I think Dayne Crist had a good season over all. I know he still has his best games ahead of him and I look forward to watching.

      In closing BK is thinking of playing any QB that will win him games no matter who he is. After all Kelly has a huge ammount of preasure on him to win next year. Just ask the last three ND head coaches about the preasure to win at ND when everyone expects you to WIN!! I think ND will not disapoint.

    • notredamegrad - Jul 7, 2011 at 6:18 PM

      60sdomer, I’ve looked at what Murtaugh has to say at OFD, and while I share most of his positivity about Crist as a football player, I think he mis-guesses Brian Kelly’s motivation for approaching the QB situation as he has and that he underestimates Crist’s maturity and understanding.

      Kelly’s acting, I believe, out of good will towards Dayne and the other QBs – insisting that there’s “competition” relieves the pressure, shifts public/fan scrutiny away from #10, inspires all to work harder, to train better, to compete to become that complete QB, including, and especially, Dayne. I cannot imagine, from all I’ve heard of Crist’s stellar character and what I’ve seen and heard in interviews, that Crist doesn’t “feel all that great” – that he’s put off or insulted or humiliated – when Kelly says there’s competition between him and Rees. He has insisted that it’s making them both better. I believe him.

      I understand the concern that Dayne shouldn’t lose his starting position to injury, and I (and pretty much everybody else leaving comments) don’t think he has. To consider the alternative, Tommy Rees also did some good things at a key point in the 2010 season, and it might be unfair if Kelly were to totally disregard that and throw all his weight behind Dayne and Tommy under the bus.

      Kelly’s working to make Dayne (and Tommy) better; if approaching it this way does that, I’ll take it.

  15. trbowman - Jul 6, 2011 at 8:22 PM

    Crist willl probably be the guy.

    I’m worried about USF. That’s an underrated, well-coached team. Don’t underestimate them.

  16. 1historian - Jul 6, 2011 at 11:48 PM

    The story is told of the 1989 Super Bowl when the Bengals had just scored to take the lead with less than 2 minutes to go. The Cincy offense was standing on the sideline and someone said “we’ve just won the Super Bowl.” As the story goes Chris Collinsworth (whose son will be a sophomore at ND this year) said “Don’t be so sure – have you seen who’s playing quarterback for the 49ers?”

    He referred, of course, to Joe Montana.

    My point is this – Kelly is looking for the guy who both inspires his teammates and makes them play better while at the same time scaring the opposing defense out of maybe 1/2 step of reaction time.

    He hasn’t found him yet. I’m not saying he’s not there, but I am saying Kelly hasn’t found him yet.

  17. yaketyyacc - Jul 7, 2011 at 7:36 AM

    crist, short-circuits under stress and pressure. no national cham[ionship. rank:3
    rees. must have joe montana soup before each game. tough, smart, a fighter. not a come from behnd quarterback. a get ahead so he doesn’t have to come from behind quarterback. rank: 1
    hendrix and golson. together in the same backfield, as they gain experience, will strike fear into oppossing defenses. rank: 2and 2
    added bonuses: some very good runnung backs, receivers, a together offensive line, and a no. 3 ranked(they will be) defense
    come back at the end of the season and tell me: wrong about crist. you won”t.

    • 1historian - Jul 8, 2011 at 9:54 AM

      A very interesting idea.

      Thumbs up

  18. notredave - Jul 7, 2011 at 10:16 AM

    @ yaketyyacc

    Not sure I’m understanding your post. Are you saying you believe Tommy will get the start and that either AH and EG will win the backup job? Certainly a possibility that Tommy gets the nod. Not sure I see Dayne falling to three or four though.

    Andrew and Everett in the same backfield? Everett at tailback I presume?The kid believes he is a D1college QB. Just don’t see him changing positions. I think EG would transfer if it ever came to that.

    I do believe you are dead on about the D though. The college football world is gonna take notice when beast mode kicks in.

    Fighting Irish for Life!!

  19. yaketyyacc - Jul 7, 2011 at 1:15 PM

    not as a tailback. two quarterbacks and a tailback. wildcat, all is snapped to tailback who with one qb sprint right and then the tailback flips to the qb, who passes across to the other waiting qb who then throws to a receiver fake blocks and then goes out.. several variations, options, reverses, etc. and yes, blocker or tailback. something along those lines.
    yes, I do see crist at 3. sorry to say it.

  20. dmacirish - Jul 7, 2011 at 4:36 PM

    then the ball bounces off the trash can, up off the goal post, off the referee and then MMF catches it. cmon really. crist is 1, rees is 2 easy.

  21. notredave - Jul 7, 2011 at 6:56 PM

    @ yaketyyacc

    hmm….that might work!

  22. irishfan2791 - Jul 8, 2011 at 6:40 PM

    DORIAL GREEN_BECKHAM AND KEITH MARSHALL should be at the top of the list for BK and the boys, which means they have to recruit the heck out of them and produce on the field!!!!! I could care less if we get a Quarterback this recruiting cycle, because Hendrix and Golson are more than capable and are a ton of eligibility left. Id like to see them pick up some more recruit on the offensive line (Andrus Peat) and of course stock up on as much defensive talent as possible. But, I won’t be crushed if we don’t get e QB this time around. Brian Kelly and associates will make it work I’m sure, I mean look at the recruiting class they got last year and we were middle of the road, imagine what they can do when the team is a top 25/ top 10 contender!!!!!! It’s going to be unfair

  23. notredave - Jul 8, 2011 at 9:18 PM

    Do not let up on Keith Marshall. Repeat…do not let up on Keith Marshall.

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