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Five things we’ll learn: Kicking off 2011

Aug 5, 2011, 3:23 PM EDT

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As Brian Kelly stepped to the podium this afternoon, it had been 217 days since he led the Notre Dame football team in a contest that mattered. Last we saw Kelly’s Fighting Irish, they were embarrassing a former rival in the Sun Bowl, jumping all over a wayward Miami Hurricane squad that was adrift after firing their head coach Randy Shannon. Thanks to big days by Michael Floyd, Harrison Smith and Tommy Rees, the Irish took a 30-3 lead into the fourth quarter before coasting to a 33-17 victory.

“Clearly, we’re gaining a lot of confidence,” Kelly said after the victory in a snow-dusted El Paso, Texas. “We’ve beaten some good football teams late in the year as we’ve come together and found our identity. It’s going to taste a whole lot better in the offseason talking about a win.”

Irish fans learned quite a bit from Brian Kelly during that first season, an 8-5 effort beset by injuries to key players and major speed-bumps both on and off the field. While an undefeated November and resounding bowl victory had the Irish trending upwards, that first season was what many eight-win seasons are — a bottom line devoid of any resounding conclusions.

Yet the work Kelly did in those 217 days — convincing Michael Floyd to return for his senior season, bringing in a recruiting haul filled with defensive players not seen in recent memory, and his player-first approach to handling Floyd’s March DUI — all seem to have people feeling bullish about the Irish. For a coach many worried would struggle with the off-the-field challenges associated with being the face of college football’s most visible program, Kelly’s biggest challenge in his second year as coach of the Irish is to have his on-the-field work match up with his administrative success.

As Brian Kelly kicked off the Irish’s preseason camp with a media session, here are five things we’ll learn before the Irish’s September 3 date with South Florida.

1. Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson will compete for the starting quarterback job.

When 15 spring practices weren’t enough time to decide who would start fall camp as the No. 1 quarterback, Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar decided to take the competition into fall camp. In Crist and Rees, the Irish staff know what they have. In Hendrix and Golson, they’re unsure of what that’ll be on the field, but they’re fairly certain it’ll be something a bit more versatile.

While last season, Kelly and company went into camp with Dayne Crist as the only option, entering 2011 there’s a comfort in not knowing how the process will shake out just yet.

“You can make the case for any one of them,” Kelly said. “In camp, we have to do a great job of giving them the appropriate reps necessary to make these kinds of decisions.

“We have to be able to maximize the 85 guys on our roster. If we find out there’s a quarterback that can add something to the game, we need to do that.”

Based on their experience last season, Crist and Rees will be the first quarterbacks given the opportunity to win the job. But Kelly was open about finding ways to use quarterbacks as a change of pace or offensive spark, something that clearly wasn’t an option in 2010. The Irish will use the first 19 practice sessions to evaluate the roster before spending two weeks preparing for South Florida. Expect the starter to be announced a week or two before the opener, as Kelly doesn’t feel the Irish need the tactical advantage of keeping the decision “stealth.”

2. Nobody at Notre Dame is sastisfied being in the preseason Top 25.

Any recognition Notre Dame is getting in the preseason polls (they were just ranked 18th in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll) won’t be going to anybody’s head just yet.

“I don’t walk around with my Top 25 t-shirt on,” Kelly quipped. “I think I’ve said this pretty clearly and our players are in this for the same reason, I want to be in Bob Stoops’ position today, where he’s talking about being No. 1. That’s why we’re here. We want to get to the point where we’re part of the conversation as a chanpionship caliber football team. We’re not there yet. We’re thrown in the mix there, 18 to 25, pick a number out of the hat.”

Of course, some people are much more bullish on the Irish, with a few preseason publications having the Irish inside the top ten. Kelly was wise to brush off any serious questions about August rankings, as great expectations haven’t been a friend of the Irish in recent years.

3. Evaluating the Irish roster is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

When answering questions on a local sports talk radio show earlier this week, Brian Kelly revealed an interesting technique the Irish coaching staff uses to evaluate their own players. The staff evaluates every player on a three point system. If a player receives a three, he’s capable of playing championship football. If a player receives a two, he’s capable of playing winning football. If a player receives a one, he’s not ready to play.

“Last year, we had a hard time identifying threes,” Kelly said to a caller. “This year, we have a boatload of threes. You still have to put it together as a team, but we feel obviously a year into it, we have more players at that level of playing championship style football.”

Taking a quick run through both the offensive and defensive units, it’s pretty easy to see the development on the roster in one calendar year.

4. Brian Kelly wants Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray to carry the load at running back.

If there’s a spot where depth is more than a little spotty on the roster, it’s at running back. That said, Cierre Wood is coming off his first season in the lineup and he led the team in yards while averaging more than five yards a carry. But Wood can’t carry the load alone. Kelly may have referenced incoming freshman Cam McDaniel and George Atkinson in his press conference, but there’s no doubt he’s counting on senior Jonas Gray to step up and excel during his senior season.

“Jonas Gray is a very important piece,” Kelly said on air. “We expect him to play like Robert Hughes did for us last year, but faster. If he plays like that, we’re going to be in a very good position with those two running backs. We think that both of those guys can handle the chores we’re going to need at that position.”

5. If the Irish are going to meet their goals, it’s BCS or bust.

Sure the target for Irish fans is the BCS every season. But when the head coach acknowledges the same goal, it’s pretty clear that expectations are ramped up entering into year two of the Kelly era.

“I don’t know at Notre Dame that you can pick out a bowl,” Kelly said. ” We don’t have a lot of options for bowls, it’s BCS for us. If it’s a conference championship at Cincinatti or a MAC Championship at Central Michigan, it was a national championship at Grand Valley, here at the University of Notre Dame it’s a BCS bowl game. We can’t set the goal board any other way. What do you throw out there, Sun Bowl? Champs Bowl? We just don’t have any way other than set the bar at the BCS. I knew that coming in.”

With 29 practices before the Irish take the field against South Florida, both coaches and players will work toward that singular goal.

  1. jerseyshorendfan1 - Aug 5, 2011 at 3:54 PM

    Dog days of summer can’t go fast enough. BCS or bust. Go Irish.

    • wisebury - Aug 6, 2011 at 2:47 PM

      With the caliber of players on this roster, the bar should be set at a championship level. This is Notre Dame, we don’t have to settle for good. Championship or bust! The only thing that would hold them back is that Dayne Crist, the best QB on the roster by far, doesn’t fit into this system. It’s like Phillip Rivers trying to play for Urban Meyer.

  2. nudeman - Aug 5, 2011 at 3:59 PM

    I find myself itchy to see what Hendrix can do, and I say that as a Crist supporter.

    I’ve heard so much about him, his talent, how he’s ideal for the spread offense, how he was so highly recruited, etc; and I’d hate to see the kid get impatient and transfer. But barring an injury, it’s not cleaar to me how he gets on the field anytime soon.

    • ajarkoski - Aug 5, 2011 at 10:37 PM

      There have been several successful implementations of dual QBs in the past and Coach Kelly seems to be quite the engineer at pulling off a scheme. Let’s say you do a Holtz and start Hendrix off with a series of set plays to start the second half (always defer the coinc toss). As Hendrix gains confidence and shows results, you might throw him in at several points in the game to shake up the opposition’s defense and spell Crist or the starter at times. Also, for His sake, put in a replacement when the lead is good and the game in hand. If you always put in a player when the game is out of reach in mop up situations and/or mountrous leads, I don’t think they would feel any pressure and develop as you want them to with the game on the line. Red Shirt Golsen. Rees is clipboard/signal guy as your number one backup. He should also get time to keep him fresh. That is how I see it play out. I think a solid season is about to be witnessed.

      • wisebury - Aug 6, 2011 at 2:50 PM

        Golsen is the future, perfect fit for the system. Forget about Hendrix, they need to get Golsen on the field immediatly.

      • irishfan2791 - Aug 6, 2011 at 4:16 PM

        I think Crist is the starter, no doubt none of the other three have the Arm that Crist does. When he is “on” the kid could take us to a National Championship, the problem is he is learning and new system and trying to rebound from a second knee injury. But, if healthy to preform Crist is far and away the best option. Rees is the safety valve, He is the prototype back-up quarterback, he has just enough ability to manage the game and make the throws e should make. I LOVE Hendrix, the kid has it all he’s got the arm, and the legs to be a real threat in this system, reminds me a lot of that Zach Collaros that Kelley had at Cinncy. Golson, I think is going to be the guy that pushes Hendrix to be a better QB because I think they have the same running ability but Hendrix gets the nod for having the better arm. Overall, I think Crist is the guy, Rees is the back-up and Hendrix is the QB is waiting. Unfortunately, I don’t see a place for Golson is the scheme of things unless someone goes down.

      • mcowdery - Aug 21, 2011 at 9:06 PM

        I like the idea of a dual quarterback system, especially when it uses younger qb’s that could use the experience, albeit only as a change of pace. You have to have a #1 guy. By the way I’m not an Irish fan I just happen to be passing though lol :)

  3. Picked_Off - Aug 5, 2011 at 4:42 PM

    I would have to say, if it’s BCS or bust it’s going to be Crist at QB. He was having a hell of a season last year before he got knocked out. Looking forward to a monster season out of him and Floyd. Go Irish!

    • nudeman - Aug 5, 2011 at 4:54 PM

      Agree. I love Crist.
      Big, good arm, mobile (enough).
      Seems like a future NFLer to me.

  4. gtizzo - Aug 5, 2011 at 8:46 PM

    You have it covered Keith,

    I’m starting a pool how many times will Brain Kelly have to answer questions about academic standards at Notre Dame? 15 minimum you take the over or the under.
    Correct if I”m wrong don’t all ND coaches get this question? Nice article, QB situation is interesting I think it is Rees only because he is on a winning streak. Don’t mess with a hot QB.

  5. jmset3 - Aug 5, 2011 at 10:49 PM

    Don’t mess with a hot QB? That was over 200 days ago. At some point, you are no longer considered hot. Rees was undefeated as a starter, but he looked lost in that USC game. The defense carried him during that winning streak, as he did a fantastic job of playing within himself, and limiting mistakes.

    Crist is clearly the guy here, with Hendrix being the backup.

  6. joeschu - Aug 6, 2011 at 8:56 AM

    Great article… it is Cincinnati (not 2 t’s).

    To me, this whole thing hinges on:

    Crist isn’t the dud he looked like in the spring games and at times last year. If he can level out into a BQ-like trajectory, things could get fun.
    The RB’s stay healthy
    We get some ’93-like breaks

    • borromini - Aug 6, 2011 at 11:02 AM

      I’ll pass on ’93-like breaks if we’re talking about Boston College. I prefer ’88-like breaks. :-)

      • joeschu - Aug 8, 2011 at 8:54 AM

        I was talking more about the “Kevin McDougal comes out of nowhere” break than the “Pete Bersich can’t catch the ball, BC’s kicker makes a kick double his career long, and somehow Bowden is a sentimental favorite” breaks.

        (sad class of ’95 grad)

  7. 1historian - Aug 6, 2011 at 11:18 AM

    I’m picking Hendrix.

    Crist has ideal size, etc. – But things don’t happen when he’s in there.

    Rees – started because he had enrolled early. Hendrix was a semester behind – now he has caught up and – based on everything I’ve read about him – I think he is just better than Rees.

    Golson – Much too small now.

    I freely admit I’m just going on what I’ve read but I just don’t think Crist is that good, Rees is ok but nothing special, and Hendrix seems to have that x-factor.

  8. irisheyesinsd - Aug 6, 2011 at 12:34 PM

    Totally unrelated to football, but I couldn’t help but noticing the differences between the picture of Kelly at the top of this article compared to Kelly at the presser yesterday. Looks like Kelly’s been dialing up the Just For Men over the summer.

    • jerseyshorendfan1 - Aug 7, 2011 at 4:48 PM

      It’s kind of like looking at a President after they’ve been in office for awhile and after they’ve been shown the CIA Book of Secrets……you know, the one that tells the truth about aliens, who really shot JFK, etc. In all seriuosness, Kelly really had a stress filled first year at the helm and I give him a lot of credit for coming through it so well.

  9. papadec - Aug 7, 2011 at 7:30 PM

    I was thinking the same thing regarding the Head Coaching position at any major program – more so at ND. The top three most stressful positions have to be: President of the U.S.A., Mayor of New York City, Head Coach @ ND. No way any of those people can please everybody – all of the time.

  10. olemantj - Aug 9, 2011 at 4:26 PM

    5 Things ???? Only need to learn one thing and that will happen during the first half of the first game vs. USF…..is this team ready to handle being a big time program. Period. End of story. You can break it down any way you want…..who’s the QB, how’s the DB situation, enough RB’s…………..Bottom line is will this team be ready to be a big time program. That is the question which needs to be answered and won’t be till the first game.

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