NDFB practice

Irish eyes will be on the quarterbacks


Anyone that expected a tidy conclusion to the open four-man quarterbacking battle taking place under the close watch of Brian Kelly and new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin should’ve thought twice before making that assumption. With Kelly entering his third year in South Bend, a season that’s largely been a sink-or-swim proposition for Irish head coaches, Notre Dame will exit spring practice without having a starting quarterback.

It’s not lip service when Kelly says he’s giving every quarterback a chance to win the job. Whether that’s returning starter Tommy Rees, fellow junior-to-be Andrew Hendrix, redshirt freshman Everett Golson, or early-enrollee Gunner Kiel, the job is truly up for grabs. While many fans had hoped to see the stars align, it was never a battle the Irish staff expected to be resolve after 15 practices. Besides, you can’t blame the head coach for taking as much time as possible to make a decision that could likely have an impact on his fate as the face of the Fighting Irish.

“I need all those practices,” Kelly said, acknowledging that this race will bleed into August camp. “Now let’s go see who takes that and runs with it.”

Each quarterback isn’t without his own virtues. All four player bring something tangibly different to the table, and a logical argument can be made for every scholarship quarterback on the roster taking over the offense — an oddity that hasn’t existed in South Bend in over a decade. With talented players stocking the depth chart, spring wasn’t designed to be a competition, but rather a crash course on the fundamentals, this time applied by Kelly’s most trusted lieutenant.

“Each one of them has improved in the areas we’re looking for,” Kelly said. “The biggest point of emphasis was taking care of the football and not turning it over. We tracked all our throws, all of our decision-making, and I feel really good after the spring that our quarterbacks are well on their way to being the quarterbacks that we need, and that is very efficient, takes great care of the football, and can make the throws when necessary.”

There’s no exaggeration when Kelly claims the staff tracked every throw, and the progress made by a team that was a dreadful 118th in the country in turnover margin has been immediate. After throwing seventeen interceptions in 473 attempts last season, Irish quarterbacks have only thrown nine interceptions in 502 spring attempts.

We’ve spent thousands of words over the past few months looking at the candidates. Looking to get another perspective on things, I reached out to someone that’s probably been closer to these quarterbacks than just about anyone. Former Irish quarterback Matt Mulvey, the one-time captain of the Red Army, and Brian Kelly’s right-hand man on the sidelines, broke down the four quarterbacks with me, helping to give another look at the four-way battle that’ll likely continue until the Irish board a plane for Dublin.


The Skinny: Presumptive favorite to win the starting job after starting 12 games last season. Limited as a runner, and possessing the smallest arm of the four candidates, he’s got the best knowledge base of the offense, but needs to cut down a turnover rate.

Mulvey says: “He knows his job inside and out. Ninety-nine percent of those plays he made the right changes at the line. He’s got such a quick release and he protects himself so well that it’s hard to get to him. Right now, his knowledge of the playbook is far above the other three guys.”

My hunch: It’s Rees’ job to lose and Brian Kelly has all but said as much. While that might cause some bellyaching among the Irish faithful looking to break out one of the three shiny new cars in the garage, Kelly stated his opinion as candidly as possible: “Tommy’s thing was turnovers. If Tommy didn’t turn the football over at the rate he did last year, we’d be talking about this kid at the highest level. He did though, so that’s why it’s open competition.”


The Skinny: Possesses everything needed to be a top-flight collegiate quarterback. The best mix of runner and passer on the roster, Hendrix is a physically impressive athlete that is still a bit too mechanical as he finishes his third spring practice.

Mulvey says: “He’s capable of doing everything. He’s one of those Brady Quinn-type guys that’s a freak in the weight room. He’s a strong kid with an absolute cannon arm. That and his mobility are strengths. It comes down to knowing the playbook inside and out like it’s second nature. I think he’ll get more confidence with experience.”

My hunch: On paper, there’s nothing not to like about Hendrix. He tackles quarterbacking like he does his work in the classroom, with a tireless work ethic and diligence. But there’s an art to being a quarterback and the next evolutionary step for Hendrix is to find comfort in the uncertainty of the position. After missing out on the back-up quarterback reps last season with Dayne Crist still on the roster, he’ll benefit the most just by getting more time and comfort behind center.


The Skinny: The people’s champ, Golson’s skill-set is unrivaled. A natural athlete with preternatural instincts for the game, he’s got the athleticism of a point guard and an arm to make every throw on the field. Now the mental game needs to catch up to his abilities.

Mulvey says: “He’s so naturally gifted, he just grabs the ball and it comes out of his hands like a laser. It’s like watching Robert Griffin throw the football, just a flick of the wrist and it flies out of his hands. Sometimes you don’t know what’s going on in his head. He’ll run the right play, make the right read, and the right everything, but when you ask him about what his read and progression was he’ll hesitate. He’s come a long way with the playbook, and if he can instill some confidence in the coaches they will give him a shot.”

My hunch: A starting quarterback is in many ways an equity partner with the head coach. Golson has the biggest market cap of any of the competitors, but he’s also got the most risk. For a coach that just went through a season where erratic quarterback play sunk the offense, putting his team on the shoulders of a guy still learning is a big risk. He’s a true boom or bust candidate, but is the most intriguing player on the roster.


The Skinny: Early enrolled freshman is the first blue-chip quarterback Brian Kelly has every worked with. Swimming in the deep end for the first time, Kiel has an NFL set of talents that are just waiting to be developed.

Mulvey says: “He’s getting his fair chance and all the necessary reps. He’s coming in at the right time. They’ll give him his shot. Physically he’s got all the necessary tools, but high school is so much different than college. He needs to understand that he’s behind and he needs to catch up. Hopefully he’ll have a chip on his shoulder and work twice as hard as the other guys.”

My hunch: Kiel very well might be the quarterback of the future, but this spring as been a crash course in football, and Gunner’s head is probably still spinning. If Kiel emerges as a viable starting quarterback option, something has likely gone very wrong this season. There have been questions asked about Kiel’s potential by some analysts questioning his star rating. Those questions don’t exist on the Irish coaching staff, who know they’ve got a big-time prospect on their hands.

Pregame Six Pack: Anchors await

Chris Swain, Max Redfield

Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic. Work began on Mount Rushmore. The Jazz Singer ended the silent film era. Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. And Notre Dame played Navy in football for the first time.

The Irish won that contest 19-6, and the two teams have played every year since then. So much has changed since that first game, yet the longest running intersectional rivalry is still rolling on, stronger now than maybe ever.

While the Irish’s four game winning streak has extended their already lopsided series lead (Notre Dame holds a 74-12-1 edge), the ledger is hardly what makes the game special. An annual David & Goliath matchup, both schools remain committed the game, part of the unique bond that exists between the two institutions.

So much of this week has been made about the mutual respect between the two programs. A 30-minute documentary aired earlier this week. Both teams will share part of their uniform—as will the coaches on the sidelines—a tip of their cap to the shared history (and nifty corporate synergy) between respected opponents once again doing battle.

But make no mistake: All the respect talk this week doesn’t make this a friendly Saturday.

There is no love lost between the Irish and the Midshipmen on the field.  So while both teams may honor the other by standing during their respective alma mater, this is a game that each team desperately wants to win.

After a rain-soaked weekend in South Carolina, it looks like a dry Saturday in South Bend. So let’s put away the rain panchos and get to the Pregame Six Pack.


After watching the Georgia Tech game from the sideline, Max Redfield steps back into the starting lineup. 

Drue Tranquill begins his recovery from ACL surgery today, as fearless as ever. And while Matthias Farley has shown some playmaking ability against option attacks, Brian Kelly confirmed that Max Redfield would stay in the starting lineup against Navy.

Redfield is coming off his most productive game as a college football player, making 14 tackles—including 11 solo stops—against Clemson. Now Redfield will step into the one-high safety role, while Elijah Shumate will take over for Tranquill in the box.

“He plays the role that Shu played. Shu played the role that Tranquill played,” Kelly said.

That means it’ll be Shumate running the alley and handling the pitch man. And Redfield will be asked to serve both as the last line of defense and also make a difference in the option game as well.

Just about everybody who watched Redfield last week saw a different player than the one who was largely ineffective against Virginia as he tried to play through a broken thumb. And Kelly talked Thursday evening a little bit about the journey Redfield has taken to get there.

“Each kid is a little bit different in the way that football strikes them,” Kelly said. “He’s somebody that I think is looking at football through a different lens and understands that there are so many details to it… He wants to play at the highest level, he wants to play on Sundays. He wants to get his degree from Notre Dame. I think he’s just maturing and developing at a pace that’s comfortable to him.”


DeShone Kizer did more than just survive at Clemson. Can his silver-lining performance trigger a more explosive offense?

With the game on the line and Hurricane Joaquin creating a relentless rain storm, nobody would’ve thought putting the game on the shoulders of DeShone Kizer would be Notre Dame’s best chance to win. Yet that’s what Brian Kelly did, and Kizer very nearly pulled a rabbit out of the hat.

Navy doesn’t play defense like Clemson. While the Midshipmen’s defense is vastly improved (they rank just one spot behind Notre Dame in total defense heading into Saturday’s contest), they’ll be in a physical mismatch for most of the day, relying on turnovers and stops to limit the Irish offense.

But after serving as the unexpected engine of Notre Dame’s comeback last Saturday, Kizer looks capable of doing more than just game managing, especially for an offense that’s averaged seven touchdowns a game against Navy the past four years.

“I just think when you get opportunities to play on the road, leading your team back in the fourth quarter, you gain more of an understanding of a quarterback who’s got to make plays,” Kelly said. “I think we knew he was the guy that could handle the moment, he certainly was able to do that… I think it just added on to the fact that we’ve got a quarterback that can help us win a championship.”


For as challenging as slowing down Navy’s option is every year, Notre Dame fans sometimes forget that Navy’s got to find a way to stop the Irish, too. 

As mentioned just before, Notre Dame is scoring 48.25 points against Navy during their four-game winning steak. And one of the biggest challenges that Navy faces is Brian Kelly the playcaller.

Earlier this week, Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo talked about what makes Kelly’s offense so good and why Notre Dame’s head coach is so difficult to stop.

“Coach Kelly, I’ve always admired the way he calls plays. Some play-callers bury their face in their call sheet, but he’s watching the game,” Niumatalolo said. “But if he sees something, he’s going to exploit it. He’s got a great feel for the game. We’ve got to be able to adjust. We’ve got some ideas of what we can do, but he’s going to adjust very quickly to us and we’ve got to be able to adjust.”

Expect Kelly to try and get the ground game back rolling again after a difficult weekend at Clemson. And with veteran safety Kwazel Betrand likely lost for the year with after suffering a broken ankle against Air Force, the back end will be tested as well.

It’s a challenge at every level for Navy. And with Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford keeping the offense moving, it’ll stress the Midshipmen like no other game on their schedule.


Even with one loss, Kelly still thinks Notre Dame controls their own destiny. 

Earlier this week, Brian Kelly hopped on SiriusXM radio with Stephen A. Smith. And while on Tuesday Kelly said he wasn’t sure if a one-loss team could get into the College Football Playoff, he sounded more confident that the Irish still controlled their own destiny when he was talking to Smith.

“After you lose, you’re going to take that bump. That’s really part of it,” Kelly said, sounding unworried about the slide to No. 15. “I think we have a really good football team. We did not play up to the level we’re capable of and you should fall considerably because of it.”

But Kelly thinks the Irish have a schedule in front of them that can allow them to step back into the race. And while it’s still way, way, way too soon to be wondering if the Irish have the schedule needed to qualify without a conference title game, Kelly seemed to think winning out would solve all of those problems. (Even with USC’s Thursday night loss to Washington.)

“The great part of it is that we’ve got a schedule in front of us that’ll allow us to control our own destiny,” Kelly said. “If we continue to play better football and we’re a better football team in November than we are right now, we’ve got a chance to be where we need to be at the end of the year.”



For Notre Dame to win, they need to slow down Navy’s option specialist, record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds

Justin Thomas may have gotten all the preseason attention from Irish fans. But Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds is the more dangerous of the option trigger-men. The senior quarterback and leader of the Midshipmen will finish his college career as one of the most prolific players in college football history.

Reynolds has already scored nine touchdowns this season and his 73 career rushing touchdowns tied for second most in college football history, only four behind Montee Ball‘s record. At 25-11, his 25 wins as a starter are the most in Navy history, third most among active NCAA players.

Reynolds saw his first action as a freshman in 2012, thrown into action in Dublin after starting quarterback Trey Miller went down. Looking for his first victory against the Irish, Reynolds cherishes the opportunity to come to South Bend and fight for one.

“I’m excited. Playing at Notre Dame Stadium. I wouldn’t want to go out any other way,” Reynolds said. “It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a tough challenge. They’re a very, very good team. It’s the best team we’re going to see, they’re a Top 10 team in the country, even with a loss.”


This is Ken Niumatalolo’s best Navy team. And he knows it needs to play perfect to beat Notre Dame. 

During this week’s Onward Notre Dame: Mutual Respect documentary, we saw the large photo that hangs on the office wall of Ken Niumatalolo—the chaos and happiness of Midshipmen celebrating after they shocked Notre Dame in 2007, ending a 43-year losing streak.

While Niumatalolo was just the offensive line coach at the time, he acknowledged just how important that victory was to his program.

“For us it was a great accomplishment. I have [the picture] up there because they’re hard to beat and it doesn’t come too often, so we had to relish that one time we beat them in 2007,” Niumatalolo said in the documentary. “A big part of that picture just shows the jubilation of years trying to get over the hump.”

If there was ever a Navy team that’s well positioned to make a shocking statement at Notre Dame Stadium again, it might be this team. Outside of sophomore right tackle Robert Lindsey and sophomore linebacker D.J. Palmore, every starter on Navy is an upperclassman.

The offensive line doesn’t have a man smaller than 275 pounds, a much larger unit than you’re used to from Navy’s standards. The entire backfield is seniors, led by Reynolds but tag-teamed with fullback Chris Swain and slotbacks Desmond Brown and DeBrandon Sanders.

Even with Reynolds and a veteran group of talent, this group knows it can’t afford to make any mistakes, especially in the turnover column.

“It’s priority each and every week. But especially this week,” Reynolds said. “We can’t give them any [turnovers]. They’re very very good on offense, we can’t put our defense in a bind by giving them a short field. We understand the importance of ball security this week and having zero turnovers.”

Defensively, Dale Pehrson has taken over for Buddy Green as defensive coordinator while Green recovers from offseason surgery. With a veteran front seven and some talent on the back end, this isn’t a hapless defense just hoping to capitalize on an Irish mistake, but rather a defense that Kelly said is befitting of a Top 25 team.

Still, it’ll take more than just Niumatalolo’s best team to beat Notre Dame—they’ll need the Irish to falter. But in the midst of a four-game losing streak against the Irish, expect Navy to empty their arsenal to do anything to get a win.

“We’ve had a hard time making the plays,” Niumatalolo said about the last four years. But this is our best defense that we’ve had. We’ll go in there and take a shot at them. They’re really good. Always have been.”


Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”