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.