Rees Golson Kiel

Spring Solutions: Quarterback

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It’s been a long time since Notre Dame’s quarterback position has had the type of stability that it now enjoys. So while Brian Kelly likely touted the idea that every quarterback would be competing for the starting job, you can’t blame redshirt freshman Gunner Kiel for reading the writing on the wall.

With Everett Golson returning after an impressive freshman campaign, and back-up seniors Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix still viable options in case the case of an injury, Kiel’s path to the starting lineup didn’t look any closer, with a source telling me that Kelly told Kiel he’d open at No. 3 heading into spring drills.

With Kiel’s high-profile departure, a few new scenarios open up. For early enrollee Malik Zaire, the starting lineup just got a whole lost closer, especially with Rees and Hendrix not long for the Irish roster after this season. And as the Irish coaching staff canvas the country for elite prep arms, a spot on the roster for a 2014 quarterback just got a whole lot more attractive.

Let’s take a look at the projected positional depth chart, and set some spring goals for the Irish quarterbacks.

2013 QUARTERACK DEPTH CHART

1. Everett Golson, Jr.
2. Tommy Rees, Sr.
3. Andrew Hendrix, Sr.
4. Malik Zaire, Fr.

SPRING OBJECTIVES

Everett Golson: There’s plenty of good to take away from Golson’s debut season. Namely, Golson’s impressive work leading the Irish to a 12-1 record, and throwing twice as many touchdowns as interceptions, no easy task for a freshman learning on the job.

Still, there were some very visible growing pains this season for the rising junior quarterback, and this spring should be the time where Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin ride Golson hard, challenging the quarterback to match his football acumen with his athleticism.

We’ve learned a few things about Golson after his first season at the helm of the Irish offense. We knew he had the arm strength needed to make every throw on the field. We also knew he had the ability to evade the pass rush, extending plays with his legs by keeping his eyes down field. And while we thought Golson would anchor a zone-read heavy running game, there’s not the top end, break-away speed at quarterback that many expected, though that hardly prohibits the Irish from utilizing Golson on the ground.

Matching up Golson’s debut season with Irish quarterbacks of the past isn’t a safe exercise. If it were the point would quickly be rendered moot. It blew the doors off of just about every first-year starter in modern history with hardly a comparable — unless you consider the unlikely debut of Matt LoVecchio.

There’s no question Golson is the quarterback of the future. But for the Irish to have another great season, they’ll need the offense not limited by its quarterback, but thriving because of him.

Tommy Rees: After a season spent vindicating himself after Irish fans put 2011’s underwhelming performance on his shoulders, Rees reframed his legacy with an incredible season in relief. Called upon in multiple high leverage situations, Rees answered the bell in each case, helping the Irish seal victories against Purdue, Michigan, Stanford, BYU, Oklahoma, and Pitt.

While his stats actually took a step backwards from his sophomore season numbers, Rees embodied the personality of the offense — a resilient player that might not have been impressively efficient, but gutted the job out and got it done.

In his final season of eligibility, expect Rees to once again be a fireman. And with Golson more at ease in the starting job, if Rees does see the field it’ll be for a very specific reason. Still, at every program, veteran leadership at the quarterback position is a valuable commodity. For Rees, that could be cashed in helping Golson in the film room, helping Zaire learn the ropes, and the offense in the clutch.

Andrew Hendrix: After losing the training camp battle for the starting job, Hendrix became the odd man out in the offense. He saw action in only a handful of games, putting together a stat line in only three games, Navy, BYU, and Wake Forest.

At this point, it’s clear what Hendrix is and what he isn’t. And while he possesses a skillset unique to the quarterback depth chart, it’s pretty clear that the offensive plans don’t include the once highly touted recruit from Cincinnati.

While Hendrix’s career might continue somewhere else in 2014, he’s not likely to go anywhere until after he receives his degree from Notre Dame. And in the meantime, with the depth chart established ahead of him, maybe there’s finally a package that can utilize the battering ram of a quarterback. Sure, the window closed on Hendrix being the next rifle armed passer at Notre Dame. But that doesn’t mean the offense can’t carve out a role for him.

Malik Zaire: This season just got a whole lot more interesting for Zaire, who no longer sees a logjam in front of him. That said, his job will likely be the same as it would’ve been with Kiel still on campus. Zaire will take part in spring drills, likely drinking from the same fire hydrant that overwhelmed Rees, Hendrix and Golson.

But that hasn’t stopped Zaire from preparing like he’s fighting for a job. The freshman is down in Arizona training with veteran teammates over spring break, forgoing time at home with his family for a few extra minutes of conditioning and drill work in the desert. It may not pay off in the short term, but it gives you a very good idea of what kind of player the Irish have waiting in the wings.

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.