Last look back: Quarterback

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Nobody expects Irish fans to write a final love letter to Tommy Rees. But the senior quarterback, who played significant minutes in all four of Brian Kelly’s seasons in South Bend, is the quarterback of record for the Kelly era. None of that is Rees’s fault. And in some ways, it’s not really Kelly’s fault either.

Before we dig into Rees’ year that was, let’s take a look back at the period that allowed these four seasons to create the Tommy Rees era. To do that, we need to take a look back at the decade, and closer examine the decisions that brought the unlikely partnership of quarterback and coach together.

Consider this a refresher timeline of the decade that was at the quarterback position.

2003 — Even though Carlyle Holiday was coming off a solid season where he piloted the Irish to a 10-win season at quarterback, Brady Quinn took over the job after three games. Quinn played through some bumps and bruises, but Tyrone Willingham and his staff went all in on Quinn.

2003 QB Depth Chart
Brady Quinn, Fr.
Carlyle Holiday, Sr.
Pat Dillingham, Jr.

Though Quinn was locked into the starting job, the depth chart was precariously thin, and the Irish staff signed two quarterbacks. Unfortunately both quarterbacks were two-star prospects, with Darrin Bragg and David Wolke signing in February.

2004 — It was Quinn’s offense and while he improved, the Irish didn’t. Even though Quinn threw for 17 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a sophomore, after starting 5-2, the Irish faltered down the stretch, leading to the firing of Willingham after three seasons.

2004 QB Depth Chart
Brady Quinn, Soph.
Pat Dillingham, Sr.
Carlyle Holiday, Sr. (WR)
David Wolke, Fr.
Darrin Bragg, Fr.

While Charlie Weis stayed on to coach the Patriots during their Super Bowl run, he did keep the commitment of Evan Sharpley, a three-star quarterback that committed to Willingham in the summer.

2005 — It was Quinn or bust at quarterback for the Irish and the junior delivered a breakthrough season as the Irish offense exploded in Charlie Weis’ first season. But the scoring bonanza hide some of the depth chart issues, as Bragg had already been transitioned to wide receiver.

2005 QB Depth Chart
Brady Quinn, Jr.
David Wolke, Soph.
Evan Sharpley, Fr.

To remedy that problem, Weis brought in two quarterbacks. Pennsylvania quarterback Zach Frazer committed in April, while Demetrius Jones joined the class in August. Both were highly sought after players, with Jones the No. 2 dual-threat QB in the country, according to Rivals.com.

2006 — Brady Quinn put an impressive cap on his Irish career with another stellar season, throwing 37 touchdown passes against just seven interceptions. While the Irish didn’t ultimately play up to their lofty preseason status and lost ugly in their final two games to USC and LSU, Weis’ status as a QB guru was at its all time high.

2006 QB Depth Chart
Brady Quinn, Sr.
Evan Sharpley, Soph.
Zach Frazer, Fr.
Demetrius Jones, Fr.

No bigger fish in the pond than Jimmy Clausen. If you want a walk down memory lane, here you go:

***

2007 — And then it all went wrong. The bottom fell out for Weis, and the Irish went from back-to-back BCS runs to one of the worst teams in school history. Life after Brady Quinn was a veritable mess.

Zach Frazer, upon being named the No. 4 quarterback on the depth chart, decided to transfer. Jones went from opening weekend quarterback to not boarding the bus to Michigan. And just like that, Weis — just like Willingham had done — hit a hard reboot on the depth chart and handed the offense over to Clausen.

2007 QB Depth Chart
Demetrius Jones, So.
Evan Sharpley, Jr.
Jimmy Clausen, Fr.
Zach Frazer, So.

It still felt like reload, not rebuild for Weis, with the 2008 recruiting class ranked the No. 1 in the country by many publications.  That group was anchored by Dayne Crist, another five-star Southern California quarterback.

2008 — Just like Brady Quinn, Clausen improved in his sophomore season, but not enough to keep the Irish from struggling. A hot start ended with a screeching halt, and an ugly November was capped off with a brutal performance against USC.

2008 QB Depth Chart
Jimmy Clausen, So.
Evan Sharpley, Sr.
Dayne Crist, Fr.

If you’re looking for an example of questionable roster management, Notre Dame didn’t sign a quarterback in 2009, but did end up signing three specialists, long-snapper Jordan Cowart, punter Ben Turk and kicker Nick Tausch. That’s probably a product of seeing Clausen and Crist as the present and future, but it put the Irish in a precarious situation, especially if Clausen was intent on leaving after three seasons.

2009 — Even though the offense continued to be prolific, the defense couldn’t stop teams and the Irish kept losing. Another November swoon and a string of close losses cost Charlie Weis his job. With Weis gone, Clausen followed. So did Golden Tate, the Biletnikoff Winner. Neither went in the first round.

2009 QB Depth Chart
Jimmy Clausen, Jr.
Dayne Crist, Soph.
Evan Sharpley, Sr.*
Nate Montana, Jr. (Played at Pasadena Junior College)

When Kelly took over the roster, the first thing he noticed was a quarterback position that had Dayne Crist down for the season with a torn ACL, a graduated fifth-year senior and a walk-on son of a Notre Dame legend. You can’t blame him for knowing he needed to go out and get some bodies.

Kelly inherited Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix, but was seeking out a third quarterback. That he signed Luke Massa, a good athlete with college basketball options — and a teammate of touted left tackle prospect Matt James — made a ton of sense.

2010 — With Dayne Crist or bust at quarterback, Kelly had a first year starter with a five-star pedigree playing in a new system. He also had little safety net, with three freshmen breaking in and Nate Montana back from getting just limited reps in Juco football.

2010 QB Depth Chart
Dayne Crist, Jr.
Tommy Rees, Fr.
Nate Montana, Jr.
Luke Massa, Fr.

Crist’s knee injury ended up being the perfect storm. But Rees weathered it, almost amazingly leading the Irish to a late season winning streak after looking like a team that might not even qualify for a bowl game.

WHAT’S HAPPENED NEXT

We all know what happened after that, but it’s worth recapping. Rees and Crist battled heading into the 2011 season, with Crist laying an egg in the first half against USF and throwing the depth chart into chaos. To Crist’s credit, he stuck things out, and while Rees turned the ball over too much, the Irish offense was plenty explosive.

But Kelly continued to bring in quarterbacks, finding Everett Golson even after a three-man class and Gunner Kiel after that. That both weren’t on the roster last season gives you an idea of the twists and turns of recruiting college quarterbacks, but it should also give you some appreciation for the quarterback that could withstand it all.

FINAL STATS

GP-GS Effic. Cmp-Att-Int Pct. Yards TD Long Avg/G
Tommy Rees 13-13 135.4 224-414-13 54.1 3,257 27 82 250.5
Andrew Hendrix 8-0 27.9 2-14-0 14.3 56 0 47 7

 

TOP THREE PERFORMANCES

Bronze: Rees vs. Michigan State.

Don’t laugh. The numbers stink, a 41 percent completion percentage and just 142 yards and 14 of 34 passing. But Rees kept throwing it down field, and kept it out of the Spartans’ hands. That ended up being rather tough last season and the victory over Michigan State might be one of the more underrated performances and game plans that Brian Kelly has put together.

Silver: Rees vs. USC 

It was shaping up to be quite a day for Rees, who had struggled at times against the Trojans. But while a massive hit took him from the game, Rees was able to complete 14 of 21 passes for 166 and two touchdowns. He moved the Irish at tempo, connected on red zone opportunities and was just about in a position to put up some numbers when he wrenched his neck and the Andrew Hendrix experience went south.

Gold: Rees vs. Air Force

Any time you complete five touchdown passes and roll a team by 35 points you’ve done a nice job. Rees’ QBR was a ridiculous 260.7 as he went 17 for 22 for 284 yards.

PLEASANT SURPRISE

Downfield passing. You’d have won some money if you had Tommy Rees playing the “big play passing threat” this year. His improvement throwing the ball downfield was significant.

MILD DISAPPOINTMENT

Accuracy. Completing just 54.1 percent of throws was a bit disappointing, especially considering that Rees went into the season as the school’s most accurate passer.

CRYSTAL BALL

Golson. Lots of Golson.

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
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