Kelly declares 2011 quarterback derby open

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Brian Kelly met with the media today as the Notre Dame student body finished up with their final exams and addressed one of the million dollar questions that’ll take over once the Irish play Miami in the Sun Bowl: Who will be the starting quarterback against USF to kickoff 2011?

“I think we have a lot of players that I believe we can develop into being front line quarterbacks,” Kelly said. “We clearly have a number of quarterbacks and it’ll be competitive. That’s exciting for me. I hope that it’s not murky. I hope it’s just a great competition, and whoever wins that slot is better because it’s a very competitive situation.”

In other words, Kelly was unwilling to name Dayne Crist, or any of the quarterbacks on the roster, the frontrunner for the starting job come spring practice.

While it’ll probably be an exercise we’ll repeat a half dozen times before the spring, let’s take a good look at the quarterback depth chart and lays some early odds on who’ll end up starting against Skip Holtz and the South Florida Bulls next September 3rd.

DAYNE CRIST
(Odds — 5:2)

A couple of weeks ago we crunched Crist’s numbers against three high profile quarterbacks that replaced Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy and Dayne more than held his own. But watching the season play out, it was obvious that Crist wasn’t fully comfortable running Kelly’s spread option yet, and the first year starter showed some growing pains that many hoped the junior quarterback wouldn’t experience.

With Crist battling his second major knee surgery in as many football seasons, his mental and physical ability to battle back from a torn patellar tendon will determine if he can return as the starting quarterback.

“If he comes back physically able to compete at the highest level, he’s got obviously a great deal of experience,” Kelly said about Crist. “There’s a lot of time that we spent together. A lot of information he’s been able to digest in his first year as a starter. As long as he’s physically able to come back, and I believe he will, he’s got a great amount of experience that’s going to serve him well.”

Kelly disclosed that Crist suffered an infection in his surgically repaired knee that set him back 7-10 days in his rehab, and the timeline on his recovery will largely determine whether or not Dayne will fully participate in spring practice.

Crist lacks the true mobility needed in a spread quarterback to do damage on the ground, but he possesses all the arm strength needed to pilot a Notre Dame offense that could have a ton of weapons back in 2011. Was his first year starting what optimistic Irish fans hoped for? Probably not. But Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar have far too good of a track record with quarterbacks to count Crist’s ability to develop into a great one out, especially if Dayne responds to another bump in the road.

“From everything I’ve seen from the way he’s rehabbed, he’s already past that mentally because he had to go through it the first time,” Kelly said. “I see in him a different look in his eye like, ‘Coach, I’m going to get through this and be stronger because of it.’ Once he’s healthy, he’ll have a chance to compete and be a starter.”

TOMMY REES
(Odds — 4:1)

If Rees didn’t struggle mightily against USC, I’d be inclined to put him in a dead heat with Crist. But the freshman showed his age in the Coliseum, and reminded those that forgot what a true freshman quarterback looks like playing on the road.

Even with his struggles against USC, it’s hard not to be impressed with what Rees has done in such a short time on campus. The freshman enrolled early at Notre Dame, walking away from a senior season of high school basketball because the Irish depth chart was so precarious. Described as drinking from a fire hydrant by Kelly in the preseason, Rees’ career began as inauspiciously as it could, misplaying a two-step read on a trick play against Michigan and throwing an interception on his opening series.

But Rees’ development was impressive, and Kelly and company prescient decision to put the freshman in against Navy in mop-up time could be one of the key coaching decisions made all year. Rees completed six of seven throws as he marched the Irish offensive down the field for a touchdown, a meaningless score in a lopsided game, but an incredibly important one in developing a backup quarterback that would take the reins as number one just a week later.

Rees has had a month to prepare for his next start, and his skillset will come in handy against a Hurricane pass-rush that is among the best the Irish have seen.

“Being in the shotgun allows us to get the ball out on time and quicker,” Kelly said. “Tommy is good about getting the ball out of his hands. We’re going to rely on some of his strengths, and that is, he’s pretty accurate and can get it out quickly.”

Again, Rees isn’t one of those quarterbacks that’ll wow you with his physical attributes and will pilot a two-dimensional spread attack. But if we’ve learned anything since he took over against Tulsa, he’s got the ability to win football games, a skill that this coaching staff truly values.

ANDREW HENDRIX
(Odds — 6:1)

Even with Crist going down with a season-ending injury, Kelly has been careful to save the eligibility of Hendrix, who became the emergency third-string quarterback for the game against Army. But it’s hard not to be intrigued by the raw freshman’s skillset, which Kelly described when comparing him to Rees.

“You can see the athleticism of Hendrix, strength of arm, and then you can see the strengths that Tommy has in picking up a game plan, where it comes natural to him,” Kelly said. “You go into a practice and he understands what you’re trying to accomplish. He’s got to be able to accomplish those things, but his recognition is really good for a true freshmen, and you can see the athleticism of an Andrew Hendrix, but it’s hard to put it all together right now because he has a very, very shallow base of what we want to accomplish.”

Having watched Hendrix from the sideline throwing the ball with the other quarterbacks, he’s got every bit the arm and athleticism of anyone else on the roster. But there’s no question that he’s the rawest prospect on the Irish roster, even if you include soon to be incoming freshman…

EVERETT GOLSON
(Odds — 8:1)

If you’re a betting man, you’d be wise to throw a little money on this darkhorse candidate. While he’s undersized to play D-I quarterback in a system that requires the quarterback to take some hits, Golson is probably the ideal fit for Kelly’s offense and has all the tools necessary to walk in and compete for a starting job.

I’m not one to wax on about a quarterback that I’ve never seen in person and whose only game footage I’ve seen comes via highlight tape, but Golson’s offer to play North Carolina basketball, his leadership and ability to overcome an injury plagued season and lead his team to a South Carolina state championship (and a very good head on his shoulders) has me about as excited for a incoming freshman quarterback since a spiky haired Southern California kid flashed some state championship rings at the College Football Hall of Fame.

LUKE MASSA
(Odds — 15:1)

He’s been a bit of a forgotten man behind fellow freshman Rees and Golson, but Luke Massa has plenty of the tools that are needed to be a starting college quarterback, and you’d be silly to count out anyone when you’re dealing with Brian Kelly and quarterbacks.

Kelly singled out Massa early in preseason camp for doing some great work, and had this to say about the freshman quarterback when he signed his letter-of-intent.

“Very smart, very disciplined,” Kelly said of Massa. “He’s 6-5, 205-pounds. He’s going to be really big. He’s going to be a strong player. He’s got great feet, he’s an outstanding basketball player.”

Massa winning the job out of camp next year would be an incredible upset. But who thought that Tommy Rees would lead the Irish to an undefeated November? If anything has become apparent this season, it’s that have the head to run Kelly’s offense is far more important than having the body. Kelly had a long time to evaluate the Ohio native, had recruited him as a quarterback when he was coaching at Cincinnati, and obviously saw enough in him to bring him to South Bend. What that means for his future, we’ll find out.

NATE MONTANA
(Odds — 25:1)

While it’d be the best story to cover, I just don’t see how Nate Montana battles his way up the depth chart with the stack of recruited quarterbacks in front of him. That said, watching Montana in the tail end of the season, I was impressed with how fluid he threw the football, and I get the feeling that Kelly could figure out how to win a football game with Nate behind center, something the Irish obviously couldn’t do earlier in the year.

The fact that Nate’s in the two-deep and able to play serviceable minutes is an accomplishment in and of itself, especially considering he struggled to play even mediocre football when he transferred to Pasadena City College for playing time instead of being buried on the bench under Charlie Weis, and didn’t play much football at even the high school level.

So while we won’t get much time to write about how the Son of Joe woke up the echoes and lead the Irish to victory, Nate’s done everything asked of him, even with a lot thrust on his shoulders.