Quarterback plans signal next year can wait

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Beating Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl is a big deal for Brian Kelly and the Fighting Irish. His decision to keep Tommy Rees the starting quarterback proves that. In a bowl game that most fans see as equal parts rivalry and exhibition game, the Kelly regime needs a victory to keep the football program moving in the right direction.

There’s plenty of time for the Irish to figure out who’s going to be starting behind center when the Irish take on Navy in Dublin next September, not to mention how to split up reps next spring during one of the more interesting spring practices of recent memory. So forgive Kelly and his staff if they aren’t engaged in the daily debate amongst Irish fans about who should play quarterback not just against the Seminoles but into the future.

“It will be a topic that gets debated and I understand that — it’s the quarterback at Notre Dame,” Kelly said.

But that debate needs to wait until after the season is over, and that’s the main reason why Kelly is sticking with Rees behind center instead of promising sophomore Andrew Hendrix. The Irish need a win. And after twelve games and a season filled with highs and lows, Kelly still believes Rees is his best bet to beat the Seminoles and keep momentum going into the final days of recruiting.

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Back to back 8-5 seasons isn’t what anyone had in mind — Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick included. But a victory against Florida State, a team that had even higher preseason expectations than the Irish, will be enough progress to keep recruits interested in the Irish as the staff heads down the home stretch in a two-year quest to land the skill portion of the first phase of rebuilding this program.

There’s little doubt that Stanford revealed another blueprint for limiting Rees’ production in Kelly’s offense. He was a stationary target in the pocket. His inability to run neutralized the ground game, while his less than accurate deep ball allowed the defense to shrink the top of the field as well. But given a month to rebound from his worst game of the season last year — a 20-16 victory over USC — Rees came out firing against Miami in the Sun Bowl, hitting Michael Floyd over the top of a talented Hurricanes secondary for 35 yards on the game’s opening drive and again for a 34 yard touchdown strike on the second drive. For the Irish to win with a young quarterback that had just given the ball away multiple times against USC, they needed to be efficient with their shots and protect the football. Rees did exactly that after a month of coaching and game planning. Naysayers will argue that Rees put those numbers up against a Hurricanes team in free-fall. That may be true, but it was also the No. 3 passing defense in the country. You can say a lot of things about Tommy Rees, but he’s certainly resilient. After a month to recover after his worst game of the season, he’ll likely be ready to come out firing.

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Dayne Crist‘s announced transfer could actually be seen as a stabilizing factor in a quarterbacking situation that seemed precarious. If the Irish season went according to plan and Crist made it through the first half of South Florida, the 2012 depth chart could be anyone’s guess. Would Hendrix stick around — likely still third or fourth on a depth chart that may or may not include another talented freshman recruit? Could Kelly keep four scholarship quarterbacks happy for a second season in a row? Some people will knowledge of the program thought Crist’s transfer would come before this season, seeing him as a square peg in Kelly’s round hole offense. Rees’ ability to think quickly and distribute in the spread offense make him a step forward, but he’s still one evolutionary step behind guys like Hendrix and Everett Golson. With Rees, Kelly has a known commodity — a guy that can clearly win football games, but has also struggled through some ugly growing pains as the Irish program moves forward according to Kelly’s blueprint.

Of course, prepping for the season’s final game won’t stop people from looking ahead. Spring practices, summer workouts, a 2012 schedule that looks the part of a meat-grinder, all point to an offense that needs to make a big step forward, and do so without Mike Floyd. Is Hendrix the best fit moving forward? What about Golson, a guy that this coaching staff is incredibly high on? What will Gunner Kiel do to the mix if he signs on the dotted line? More questions than answers, and all of them need to wait until after December 29th.

“I didn’t want any debate within our program,” Kelly said. “I wanted our guys to know, here’s our starter, here’s where we’re going.”

We might forget sometimes, but a coach never forgets that long term planning can wait. Especially when there are games left on the schedule, the only objective valuation of a head coach’s performance. For Kelly, a ninth win means progress, even if it’s only incremental. A loss throws a bundle of negativity, not to mention a lost year of forward momentum, on an offseason that’s already going to be filled with questions.

When given the option, Kelly went with what he knows best — and that’s Rees at quarterback. But as most smart coaches do, he did so with a caveat.

“I think you all know that Andrew Hendrix can do some things that can help our football team and we need to see him as well,” Kelly said.

That’s true. Now and in the future.