Hendrix is ready to run the entire offense

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The evolution of Andrew Hendrix hasn’t been a gradual process. It started that way, with the sophomore quarterback getting his first snaps in situational packages, running the option and throwing the occasional high-percentage pass as he worked into the game plan as a complementary part to quarterback Tommy Rees.

Then the Stanford game happened.

It was there Hendrix was all but thrown into the fire, caution left behind with Dayne Crist all but out the door and Rees battered and ineffective in the first half against a Cardinal defense that harassed and confused the Irish starting quarterback.

A funny thing happened when Hendrix stopped running his small handful of plays and worked his way through a bigger chunk of Kelly’s playbook. The Irish offense looked better, especially with a running threat from the quarterback keeping the Cardinal defense honest.

Make no mistake, 11 of 24 with a touchdown and interception isn’t a great day behind center. But for a maiden voyage, Hendrix looked the part as captain of the Irish ship, and the month since then has changed the way both the head coach and the No. 2 quarterback look at things.

“There’s a different approach to it,” Brian Kelly said of Hendrix’s preparation. “He didn’t do much first unit work when we were using him as a situational player. So building a relationship with the first group and the offensive line, I think obviously that changed with his approach. He knows he’s not going in there with a package, he’s going in there to run the offense. There’s a focus and demeanor that’s different than earlier in the year.”

If there’s a major personnel storyline to follow in the Champs Sports Bowl, it’s the open audition Hendrix will have for the starting job in 2012. Make no mistake, the Irish aren’t playing for next year against the Seminoles — beating Florida State and getting to nine wins is incredibly important for Kelly and the Irish football program. But acknowledging that Hendrix will have full access to the playbook — including the running game that will never be a part of Rees’ repertoire — and you begin to understand just how big of an opportunity this is for Hendrix, and an Irish offense that’ll likely look much difference next year.

The race for the starting quarterback in 2012 can wait. Especially when facing a defense as explosive as the Seminoles, who have done a very good job shutting down running games and pressuring the quarterback, something Kelly expects Florida State to do.

“The first time Andrew goes in there, they’re going to blitz him,” Kelly said. “At least I would because he didn’t do as well picking up the blitz against Stanford when he went in there late. As long as he does that, he can play the entire game if it works that way.”

Kelly’s stayed mum on how the snaps will break down, stating only that both Rees and Hendrix will play. Whether it’s gamesmanship or just a truthful acknowledgement that there’s a lot of uncertainty behind center, we’ll find out on Thursday.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” Kelly said when pressed on the issue. “I want one of them to have the hot hand. If both of them have it, obviously we’re going to have to make it work. We’re going to play them both and see how it goes.”

After nearly an entire season of taking it slow, giving Hendrix the chance to “see how it goes” should give us an early idea if he’s ready to take over the offense.