Kelly announces QB derby a four-man race heading into spring

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In his first official press conference marking the start of spring practice, it didn’t take long for Brian Kelly to field a question about his unsettled quarterback depth chart. In fact, it was the first one asked. With the Irish plagued by inconsistency at the position last season, and going through three different options last year, Kelly announced it was open season at the position most responsible for offensive competency next season.

“I think it’s important that if they’re all going to get an equal opportunity to compete for the position,” Kelly said.

With that, the four-man race between juniors Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix, sophomore Everett Golson, and early-enrollee Gunner Kiel begins. And while hyperbole tends to become the norm during spring practice, it’s not too much of an overstatement to think that this positional race could not only define next season, but also the head coaching era.

With first-year offensive coordinator Chuck Martin coaching the quarterbacks and running the day-to-day operations of the offense, implementing a fair competition meant dialing back an offensive system that might have been too advanced for even Rees, the elder statesman of the group, to completely grasp (or at the very least execute without making major mistakes). With Martin getting his first official minutes working with the position, starting an evaluation process at a similar knowledge base is a smart decision.

“We’ve kind of taken a step back and really looked at our offensive structure, and we’re going to make it so all four of the guys that are here can compete at a fair level, because Tommy has got, as you know, the best knowledge base,” Kelly said. “But if we started the spring with page 50 of the playbook, Tommy would be ahead of everybody. So not to put him at a disadvantage but to give it an equal footing for all, we’ve kind of scaled it back, so the spring, it’s going to give all the quarterbacks, including a midyear in Gunner and of course the two young guys, an opportunity to truly compete for the position.”

While it’s too early to jump to any true conclusions, this is certainly the type of rhetoric you’d want to hear if you were hoping for a fresh start at the position. With a new coordinator communicating Kelly’s vision of the offense, dialing things back to the basics should let Martin and Kelly measure apples to apples, as opposed to having to grade each quarterback on how well they do the things they already understand, a slippery slope that makes evaluation — and objectivity — a difficult task.

As you’d expect, Kelly wasn’t quick to offer a decision date, likely realizing any time before the Irish head to Dublin will be good enough. For the first time since Kelly’s opening date against Purdue in 2010, the offense has a bit of mystery to it, with Martin, an unknown at quarterback, and some interesting skill position moves (more on that later) working in the Irish’s favor.

For now, spring is simply about improving a unit that made far too many mistakes and needs to find a capable triggerman for the Irish offense. While we’ll have 15 practices to parse comments and dissect the limited window we’ll get into the Irish offense, the very important step of clearing the records and starting anew is a promising first step.