Gunner Kiel passes first test

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Lost in the madness of recruiting this weekend, Brian Kelly made the quarterbacks available to the media for the first time this spring. That meant our first look at highly touted early enrollee freshman Gunner Kiel, who made quite a few headlines before ever starting his college career.

Kiel, who ended up at Notre Dame in a shocking eleventh hour twist, started his recruitment committed to Indiana, backed away, came close to committing to Notre Dame during midseason, then selecting LSU in late December, all before changing his mind and heading to South Bend before the first day of spring classes. (Follow all that?)

That last second flip didn’t sit all too well with LSU head coach Les Miles, who publicly stated that Kiel, “Didn’t necessarily have the chest and the ability to lead a program,” a blow leveled during an annual fundraiser celebrating the newest recruiting class.

Given his first chance to publicly respond to Miles’ low blow, Kiel showed the kind of decision-making skills that will do him well during this four-man quarterbacking race.

“You can’t really control that,” Kiel said, deflecting Miles’ comments. “I did pull out at the last minute. I still have all the respect for LSU. Their fans definitely understood. LSU is a great place, but it wasn’t the best fit for me. I’m a Midwest guy and I like to stay close. I’m just going to use that as fuel, but I’m not going to disrespect him in any way, shape or form. He’s a great coach and they’re a great team.”

The response was a smart one by Kiel, who seems intent on changing any perception that came from a recruiting machine he helped fuel for months. In fact, while many expected to meet Gunner Kiel: Big Time Quarterback — the Irish’s highest-profile signal-caller since Jimmy Clausen rolled into the College Football Hall of Fame in a Hummer — Kiel impressed mostly with his honesty and modest nature.

Many may have forgotten during the months following his every recruiting move, but Kiel is in many ways just a kid who is still dealing with the culture shock of moving from small-town Indiana to one of the biggest stages in college football. And while the adjustment period has been stark (his high school classmates are on spring break this week while Kiel is up before dawn working out), it’s been a move that’s immediately felt right.

“I feel great to be at Notre Dame,” Kiel said. “Love the place, love the guys, love the coaches, love the surroundings. It’s a great community, they’re all welcoming, everyone is really nice. It’s definitely the perfect fit for me.”

While some expected Kiel to be a wildcard in the quarterbacking race, it seems that adjustment to the football field has also been quite a challenge. As you’d expect, the jump from Indiana high school football to Notre Dame has been sizable, and Kiel is just hoping to stay above water while finding his way through the spring’s 15 practices.

“It’s pretty unreal,” Kiel said of the transition. “Looking at the playbook and terms and concepts it’s hard, but it’s something you can do. Definitely for me, being in the spread helped. But there’s so much more new stuff out there to learn and do and process, it’s going to take time. But I’m definitely going to put the time into it, and be in watching film and in my study book, just getting after it.”

It’s hard not to compare Kiel’s arrival to Clausen’s. In many ways, the Irish program had far more goodwill built up than it does now, with Notre Dame coming off two consecutive BCS appearances. But whether its the personality of the quarterbacks, or the head coaches, it appears Kiel understands that arriving at Notre Dame doesn’t just mean starting the clock on three years of eligibility, but learning the college game from the ground up.

Even if the game is still moving too fast to recognize, Kiel has shown quickly that his first instincts have been good. When asked about the quarterback race and his ability to get on the field, Kiel simply deflected things, happy to bide his time before making any grand proclamations.

“Right now, I’m just picking everyone’s brain, just trying to get better,” Kiel said. “Working on little things like footwork and mechanics, and knowing the playbook.”