Analyzing the quarterback options

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Everett Golson intends to return to Notre Dame after his suspension. That’s the good news. But for Brian Kelly and his coaching staff, there’s no planning for good intentions, and right now the quarterback depth chart looks vastly different without Golson at the top of it.

The once robust quarterback group had a very tough spring. Most wondered how Kelly could keep five scholarship quarterbacks happy. Gunner Kiel’s departure — before participating in spring practice — was the predictable move. But the haymaker Golson’s academic indiscretions put on the overall health of the quarterback spot can’t be understated.

Let’s take a quick look at what’s left of the quarterback depth chart.

QB DEPTH CHART (Years of Eligibility)
Everett Golson (3)
Tommy Rees (1)
Andrew Hendrix (2)
Gunner Kiel (4)
Malik Zaire (4)

While Brian Kelly wasn’t willing to name a starting quarterback in his brief chat with the media, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where Tommy Rees doesn’t start against Temple. After three seasons in the program and a 14-4 record as a starting quarterback, Rees was regarded as one of the best back-up quarterbacks in the country.

That’s not to say the transition back to leading man will be easy. Anybody who has watched Notre Dame football the past few seasons has seen Rees’ limitations. His propensity to turn the football over in 2011 was one of the main reasons the Irish hit the reboot button on the offense last season. But any damnation of the Irish offense with Rees as its pilot isn’t just premature, it’s silly. Sure, a large portion of the playbook might have just gone in the recycling bin. But with a strong running game and some athletic personnel, an improved Rees will help this offense take a step forward, even if it wasn’t the leap many expected Golson to provide.

Outside of Rees is where things get a little tricky. One of the biggest ripple effects in the Golson saga is the role of Andrew Hendrix. Once looked at by some as the future at quarterback, Hendrix was likely to play out his senior season as a third-stringer before moving on to medical school or a smaller program where he could potentially play out his final season of eligibility.

All of that changes now. Hendrix has always talked about getting his degree from Notre Dame. That will happen this year. But will he — and the coaching staff — make the mutual decision to return for the ’14 season? That might hinge on Golson’s academic progress, and Hendrix’s postgraduate options.

That both Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin have raved about Malik Zaire’s football acumen isn’t coincidental. That much was apparent at the Elite 11 camps, where Zaire was more impressive than Golson or Kiel, two Irish quarterbacks that came through the pipeline in previous seasons. Yet Zaire is a true freshman with limited experience throwing the football, operating a run-heavy offense for most of his high school career. Many Irish fans want the future to begin now, but with the personnel the Irish have and a stout defense on the other side of the ball, bringing Zaire along slowly seems like the most logical plan of attack.

Yet any hope for a redshirt season is likely out the window. If Kelly and Martin think Zaire can help them win, he’ll be on the field. That could be running a zone-read package. It could be in the red zone, where the Irish struggled mightily last season. It most likely will be in mop-up time or selected series, giving the young quarterback the chance to learn on the job and develop on the practice field. No head coach in college football is more adept at mixing and matching quarterbacks, and Kelly will look back on the season he had at Cincinnati where he played five quarterbacks and utilize that experience this fall.

That experience will help the Irish get through this season. But with the very real possibility that Golson doesn’t return, Rees graduates, and Hendrix moves on, there’s an added priority to recruiting quarterbacks that nobody saw coming until last weekend.

The Irish only had one quarterback offer out before the spring, with that going to dual-threat athlete Brandon Dawkins from Oaks Christian, Jimmy Clausen’s old stomping grounds. But how high the Irish are on Dawkins anymore is anyone’s guess, as the prep quarterback tweeted his attempts at committing to the Irish last week and there’s been no news as to whether either player or team was willing to formalize things.

While the coaching staff has expanded their list to include national names like Arizona’s Kyle Allen and a few select others, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the target list shift from potentially skipping a cycle at the position to Notre Dame accepting the commitment of two quarterbacks next February. If they were able to mix and match a drop-back type with a dual-threat athlete, they could at least restock the two skillsets that departed this spring in Kiel and Golson.

At a position that once looked locked up for the next three seasons, the future has never been more cloudy. Could Golson’s exile be the Wally Pipp opportunity Malik Zaire needed? Will it keep Andrew Hendrix in South Bend for another year? Does it give Tommy Rees the chance to complete a true hero’s journey? All are scenarios that could likely unfold.

But don’t expect Kelly and company to get wrapped up in the hypotheticals. They’ve got too much work to do.