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Quarterback battle heats up and stays hot

Allan Joseph | Thursday, April 14, 2011

In each of the past three years, Notre Dame has known who would take the first snap of the season long before that snap was taken. This year, however, no one knows.

“I’d love to have one guy,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “I don’t think that’s going to be the case.”

Even the coach closest to the quarterbacks doesn’t know who the leader will be.

“Any of the four guys could be the guy,” offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said.

Four quarterbacks are currently vying for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart. In most cases, the gunslingers have different strengths, styles, and weaknesses.

“We’re preparing four packages for four guys right now,” Kelly said. “We’re really taking our system and tweaking it toward the strengths and weaknesses of the four quarterbacks that we have.”

But make no mistake, this is not about finding the next Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner. This is not about preparing anyone for the National Football League. This is about one singular goal – the only goal Kelly has.

“We want to win a championship,” Kelly said. “This is really about getting the quarterbacks in a position to win a championship.”

The competitors

Heading into the 2010 season, senior-to-be Dayne Crist had quite a bit of job security — much more than he had coming out of the season. Anointed the starter well before the season opener, Crist performed inconsistently before a knee injury ended his campaign early during a 28-27 loss to Tulsa. A five-star recruit out of high school, Crist is the most physically gifted of the gunslingers — but he believes that his experience with the system is his best asset, especially compared to last spring.

“It’s really like night and day,” Crist said. “We look back and say ‘man, we look bad.’ This spring it’s about taking it to the next level.”

Kelly agrees that Crist’s comprehension of the offense is nearly unmatched.

“Dayne probably knows the offense as well as anybody and makes good decisions,” Kelly said.

When Crist went down, then-freshman Tommy Rees took over under center. Undersized and inexperienced, Rees led the Irish to a 4-0 close to the season, including a signature victory over rival USC in Los Angeles. While the other quarterbacks may be significantly bigger, stronger, and faster than Rees, he has one attribute that stands out about all of the others.

“Tommy is efficient,” Kelly said. “You start to think about him getting beat out, [but] he’s 4-0 as a starter. He wins.”

Aside from Rees, another winner stands out. While the winning instinct of early enrollee Everett Golson has yet to be tested, his athletic ability has already been on full display in Golson’s short time on campus.

“Everett’s got some unique abilities that no one else on the football team has,” Molnar said.

Yet Golson is still far behind the other quarterbacks, who have each had at least a year to digest the Kelly system.

“I’m not sure [Golson] knows what he’s doing all the time, but I’m not going to overcoach him either because he’s got a natural gift for making plays,” Kelly said.

Finally, freshman Andrew Hendrix has shown a unique ability to be a jack-of-all-trades. Simultaneously mobile and strong-armed, Hendrix may be the prototypical dual-threat quarterback.

“Andrew is a great combination of probably all four quarterbacks,” Molnar said.

While the four are competing for the most visible spot on arguably the most visible football team in America, the on-field rivalry has only served to bring the quarterbacks together.

“We’re all going to push each other and make each other better,” Crist said. “At the end of the day, it’s our team, and it’s not about one person.”

Eyes on the prize

With four quarterbacks competing for the starting job, Kelly and his coaching staff have a difficult decision to make. In search of more information to help them make that decision, Kelly brought a new tool to practice — the “Helmet Cam.”

“We want to be able to evaluate all the things they do,” Kelly said. “We have to look at every part of their decision-making. What Helmet Cam allows us to do is track the eyes of the quarterback through his progression.”

The Helmet Cam is merely a small unit attached to the signal-caller’s helmet. Its dividends, however, can be huge.

“Eye control is so important,” Molnar said early in spring practice. “We’ll be able to really see, as long as the camera coordinates where their eyes are, and it should — we’re paying a lot of money for it — we can see if [the quarterbacks’] eyes are going to the proper place.

The four quarterbacks realize the benefits to the small camera as well.

“It serves as a great teaching tool,” Crist said. “Being able to move a safety is going to be huge for us.”

Decision time

Despite the time poured into the quarterback competition during the spring, Kelly is no closer to naming a starter after the Blue-Gold Game than he was before spring practice started.

“There’s no way we would leave the spring game — unless something dramatic happens — where we would say we found a starter,” he said. “I’d rather make it tough on us now in the spring and make it easier as we move closer to the season.”

Molnar would not commit to a further timetable, though he did imply that a starter would be named well in advance of the season opener against South Florida.

“I think it’s going to be as we go through summer camp and someone clearly delineates himself as the No. 1 quarterback,” he said.

The Blue-Gold Game, however, will be a key evaluation point for the younger quarterbacks —mainly Hendrix and Golson, who will play about 75% of the game – and won’t wear red no-contact jerseys, thus getting their first taste of live-hitting college football.

“For the guys who are in competition now, it’s serious business. They’re going to go out, and they’re going to get hit,” Molnar said. “We’re going to see how they respond to the physicalness of the game of college football.”

Kelly put the offensive focus squarely on Hendrix and Golson, who will be running their full offensive packages Saturday.

“This is going to be Golson vs. Hendrix,” Kelly said. “They’re going to run the ball, they’re going to throw the ball, and we’ll get a really good feel from both of those guys, because we know the other two guys can win football games.”

While the depth chart is fluid, the coaches’ ultimate criteria for the starting spot in the fall is simple and unchanging.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to say, ‘This is the guy that gives us the best chance to win,'” Molnar said. “It could be a freshman or it could be an upperclassman. Whoever that guy is, dual-threat or pro-style quarterback, that guy will be our guy.”