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Owens: Irish need strong QB play to be elite (Jan. 18)

Andrew Owens | Tuesday, January 17, 2012

ORLANDO, Fla. — After another 8-5 season, Notre Dame finds itself in the same position as a year ago, wondering what direction it is headed and what quarterback will lead it that direction.

The pull-out-your-hair frustration by the Irish signal callers was a chaotic whirlwind in 2011 that started with a fall camp position battle, continued with a quick hook of senior Dayne Crist by Irish coach Brian Kelly at halftime of the South Florida game and concluded with a turnover-riddled performance by sophomores Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix.

If the Irish have any chance of contending for a prized BCS bid in 2012 against a schedule that will cause more nightmares over the next 226 days than a Stephen King novel, they need to shore up the quarterback position, and quickly.

While the quarterback position is often the headline-grabber, Kelly has made great strides in many other aspects of the program that are often overlooked because of the signal callers’ struggles.

The defense is on the verge of becoming one of the country’s elite units under the direction of defensive coordinator, and newly-named assistant head coach, Bob Diaco. If recruiting serves as trustworthy foreshadowing (it often does not), Notre Dame’s defense should be very strong in the near future, with immense depth on the defensive line and a promising secondary that will be very raw next season.

For the first time in a few coaching regimes, the Irish are reeling in top defensive talent and, with 15 days to go in this recruiting cycle, are primed to reel in another top-10 class.

A third reason for optimism is the ability of the coaching staff to develop talent. While offensive line coach and running game coordinator Ed Warriner and running backs coach Tim Hinton will be missed after Warriner developed the offensive line into one of the more cohesive units in recent Irish memory and Hinton’s tutelage led to the emergence of senior Jonas Gray this past season, the reshuffling of the staff was done in a way to maintain stability despite the moves.

But, even with all these factors in mind, Notre Dame cannot take the next step as a program until it figures out how to eliminate costly mistakes at the quarterback position.

Rees started 12 games because of the perception he was a strong game manager and could protect the football, but that was far from the case this season, as Notre Dame’s turnover issues plagued the squad throughout the season, due mostly to Rees’ play.

While Rees’ physical limitations have always been apparent, it is the lack of growth in decision-making that has become an issue. On Florida State’s fourth-quarter and game-sealing interception of Rees in the end zone, the sophomore threw it deep rather than the underneath route. Kelly said after the game the ball should have gone underneath, as the safety had committed to the post route, a disastrous mistake by Rees.

Kelly’s decision heading into spring camp is a simple one: Does he want to continue with a known, yet limited, commodity in Rees or choose one of the three younger quarterbacks, Hendrix, freshman Everett Golson or newly-enrolled Gunner Kiel to lead the team next season.

Sure, Golson, Hendrix or Kiel would make rookie mistakes early on, but they have a much higher ceiling of growth than that of Rees. With Navy and Purdue first and second on the schedule in September, the Irish have a larger margin for error than in recent September slates, allowing them some time to grow before being thrown to the wolves against the elite opponents the Irish will face.

The decision Kelly makes will set the tone for next year and could set the trajectory of the program moving forward: Is Notre Dame set for a revival at last, or will fans see more of the same in future years?

Contact Andrew Owens at aowens2@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.