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Mixed-signal callers

Matthew DeFranks | Friday, April 20, 2012

Call them the Four Horsemen 2.0. Call them the Four-leaf Clover. Call them Tommy, Andrew, Everett and Gunner.

No matter what you call them, only one quarterback can be the starter.

For the second consecutive year, Irish coach Brian Kelly and Notre Dame enter the annual Blue-Gold Game with four signal callers vying for the one starting spot. This year’s candidates – juniors Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix, sophomore Everett Golson and freshman Gunner Kiel – have all earned reps with the first-team offense during practice.

“From an offensive perspective, great work for our quarterbacks [this spring],” Kelly said. “I thought each one of them improved in the areas we were looking for. The biggest point of emphasis was taking care of the football, not turning it over.

“I feel really good after the spring that our quarterbacks are well on the way to being the quarterbacks we need – that is very efficient, takes great care of the football and can make the throws when necessary.”

After starting as a back-to-basics competition, the quarterback race has evolved into one that now includes checks, a heavy part of Kelly’s spread offense. Additionally, all four gunslingers will be live (allowed to be hit) in the scrimmage Saturday afternoon.

“They’re all running the same offense,” Kelly said. “Maybe you accentuate more of their strengths by running a particular play for them more than another but all of them need to be able to digest. We’re not calling, like we did last year, two different games. We’re not installing two different offenses. This is one offense that they all have to master.”

Kelly said the rotation in the spring game will be in order of seniority. Rees will play first, followed by Hendrix, Golson and Kiel.

The incumbent

As the returning starter, Rees has extensive experience with the Notre Dame offense in the past two seasons. In two years of playing time and 22 games played (including 16 starts), Rees has accumulated 3,977 yards passing and 32 touchdowns. He has, however, thrown 22 interceptions.

“Tommy’s thing was turnovers,” Kelly said. “If Tommy didn’t turn the ball over at the rate he did, we’d be talking about this kid at the highest level. He did, though. That’s why it’s an open competition.”

Kelly said he wanted Rees to focus on extending plays while under duress. While Rees may have simply rolled out toward the sidelines and thrown the ball away before, Kelly said he would like to have him use his legs more.

“Keeping plays alive, using his feet. He’s a better athlete than he gives him credit for,” Kelly said. “We’ve tried to give him opportunities to extend plays as well as doing a better job with ball placement. We threw the ball into interceptions that could have been avoided.”

The Lake Forest, Ill., product is not exactly known for his running prowess, though. His career high for rushing yards in a game stands at six while the longest carry of his career tallied just 12 yards. In one spring practice, Rees ripped off an eight-yard designed run that gave him some confidence.

“[Running is] something we’ve been working on and something that I’ve wanted to do live and have a real situation where I can be hit,” Rees said. “It’s definitely something I think I can do. It’s something you want to have in your arsenal if you’re trying to be the starting quarterback.”

The prototype

While Rees is just growing into his role as a runner, Hendrix has grown into his responsibility as a dual-threat quarterback over the past year, when he had special packages designed to highlight his athleticism.

Hendrix has been described as the perfect quarterback for Kelly’s system, one that benefits greatly from having a mobile quarterback. Kelly, however, said Hendrix needs to improve on his confidence in order to reach his full potential as a signal caller.

“[He needs to improve on] comfort within the offense and goi

ng out there and commanding the offense,” Kelly said. “Going out there and saying ‘I’m the guy, let’s go.’ That’s what I want from him. That’s what I need from him. I don’t know whether it’s just learning the offense and really being comfortable or he’s never been required to do that. But I know what I have to get out of him. He can do it. I just need it consistently.”

While Kelly harps on Hendrix’s mental state of mind, the Cincinnati native said he is focused on other parts of his game.

“I would say [I need to work on] probably footwork and balance,” Hendrix said. “That’s my big thing, that’s coach Kelly’s big thing. Keeping my back foot planted, just not getting too excited, staying relaxed and following through. It’s just things like that. I definitely worked on my mechanics a lot.”

Hendrix impressed in limited playing time a year ago, passing for 249 yards and rushing for 162 yards, making him Notre Dame’s third-leading rusher last season. Despite his performance in 2011, Hendrix said he does not know where he stands in the race.

“Some days I can be first, some days I can be last. Honestly, I can say I have no idea,” Hendrix said. “We have four really, really good quarterbacks. The level of competition is so extremely high from Tommy and Everett to Gunner who just got here and can throw like any of us can. So it really helps to keep you motivated when you see all four guys because it could be anyone’s job at any time.”

The wild card

The open competition is not new for Golson, who partook in last year’s derby before eventually sitting out the season to preserve a year of eligibility. He said the 2012 version is different from last year’s, though.

“It’s a full-out four [this spring],” Golson said. “It’s good for me because we have four quarterbacks out there really competing who are all kind of on the same level and bring different things to the table.”

The Myrtle Beach, S.C., product – named the offensive practice squad MVP for 2011 – said enrolling early last year helped him grow as a quarterback.

“I think I’ve grown tremendously from last spring until now,” Golson said. “I’ve almost doubled my IQ of how football works. I still have a long, long way to go.”

Golson, a three-star recruit and No. 16-ranked quarterback in his class, also possesses the ability to take off and run for additional yards.

“When Everett got here a year ago, it was the unconscious incompetence. He didn’t know that he didn’t know,” Kelly said. “He’s grown to a conscious competence but it’s so hard for him every day to be that guy. He will do it, we just wish it was sooner.”

The blue chip

As the young but highly touted early enrollee, Kiel chose the Irish late in the recruiting process after initially committing to Indiana and then LSU. The 6-foot-4, Columbus, Ind., native said he is adjusting well to college football so far.

“Things are going great. I can’t believe things have gone by so fast. But I have definitely learned a lot,” Kiel said. “[I'm] going to every practice the same way, having a great attitude. Just trying to do my best and work on some small things. I’m trying to build a bond and get everything coach Kelly and coach

Martin are trying to teach me.”

Kelly said the top-ranked high school quarterback is easy to coach and referenced a practice play in which Kiel forgot the play and put sophomore tight end Ben Koyack in a dangerous situation. Kelly said Kiel came up to him, accepted the blame and absorbed his advice to throw the ball away next time.

“He’s great in the classroom. He’s great on the field. He has a great temperament and demeanor,” Kelly said. “I just like the fact that he’s very, very coachable. He’s someone that’s going to pick it up very quickly.”

“I think [I have made] a ton [of progress toward being the starter],” Kiel said. “All of us came in trying to compete for the same thing. The one thing about us is that we have really grown a strong bond. When I first came in I didn’t really know anyone or know the quarterbacks that well, but now I can go to them anytime and they are willing to help me, which is huge.”

The starter

Who will it be?

Kelly said a starter will not be named until August as the coaching staff still needs time to evaluate the four candidates.

“Let’s see who that guy is that takes those voluntary workouts [in the summer] seriously and is not just out there whipping it around like he’s in the backyard,” Kelly said. “Who’s that guy who wants to do that? The next step would be all those practices [in August].”

Will it be the maligned yet experienced former starter? Will it be the versatile yet inexperienced up-and-comer? Will it be the exciting yet undersized dual-threat? Will it be the talented yet raw top recruit?

Who will it be?

Contact Matthew DeFranks at

mdefrank@nd.edu