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Football: Back to work

Jack Hefferon | Wednesday, March 20, 2013

After a tumultuous recruitment, a year on the sidelines and weeks of swirling rumors, the story of Gunner Kiel as a Notre Dame quarterback has officially come to a close.

Irish coach Brian Kelly broke the news at his Tuesday press conference, confirming that the highly-touted freshman had indeed chosen to transfer from Notre Dame. The Observer reported on March 7 that Kiel cleaned out his locker before spring break, but was given the week to consider his options with his family and make a decision. Kelly said that most of the paperwork for Kiel’s release was completed Friday.

“[Kiel] is no longer part of the program,” Kelly said. “Kids make decisions based upon what are important factors to them. Gunner and his family felt like it was best for them to pursue other opportunities.”

Kiel’s destination is not yet known, but Kelly said that the Indiana native has a long list of nationally-regarded programs that are interested in his ability under center. Kelly said the schools Kiel was considering were all acceptable options based on Notre Dame’s future scheduling, and the University’s official release of Kiel is nearly complete.

“We had an open conversation about the schools,” he said. “Again, I think the schools that he was looking at were in line with the schools that I thought were appropriate relative to who was on our schedule.”

Kiel’s transfer was widely speculated after Notre Dame’s undefeated regular season, as the five-star recruit was mired behind breakout junior Everett Golson on the depth chart. Kelly said the move caught him as a surprise though, as he had told Kiel that he would have the opportunity to win the starting job this offseason.

“We had kind of created an opportunity for him to compete in the spring,” Kelly said. “So I was a little surprised from that standpoint because he was actually told that he would be given an opportunity to compete.”

With Kiel’s departure, the Irish will carry four scholarship signal callers this fall: Golson, senior Tommy Rees, senior Andrew Hendrix, and early enrollee Malik Zaire.

Catching the Tide
After their 41-14 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship, the Irish have doubled their offseason efforts to close the gap between them and the Crimson Tide. With that in mind, Kelly has had players focus on strength training, and said that many players have gained nearly 20 pounds of muscle since that defeat.

“We lacked depth at some critical positions which didn’t allow us to do some of the things I would have liked to in that period of time before the game, especially on the offensive line,” Kelly said. “The recruiting process, that’s one answer towards that question. The second answer towards that question is to just continue to build the strength of your football team. We need to continually get bigger, faster, stronger. Year Four is seeing those results really hit home for us right now.”

Kelly also said that he believed the championship would be a positive for his team this year, as it gave his team experience on college football’s biggest stage, as well as the motivation to get back.

“It’s a great motivator for your football team,” he said. “I think the experience you gain from going through that process is invaluable. … They all want to get back there. They know what they did last year to get there. For them to do it again, they probably have to even do more.”

Crossing Over
With the graduation of standout senior Tyler Eifert, the Irish will need other tight ends to step up and replace the All-American’s production. In addition to senior Alex Welch, juniors Ben Koyack and Troy Niklas and early enrollee Mike Heuerman, the Irish added another athlete to the mix at that position with the addition of former Irish basketball forward Joey Brooks.

The 6-foot-6 senior has not played hoops for Irish coach Mike Brey this season, although he has practiced with the team. Brooks will have the option of transferring to complete his basketball career at another school next season, but in the meantime Kelly is excited to see what the rangy big man can do on the gridiron.

“He’s an extremely athletic kid,” Kelly said. “He’s willing to do whatever we ask him to do. It will be fun to watch him go in there and compete, and we’ll give him an opportunity to do so.”

Brooks may not have any experience in college football, but Kelly was quick to praise his willingness to learn and work ethic in making the adjustment.

“The kid has worked really hard,” he said. “We like his attention to detail. Again, we’re going to give him a fair opportunity.”

Contact Jack Hefferon at wheffero@nd.edu