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Football Commentary: Young talent impresses Kelly, Irish faithful

Andrew Owens | Monday, April 18, 2011

Notre Dame had a winning outcome Saturday — not just because it was playing itself, but also because all three objectives outlined by Irish coach Brian Kelly were met. He and the coaching staff wanted to avoid injuries, provide some playing time for the younger players and, more specifically, get an extended look at the two inexperienced quarterbacks competing for the starting job.

Outside of a couple minor bumps and bruises, Notre Dame completed the 82nd Blue-Gold Game unscathed. This is especially important at the positions in which the Irish lack depth, namely running back and cornerback.

Irish fans were given their first glance at some of the young players that will take on a more prominent role on the squad next season or, in a few cases, have already made the jump from high school to college as early enrollees and could appear on the Notre Dame depth chart once fall rolls around.

Defensive end Aaron Lynch showed off the skills that made him a coveted five-star recruit by top programs across the country. The early enrollee notched seven tackles on the afternoon, including one-and-a-half for loss.

Freshman tight end Alex Welch was the leading receiver for the Blue team, reeling in four passes for 34 yards. Kelly said the Cincinnati, Ohio, native was one of the players who helped himself the most with his spring performance.

Despite recording just two tackles, freshman defensive tackle Louis Nix showed how large of a physical presence he could be over the next few years for the Irish, beginning this fall. Much of his impact depends on his willingness to get in game-shape and keep his weight under control.

While the 27,863 fans in attendance were finally rewarded by the highly anticipated first looks at freshman quarterback Andrew Hendrix and early enrollee Everett Golson, the coaches did not learn much they did not already know about their young signal callers, or the other two quarterbacks in the competition for that matter.

Junior Dayne Crist, the man who was handed the job last spring after the departure of Jimmy Clausen, looked rusty in his performance and consistently missed his targets. That, however, should be no surprise considering it was the first game action he has seen since rupturing the patellar tendon in his left knee Oct. 30 against Tulsa.

Freshman Tommy Rees made some strong throws and was mostly solid on the afternoon. While he and Crist did not receive as much playing time as the younger two, Rees, who led the Irish to a 4-0 finish in 2010, did not hurt his chances at earning the starting nod for Notre Dame’s Sept. 3 matchup against South Florida.

Hendrix and Golson exhibited flashes of brilliance, but also reminded everyone that they have a combined zero snaps in regular season action at the collegiate level. While it will be an uphill battle for each of the two to earn the starting job in fall camp, either could be a nice change-of-pace at the quarterback position to the less mobile Crist and Rees.

In the end, however, it will be difficult for Kelly to overlook the experience and skills that Crist can offer. If you take away the Tulsa game and the first half of the Michigan game, the two contests in which he was injured, Crist threw for over 2,000 yards and 15 touchdowns in less than eight games. His leadership skills and the talent that made him a five-star recruit give Notre Dame the best chance to pursue a Bowl Championship Series bid in 2011.

Kelly acknowledged in the postgame press conference that a decision on the starting signal caller will be made early in fall camp. The last time Notre Dame entered the fall with a quarterback controversy, then-head coach Charlie Weis decided to enter the season opener without an announced starter at the position in 2007. The opponent, Georgia Tech, did not know, the fans did not know, but most importantly, neither did any of the Notre Dame players, including the three quarterbacks. The decision was disastrous, and was one of the contributing factors in the nightmarish 0-5 start. Kelly won’t make that same mistake.

So, while the Blue-Gold exhibition does not earn Notre Dame a win in the standings, it gives the team a bright finish to spring practices and some excitement heading into fall camp and the 2011 season.