Ready for a game of musical quarterbacks at Notre Dame? As if the Fighting Irish don’t have enough to be worried about these days.
But as Notre Dame enters a potentially-pivotal third season of the Brian Kelly era this fall, it does so without clear knowledge of who might be calling the signals on the field for the September 1 opener in Dublin vs. Navy. And most college gridiron observers agree that the Irish are going to need better QB play to break the 8-win ceiling of Kelly’s first two somewhat-disappointing seasons in South Bend.
That Kelly would be having QB problems at Notre Dame comes as a surprise to many after he turned Ben Mauk and Tony Pike into stars during his years at Cincinnati. To this point, however, the QB dilemma has been a sticking point during Kelly’s brief regime in South Bend.
Kelly exited spring with no idea who from among four candidates – junior Tommy Rees, RS soph Andrew Hendrix, soph Everett Golson, or true frosh Gunner Kiel – would be taking the majority of snaps for the Fighting Irish this fall. Some are suggesting that Kelly could be tempted to use two, three or perhaps all four QBs as the situations dictate. Others believe Kelly would like to name one starter and simply go from there, although available evidence indicates none of the candidates has come close to emerging as a clear-cut number one choice.
Rees, who started much of last season and late in the previous 2010 campaign, remains the favorite, although he might be looking at an early-season suspension pending mid-July sentencing on four misdemeanor charges after being arrested following a South bend party on May 3. Rees is 12-4 as a career starter and has passed for 32 TDs and nearly 4000 yards in his career, but has been mistake-prone, tossing 22 career picks.
Kelly could also opt for Hendrix, a Cincy Moeller product who has the arm strength and running ability to effectively operate Kelly’s spread. Hendrix also has some experience, relieving Rees at times a year ago. Golson, a dual pass-run threat, outperformed the others in the spring game.
And then, then there’s Kiel, the ballyhooed true frosh who reversed course on an earlier commitment to LSU and instead picked South Bend, where he enrolled early to participate in spring drills. Regarded as having more upside than the others, Kiel’s candidacy for a starting role this fall still seems like something of a long shot, especially in the early going, although more than a few Domers believe he’ll eventually be the answer.
Whoever takes snaps will not have the secondary-distorting threat provided by departed WR Michael Floyd, who caught 100 passes last fall and was a first-round choice of the Arizona Cardinals in last April’s NFL Draft. The latest in a long line of high-profile Notre Dame TEs, 6-foot-6 senior Tyler Eifert, caught 63 passes as a reliable underneath weapon a year ago.
Still, the QBs will miss Floyd’s downfield threat unless some other wideouts emerge. The best bet looks to be RS soph DaVaris Daniels, who starred in spring. Returning WRs John Goodman, T.J. Jones and Robby Tomas have yet to demonstrate homerun ability (the trio combined for just 638 yards on their 64 catches a year ago).
Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin did some personnel experimenting in spring, with senior Theo Riddick, who has performed with some flair as a slot-back in the past, and soph RB George Atkinson III, who displayed coast-to-coast ability as a frosh (particularly as kick returner, a role in which he scored 2 TDs last year), being used at both RB and wideout positions.
Look for Riddick to steal some carries from functional senior RB Cierre Wood, who provided the bulk of the infantry attack in 2011 when rushing for 1102 yards.
Kelly’s O-line returns three senior starters from a forward wall that paved the way for runners to gain almost five yards per carry in 2011. Overall seven starters, plus several backups who saw action in 2011, return on "O" this fall.
As for the defense, coordinator Bob Diaco received a present in January when senior LB Manti Te’o decided not to enter the NFL Draft and instead return for one more season in South Bend. After recording 261 tackles the past two seasons, he’s the unquestioned leader of the platoon. Although Diaco also took a blow when DE Aaron Lynch, who led all Irish defenders with 5½ sacks last season as a frosh, transferred to South Florida.
Last season’s ND stop unit, with better foot speed than many recent Irish defenses, was rarely overwhelmed after a late-game collapse in September at Michigan. Notre Dame allowed only 20.7 ppg, good for 24th in the country and impressive considering the many high-powered attacks the Irish faced a year ago.
Still, Diaco has some playmakers to replace in the secondary, including SS Harrison Smith, who was a first-round draft choice of the Minnesota Vikings, and both of last year’s starting CBs (Gary Gray and Robert Blanton).
Yet even with Lynch’s premature departure, Diaco likes what he has up front in his 3-4 looks, with plenty of experience in the projected starting lineup (DEs Kapron Lewis-Moore and Stephon Tuitt, and NG Louis Nix III, combined for 107 tackles and 11½ tackles for loss a year ago). The Te’o-led LB corps is full of playmakers.
Diaco, however, is entering fall looking for some answers in the secondary, especially after the availability of junior Austin Collinsworth (Chris’ son), whose emergence as a safety provided Diaco with several options, is now in question after June shoulder surgery. Versatile senior FS Jamoris Slaughter, the only returning starter in the secondary, could be moved as needed to the corner or pass-rushing LB spots as Diaco saw fit, if Collinsworth were available. Last year’s backup CBs, juniors Lo Wood and Bennett Jackson, are being counted upon to deliver this fall.
Turnover issues also must be corrected if the Irish are to make a serious move toward the BCS. Rees’ interceptions were only part of the problem in 2011; the Irish also conceded length-of-field fumble return TDs in the midst of rallies last season in eventual losses to South Florida and USC, and the Irish were among the worst in the country (-15, ranked 118th) in turnover margin.
Kelly, once a winning pointspread proposition in days at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, is only 11-12-3 vs. the number the past two seasons at ND, covering only four of 13 home games. Note, however, how the Irish have been a solid "under" play (16-8-1) in Kelly’s first two years.
Summary: Notre Dame provides interesting subject matter as usual, and might emerge from the post-BCS landscape even further entrenched in its independent role (which has been challenged by many Domers who believe it’s time for the Irish to join a league); if ND secures a future deal with the Orange Bowl, the join-a-conference debate in South Bend is likely tabled for another decade. But it’s also been a long time since the Irish were among the nation’s elite, and this fall’s schedule is no picnic, with the first trip to Oklahoma since 1966, plus a couple of other preseason top ten teams in Michigan and Southern Cal, and six other bowl teams from 2011, is daunting to say the least. Even if Kelly solves his QB dilemma, the schedule should preclude any BCS conjecture.
Looks like another minor bowl for the Irish, the new norm in South Bend, and it might not be long before the natives become as restless with Kelly as they were with Charlie Weis, Ty Willingham and Bob Davie.
Follow Bruce Marshall's college football previews throughout the summer here at Don Best Sports: Boise State ... Brigham Young ... Florida State ... Nevada ... Notre Dame ... Penn State ... Stanford ... Washington State