By ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune
11:10 PM EST, December 4, 2011
SOUTH BEND - It has moved beyond water cooler/watering hole fodder,
beyond something likable, pokable or sharable on Facebook.
How Notre Dame second-year head football coach Brian Kelly massages
his quarterback situation for ND’s upcoming Champs Sports Bowl date
with 25th-ranked Florida State (8-4) isn’t just intriguing.
It’s potentially program-changing — and certainly big enough to
overshadow the Champs Sports folks’ official rubber-stamping, Sunday
night in a teleconference, of the matchup they’ve salivated over for
For the record, the two teams will meet at 5:30 p.m. EST, Dec. 29 in
Orlando at the 65,438-seat Florida Citrus Bowl stadium. It will be the
seventh matchup between the just barely unranked Irish (8-4) and the
just barely ranked Seminoles, and all seven clashes have involved at
least one of them being in the Top 25.
It’s FSU’s defensive rankings, though, that start to stir the ND
At No. 4 nationally (out of 120), the Seminoles have the best scoring
defense the Irish have faced this season. Florida State also has the
best run defense that Irish have seen in person (second nationally)
and are the second-best pass (32nd) and total defenses (sixth) on ND’s
“Florida State will be the best defense we’ve played this year,” Irish
star wide receiver Michael Floyd proclaimed Sunday night, strongly
hinting the eyeball test matched the numbers.
“They have athletes. They’re fast and they’re big.”
Why this is particularly relevant is that Kelly named Tommy Rees the
starter for the bowl game on Sunday night, eight days after pulling
the incumbent sophomore at halftime of a 28-14 loss at Stanford in
favor of his more multifaceted sophomore, Andrew Hendrix.
And the teams that Rees struggled against the most in 2011 were those
configured statistically like FSU — strong against the run, powerful
pass rush, athletic in the secondary. The only difference is FSU is
the highest-octane model of them.
“Andrew will get an opportunity to play as well,” Kelly said Sunday
night, “but Tommy’s our starter. He’s been our starter the whole
Some wonder if it will be his last start at ND, with the way Hendrix
surged after some early jitters against the Cardinal.
The QB who won’t be heavy in the mix — and perhaps not at all — is
senior Dayne Crist, the opening day starter whose impending transfer
leaked out late Saturday night in a story first reported by the
It’s not that the Canoga Park, Calif., product’s decision to depart
surprised anyone, but the timing of him putting the process in motion,
last Friday, might have.
“We’re not really sure,” Kelly said of Crist’s role for the bowl game.
“We’ve given him his release. He’s going to have to pursue some of
those things, so right now it’s pretty much up in the air. I’ve got to
focus on the guys that are going to be here.
“Dayne and I will have further conversations, but the way we left it
is he’s got a lot of work to do, working on his transfer. He’s not
going to be able to put the time in necessarily.”
That leaves Kelly with three scholarship QBs for the bowl game, with
freshman Everett Golson forfeiting a redshirt year if he sees even one
second of action against the Seminoles. It also leaves Kelly will just
three scholarship QBs for 2012, unless Columbus (Ind.) East five-star
prospect Gunner Kiel enrolls in January.
Kiel, once committed to Indiana University, reportedly will choose
between the Irish and top-ranked LSU sometime this month.
The scariest part of the numbers game is what happens if there’s a
long-term injury at the position? Or what if another QB transfers
after spring practice, because he finished No. 3?
The optimistic slant is that Kelly doesn’t have a long trail of
disgruntled former quarterbacks on his résumé. The pessimistic foil is
that Notre Dame does.
From the time Zak Kustok became the first QB to sign in the post-coach
Lou Holtz Era (1997) until Kelly was announced as ND’s head coach in
December of 2009, the Irish signed a total of 16 quarterbacks.
Just three — Jimmy Clausen, Evan Sharpley and Brady Quinn — played
their entire college careers at the QB position and at Notre Dame —
and Clausen left for the NFL a year early. Crist had a chance to be
Instead he’ll be the eighth of the 16 to transfer.
“Dayne’s been professional all year,” Kelly said. “He’s worked hard,
but he really wanted to continue to play and he was going to get that
opportunity probably somewhere else. And so, it didn’t surprise me. We
want to do everything we can to help Dayne to make sure he gets that
Four others among the 16 switched positions and one both transferred
and switched positions.
Of the four quarterbacks Kelly has signed — Rees, Hendrix, Luke Massa
and Golson, Massa has already switched positions. And former
walk-on-turned-scholarship QB Nate Montana transferred last spring.
The fragility goes beyond numbers, though, and speaks to development.
This is the telling thread that runs through the Champ Sports Bowl and
beyond. The quarterback position must evolve if ND is going to move up
to the BCS plateau in the next season or two.
ND sits at 53rd nationally in passing efficiency heading into the bowl
game — a modest bump of six spots from 2010. The Irish are 116th in
turnover margin, in ND’s case a strong correlation to quarterback
play, down from 51st last season.
It’s not the only ingredient in a return to glory, but it might be the
most critical at this juncture for this team.
Take a good look around college football in those two categories.
Every one of the 10 BCS teams rank 45th or better in pass efficiency
this season, with four in the top 12. And all but two — Clemson (53rd)
and West Virginia (74th) — are in the top 30 in turnover margin.
On the flip side 12 of the 17 schools with coaching openings at the
end of the season ranked below ND in passing efficiency and 12 of the
17 were 83rd or lower in turnover margin.
“Anytime you open up a season, you always have high expectations,”
Kelly said, “and our football team had high expectations coming in.
“When some of the things don’t go your way, you look toward you senior
leaders and how they’re going to respond. We’re really proud of this
football team and the way they responded after an 0-2 start.”
Kelly’s response counts even more. He’s riding with Rees, but giving
Hendrix more work in practice. He’ll give Golson and the younger
players more prep time for 2012 than he’s ever dedicated in a bowl
It’s a promising start with a cliffhanger finish. Stay tuned.
nþStarting freshman defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who missed the final
two regular-season games because of mononucleosis, has been cleared to
lift and practice this week, per Kelly.
nþRunning back-turned wide receiver Theo Riddick, who moved back to
running back for the Stanford game, will stay at running back for the
Kelly made the move initially in response to starter Jonas Gray’s
season-ending injury suffered Nov. 19 against Boston College.
“As you know, he’s got some great flexibility, where he can play in
the slot and do some other things,” Kelly said of Riddick, “but his
primary focus will be running back.”
Staff writer Eric Hansen:
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