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March 20, 2012

Open for competition

The only revelation about Notre Dame’s spring practice quarterback competition is that there will definitely be one. Other than throwing the doors wide open for Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel, Irish head coach Brian Kelly did little to clarify what comes next at the position.

That’s because even Kelly doesn’t know where the quarterback competition will take the offense during the next four weeks. For now, that’s the plan. Even coming out of the Blue-Gold Game on April 21, that’s expected.

Kelly wants to give all four quarterbacks an equal chance to compete.

So whether Tommy Rees can keep his job after a turnover-plagued sophomore season or Hendrix, Golson or Kiel supplants him, the Irish staff doesn’t expect an answer before training camp opens this fall.

“I don’t have a timetable or a timeline, other than it’s important that all four of them get an opportunity,” Kelly said. “I think it’s important that if they're all going to get an equal opportunity to compete for the position that they all have to start with a very similar knowledge base.” 

To understand how much Kelly wants this competition, consider he’s playing away from Rees’ biggest strength of experience. Instead of trying to pick up where the offense left off last season, Kelly plans to start over for the sake of his quarterbacks who haven’t played much if at all.

Kelly used the analogy if Rees was on Page 50 of the playbook and the other quarterbacks were just cracking the cover, that the spring regimen would backtrack to the first chapter. With the offensive staff reshuffled, Kelly expects the quarterbacks to start over too.

“Tommy would be ahead of everybody by the knowledge base, and so we wanted to make sure that everybody, without taking away what Tommy has learned, Tommy has also had an opportunity to develop in the program physically and get stronger and all of those things,” Kelly said. “So we feel like it'll be open and fair competition for all the quarterbacks. 

When deciding between Rees and Dayne Crist last season, Kelly said he couldn’t run his system without a mobile quarterback. Considering Rees never ran longer than eight yards on a carry last season, it’s hard to imagine the incumbent suddenly getting the green light to go.

Asked Tuesday if mobility would be part of the quarterback evaluation during spring practice, Kelly qualified his position.

“Tony Pike, for example, in Cincinnati was not the most mobile of quarterbacks. He was long, he was lanky, but he was a good decision maker. He made good decisions. He kept plays alive, kept his eyes downfield,” Kelly said. “So if you look at the quarterbacks, we don’t think that any one of them necessarily has to be electric, but they have to be able to keep plays alive with their feet at times, and I call that escapability. You mentioned mobility. Maybe they’re the same word, but they've got to be able to keep plays alive.”

Not killing Notre Dame’s offense remains critical too after the Irish ranked 110th nationally in turnovers lost last season. Of the nine teams who gave the ball away more than Notre Dame, four didn’t make bowls. The other five ended up in the Compass Bowl, Little Caesars Bowl, Armed Forces Bowl, Pinstripe Bowl and Hawaii Bowl.

None of those postseason destinations made the new signage inside the Guglielmino Center auditorium that recognizes Notre Dame’s BCS bids. Earning another one means finding a quarterback who can avoid red zone turnovers, which sunk the Irish in the Champs Sports Bowl.

“I'll be looking for those kinds of things with the quarterbacks, getting the ball out timely, accurately, making good decisions, and I think the only way we could do it really was to kind of scale it back a little bit,” Kelly said. “So we went back to some real basic tenets of the position and how I want it played, and we’re going to see that in the spring. I think it’ll give us a good, clear indicator.”

There might not be a final answer at quarterback in the next four weeks, but Kelly is confident the Irish can start marching toward one. And when Notre Dame kicks off next season in Dublin on Sept. 1, he hopes to have one and only one starting quarterback.

After starting multiple quarterbacks each of the past five years, Kelly wants the exception to his recent rule.

“In an ideal world, you’ve got one guy and he stands out front and he’s the leader of your team,” Kelly said. “I’ve managed it so many different ways. I’d love to have one guy and he be the guy, and when he comes off the field, I embrace him every time with a big touchdown hug, you know what I mean?”

“That’s the vision that I have.”



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