Turnovers just half the problem

Hendrix took part in turnover-fest 2011 as well

Our Player Improvement series continues with a look at the quarterback position. You can probably guess the main topic of discussion...

The foundation appears solid. The infrastructure and plan are in place. Depth has been forged in the trenches. Entering Year 3 of the Brian Kelly era, all that's left is to win at an acceptable level.

The impetus of this week's Player Improvement series of articles was actually Tyler Eifert. I began a blog post positing that the returning All-America was one of only two or three Irish players that need not improve dramatically for the team to reach 9, 10, or more victories. It's since turned into something bigger as I realized improvement across the board is necessary if the Irish are to survive a ridiculous 2012 slate of foes.

So what would qualify as tangible improvement from each returning Irish player? Statistics aren't an accurate measure, and certainly not all-encompassing for today's featured position, quarterback.

We began Monday with a review of the team's three returning running backs and later covered its quintet of Wide Receivers.

Yesterday we examined the team's tight ends as a likely focal point of the offense.

But all of the above relies on the group below:

Improvement Imperative – Quarterbacks

To loosely borrow a phrase from the movie, Usual Suspects, it doesn't take a team of monkeys to figure out Notre Dame's problem offensively last season.

Three Irish signal-callers combined to toss 17 interceptions, tied for the second-highest total this decade (Jimmy Clausen threw 17 in 2008; Brady Quinn and Carlyle Holiday combined for 19 in 2003). They accounted for six of the team's 12 fumbles lost, most since the lost 3-9 squad from 2007. Of note, the three other teams referenced above ('08, '07, and '03) combined to win 14 games and lose 22.

Turnovers, a handful of them comically ill-timed, were the well-documented downfall of Notre Dame's 2011 season, and the team's quarterbacks were at the root of the problem.

Limiting mistakes at the position is the most important aspect of the upcoming season and each thereafter. But an immediate ray of light exists as, perhaps not coincidentally, Brian Kelly's first two seasons at Cincinnati were flush will errors and miscues as well, 56 of them, to be exact. The Irish have committed 53 in his first two years in South Bend, but fans can take solace in the fact that Kelly's third team in the Queen City was the most disciplined in the nation, committing just 10 turnovers, fewest among 120 FBS teams.

(Click here for our column on Kelly's turnover turnaround.)

Such a low number and national ranking might be out of reach for the 2012 Irish, but regardless of which or how many quarterbacks take meaningful snaps in competitive situations next fall, the position's total damage – 23 turnovers from Tommy Rees, Dayne Crist, and Andrew Hendrix – must be cut nearly in half.

Tommy Rees (14 INT, 5 fumbles lost, 411 pass attempts): Of his 14 picks, 6 occurred inside the opponent's 10 yard-line, as did one of his five fumbles. His final meaningful pass of 2011 was thrown into double coverage in the end zone and intercepted, effectively ending Notre Dame's comeback bid in an 18-14 loss to Florida State.

Dayne Crist (1 INT, 1 fumble lost, 24 pass attempts): Crist's fumble was of course one of the two most debilitating turnovers of the season, resulting in a full-field touchdown scored by the USC defense. His end zone interception against South Florida was among the 10 worst of the season (tough to narrow down that list).

Andrew Hendrix (2 INT in 37 pass attempts): Also could have had a pass picked off vs. USC (bounced off the linebacker) in limited action. Hendrix's interception in the Champs Sports Bowl led to Florida State's game-winning touchdown.

Quarterbacks 2012 – The (Deep) Secondary Issue

Definitive Step 1 in the QB improvement process is protecting the football, but if the Irish are to defeat the likes of Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, Oklahoma, or USC, plays need to be made in the passing game as well.

Despite the presence of two All-Americans among its pass catchers, Notre Dame quarterbacks completed just seven passes that resulted in gains of 35 or more yards last year and just three of the seven resulted in touchdowns (vs. Purdue, Navy, and Wake Forest).

(In his five-game stint to conclude 2010, Rees completed seven passes of 30 yards or more, two for scores.)

Big plays were noticeably absent from the attack, and new offensive coordinator Chuck Martin doesn't plan for a repeat performance, and one of Martin's new pupils plans to tackle the issue head on.

"Big plays, we didn't have enough of them last year," said redshirt-freshman and oft-noted athletic target DaVaris Daniels."Coach Martin said that's something we need to work on. Oh yea. That's my cup of tea right there."

For Martin, protecting the football and making plays go hand-in-hand.

"It's just 1 and 1A. You weigh who makes the most positive things happen vs. those negative things. No one has a sliding scale, its constant evaluation," he said. "You can't play the guy that never turns it over but never makes a play, either. There's a balance but obviously you're going to err on (the thought that) turnovers are much more disastrous than a good throw is good.

We say it 60 times a day: ‘We don't decide who plays. You decide who plays. We don't decide who we throw the ball to. You decide."

Among Rees, Andrew Hendrix, redshirt-freshman Everett Golson, perhaps true freshman Gunner Kiel, Kelly, and Martin, they have three months to decide together.

Note: Freshmen are not part of the Player Improvement series. January enrollee Gunner Kiel will be previewed later this summer.

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