Irish head coach Brian Kelly began his Thursday morning on March 7 in charge of the nation's most impressive collection of quarterbacks: a five-man unit perfectly tiered by class and eligibility, ready to embark on spring practice.
48 hours later, it remains solid, but without its top talent in tow, at least if high school rankings are taken as gospel.
The transfer of redshirt-freshman quarterback Gunner Kiel leaves a potential void at the position -- "potential" is the operative word, because Kiel has yet to play a college down, and by all reasonable accounts, was slated for backup duty to breakout 2012 triggerman Everett Golson.
Had he remained with the team through the spring semester, Kiel would have been afforded a chance to compete with Golson for 15 practice sessions this spring, throughout the increasingly important summer months, and through at least the first week of August camp.
The only quarterback battle now is for the No. 2 role, between classmates Tommy Rees (33 games played, 17 starts) and Andrew Hendrix (seven games played, just over 40 passes thrown).
Hendrix would have to make great strides as a passer this spring to unseat Rees, a trusted, and in regards to 2012, clutch commodity at the position.
Spring 2013 was to be about the development of Kiel in congress with Golson. Rees was the assumed No. 3, and likely the quarterback Kelly would have called upon in an early-season pinch should Golson go down. He remains the latter, but with a chance to again be the team's true No. 2 -- at the ready as a senior starter in case of injury to the developing dual-threat Golson.
From Five to Four
Prior to spring ball 2011, Brian Kelly stated he was best able to work with the position when no more than four quarterbacks were in the mix. The Irish are again at that desired number.
Position Coach: Kelly -- Chuck Martin is the team's offensive coordinator, but the vast majority of one-on-one tutoring with signal callers is performed by the team's head coach.
Spring Combatants: Seniors Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix (redshirt-junior), junior (redshirt-sophomore) Everett Golson, freshman early enrollee Malik Zaire.
Incoming Talent: None in congress with Zaire. The only 2014 quarterback prospect offered to date by the coaching staff is Oaks Christian High School (Westlake Village, CA) triggerman and FOX Sports NEXT 4-star Brandon Dawkins.
Returning Starters: Golson (11 games, all in 2012) and Rees (17 starts, one in 2012)
Best of the Best: Golson finished his first season as a starter with a 10-1 record. He completed 58.8 percent of his passes, throwing for 2,405 yards with 12 touchdowns vs. 6 interceptions. Golson added 298 net rushing yards (415 prior to sacks) with five touchdowns and a team-high eight fumbles (four lost to the opponent). Golson fumbled just once in the season's final six contests.
Affected the most by Kiel's reported transfer is Hendrix, a senior who likely would have been relegated to Scout Team duty next fall as the team's No. 4. He now regains a potential role as a running option each week, but with a chance to improve his skill set over the next six months in chase of the No. 2 spot on the depth chart.
Hendrix has a season of eligibility remaining following 2013. With Kiel out of the picture, the sturdy runner has a far greater chance of earning a 5th-year as Golson's backup in head-to-head competition with 2013 January enrollee, Malik Zaire. In fact, Hendrix is nearly assured a spot on the 2013 roster should he choose to put off medical school for one year as a result of Kiel's defection.
Zaire, a four-star dual-threat prospect from Archbishop Alter High School (Kettering, Ohio), would have likely seen ample reps this spring even had Kiel remained. (I believe Rees would have been the least active in live reps due to his encyclopedic knowledge of the offense.)
Zaire's reps now become more purposeful -- he has to be prepared to play quarterback next fall should two or three injuries occur. But that's a worst-case scenario and contingency plan. The logical, direct result of Kiel's transfer is that Zaire has one calendar year to develop, then begin to fight for the No. 2 role with Hendrix or failing his return for a fifth season, agains a true freshman early enrollee next spring/August.
Oh Yeah, the 10-1 BCS Title Game Returning Starter
Lost in the surprise timing of Kiel's decision is the basis for it: Everett Golson, an ideal read-option spread quarterback and starter of a national title game as a redshirt-freshman, has three seasons of eligibility remaining.
Golson final six games (including the loss to Alabama) included 1,437 passing yards, eight touchdown passes vs. three interceptions, just five sacks suffered with one fumbled football/zero lost.
Conversely, Golson's first six outings were a mixed bag that produced 968 passing yards, four touchdowns vs. three interceptions, and 10 sacks suffered with seven fumbles/four lost to the opposition. In his first six games (Navy through Stanford), Golson was benched or left the game, either for ineffectiveness, injury, coach's decision, or disciplinary action, four times. In his final six, just once.
The 2012 version of Golson was the training wheels edition. For better or for worse (relative to the final W/L record), look for a quarterback-driven, perimeter focused spread attack with Golson ranking as the team's best offensive player behind star left tackle Zack Martin in 2013.
Can the Closer Make a Case?
Is Tommy Rees the team's choice at quarterback if Everett Golson turns his ankle in Ann Arbor next September? Of course.
But what if Golson is lost for a significant period of time?
That potential scenario is where Kiel's defection creates a significant void. Can Rees lead the Irish past the likes of Michigan State, Oklahoma, Arizona State, USC, and Stanford in what is now considered a BCS or failure campaign?
Rees was clutch last fall in a one-drive scenario vs. Purdue. He was tough and the consummate game manager in a defensive struggle and victory over rival Michigan. He was again clutch when called upon to beat Stanford (especially) and when needed for one key third-down pass at Oklahoma.
There is no arguable scenario in which Notre Dame would have made the BCS Championship game without his contributions. But in extended action against Pittsburgh, Rees again erred when pressured, throwing an unconscionable interception for a player of his experience and skill set. In short, the read-option offense isn't viable -- at least not in competition at a national level -- with Rees at the controls, and Notre Dame might not have the horses to control the ball on the ground for three months next fall.
Rees remains an ideal emergent backup, but Kiel was the ideal No. 2 collegiate quarterback: a purported top talent ready to be unleashed.
Notre Dame will unequivocally sign a quarterback to its 2014 class, if not the aforementioned Dawkins, then another yet-to-be-offered player who can develop as a senior in high school next fall, then under Kelly's tutelage down the road.
Without Kiel, two quarterbacks will be necessary for 2015 for a roster that will likely include only a 5th-year senior in Golson, a third-year player in Zaire, and a potential 2014 pledge.
If Hendrix returns for 2014 as a fifth-year player, Notre Dame is not yet in a numbers crunch. If he plans to begin a medical school endeavor upon graduation, Kelly needs a second pledge for the 2014 cycle, one likely to fill the dual-role of quarterback/athlete, and a prospect that could move to a different position later in his Irish career.
Note: For a review of previously published spring preview columns, click the links below:
The Next Wave: Running Backs
Searching for Six: Wide Receivers
Lather, Rinse, Repeat? Tight End Legacy