Our summer preview series (95 consecutive days of Irish articles leading up to the outset of August camp) begins on May 1. Until then, we'll take a look back and the best of the best from Brian Kelly's four seasons in South Bend.
We'll even take time to examine the flip side of that equation.
Next in the series: Kelly's five best single-season running back performances:
#1 -- Everett Golson 2012Served as the chief quarterback for 10 of Notre Dame's 12 victories during their run to the BCS Championship game. Considering the underwhelming candidates for the top triggerman, that accomplishment alone is enough to rank Golson atop head coach Brian Kelly's list of best season's by a signal-caller in South Bend.
After extensive film reviews, Golson placed just outside our season-end top 10 players list for the 2012 season (Te'o, Nix, Eifert, Martin, Tuitt, Riddick, Motta, Shembo, Lewis-Moore, B. Jackson, then Golson) but he nonetheless received either offensive MVP or a game ball nominations (multiple awarded each week) for eight contests.
Golson rushed for a team high six touchdowns while throwing for 12 scores vs. 6 interceptions. He struggled mightily vs. Michigan, intermittently vs. Stanford, and was benched briefly before returning to rescue Notre Dame's undefeated regular season against Pittsburgh, a contest in which he was far and away the best player on the field over its final 20 minutes.
Weighing against those rookie season drawbacks is the fact that it was Golson's dual-threat skill set that made the Irish offense work in wins over the likes of Michigan State, Miami, Oklahoma, and USC.
No Irish quarterback has maintained consistent, week-to-week success under Kelly to date -- Golson's 2012 efforts rank as the best of the lot, and there's not a close second.
He'll need to be much better in 2014…
#2 -- Tommy Rees 2012Rees' final statistics in 2012 (a pair of touchdowns, a pair of picks, a timely rushing score to beat Michigan) belie his immense contribution to Notre Dame's No. 1 ranking at season's end.
-- Off the bench to lead the game-winning drive vs. Purdue, a 20-17 Irish win...
-- Off the bench to quarterback the Irish for the better part of three quarters -- while scoring the game's only touchdown -- in a 13-6 victory over Michigan…
-- Off the bench in emergency relief to tie Stanford at the end of regulation (thanks to a pair of clutch third-down passes), and beat them in overtime with a touchdown toss, 20-13…
-- A starting role, one in which he predictably struggled but prevailed, one week later in a 17-14 win over Brigham Young…
-- A brief relief appearance -- and crucial 3rd and 8 pass to Tyler Eifert -- in the team's upset win at Oklahoma…
Aside from a poor, brief outing in Notre Dame's triple overtime win over Pittsburgh to begin November, Rees was spotless as a "relief pitcher," a unique role to which he appeared ideally suited.
#3 -- Tommy Rees 2013Rees' senior year in South Bend marks the only season among Kelly's first four in which one quarterback led the Irish in each contest.
On the plus side, Rees' 27 touchdown passes were the most of the Kelly era, tying the efforts of the Rees/Dayne Crist combo in 2010. Rees' 13 interceptions in 2013 rank as the second-lowest total for the position during that span (behind the Golson/Rees combination of 2012 with 8), and perhaps most important, Rees never fumbled last fall, that after a 2012 season in which Golson lost five, 2011 in which Rees and Crist combined to lose six, and the 2010 campaign in which Rees and Crist combined for a trio of fumbles, each in crucial situations.
Rees finished 2013 with a Kelly-era best 3,257 passing yards -- the fourth-highest single-season total in program history -- but poor outings in losses to Oklahoma and Pittsburgh sullied his overall performance, as did a pair of picks in two other losses, at Michigan and at Stanford, games in which Rees otherwise played well under adverse circumstances. Much was asked of Rees in 2013. He passed a whopping 414 times and he conducted the entire offensive operation, doing so with a talented but green group of receivers, runners, tight ends, and a rarely healthy offensive front.
Far from perfect, but with Golson suspended, Malik Zaire out for most of the season with and while recovering from mono, and with only the not-ready Andrew Hendrix available in relief, it's fair to posit the Irish would had fallen below .500 for the season without Rees guiding the ship.
His value to the squad is not in question.
#4 Tommy Rees 2010 and #5 Dayne Crist 2010The pair combined for 31 total touchdowns (19 by Crist, including a team-high four rushing scores) but with a whopping 18 turnovers, and at no point did the offensive operation click in this, Kelly's first season at the helm.
Crist was at his best in early season back-to-back losses vs. Michigan and Michigan State (a combined 45 of 80 passing with 646 yards and six touchdowns, plus a rushing score, vs. two interceptions and one fumble) and he was solid in wins over Purdue, Boston College, Pittsburgh, and Western Michigan. Crist though struggled mightily in defeat against Stanford -- a game in which the Irish were ridiculously out-classed -- and later vs. Navy, the low point of the season and the Kelly era.
He likewise was knocked from two games -- for the better part of the first half vs. Michigan in Week Two, then completely from the Tulsa contest to end October, a torn patellar tendon ending his junior season. Notre Dame was 4-4 when Crist was its main quarterback in 2010, though the aforementioned loss to the Wolverines was due largely to his absence and the efforts of his backups (Rees included) as Michigan reeled off 21 straight points during Crist's time on the bench.
Rees famously finished the season with four consecutive wins -- those on the heels of a long-relief loss vs. Tulsa. He fired 12 touchdowns, was intercepted eight times and lost a fumble. Game-by-game, Rees was as good as could be expected vs. Tulsa (4 TD, 3 INT, 334 passing yards on a ridiculous 54 attempts), and ideal as a game manager in wins over Utah and Miami (a combined five touchdowns without an interception).
He likewise presided over a streak-snapping win at USC, a 20-16 Irish victory in which Rees struggled throughout (three picks and fumble that set up the Trojans only touchdown from the 2-yard line).
The quarterback position offered nothing outstanding in 2010, but the Crist/Rees pair had its moments, especially Rees, a true freshman who helped right the ship to engender good feelings from the fan base at season's end.
Honorable Mention-- Tommy Rees 2011: Finished August as the team's backup, a status that last exactly one half. The true sophomore finished with 20 touchdown passes, 19 turnovers (five lost fumbles included) and highlights vs. defensively challenged foes such as Purdue, Air Force, Navy, and Maryland. Stout defenses from USC, Stanford, and Florida State did not treat him as kindly.
It should be noted Rees played well in a remarkably hostile environment at Michigan in early September, throwing for 315 yards and three scores (two picks), including what should have been the game-winning touchdown pass with just 30 seconds remaining.
His 65.5 percent completion percentage on 411 passes (again, too many considering the team's rushing tandem of Jonas Gray and Cierre Wood was available) was impressive for a true sophomore that faced three of the nation's top 10 defenses (plus Stanford and USC) en route to an 8-5 finish.
Next in our Best of the Best series: The Kelly era offensive linemen.
Previously in the series: Wide Receivers
Previously in the series: Running Backs
Previously in the series: Tight Ends
Have a dissenting opinion? In complete agreement? Join our premium message board discussion at the Football Forum for your voice to be heard.