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Pre-Spring Depth Chart: Quarterback

We’re saving the best for last as the final position group to be dealt with on offense is the most controversial, exciting, and fascinating.

If you’ve missed any of the other positions click on the names below and have a ball.

Wide Receiver

Offensive Line

Running Back

Tight End

*Denotes fifth year eligibility

Dayne Crist, Senior*

Tommy Rees, Sophomore

Andrew Hendrix, Sophomore*

Everett Golson, Freshman

The Fat Has Been Trimmed Away

A week ago there were six bodies and a crowded depth chart that needed some serious relief. Heading into spring ball the roster has been trimmed down to four players and an intense battle will begin with March practices.

Now, quarterback looks like a real nice position group numbers-wise with a lot of different options for the coaching staff to choose from.

Is it possible that this is the deepest and most talented group of Irish signal callers in a decade or two?

There’s now room to comfortably add another recruit in the 2012 class and possibly two more if Crist does not come back for a fifth year.

There’s also plenty of eligibility left with this group as Golson and Hendrix each have four full years, Rees with three and Crist with two years remaining.

How Much Will Experience Matter?

Out of the gate, Crist and Rees should have the upper hand in this battle because they have game experience, have felt the pressure of being quarterback at Notre Dame and have ran out on to the field with all those crazy expectations flooding their mind.

Will the coaches be comfortable to start someone without experience?

From a fan perspective it is hard to come to grips with another inexperienced player under center for the 2011 season opener, and it will definitely cause a lot apprehension if Hendrix or Golson take the reigns this fall.

That kind of anxiety is normal, but we can probably trust the coaching staff to put the best player on the field even if he isn’t experienced.

A big part of the worry is that the offense will have to "start over" to a certain extent with a fresh quarterback and that there won’t be the step forward that was hoped for in year two of the Kelly Era.

However, the two inexperienced quarterbacks who could take over are the players who are most suited for the offense and much more likely to make the unit more productive and dangerous because of their running abilities.

So even if there are some growing pains and other inconsistencies we saw last year because of inexperience, those mistakes could be offset by the quarterbacks athleticism and running ability, opening a whole new dimension for the offense.

Nothing is as Good or Bad as It Seems

Lou Holtz used this quote all the time and I think it rings true when we’re talking about the play of Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees last year.

There’s a vocal opinion that since Rees won his first four starts, ended the losing streak against USC, ended the losing streak against ranked teams, and played his best game of the season in the bowl game, that he is the man to beat.

Conversely, there is also a vocal opinion that feels Crist wasn’t learning the offense, looked uncomfortable and lost in quite a few games, and wasn’t progressing as the season went on. It also doesn’t help that Crist’s worst game of his career occurred in his last full start either.

I think the reality is somewhere in between, in that Rees isn’t nearly as good as his 4-0 record as a starter indicates, and Crist wasn’t as bad as his starting record indicates either.

Rees performed very well given the circumstances, his inexperience, and age. At times he looked remarkably calm and comfortable, showed a lot of toughness and determination, and made some big plays when he was asked to.

Yet, there were times when Rees looked a little bit out of his league, struggled with turnovers, and his lack of arm strength was readily apparent.

Crist too had his moments where he looked confused in the offense, missed relatively easy throws, and couldn’t move the team down the field. But those troubles were offset by Crist being the main catalyst on offense while he was healthy, sparking a passing game that was close to dominant in parts of contests, and the fact that he was on pace for a rather successful first year statistically as a starter at Notre Dame.

In the grand scheme of things, neither quarterback played outstanding, but both played pretty well given the circumstances surrounding each of them.

Rees is a Winner---Crist Isn’t? (Let’s Talk Intangibles!)

We’ve heard since the end of the season that "Rees is a winner," that "he just has IT and is a gamer," and that "Rees just wins and that is good enough for me!"

I’d argue that Rees probably does have a lot of intangibles, maybe even more than Dayne Crist, but we have to balance this discussion with other tangible factors and not just simplistic arguments such as, "I feel like Rees was in better control of the offense."

As it stands, Rees is the least mobile and possesses the weakest arm of the four quarterbacks on the roster. Is he truly full of so many winning intangibles that he will be able to win the starting job over the spring and fall?

See, the thing with this intangible discussion is that 1.) It is difficult for coaches to measure that during practice and 2.) I didn’t see enough playmaking from Rees to be confident that his intangibles will continue to trump his physical limitations.

It’s different if a young quarterback doesn’t have the strongest arm, isn’t particularly fast, wasn’t highly regarded out of high school, but then comes in and simply makes plays and shows the recruiting services were way off in their assessment. It’s different if a quarterback proves the doubters wrong with clutch throws, great stats and victories that can be directly attributed to his performance.

In other words, a "wow" factor has to be in involved at some point (think Matt Barkley's 380 yard performance at Notre Dame as a true freshman---you just knew he would be the quarterback at USC for four years and be tough to beat).

It would be different if the offense had come out looking good against Utah or if Rees hadn’t of played poorly at USC but instead played well and drove the team down the field with half a dozen completions and sealed the victory with a beautiful touchdown pass.

But that didn’t really happen with Rees.

He managed the games well, particularly for a freshman, but there were a whole list of other factors that led to the team winning (great defense, improved running game, etc.) and it is simply imprudent to think that these factors happened specifically because Rees was quarterback and not Crist.

I’m not saying Rees will never play again or that he doesn’t have a lot of intangibles that could maybe lead him to the starting job, but people have to realize that he will have to be lights out as a passer and decision maker in practice to make up for his shortcomings in the talent (arm strength, size, mobility) department.

You could argue that it’s not Rees’ fault that he was a freshman, that the playbook was shrunk down, that he wasn’t asked to win games with his arm, and that he will improve as he gets older.

But my point is there was never enough evidence during the last five games of the season to prove Rees is going to continue winning football games, be a multi-year starter, and ultimately overcome his physical limitations.

This shouldn’t belittle Rees’ accomplishments so far because he does deserve a lot of praise, but pinning hopes largely on intangibles is a bigger leap of faith then believing one of the other quarterbacks will take over.

Will Mobility be a Crucial or Determining Factor?

In the short-term I don’t believe mobility will be a determining factor for the starting position, but it will give Hendrix and Golson a small edge in the spring and certainly a big advantage beyond 2011.

Of course being able to pull the ball down on option read plays is a big part of this advantage, but it’s also about moving around in the pocket and escaping defenders who have broken into the backfield as well.

Whichever quarterback can buy time with his feet and throw the ball down field with success will have an advantage going into the season opener. This ability to buy time is almost always something Brian Kelly talks about when discussing the quarterbacks, so it is a big deal to him and the rest of the coaching staff.

Real Talk---Look at the Stats

It’s not this simple, but in many ways Crist offers a more explosive and pass-happy option under center, whereas Rees will offer a more conservative game-manager type of option.

It seems like an easy decision to go with the more explosive option, but remember that Brian Kelly’s offense is essentially a ball control passing offense. That means a great majority of the throws will be in the short-to-medium range and someone like Rees who can get the ball out quickly, accurately and move the chains is a valued commodity.

Still, there is no denying the difference in the way the passing offense produced in 2010 when Crist was the quarterback.

Had he been healthy for the entire Michigan game, Notre Dame would have averaged close to 300 yards per game through the air with Crist at quarterback. During the last five games of the season with Rees, the passing game production dropped down to 205 yards per game.

Additionally, Crist threw for more yards than any other opponent in 2010 against Michigan State and he threw for the second most against Stanford, both the highest ranked teams the Irish played all season. Crist threw for over 300 yards three times (not including a 299 yard performance) in eight starts and always threw for at least 200 yards in every start (Tulsa obviously not included).

Rees, although more accurate in completion percentage (by 1.8 percent), only threw for 300 yards once (against Tulsa who gave up an average of 319 passing yards per game---six other teams threw for more yards than Notre Dame against the Golden Hurricane), threw for under 200 yards twice in five games, and never more than 214 yards in four out of the five games.

Of course, Crist was relied upon to throw the ball a lot more often (14 more attempts per game) and Rees was able to rely on the running game to move the offense, so what do you take away from the fact that the team passed less and won more with Rees?

Does that mean Rees was better?

Does it mean Crist wasn’t productive enough?

Does it mean there are discernable leadership differences?

Was it simply better coaching and game planning?

I have no doubt that many wish to see an offense that runs the ball more and doesn’t need to rely on nearly 33 passing attempts per game to win, but at the same time, Crist threw for a lot more yards and was only intercepted once every 42 attempts, compared to Rees throwing a pick every 20.5 attempts.

Moreover, Rees was aided by a better ground game and a vastly improved defense. With Rees in the team averaged almost 40 more yards per game on the ground, and the running game accounted for 43.5 percent of the total offense.

Crist got much less help with 112.1 rushing yards per game and only 28.5 percent of the total offense coming on the ground. Crist had one game where the rushing offense was over 40 percent of total offense (Purdue 42.7 percent), while Rees had four out his five games top 40 percent, including three over 49 percent.

Now imagine Crist’s productivity and ball security with the running game (and defense) Rees had late in the season.

All of this just reinforces the belief that the TEAM stepped up and was responsible for the winning streak. We can try and credit Rees for the team’s improvements, but then you have to start talking about these vague intangibles that can’t be proved or disproved and that’s such a dead end argument.

That doesn’t mean Rees doesn’t deserve any credit, because he surely does, but how do you explain that the running game improved with a virtually immobile quarterback in a read-option system, and that the team won with far less production and more turnovers in the passing game?

What’s the Lineup Going to Look Like?

For obvious reasons, this is such a difficult question to answer. There are so many issues that need to be resolved by next September that any guess right now could be entirely wrong by the time the season kicks off.

Will Crist be healthy enough to contribute in the spring? Will he ever stay healthy during the season?

How much will Rees improve from year one to two?

Does Hendrix shine now that he has had a full year of the system under his belt?

And does Golson’s skill set immediately place him into the two-deep even though he’s a freshman?

I feel like Crist is being undervalued at this point and if you go back and watch the film from September and October, I think you’ll see that he played a lot better than you remember. With his arm strength the offense is more wide open and there were times when Crist was simply in the zone and playing at a very high level.

He does come with some concerns, mainly: injuries, lack of consistency, and a lack of accuracy.

The injury situation is just something we’ll have to deal with and see how it develops. I wouldn’t write Crist off because of it, but it is still a pretty big concern at this point.

His consistency and lack of accuracy, or more precisely, his inability to complete the easier throws on the field, has to immediately improve or else there may be no use having a strong-armed quarterback that lacks the mobility the coaches crave.

Before spring practice starts, Tommy Rees has a big advantage in this competition because of his quick release and ability to be spot on with this short-to-intermediate throws, especially in comparison to Crist.

Whereas Crist would sail a couple balls, throw them into the dirt on a few occasions, or look erratic on screen passes, Rees was generally perfect with these same kinds of throws.

I also liked how Rees handled the entire process of coming in at the worst time of the season and playing cool, calm and collected. Like I said before, he may very well have a ton of intangibles and the savvy to lead Notre Dame to victory.

However, I just don’t think the skill level and talent is there to be able to fend off three other highly talented quarterbacks, even with the experience of winning the final four games of the season and granted room for improvement.

The two wildcards are Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson.

With or without a healthy Crist, it seems as if Hendrix will have a very good shot at cracking the two deep or possibly even starting. There might have to be a big leap of faith for fans because he’s never taken a snap in college, but you have to trust the reviews the coaching staff have given and that he’s a better fit for the offense than either Crist or Rees.

Hendrix has similar size to Crist, has a great arm (Kelly: "Quick release, one of the best arms I’ve ever seen.") and is much more mobile than anyone who played last year. He’s still an unknown, but you have to think his shot is pretty good this offseason.

Initially, most thought Golson was headed for a redshirt, but now we might have to reconsider that notion.

He’s an early enrollee who will get some first team reps in the spring per Brian Kelly. He’s the most athletic quarterback on the roster and a perfect fit for the offense. Heck, he might even be the best pure passer out of the four quarterbacks as well.

Since he’s undersized and weighs 180 pounds (if he’s lucky), a redshirt year probably couldn’t hurt, but what happens if he’s one of the best quarterbacks in practice? What if he’s THE best?

Expecting Golson to start (no matter how talented he is) seems like a big stretch, but the conversation may likely move quickly toward whether he ends up as the backup, has some packages installed for him, or ultimately stays on the sidelines in 2011.

Since I believe Hendrix and Golson are Notre Dame’s long-term answers at the quarterback position, holding the freshman out and staggering their eligibility seems like the sensible thing to do. But Golson’s skill-set and playmaking ability might prevent that from happening.

My guess for opening day against USF is:

1. Crist

2. Hendrix

3. Rees

4. Golson

I’m going to assume that Golson eventually redshirts and that the coaches will take a long and hard look at him during the spring and fall, but deem it wise to put more weight on the South Carolinian and give him a full year of experience in the system before seeing the field.

Rees should fall into a battle for the backup spot, settling in at the number three position but going no higher than number two by September.

I could see a scenario where Rees starts out next season as the backup only later to be passed by Hendrix, but I think Hendrix will force his way into the two-deep by August. With Hendrix still a relatively unknown commodity and with a freshman like Golson coming up behind with "the future" tag on him, Hendrix could be a serious transfer candidate if he’s not in the two-deep at some point in 2011.

If Crist is cleared for non-contact practice by spring then his skill, experience, and leadership should earn him the starting job against USF. If he’s not healthy enough to participate in some or all of spring practice then this depth chart could shift significantly, but with Crist on the field from late March and into April the odds are greatly in his favor.

There could be two dozen more scenarios to discuss over the next seven months but this is how I see it shaking out right now before the spring.

Dayne Crist still has the most to offer and if he’s healthy it should be his job to lose.

Andrew Hendrix has a year in the system and the skill and measurables to be a very good quarterback at the college level. With the praise he has received from the coaching staff I like his chances to compete and get an opportunity to start if Crist is unable to play or falters during the season.

Tommy Rees will fall to third on the depth chart, but is still very much in the mix to see the field with Crist’s injury concerns and an untested Hendrix ahead of him.

Since Golson is in for spring and was Kelly’s first quarterback recruited for this system, his path through the depth chart may be accelerated as a true freshman. However, if there weren’t three older options at quarterback I could see Kelly using Golson in a Tebow-like role with some specific packages created to utilize his mobility, but until that kind of role is announced or seen on the field, I believe Kelly will stick with one quarterback and Golson should redshirt.

One more month until spring practice begins!