It only took Brian Kelly a half of football this season to decide he needed to make a quarterback change and while Notre Dame’s 2nd year head coach hasn’t given any indication he is even considering another one, questions still surround the position for the Irish after starting the second half of the season with a disappointing loss on Saturday night.
Ever since the quarterback derby for 2011 began in the spring, the physical limitations of Tommy Rees have been well documented. Rees isn’t very big, he isn’t very fast, and he doesn’t have a very big arm. He has a good understanding of the offense, however and for the most part is cool under pressure.
At times this season Rees has looked pretty sharp. Against Purdue and Air Force Rees was almost unstoppable at certain points. Against Pitt and again last night against Southern Cal, however, Rees looked ordinary and struggled to move the offense downfield.
The turnover bug came back to haunt Rees again last night as well after putting together two turnover free games. One of the turnovers was not all Rees’s fault as Cierre Wood should have been able to catch what ended up being a lateral inside the Irish 20. At the same time, that pass needs to be thrown forward so that USC doesn’t even have the option of picking that ball up once it hits the ground.
Rees is still very young, but the jury is still out as to whether or not he is the long term answer for the Irish under center. He looks very sharp at times, but he struggles with consistency and against athletic defenses like USC’s his physical limitations severely affect his effectiveness.
Behind Rees we still don’t know what Notre Dame has either. We have a general idea of what Dayne Crist is capable of which unfortunately is does not appear to be that much. After stepping in for Rees when he got banged up in the 3rd quarter, Crist led the Irish down the field and on the doorstop of tying the game only to botch the snap and watch as Jawanza Starling picked up the ball and returned it for a touchdown. The series was pretty much a microcosm of Crist’s career – he has the tools, looks the part, but just can’t quite put it all together.
The two wild cards here remain sophomore Andrew Hendrix and freshman Everett Golson. It’s pretty obvious that Kelly wants a quarterback that can run the ball otherwise he wouldn’t be experimenting with using two quarterbacks right now. Both Hendrix and Golson provide that ability, but both also remain raw and need to pick up the nuances of Kelly’s offense before we know what they are truly capable of.
With five games remaining the number one priority for Kelly has to be to gain some clarity on what he has at quarterback. Notre Dame simply can’t go into spring practice next year with another open quarterback race.
Some people will point to Rees’ 8-2 record as a starter as all the evidence they need to know he is the right quarterback for this offense, but when you look at those games, the only game that Notre Dame won in that stretch where the defense gave up 30 or more points was the Air Force game and most of those points came well after the outcome was determined.
In short, Rees has proven he can manage a game and lead Notre Dame to a win when the defense plays well and the offense doesn’t have to lead the way. What he hasn’t shown is the ability to stap the team on his back and carry them when the defense is struggling. No matter how good a defense is, there are going to be games where the opposing offense just has there number and when that happens you need to have your offense put up points. To this point we haven’t seen this offense have that ability under the control of Rees or any of the current Irish quarterbacks for that matter.
Kelly needs to determine if Rees is his long term answer and to this point I don’t think the sophomore has provide enough evidence to answer that question in either direction. He has done enough so far to be given more time to learn and improve, but at the same time he also hasn’t shown enough to be the unquestioned starter for 2012 either.
I doubt we’ll see Golson at this point of the season. It seems fairly evident that Kelly would like to maintain his redshirt year, but I hope we see more of Hendrix over these final five games to see if can be the quarterback this offense needs to really hum. We know he is bigger, faster, and has a much stronger arm than Rees, but Crist has all of those things as well and we’ve been down that road enough already.
The defense has not been great this season, but last night they played well enough for the Irish to win. They allowed USC to march down the field early on them, but they stiffened in the second quarter and for the rest of the game, the only USC points that were scored came either on turnovers or because of turnovers.
The difference between this year and last year’s USC game was the defense turned in an amazing performance last year in the Coliseum. The offense sputtered even more so last year against the Trojans, but the defense picked them up. This year the defense was just ordinary against Southern Cal and needed to the offense to pick them up. The offense, no matter who was under center, just couldn’t do it.
Until Kelly finds someone who can, Notre Dame will continue to struggle against quality opponents like USC. It would also help if Kelly helped out his signal callers by calling more than nine runs for his dynamic duo at running back too, but that’s a whole other story.