Notre Dame football: Golson, Hendrix, Gunner or Rees?

By Tom O'Toole

“That’s Joe Montana, and you guys are in trouble.” –longtime Notre Dame media relations director Roger Valdiserri, to his Purdue counterpart, when then third string quarterback Montana saw action for the first time during the 1977 season with eleven minutes left in the Irish’s third game of the season, with Purdue winning 24-14. (Notre Dame won 31-24.)

In the afterglow of the memorable 1988 championship season, when a skinny, stuttering, rosary-praying dictator named Lou Holtz had resurrected the storied football program from the Faustian ash heap in a mere three seasons, the Notre Dame Nation would laugh in derision if you even hinted that the words “long-suffering” and “Fighting Irish fans” would ever again be used in the same sentence.

But now, going on a quarter of a century later, that is exactly what happened, with Notre Dame employing their fourth would-be Rockne since Holtz was mysteriously forced out. Furthermore, in what used to be considered a Notre Dame coach’s magical third season, the once-brash Brian Kelly is now fighting for his coaching life.

Forget for the moment the miraculous prospect of Kelly following in the famous football footsteps of Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Holtz and even Dan Devine by leading the Irish to the National Championship in his third season as Notre Dame head coach; if Brian can’t win at least ten games he will much more likely be “resigned” to the memories of Davie, Willingham and Weis, part of the “era of Irish mediocrity.” And Kelly’s fate as great or hack now rests largely on his choice of quarterback, and how he chooses him…

Although there have been times when Notre Dame Football has won big without a marquee quarterback (indeed, Holtz’s championship team will be remembered as much for it’s dominant defense as for the serviceable if clutch play of quarterback Tony Rice), these moments are few and far between.

In addition, Coach Kelly came to Notre Dame with a reputation not only as an offensive genius, but a quarterback guru. Of course, so did Charlie Weis, but whereas the “fat man” at least delivered on his promise of molding Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen into standout college (if not pro) quarterbacks, Kelly’s heroes have thus far been for the most part busts.

True, this has not been entirely Kelly’s fault. Brian inherited the game but often lame Dayne Crist from Weis, and this strong-armed but slow-footed drop back passer was a square peg in Kelly’s round run and shoot offense. Still, Crist seemed to regress under Kelly’s guidance, whereas Kelly’s own recruit, Tommy Rees, has failed to improve much in nearly a season and a half as his starter.

Again, this situation cannot entirely be blamed on Kelly; when Crist went down with his second major injury in 2010, Rees, the stick-figure kid with the quick mind (who was signed mainly as a stop-gap measure) was also the only back-up who fully grasped Kelly’s complex offense at the time.

But Kelly, perhaps reading his press clippings as program-savior, began to encourage comparisons of Rees to a famous former slightly built Notre Dame back-up turned legend after Tommy guided the Irish to a few meager victories against inferior opponents. This proved a huge mistake; not only because many of Joe Montana’s countless comeback victories came against highly ranked teams, but also since Kelly had chosen Rees over Joe’s own son, Nate Montana, to right the Irish.

Thus, when Rees failed to beat the big names and Montana the younger (after a brief bogus stint against Michigan) still languished on the bench, the angry elder Montana lashed out at Kelly (not the first time Joe had told a coach he made the wrong choice at quarterback) and the gauntlet was thrown down. With Crist transferring to Kansas (to reunite with Weis) and Montana to (where else?) Montana, Kelly was left with only his own highly ranked recruits and no more excuses.

But once again his fortune may be his curse, for although all four of the candidates for Irish quarterback have shown promise, none have stood out–yet. It’s almost better that Rees took the “Fighting Irish” moniker literally last spring and got banned for the opening game with Navy for drunken brawling, for it forces Kelly to forsake the safe but ordinary choice.

Of the remaining three, only Junior Andrew Hendrix has game experience; and while his elusive running (including a 78-yard scamper against Air Force) speaks in his favor, his strong but not always accurate arm (18 for 37, with 2 INTs) leave him a question mark.

Meanwhile, sophomore Everett Golson has finally grasped the multi-faceted offense, something he had trouble with last fall. Also, Everett is equally adept at running and passing. and looked by far the best in the Blue-Gold spring game.

But two years ago Nate Montana looked like Joe in the spring scrimmage and like a schmo against Michigan, so contrary to what Joe wanted to believe, Kelly knows spring is not the real thing. Finally, freshman Gunner Kiel not only has Notre Dame lineage (his uncle, Blair, was the starting quarterback for ND for four years in the early 80s) but a cool first name that matches his rifle-like right arm.

But he is not quite as stellar a runner as Golson or Hendrix is, and with the least experience in the offense, choosing Gunner to start against Navy would take the most guts, for an on-target Kiel could make Kelly the coach of the year, but a backfiring Gunner would no doubt cut short the life of Brian at Notre Dame as well.

For whether they’ve had a strong arm, quick feet, or great vision, there is one thing that all great Notre Dame quarterbacks have possessed, an unquestioned ability to lead.

In addition to being strong leaders, the great Notre Dame coaches have also been men of Faith, to whom Notre Dame was not just a name, but a way of life. Kelly did not need this added dimension to be successful at Central Michigan or Cincinnati, but history has shown that swearing and getting in players’ faces is not enough to win here.

The question is, does Kelly have enough of that intangible inside himself to see it in someone else? The Irish faithful are praying that he does…or at least finds it before he names the starting quarterback for Navy and the rest of his pivotal 2012 season.

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