Answers, or at least traces of them, about Notre Dame’s quarterback started to emerge during the first week of fall camp in South Bend. But if you’re waiting for a definitive proclamation from head coach Brian Kelly, don’t expect it to come in the near future.
While Andrew Hendrix (second from left) and Everett Golson (not pictured) have separated from the pack, Notre Dame isn't ready to name a starting quarterback.
“This is going to require all the 29 practice opportunities that we have,” Kelly said Saturday afternoon when asked about when he would pick a starter. “I would not be holding your breath for an announcement anytime soon.”
Kelly said the team will remain in installation mode, adding pieces to the offense, for another week before he really begins to look under the microscope to see which candidate is separating himself from the pack.
It’s safe to say at this point that junior Andrew Hendrix and sophomore Everett Golson have narrowed the field from four to two during the summer months. Junior Tommy Rees has been almost exclusively a spectator this week in team drills and will remain more coach than contender until the team returns from Dublin and his one-game suspension ends. Freshman Gunner Kiel has shown the physical tools to play, but is reportedly still playing catch-up on the mental side.
The good news for Kelly is that the coach says he has seen enough in one week to know he will be comfortable with whoever he puts on the field to start the year. Even Kiel, he said, would be capable of doing the job if he didn’t have two more experienced players in front of him.
“I don’t have a better idea as to who the starter is, but I can tell you that I would say Andrew and Everett have begun to display the skills necessary — not just the physical skills but the mental skills — to be the starter,” Kelly said. “You never know that until you go out and practice and see them in different situations. Now it’s honing those and building on what we did this past week.”
The Irish coaching staff has fired as many situations at Golson and Hendrix as they could squeeze into a week’s worth of practice. Kelly has talked often about maximizing the amount of time the team spends with 11-on-11 work to test how his quarterbacks respond. So far, he says he’s been most impressed with Hendrix’s ability to check into the correct plays and protections and with Golson’s improved pocket presence.
The added experience doesn’t come without a toll, though. Kelly acknowledged Saturday that playing full speed ups the risk of injuries, and Notre Dame has had two potentially significant ones this week. Junior Danny Spond, projected to start at the Dog linebacker position, will be out of commission indefinitely while the Irish training staff tries to diagnose what originally looked like a concussion, but has since been ruled otherwise. Tight end Alex Welch will miss the entire year after tearing his ACL in 11-on-11 action Wednesday morning.
Both injuries will test Notre Dame’s depth at important positions. Welch was expected to be a major contributor in an Irish offense that hopes to rely heavily on two and three tight end sets this season. Kelly and the coaching staff will turn to a trio of less experienced players now to complement All-American Tyler Eifert. Sophomore Ben Koyack is the only healthy tight end other than Eifert with a reception, and he only has one. Converted linebacker Troy Niklas and senior Jake Golic will need to fill a bigger role without Welch.
“We’re lucky,” Kelly said. “To lose a really good player like Alex and to have three tight ends — Jake Golic’s getting a lot more work too. We feel good that we have depth at that position that will get the job done. That’s not going to stop us from winning.”
- Kelly said receiving signals from the sideline isn’t an issue that will keep Golson out of the starting lineup. The sophomore struggled to relay plays from the sideline to his teammates during the spring game. Kelly said they have tried to find ways to simplify the process.
“We look like air-traffic controllers out there sometimes. You’re always looking at ways to kind of take the vocabulary down," he said."[Golson] will be fine. That won’t be a reason why he’s not our starting quarterback.”
- Notre Dame’s abundance of potential offensive weapons might do more to slow down the tempo this season than the team’s play-calling system. Kelly said trying to keep all of his capable skill players involved will require a juggling act this year.
“When you change personnel, you have to slow down a little bit. We’ve got to go to our strength, and our strength is to get all those guys on the field.”
- The competition for punt returner remains a wide open “gong show” after week one, according to Kelly. The coaches are trying to test as many skill players as possible to find a solution and have rotated and eliminated players on a daily basis.