After Wednesday’s (April 4) practice, the ninth this spring and last one until next Wednesday, Notre Dame offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Chuck Martin walked into the Isban Auditorium interview room and announced to the 20 or so media members that he is prepared to reveal who the Irish starting quarterback is. All that seemed to be missing was the white smoke coming from the Golden Dome, similar to Rome when a new Pope has been selected.
Brian Kelly surveys practice with quarterbacks Everett Golson (5), Gunner Kiel (1), Andrew Hendrix (12), Tommy Rees (11) and walk-on Charlie Fiessinger (17).
The answer was the young man from Cincinnati Moeller … 6-1, 185-pound sophomore Charlie Fiessinger. The walk-on who wears No. 17 joined the quartet of juniors Tommy Rees, the incumbent, and another Moeller product, Andrew Hendrix, sophomore Everett Golson and freshman Gunner Kiel in this spring’s derby.
In a joking mood, Martin declared how Irish followers and the media can now relax and go back to their regularly scheduled lives. He laughs at the notion that there has to be a “target date” of when the actual QB starter has to be declared.
“Have you guys ever done this thesis study on, ‘If you don’t name your starter by May 15, you average only seven wins a year?' Martin cracked.
“Media and fans have this master plan of why it has to be a certain way. I’ve coached for 20 years … I’ve figured out starting guys on the bus on the way to games and have had successful seasons.”
However, in the interest of placating inquiring minds and moving forward, Martin said it was his duty on April 4 to unveil the starter.
“That’s why I named Fiessinger today — so everybody could calm down, we’re all relaxed, we’ve got a starter and then we’ll figure it out down the road,” Martin said.
In reality, Martin echoes head coach Brian Kelly’ statement that this will be a long process and a starting quarterback will not be named at the end of spring. Whereas fall is consumed by game planning for the next opponent, the spring is when coaches can work far more on installation and improving each player with individual attention. Wednesday’s practice was another example. The installation included two new pass protections and a couple of new routes, which in a way can put the offense back to square one.
Along with “target dates,” Martin shakes his head even more about some speculation that the staff really has it figured out who the starter is but wants to keep it a mystery.
“That’s insanity to me,” Martin said. “We’re still installing. Today we had a 45-minute meeting and we put in two protections, which is very complicated. With them there are pass checks, some of the routes had to be curtailed, we put in two more routes, and then we tried to go run today …
“If you [had] just watched the practice, it was disastrous. But if you knew it was first-day install … Two weeks from now it’s going to be way better when they do this stuff. As long as you’re still installing and doing new stuff, it’s always going to be that way.”
Come the Sept. 1 opener in Ireland versus Navy, the Irish likewise will be far from a finished product.
“We won’t be a great team at Navy,” Martin said. “I’ve been around great teams, but we’ve never been great early in the year. We might have been good enough to win the games, but it keeps growing and growing until December.”
The foremost priority on what the quarterback position will be judged is minimizing turnovers (29 last season) or the bad play. However, QB can’t be like a baseball team that has no errors — but then doesn’t produce any runs or hits, either.
“You weigh who makes the most plays, makes the most positive things happen, versus those negative plays,” Martin explained. “No one has the sliding scale of what it is. It’s a constant evaluation. You can’t play the guy that never turns the ball over — then never makes a play either. There’s a balance. Obviously you’re going to error (on side of caution) … the turnover is much more disastrous than a good throw is good.
“I say it 60 times a day, and the kids are sick of hearing it: ‘We don’t decide who plays; you decide who plays. We don’t decide who you throw the ball to; you decide who you throw the ball to.’
“Every day we’re evaluating, ‘Hey, he made these positive things happen, which are awesome. But now you have to kind of weigh it against how many disastrous things happened — because we lived through that. Six, seven plays can really change your complexion of the whole year.
“We kind of wanted to slow it down at every position because we want to clean up the mistakes. Once you clean up the mistakes, now it comes into, ‘No one’s making mistakes, now who’s making the most plays?’ Those guys you play.
“Talent shouldn’t have a difference on whether you can execute our offense. If you’re less talented, you still should be able to execute our offense. Now, maybe you don’t make as many plays because you have less athleticism.”
Martin said 16-game starter Rees is benefiting from having been through the fires the past two years.
“Everyone wants to rule him out,” Martin said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re going to play the best guy that gives us the best chance to win.’ We don’t know that guy, as yet. If we did, we’d declare it, it would be better for the football team to declare it and everybody can rally around one guy and everybody can start to figure out their roles. It’s still going to be a while.”
When he was coaching defense last year, Martin admitted he didn’t have a full handle on Hendrix in the practices, but is now more pleased about how he digests information.
“I’ve been impressed with his ability to see it, muck it up, and then come back and not do it that way again,” Martin said. “I was concerned from looking at it from the outside in, was he a guy that just couldn’t see the field and just sometimes threw it right to the other guy because he wasn’t [able to] see it? Sometimes you don’t see the field.
“To me, if he’s making a mistake now and we run the same route against the same look, he’s not. He’s putting the ball where it needs to be.”
With Golson, the concern is not about seeing the field but more about not free-lancing too much and getting reckless.
“He sees the field — he probably has a little more actual feel than Andrew,” Martin said. “His is the actual attention to detail, whether it’s ball security, whether it’s just sticking with the read. There is a time to ad-lib and make something happen — which he has, and even Andrew has that ability to do some things out of the pocket — but there’s also a time to stick with the plan and not make up stuff.”
With Kiel, it’s about not making the offense too simplistic so that it inhibits progress at the other 10 positions.
“We may have slowed [the offense] down a little, but really we haven’t slowed it down much,” Martin said. “We’ve slowed it down a little bit more for Gunner just so he can have quality reps every day so that when he gets out there, we’re sure he knows … he’s learning at a very rapid rate and he’s a sharp kid.
“We’re trying to prepare four guys to get ready to play. And even if it’s not ready to play this year, it’s ready to play at some point in their career. There may be a guy that doesn’t play this year that becomes the greatest quarterback in Notre Dame history.”
It might even be someone other than Fiessinger.