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Rees Or Hendrix: Who Will Start?

A popular inquiry is whether sophomore Andrew Hendrix or sophomore Tommy Rees will get the start at quarterback for Notre Dame in the bowl game.

For many, it’s a foregone conclusion that if the program aspires to reach BCS level in 2012, Rees is the past and Hendrix the future. Rees has reached his plateau as a runner and passer, whereas Hendrix has a far higher ceiling.

Yet it’s not as cut and dried to a coaching staff, which must think first and foremost about WIN — What’s Important Now.

Let’s say it is Notre Dame vs. Florida State in the Dec. 29 Champs Sports Bowl, which has been the popular projection the past couple of weeks. The 8-4 Seminoles are playing defense right now the way Notre Dame finished up on defense at the end of last season.

In the current NCAA ratings, the ultra-quick FSU defense ranked No. 2 against the run (81.83 yards per game), No. 4 in scoring defense (15.17 points per game) and No. 6 in total defense (274.58). The Seminoles are also averaging three quarterback sacks per game to place 10th in that category, and 7.67 tackles for loss, ranking 7th in that department.

Is this the type of defense you want a green quarterback to make his starting debut against?

The good news for Hendrix is that at least he played the entire second half against a quality Stanford defense that currently ranks 5th against the run, 23rd in scoring and 24th overall, and acquitted himself relatively well in the 28-14 defeat.

The 77-yard touchdown march he directed in the third quarter was a true glimpse into what head coach Brian Kelly’s spread can be as far as keeping an aggressive defense’s collective head on a swivel. The 12-yard option pitch to Cierre Wood and then Hendrix’s 14-yard keeper one play later on the zone read in that march have been the missing links in Kelly’s first two seasons.

On paper, it looks simple: Hendrix is the future. In reality, it’s not that easy while preparing for a bowl against such a quality defense. There is some precedent for this at Notre Dame.

In the 1988 Cotton Bowl, second year head coach Lou Holtz had a choice to make between senior Terry Andrysiak or sophomore Tony Rice. Andrysiak was the Rees-like figure who started the year 3-0 but suffered a broken clavicle while the team fell behind 27-0 at Pitt in the fourth game. The electrifying Rice stepped in and had moments of brilliance but also faltered at the end of the year in losses to Penn State (21-20) and 24-0 at No. 1 Miami.

Even though Rice was the future and Andrysiak the past, Holtz opted for the veteran QB who he thought gave the Irish the better chance to win. Indeed, Andrysiak started off hot while building an early lead, but the Notre Dame defense imploded in a 35-10 loss to Texas A&M, and then Rice also struggled in the second half when he was inserted.

In the 1976 Gator Bowl versus Penn State, another second year Irish head coach, Dan Devine, opted for senior Rick Slager over sophomore Rusty Lisch, even though Slager was the past and Lisch ostensibly was the future. Slager was injured in the second half in game 9 versus No. 10 Alabama, and Lisch came in and had a couple of key 21-yard runs to preserve a 21-18 victory. Lisch started the next week in a 40-27 win over Miami.

In the finale at No. 2 USC, Slager started but was too wounded to carry on. The Irish played well and Lisch directed two TD drives before losing, 17-13.

The Irish were to return 20 of 22 starters in 1977 and were a pre-season favorite to win the national title. Slager was one of the two starters graduating — yet Devine opted for the senior over the sophomore Lisch in the bowl because he believed it gave the Irish a better chance to win. Notre Dame won that Gator Bowl against the Nittany Lions, 20-9 with Slager at the throttle.

So now, another second-year Notre Dame head coach, Kelly, will have a similar decision. The early guess here is that he will make the same choice as Hall-of-Famers Holtz and Devine — the veteran with previous success as a starter over the more promising but still fledgling prospect who has never had a start to his credit.

I anticipate in the weeks of preparation prior to the game Kelly will want FSU guessing that both will play. He has a bit of a luxury in that respect with the experience of Rees to start and fall back on, plus the dual threat dimension of Hendrix to call on.

Picture this: What if Hendrix started and was badly confused and struggled mightily against the potent FSU defense, which will be much faster than Stanford? Maybe he would have to be pulled, a la Dayne Crist in this year’s opener. Is that how Hendrix would want to enter 2012?

If Rees, who is used to big-game settings and has had his share of success in rallying the Irish, struggles again as a starter, then there is always Hendrix in the bullpen who you could rely on not just as a middle reliever, but maybe as the starter. This is a psychological game too, not just a physical one.

There is a delicate balance here to not only try to finish up 2011 on a positive note, but enter 2012 the same way.

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