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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.

  • #12 should get the start but i am not convinced he will.

    I understand what Coach is trying to do here. Until he gets "his" guy at Qb he's just trying to win games one game at a time.

    What has me scratching my head???

    #11
    Has the ability to audible and make the right decision with pre-snap reads.
    Lacks mobility and arm strength
    turns the ball over (because of lack of physical tools)

    #12
    Has mobility also a strong arm with decent accuracy. (big play ability)
    Lacks experience
    turns the ball over (because lack of experience)

    I didn't go into great detail but with just quick observations it's not that difficult in my opinion who should get the start either way you dealing with turnovers.

    Also we are trying to build towards a spread offense so i believe it benefits our team more if we have a QB thats more suited for that offense. Our WR, TE and RB's can get used to a scrambling QB and learn how to break off routes, run with the QB or get to the open zone.

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  • Rees looks good when the opponent's defense plays us as a normal offense. Now that defenses have learned that we are not a normal offense due to Rees' immobility and mid-range arm, dropping 8 in coverage stops us cold. And the loss of Jonas Gray clinches the fact we are a one dimensional team. So we must use a QB (Hendrix) that can force defenses to play us straight. That is easily our best chance to win the bowl game.

    As I wrote in an earlier post, if leadership and experience is all you have, it doesn't take you very far; while superior talent has no limit to allow you to continue to improve.

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  • I'm not sure I understand why Rees is even in the conversation. Nice kid, good backup, but he's demonstrated his shortcomings from a talent basis consistently to everyone but Kelly for 2 years. I still don't understand why Kelly has been so stubborn in playing Rees all year, as a once promising season has dissolved into mediocrity. If anyone other than Hendrix starts the bowl game, it should be Crist who has quietly stood by while an inferior QB has played in his stead. Such a shame to waste his talent, which will more than likely be used by another program successfully next year. Is Kelly that secure in his job that he could throw away this season? That said, it should be Hendrix starting.

  • The only thing I needed to see on Saturday was the out route to a WR at the sideline. You remember the ones that Tommy threw where TJ almost broke his neck trying to catch the fluttering wounded duck?

    Hendrix threw the ball with pace, precision, and completed the passes while giving our WRs enough time to make a play ala Jeff S. and Golden Tate.

    I have been very critical of Tommy, but that is because I am not happy with 8-4 type seasons out of ND teams. For as much as people want to point out the 12-3 as a starter BS, I also think that Rees makes too many mistakes in games that keep the opponent close instead of us blowing them out. (Pitt, USC, Wake)

    I just hope we see Hendrix on December 29th.

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  • I think that Rees will start and that Hendrix will be planned into a rotation scheme as the vaulted "change of pace" and that BK will go with the "hot hand", if there is one. Best case scenario is that they both play well and worst case that neither do. I also believe that a factor to be dealt with in the preparations for the bowl game is the receivers getting prepped for the change in velocity from the two QBs. I thought that on several occasions against Stanford that the ball got on the receivers before they were ready when Hendrix was throwing. I felt like the ball traveled through the last 36" quicker and lead to incompletions. Just a thought.

    ndomer70

  • Terrence:

    Your response opens up the question as to whether or not next season might involve rotating these two QB's in some fashion. Kelly has indicated a preference for one guy, but at Cincy he used 5 one year, though injuries were a factor there.

    What I am concerned about is a flip-flopping situation, where, one week, it's one guy, the next, the other guy. I've never been a fan of this, and, when it has occurred at ND, albeit in a limited fashion -- Lamonica/Budka; Slager/Montana; Lisch/Courey; Kiel/Koegel; Kiel/Beurlein; Rice/Graham -- it has produced less than salutary results.

    My sense is that, at least at this stage, the QB who should be given the opportunity to take the program forward is Hendrix for the simple reason that, despite what Rees brings to the table via play selection and such, that all simply pales compared to what Hendrix can do with the ball in his hands.

    As for the bowl game, the actual subject of this post, I am concerned that Kelly will feel that Rees still gives the team a better chance to win, given Hendrix's limited experience and knowledge of the playbook. I surely hope that this will not be the case, as two quarters of excellent football against Stanford should be reason enough to give Hendrix the start.

    But, then, I don't fully understand specifically why Rees was considered so valuable to the team in the first place. I'm not denying that he was, but I don't understand the subtleties of the position well enough to venture a guess as to what exactly Kelly might fear he is losing without Rees on the field. On Saturday night, to my mind, Kelly lost nothing and, with Hendrix, on the other hand, gained a lot.

  • BigKenn, hafta admit, I loved Appalonia Kotero, as much as the next guy, back in '84, & Darling Nikki is awesome, I don't get the Purple Rain reference in regards to Hendrix. Wait, maybe you were making a Jimmy Hendrix reference, and were referring to Purple Haze? my bad.

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  • Risksorter said... (original post)

    Terrence:

    Your response opens up the question as to whether or not next season might involve rotating these two QB's in some fashion. Kelly has indicated a preference for one guy, but at Cincy he used 5 one year, though injuries were a factor there.

    What I am concerned about is a flip-flopping situation, where, one week, it's one guy, the next, the other guy. I've never been a fan of this, and, when it has occurred at ND, albeit in a limited fashion -- Lamonica/Budka; Slager/Montana; Lisch/Courey; Kiel/Koegel; Kiel/Beurlein; Rice/Graham -- it has produced less than salutary results.

    My sense is that, at least at this stage, the QB who should be given the opportunity to take the program forward is Hendrix for the simple reason that, despite what Rees brings to the table via play selection and such, that all simply pales compared to what Hendrix can do with the ball in his hands.

    As for the bowl game, the actual subject of this post, I am concerned that Kelly will feel that Rees still gives the team a better chance to win, given Hendrix's limited experience and knowledge of the playbook. I surely hope that this will not be the case, as two quarters of excellent football against Stanford should be reason enough to give Hendrix the start.

    But, then, I don't fully understand specifically why Rees was considered so valuable to the team in the first place. I'm not denying that he was, but I don't understand the subtleties of the position well enough to venture a guess as to what exactly Kelly might fear he is losing without Rees on the field. On Saturday night, to my mind, Kelly lost nothing and, with Hendrix, on the other hand, gained a lot.

    Risk, I get the sense Rees will start this game and get his shot, but Hendrix will be inserted early as a change up, and if he's moving the offense better than Rees, he'll stay in there. As for why Rees got the nod all year, we only have tea leaves to read, but I'm still guessing it had to do with comfort with all the intricacies of the spread, with which he was more familiar than Hendrix. I don't think Hendrix was anywhere near ready in pre-season, so they just groomed him with the "package." I'm still not sure how much of the offense he's mastered, but obviously he can do a lot with what he knows. But, it comes back to that old saw: "we don't know what exactly what it is that we don't know."

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  • I seem to recall that Hendrix threw a few pretty poor passes in his first attempts against Stanford,some that left me scratching my head, but obviously he settled in and began making plays.

    I just have to bow to the intimacies of practice reps and tape and let Kelly do his job, as much as I would like to have an opinion. If we replicated Hendrix's stats over 14 games, how would we have faired?

    I am biased in favor of Rees because I admire his calm and hate seeing him bashed often for his limitations (don't we all have them) and not often praised enough for his skills. I am not blind, however, to the flash and dash Hendrix showed. He's obviously skilled enough to warrant a scholarship, and that says about all we need to know should Kelly choose to go in a different direction.

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  • Umm...let me think about that. Okay, I'm done thinking. Hendrix without a doubt. It is time to let this kid show what he can do. Forget about waiting until next year. If Kelly starts Hendrix it is clear he is making a statement about next year, but why did we have to wait so long to see him this year? I have been asking myself this question since the Air Force game.

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  • Yeah ..got me on that one..it was a Jimi reference...purple haze...showing my age and my lack of knowledge at the same time..thanks for the correction!!!

  • Kelly will start Rees simply because it makes sense to start
    the QB who got you to the bowl game. Rees earned it no matter
    what we think or how little potential he has for the future. However, I think he will be on a very short leash and AH will be out there as soon as Kelly thinks it's time for a change and/or a situation that dictates a running QB.

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  • Ham & Risksorter,
    "But, it comes back to that old saw: "we don't know what exactly what it is that we don't know."" This is our problem .... that we really don't know evrything involved with these kids. And I include Golson in the conversation. All three have their attributes that make them attractive. I think what Rees brought to th etable that gave him an edge was his "unflappable" approach to the job at hand. All three are obviously smart they got into ND. You could see the doubt in Crist's eyes when BK jumped on him. You just didn't see that with Rees. (BTW I feel really bad for Crist and I don't think he got a fair shake at the starter's role. But you have to admire his attitude throughout this season. What a man!! So proud of him. i have told my sons that I wouldn't be surprised for him to end up at Stanford next season running a pro-style offense.)
    Back to the bowl game and 2012, we just don't know what Hendrix or Golson would be able to accomplish with BK's offense. We have seen that Rees understands it and is steady in his management of it. He just can't physically do some aspects of the offense. That is why I would not be surprised by his demotion at any time. Kelly knows it is all about winning.

    ndomer70

  • Terrence C said... (original post)

    Ham & Risksorter, "But, it comes back to that old saw: "we don't know what exactly what it is that we don't know."" This is our problem .... that we really don't know evrything involved with these kids. And I include Golson in the conversation. All three have their attributes that make them attractive. I think what Rees brought to th etable that gave him an edge was his "unflappable" approach to the job at hand. All three are obviously smart they got into ND. You could see the doubt in Crist's eyes when BK jumped on him. You just didn't see that with Rees. (BTW I feel really bad for Crist and I don't think he got a fair shake at the starter's role. But you have to admire his attitude throughout this season. What a man!! So proud of him. i have told my sons that I wouldn't be surprised for him to end up at Stanford next season running a pro-style offense.) Back to the bowl game and 2012, we just don't know what Hendrix or Golson would be able to accomplish with BK's offense. We have seen that Rees understands it and is steady in his management of it. He just can't physically do some aspects of the offense. That is why I would not be surprised by his demotion at any time. Kelly knows it is all about winning.

    Terrence, welcome to posting here. Yes, the quarterback situation was quite a boondoggle all year long, in constantly evolving ways. Kelly's head must have been spinning at times, and I don't expect it to be much different next spring.

    As for the bowl game, I'm betting that he starts Rees, and has Hendrix in there after a couple of series. It's probably psychologically easier to think about coming off the bench than to have your first starting role in a nationally televised bowl game. Rees is used to it, Hendrix isn't. However, we're not just talking about a couple of snaps here. Hendrix would need at least a few series to get a feel for the flow of the game, and if he's productive and the team responds to him, he should just be given the reins.

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  • Terrence C,

    What I liked about your post so much was the way you had an even-handed, level approach with both QBs. Sometimes it almost comes across that Tommy Rees was the creator of Original Sin, but he helped salvage the season in 2010, which in turn built some momentum in recruiting.

    We're all aware of his limits, but he did what he could, and it's so easy to forget he was only a sophomore. I shudder to think what message boards would have said about QBs such as Theismann, Clements, Montana and Rice after their sophomore years, or even junior seasons. I'm not putting Rees in their category, but am saying that he's helped this program a lot more than appreciated.

    I would be a little surprised if he doesn't start the bowl, in the scenario that Ham mentioned. Welcome aboard.

  • Lou you wrote an excellent article. The only problem with your article is that there is no mention of the fact that Tommy Rees had a hyperextended right knee against USC. He has not been the same since.

  • Irishnumberone,

    Thank you, and that is a good point on your point. The only thing is I don't know how much it inhibited the ability to run the read option, hyperextension or not. He was also going to need a lot of refinement on his deep ball.

    It is a fair point to raise, but for the most part I think the line, and the backs, did a fabulous job for the most part this year in keeping him upright and with plenty of time to pass when needed, thereby not forcing him to need his legs as much.

    If there was a more pronounced problem with his knee, then I would think that would have been all the more reason to insert Hendrix into situations to perhaps take some of the onus off him. Again, though, I don't know all that goes behind closed doors, so I am not aware of everything that went into such decisions.

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