SOUTH BEND — As head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin start to install more layers to their offense, they hope leaders will start to emerge in their four-man quarterback competition.
On Saturday the added layer gave the quarterbacks the first opportunity to call checks in plays at the line of scrimmage. With spring practice wrapping up with next week’s Blue-Gold scrimmage on Saturday, Kelly expects to start seeing those players exuding confidence.
“If you’re confident and you walk up there and you know what you want to do and you’re making the check, you’re commanding your presence — that obviously goes a long way to the unit. That was the thing that we wanted to see today,” Kelly said. “Who commands that respect? Who goes up there and as I told them, even if you’re wrong, go up there with a certainty that you know what you’re doing.”
Kelly has had no qualms about declaring the competition as wide open for all four quarterbacks and simplified the playbook to start the spring, leveling the playing field for sophomore Everett Golson and early-enrollee freshman Gunner Kiel. Now as the offense begins to get more complicated, those two will have to prove their knowledge base can match returning starter junior Tommy Rees and junior Andrew Hendrix.
Kelly said as the competition progresses, he expects Tommy Rees to show the confidence that it’s his job to lose after starting 16 games the last two seasons.
“As we go longer into this, our expectations are `listen, you’ve got more experience than anybody else here. Go out and act like that.’ I think he did today,” Kelly said.
The next step for Rees will be eliminating the turnovers and careless mistakes.
“I think the thing that we need to get with Tom is he’s confident, but we’ve got to make sure he’s making good decisions under duress,” Kelly said. “That’s the next step for him.”
Kelly and Martin have also stressed with each quarterback the importance of making plays with their feet - whether it’s running for a first down or just being able to get out of the pocket to throw the ball away. Hendrix and Golson may own the best natural running ability at the position, but Rees said working with Martin has helped him understand the need for him to make plays with his feet in practice.
“He’s instilled some confidence in me in the running game,” Rees said. “It’s something I know I can do and I’ve just got to continue to get better at.”
For Hendrix, the challenge will be to learn the offense as a whole rather than the packaged versions that he used in the five games he played in last season.
“As the offense has widened for me, it’s really time for me to get the whole grasp and not just be specialized,” Hendrix said. “It definitely helped last year, but I still have a long way to go.”
This spring, Hendrix said he’s made the most improvements in his throwing accuracy with improved footwork.
“I’m throwing it as good as I’ve ever been throwing it and it feels really good to know that where I want to put the ball, that’s where it’s going to go,” Hendrix said. “I can’t say that that’s been the case in the past.”
As for Golson and Kiel, the two continue to make progress to try and keep pace with their elder counterparts.
“When Everett got here it was the unconscious incompetence,” Kelly said. “He didn’t know that he didn’t know. And then he’s grown to a conscious competence, but it’s so hard for him every day to be that guy. But he’s trying so hard. He wants to do it. He will do it. We just wish it was sooner, but it’s going to come.”
Kiel returned to practice a few days after his uncle and former Notre Dame quarterback Blair Kiel passed away at the age of 50 on Sunday. After spending time with his family in Columbus, Ind., Kiel returned to practice ready to go, Kelly said.
“He came back locked in as usual,” Kelly said. “He’s great in the classroom. He’s great on the field. He’s got a great temperament, demeanor. I just like the fact that he’s very coachable.”
The spring competition will come to a close in a week, but the end of this quarterback marathon may not end for several more months. Hendrix said Kelly and Martin haven’t even hinted at when they’ll make up their minds.
“They don’t mention it,” Hendrix said. “Right now they’re just trying to make every single one of us the best quarterback that we can. At the end, whoever’s the best guy for the job, they’ll make the decision.”