FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Gunner Kiel sat in the stands at Sun Life Stadium last week and said all the right things. Among them: He's never considered transferring, he's learned a lot while sitting out his freshman season and he's prepared to try to better himself as a quarterback even in the face of a stacked depth chart.
Over the course of his recruitment, Kiel committed to Indiana and LSU before a late switch to Notre Dame. With Everett Golson -- who has three years of eligibility remaining -- quarterbacking Notre Dame to a BCS Championship berth this year, naturally speculation was conjured up that Kiel would consider leaving South Bend for a more secure shot at a starting role.
But if one quote Kiel said was telling, it was when he was asked about some harsh comments made by LSU coach Les Miles after he decommitted.
"I was dumb during the recruiting process," Kiel said. "I couldn't really make up my mind."
If Kiel still holds that same indecisiveness, he didn't show it. He referred to "so many doors" that could open and lead him to a starting position at Notre Dame before Golson's eligibility is exhausted.
"Anything could happen," Kiel said. "He could go to the NFL, you never know. But he could also get hurt, other people could get hurt."
Kiel could also unseat Golson as Notre Dame's starting quarterback.
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During the season, coach Brian Kelly said Golson won't be handed his same gig in 2013. He made plenty of strides in 2012, but still has plenty of room to improve.
If those improvements don't come and Kiel proves himself worthy of topping Notre Dame's depth chart, then there's no reason why he wouldn't get the job.
"I'm going to try, but he's a great quarterback," Kiel said of dethroning Golson. "He's going to lead this team, and he's going to keep getting better, so I just need to keep getting better and learn from him and also learn from coach Kelly and just try to keep getting better each day."
Here's a thought, too: Golson's season took off when he gained the confidence of his teammates and coaches, and by extension, wasn't looking over his shoulder to the sidelines to see if Tommy Rees was warming up. How he handles a potential push from Kiel will be interesting, especially if it makes him uncomfortable with his role.
But make no mistake, it's Golson's job to lose. If he does lose it, chances are, it'll be to Kiel.
The forgotten one
Andrew Hendrix saw the field a bit in 2011, filling in for Rees and playing the entire second half of Notre Dame's 28-14 loss to Stanford. Over the course of his sophomore year, Hendrix completed 18-of-37 passes for 249 yards and rushed 25 times for 16 yards.
In 2012, he lost out to Golson for the team's starting gig and barely got on the field, only playing in garbage time against Navy and sparingly against BYU and Wake Forest. On the season, he threw seven passes and rushed eight times.
"He's kind of the glue that keeps us together," Rees said. " He's always there to help, he's always there to provide a laugh if we need it. He's been a great influence on all of us."
While the depth chart for Kiel may seem daunting, climbing it will be even more difficult for Hendrix. He was Notre Dame's No. 3 quarterback in 2012, and with Kiel entering the mix in 2013, he'll likely be bumped to No. 4. In what would be his final season, he might wind up in that same spot.
"After the season, we'll assess that, see where I stand -- I know the coaches will be honest with me, because I know they respect me and think of me as pretty much one of their own kids anyways," Hendrix said last week. "That'll be something that we'll work on after the season."
Of course Hendrix wants to play, but he doesn't sound like someone who has a laser focus on playing at the next level. He's a pre-med student and says that route is what he wants to do, and it was the first thing he brought up when asked about his future at Notre Dame.
"I'm so close to graduating anyways," Hendrix said. "We'll cross that bridge when we get there."
In three years at Notre Dame, Rees has assumed a starting role, lost it for 30 minutes, assumed it again and lost it three months before having a chance to retain it. From there, the to-be senior served as Brian Kelly and Chuck Martin's safety net, entering four games when it was deemed Golson wasn't good or healthy enough to continue playing.
Rees may see another demotion in 2013, if Kiel ascends to a backup role behind Golson. But perhaps Rees' experience will keep him in the mix if Golson gets hurt -- or loses his helmet, which happened seemingly once a game in 2012.
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Whereas Dayne Crist had the ability to transfer without sitting a year after it became clear he wasn't going to see the field in his final year of eligibility, Rees doesn't have that luxury. If he were to leave Notre Dame, he'd have to sit out 2013 and play in 2014. That's not an easy position, since a lot can change with a team's quarterback situation in a year.
Crist had the advantage of playing for a coach he was familiar with and for a Kansas program that didn't have much talent at the quarterback position. Finding that perfect fit would be difficult, and if Rees were to leave there's a chance he'd wind up in the same predicament he'd be in at Notre Dame.
When asked about going into 2013 as a backup, Rees didn't seem opposed to the idea.
Malik Zaire committed to Notre Dame over offers from programs such as Alabama, Nebraska, Ohio State and Oregon. He'll enroll at Notre Dame this month and carries to campus a four-star rating by Rivals.com, which tabbed him as the No. 3 quarterback in the class of 2013.
The dual-threat quarterback from Kettering, Ohio will likely sit out 2013, allowing him to stay at Notre Dame through 2017.
In a few years, though, would Golson, Kiel and Zaire really want to be on the same roster? If Zaire pans out and all three have next-level aspirations, there just wouldn't be enough opportunities to go around.
Against Alabama, Golson was tasked with handling the entirety of Notre Dame's offense. With Alabama throwing a few early haymakers and possessing an outstanding run defense, Notre Dame's rushing attack never had the chance to get going -- which meant Golson had to pass early and often.
He struggled early but held his own late, although part of that may have had to do with Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart calling off the dogs while the Tide stormed to a four-touchdown lead.
"I'm kind of just taking this game under my belt," Golson said. "I'll just gain the experience from it, and really looking forward to next year knowing that I've got to be more of a leader, and just being more of a leader to this team and trying to make this team better."
Golson completed 21-of-36 passes for 270 yards with a touchdown and an interception in Notre Dame's 42-14 BCS Championship loss. For the season, the first-year starter completed 187-of-318 passes for 2,405 yards with 12 touchdowns and 6 interceptions. He also rushed 94 times for 298 yards and six touchdowns.
That's not a bad starting point, and Golson made plenty of strides from Sept. 1 through Jan. 7. But he'll have to continue to make strides to hold off Kiel, especially in spring ball when Kiel will be given every opportunity to have a breakout performance.
But the No. 1 quarterback job is Golson's to lose. He has the talent to not only hold off Kiel, but be an impact player for the Irish offense over the next few seasons.
And, for what it's worth, he has the endorsement of the coach of college football's most powerful program.
"The guy's a really good player," Alabama coach Nick Saban said last week. "He's a very good athlete, first of all. He can extend plays. He can run. He can scramble. He's not typically a guy that just wants to take off. He's a very effective passer.
"So anybody that thinks he's not capable as a passer is totally missing the boat."