Notre Dame's future: QB logjam only gets more crowded

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Notre Dame's future: QB logjam only gets more crowded

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.

RELATED: Reconciling BCS loss with 2012 season no easy task for Irish

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."

The backup

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.

RELATED: Despite blowout loss, Notre Dame here to stay

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.

The newcomer

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.

The incumbent

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."

After 'year off,' Mike Denbrock ready to develop Notre Dame's next crop of WRs

After 'year off,' Mike Denbrock ready to develop Notre Dame's next crop of WRs

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame faced a similar question in 2014 it faces now: Who’s going to catch the ball?

Two years ago, Notre Dame entered the season having lost 70 percent of its receptions, 74 percent of its receiving yards and 78 percent of its receiving touchdowns from the 2013 season. The answer to the question turned out to be a guy who only had six catches as a freshman the previous year — Will Fuller.

Notre Dame might or might not have another breakout candidate like Fuller on its roster this year. But there’s a constant between 2014 and 2016: wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock.

The Irish are without Fuller (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 touchdowns), who became a first-round pick of the Houston Texans after turning pro earlier this year, along with Chris Brown (48 catches, 597 yards, four touchdowns), Amir Carlisle (32 catches, 355 yards, one touchdown) and Corey Robinson (16 catches, 200 yards, one touchdown) at the receiver position.

Add in the losses of running back C.J. Prosise (26 catches, 308 yards, one touchdown) and tight ends Alize Jones (13 catches, 190 yards) and Chase Hounshell (one catch, six yards), and Notre Dame has to replace 82 percent of its 2015 receptions, 87 percent of its receiving yards and 84 percent of its receiving touchdowns this fall.

“It’s like starting over,” Denbrock said. “Last year was kind of a little bit of a year off for me, quite frankly. I mean, I had guys that had heard me say the same things for three years and had kind of got used to being out there in the fray and doing it. Now it kind of regenerates itself and we start all over again, which for me is kind of exciting.

“I love the challenge, I love the dynamic of the group. I love their attention to trying to do things the right way, we’re just a little bit inexperienced and we’re learning how to do things the right way.”

Denbrock is in his fifth year coaching Notre Dame’s wide receivers (he spent 2010 and 2011 as the Irish tight ends coach and helped develop Tyler Eifert there, too) and has overseen that regeneration of a receiving corps after the losses of three go-to options in Michael Floyd, T.J. Jones and Fuller. And while an offense requires all its units — quarterbacks, running backs, receivers, tight ends and offensive linemen — working together to succeed, it’s worth noting Notre Dame’s passing S&P+ rankings since Denbrock took over the Irish receivers:

2012: fifth

2013: 15th

2014: 13th

2015: eighth

Even if you might view some of those rankings as a bit bullish — like 2012’s, which seems high for a year in which Notre Dame deployed a conservative run-first offense — they’re solid evidence of Denbrock’s success in developing reliable pass-catchers.

“He's someone that doesn’t take anything less than what you can give,” redshirt junior receiver and captain Torii Hunter Jr. said. “He expects you to give 100 percent all the time. He just wants you to max out your potential, whatever it may be. And I’m grateful for the type of coach that he is because he never lets us get away with half-done.”

Of course, it helps that Notre Dame has recruited exceedingly well at the receiver position over the last few years. Jones, DaVaris Daniels, Corey Robinson, Fuller, Hunter, Corey Holmes, Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin, C.J. Sanders, Chase Claypool and Javon McKinley were all Rivals four-star recruits, while three-star recruit Chris Brown developed into a rock-solid player and fellow three-star prospect Kevin Stepherson impressed during spring and preseason camp (he's expected to play against Texas despite his arrest earlier this month).

While coach Brian Kelly said he’s “concerned” and that all those inexperienced receivers — St. Brown, Sanders, Boykin, Holmes, Claypool, McKinley, Stepherson and ex-walk-on Chris Finke — are “suspects,” he has an immense amount of trust in Denbrock. The two have coached together for 16 non-consecutive seasons, with Denbrock serving as both an offensive and defensive coordinator, a tight ends coach, a wide receivers coach and an associate head coach. Denbrock, too, has coached offensive line and linebackers at various stops in his 30-year coaching career.

“He knows the offense and the system and he knows what I look for and what I'm trying to do, and so it's a great relationship because I don't have to micromanage him,” Kelly said. “All I have to do is kind of say, this is the direction I would like to go, and he's off and running.

“So any time you have that, and a longstanding relationship with somebody that knows exactly where you want to go, it allows to you do so many other things and it allows me to help coach some of the players at a level, a grass roots level that sometimes the head coach doesn't get a chance to do.”

There’s been some inconsistency with players during practice in August, but that’s to be expected with such a green group.

“He’s on us hard,” St. Brown said. “He knows he has to be harder than ever because we have a young group of receivers.”

But why should 2016, even with all the uncertainty surrounding that position, be any different? There’s that saying that you should never bet against a streak. And Denbrock is on a pretty good streak.

“I just think you gotta be very consistent and very demanding with what you ask them to do and not let their youthfulness be an excuse for not playing at the level they should play at,” Denbrock said. “They get it, they understand it, and they’re growing.”

Texas won't name QB starter until kickoff against Notre Dame

Texas won't name QB starter until kickoff against Notre Dame

Notre Dame's defense, and everyone else besides Charlie Strong and his coaching staff, won't know which quarterback will take Texas' first snap Sunday in Austin until the game kicks off. 

Strong said on Monday's Big 12 teleconference he hasn't decided if freshman Shane Buechele or redshirt junior Tyrone Swoopes will start against Notre Dame, and added that he won't name a starter until his team runs on the field Sunday night

Strong's non-reveal on Monday came across more as football coach paranoia than anything else, though. The Irish defense has been preparing for both Buechele and Swoopes -- the latter of whom completed seven of 22 passes in Notre Dame's 38-3 blowout win to open last season -- for a little while now, so either won't torpedo Brian VanGorder's scheme even if Strong won't say who the starter is. 

There's been plenty of momentum behind Buechele to be the starter since he enrolled early and impressed during spring practice. The four-star recruit and son of former Cubs third baseman Steve Buechele may be Texas' most talented quarterback, but given his true freshman status hasn't ran away with the starting gig. Swoopes averaged 6.1 yards per carry and had 12 rushing touchdowns last year, but only completed 50.5 percent of his passes. Even without dismissed senior safety Max Redfield, Notre Dame's defensive strategy would probably be to load the box and force Swoopes to throw as much as possible. 

It wouldn't be surprising to see both Buechele and Swoopes play on Sunday, too. So whoever Texas goes with to start the game, it shouldn't catch Notre Dame off guard. 

For more on Texas, check out the latest episode of the Still Independent Podcast with TexasFootball.com's Greg Tepper:

 

How walk-on Rob Regan became a secret weapon for Notre Dame

How walk-on Rob Regan became a secret weapon for Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — How does a walk-on safety have a Notre Dame game ball despite never actually appearing in a game?

On the surface, that sophomore Rob Regan received that family heirloom last October after Notre Dame’s win over Navy may seem weird given he didn’t play a snap that day. But to everybody who sees the work Regan puts in at the LaBar Practice Complex, especially during weeks in which Notre Dame prepares to face an opponent that runs the triple option, it’s anything but strange. 

“There’s no question about it,” defensive end Isaac Rochell said. “He deserved it.”

“I personally don’t know who we would’ve given it to besides him,” cornerback Cole Luke added. “If we didn’t have Robby, we definitely wouldn’t have been as prepared as we were.”

For Rochell, Luke and the rest of the Irish defense, Regan’s work as Notre Dame’s scout team — er, “Swag Team” — quarterback during triple option preparation was an important key to solving the antiquated-yet-confounding offense. It’s an attack Notre Dame faces more than most other Power Five schools with Navy on the schedule every year, but heading into last season, coach Brian Kelly & Co. had to double down on their efforts to stop it.

Notre Dame’s defense didn’t put up much resistance against Navy in 2013 (34 points, 5.3 yards per play) and 2014 (39 points, 5.9 yards per play), and with Georgia Tech joining the Mids on the schedule last year, fixing those triple option defensive issues was a paramount concern. Army is on the schedule in 2016, too, so for the second consecutive year Notre Dame will face two triple option offenses.

Former defensive coach Bob Elliott moved off the field into a special assistant role, with one of his chief tasks being to figure out a way to better defend the triple option. But the decision of Regan, who successfully ran a triple option offense at Hinsdale South High School in the Chicago area, to walk on to the team turned out to be a huge boost to those efforts.

In the past, Notre Dame’s scout team quarterback for triple option weeks wasn’t a natural at running it and had to read each play off a card. That lack of fluidity not only meant fewer reps for the Irish defense, but the quality of them was way off what they’d face from Keenan Reynolds or whoever the opposing quarterback on Saturday would be.

Defensive line coach Keith Gilmore said those sub-optimal triple option looks in practice are relatively common across college football, which makes sense — it’s not an offense used much at the college level. So having someone on your roster who ran in in high school can be a boon to preparing to face it.

Regan doesn’t have to read off a card because he knows the offense so well. And that means more plays and a look closer to what Notre Dame sees in games.

“It changes everything,” Kelly said.

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Of course, the scout team work can’t completely replicate game action — Notre Dame doesn’t do nearly as much cut blocking in practice as it’ll see in games from option offenses, given the injury risk involved. And guys like Navy’s Reynolds and Tago Smith, Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas and Army’s Ahmad Bradshaw run the option faster than Regan can in practice, too.

But Regan still gives Notre Dame as good an option look as it could ask for on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.

“You can sit and practice against Navy out here and your scout team can do a good job, but it can’t touch what that look like at game time,” defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. “They’re exceptional at it, it’s happening so fast. But the faster we can get it, the closer we can move it to it, the better.”

Regan doesn’t shy away from absorbing hard hits too, which helps Notre Dame’s defense play faster in practice. Former Irish linebacker Jarrett Grace marveled at how Regan was able to take so much physical punishment during practice — “I don’t know if it’s extra ice, if it’s shaking up the Space Jam water to get jacked up out there,” he said — while junior linebacker Nyles Morgan said earlier this month Regan’s role is “one of the toughest jobs I’ve ever seen."

“I like giving hits and taking hits,” Regan said. “I’m a physical guy — when I’m running the ball, I’d rather run him over than juking him out.

“I enjoyed it. It definitely took a toll on my body, but I was glad to be able to contribute to those wins.”

Regan initially played wide receiver for Hinsdale South, but was moved to quarterback two games into his junior year. Hinsdale South went 5-4 his junior year, then went 9-3 and reached IHSA 6A quarterfinals in Regan’s senior year. Regan rushed for 18 touchdowns and averaged 5.6 yards per carry in 2014.

“He’s a football kid,” Hinsdale South coach Mike Barry said. “(He) grew up playing football, has football smarts. We refer to guys as instinctual at times — he’s one of those type of players where he just has a feel for the game."

Regan was thinking about attending high-caliber academic institutions like Penn, Princeton, Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Chicago before Notre Dame came along. Kelly was in the Chicago suburbs to scout four-star Hinsdale South defensive end Joshua King — who went on to commit to Michigan State — and was pitched on Regan by Barry.

Once Notre Dame came into the picture (Regan, as you’d guess from that above list of colleges he was considering, had the grades to get in) it was an easy choice for him to head to South Bend. The combination of academics, football, location and faith made Notre Dame “the best fit for me,” Regan, who’s studying chemical engineering, said.

“(He’s) somebody that recognizes that, first of all, what a degree from Notre Dame is going to do for him, and somebody that’s got a lot of pride in playing team sports,” Kelly said. “He loves to play team sports. He knows that he’s got value.”

Regan’s ultimate goal is to get into a game before his time at Notre Dame is up — he’s hoping to get on a special teams unit, make a difference there and hope to get in a game at safety.

But he’s already been recognized by coaches with an honor only a handful of others received in 2015. Notre Dame held Georgia Tech to 22 points — 15 of which came in garbage time — and Navy to 24 points, totals that represent the kind of improvements made by the Irish in defending the option.

And Regan, the 6-foot-2, 200 pound walk-on, played a major part in those improvements. Even if he didn’t play.

“It was awesome,” Regan said of receiving the Navy game ball. “I never expected that I would be recognized like that. It wasn’t just me, it was the whole Swag Team, but I guess I was kind of the leader of that team. It meant a lot that coach Kelly took the time to recognize our hard work.”

And as for the game ball, which is in a case back home in Darien, Ill.?

“It might be a hand-me down for a couple generations,” Regan said with a smile.