Nothing given

Notre Dame's quarterback competition several months from fruition.

April 16 and the 83rd annual Blue Gold Game signals the completion of Notre Dame's spring work. The annual Saturday showcase offers head coach Brian Kelly's Irish a break from the three-week grind of spring practice with a fan friendly scrimmage and the welcomed atmosphere of a game setting in Notre Dame Stadium (not to mention a television audience).

And though the contest will afford fans and media a closer look at Irish quarterbacks Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, and Everett Golson in a competitive setting, it will only partially determine the signal-caller that emerges with a leg up in the position's battle for an opening game starting role next September.

"I don't think that's the most important thing on our agenda," said offensive coordinator Charley Molnar following Wednesday's practice, the team's ninth of the spring and first in the fresh air. "We want to see them all develop, not only players on the field but as leaders. To grasp what we're doing offensively, (to) understand defenses better than they did the day before, and we can fight it out in summer camp."

August camp generally involves practice sessions numbered in the high 20s prior to the final week's game preparation. Molnar knows a lead candidate will emerge over the course of that trying, more physical set of practices.

"I really believe we'll have enough time in the summer to (find a starter)," he continued. "We get so many reps in practice that I don't think anyone's being short-changed (in the spring). Eventually we're going to have to narrow the field down to three rather than four (competitors), but when that time comes you'll see it and we'll let you know that's what we're doing."

Far from fruition

Spring's initial steps are nonetheless three months removed from August's final proving ground. The summer season has become instrumental in a player's collegiate development, though Molnar, head coach Brian Kelly, and the rest of the team's position coaches are unable to guide their athletes through the 100-plus days away from team activities.

"We're obviously extremely NCAA Compliant. That's No. 1," said Molnar of summer training. "But we spend our time during the spring talking to them about how to learn during the summer: how to watch film; how to direct the men; things that they should be working on.

"Everyone knows their strengths and weaknesses coming out of spring ball, and we really emphasize keeping your strengths sharp, but working on those weaknesses over the summer. Last year, Tommy took that to heart."

Rees' jump from head-swimming semester freshmen to viable collegiate backup was forged through several months of study. He struggled in his initial foray onto the field, tossing a crucial interception in emergency first quarter duty vs. Michigan, but famously bounced back with four wins in five extended late season appearances including, of course, his oft-referenced 4-0 mark as the team's starter.

This spring, semester enrollee Everett Golson is the quarterback competitor with the most to learn – the player who learns something new, something he's probably never considered, every day.

"He's very similar to Tommy Rees (at this time last year) where his head is swimming day-to-day," said Molnar of his dual-threat freshman. "Every time he gets his hands around the previous day or previous week's work, we're throwing a lot more new things at him and the defense is throwing more things, so he's always behind. He'll be behind all spring and probably through the beginning of summer camp."

While Molnar noted the obvious disadvantage Golson faces in mental preparation, he was quick to point out there's no such struggle with the game's physical elements.

"Oh my gosh, his arm and his quickness and his vision are uncanny. Really top level football player from that standpoint," Molnar offered. "One of the things he has to get better at is securing the football. He's very loose with it and we're really working with him at taking care of the ball."

While Crist and Rees stand as the position's clear-cut leaders, and Golson part of its promising, intriguing future, fan favorite Andrew Hendrix has also taken a few steps forward since his last practice snap of 2010.

"Andrew's ahead of Everett mentally, because Andrew's been here," Molnar noted. "He's been through summer camp and the season, and in (Sun) Bowl preparation, he really got a chance to sink his teeth into the offense. So he's ahead.

"Everett will catch up," Molnar continued. "I anticipate somewhere toward the end of summer camp, he'll say, ‘I've been through the offense a few times now. I've seen everything a defense can throw at me, I have a pretty good clue of what's going on.'"

To that end, each of the team's four signal callers has been given an opportunity to run the show with his best teammates in tow.

"Today we mixed it up and Tommy took some first team reps and Andrew Hendrix took some too," Molnar said. "Nothing is etched in stone. Everybody is going to get a chance as we go through this last week to work with the first team. To be really fair with our judgment, you want to work with the best offensive linemen and the best receivers and best tight ends. We've been trying to do that throughout the course of spring."

Miles to go

Four media viewing periods, three of them brief, have featured the senior Crist as the team's apparent No. 1 quarterback (though Rees would rank higher than No. 2…call him "1B" for our purposes).

Molnar was quick to point out neither Crist nor Rees is close to an official ascension to the starting role.

"Dayne's out there competing every day; he knows it's a long road to ho before he wins the starting quarterback job at Notre Dame. He has to come out every day and compete just like all the other quarterbacks and really all the other guys on the football team."

Asked if Crist came to work this spring with the appropriate attitude – that nothing would be given to him, Molnar quipped, "Well if he didn't, he should have."

What you've seen; what they see; what they still don't: I have my choice (I think, it changes often); you have yours (I assume); and so does nearly every casual and die-hard Irish football fan nationwide – that's the difference between a full-blown quarterback derby and any other position's battle for first, second, and third string honors: everyone has an opinion, everyone's an expert.

But what outsiders know of the Rees/Crist/etc., competition bares little resemblance to the situation inside the program's walls.

"We know what their skill sets are, and what their capabilities are," Molnar said of Crist and Rees when asked if last fall's performance will have much bearing on the 2011 competition. "We're trying to stretch their development, but we don't want to ever think a player in our program is maxed out. There's always, always room for mental and physical improvement.

"I think Dayne is a sharper, smarter quarterback today than he was going into the Tulsa game (when Crist was lost for the season due to a knee injury). He's just smarter. He spent time in the winter studying film, and most important, studying himself and studying his mistakes, and there were plenty of them. Part of learning is understanding and correcting mistakes

"Tommy made great strides (from last August through the Sun Bowl) but he has a long way to go before he would ever be cemented as the next All American quarterback at Notre Dame," Molnar offered. "Tommy works very hard; studies very hard and asks a lot of questions. That's one of the interesting things about Tommy and Dayne: they ask as many or more questions than the younger guys do, and I know they know more.

"So that tells you they're smart enough to know they don't know."

And let's face it, we don't either.


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