Somewhere between 100 and 120 days from today, head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Charley Molnar will know which of the team's quarterbacks is best-equipped to lead the Irish to a Week One victory over undervalued South Florida (also finished 8-5 with a bowl victory against a disinterested ACC team last season).
For Kelly and Molnar, a spring leader, or pair of leaders – or merely one member of the quartet that's decidedly not the leader – has likely emerged. There could be a leader with conditions applied (a certain "six-star wide receiver's fate as a determining factor), a leader depending on the team's ability to further implement its power offense during a more physical, taxing August, or a leader depending on how much one member of the group can assimilate in the summer months.
And each of us has preference, a guess, a favorite…a dark horse. None of us, though, has a clue, because the 2011 Irish offense is far from a finished product.
Blue Gold Game efforts notwithstanding (for the sake of reference, Nate Montana was the team's best QB in that game last April), Dayne Crist appears to rank as at least QB # 1A even if his three competitors are simply 1B, 1C, and 1D at the spring session's conclusion.
The only upperclassmen of the quartet, Crist remains a self-aware work in progress.
"I just want to continue to improve accuracy; that is the biggest thing now," Crist said when asked for an assessment entering the off-season. "I know where I'm going with the ball and the decisions I want to make. Improving accuracy: that comes with reps.
"We've got so many players in the offense, you can't nearly rep everyone as much as you'd like," he continued following Saturday's Blue Gold scrimmage. "So a lot of thing that's we were asking to do today as quarterbacks were things that we wanted to get better at, not things that we were comfortable at. It was really just about trying to get better at the things we hadn't done so much early on in the spring."
Saturday's results, at least for Crist and chief competitor (# 1B?) Tommy Rees were likely less relevant to their tutors, Kelly and Molnar, than were the bulk of the 14 practices preceding.
"I think it's capability over speed (as far as) what Tommy brings; he can see the field," Kelly said post-game Saturday. "He had three legitimate drops out there today where he put the ball right on. I think in terms of accuracy today, and, again, I'll go back and watch the film, but I think Tommy was the most accurate in throwing the football. He was a little late in an over-drag off the play-action where the ball got deflected. But by and large I thought he was right on."
Fire from withinIt's well-documented that competitive spirit helped Crist push through the pain of two off-season knee surgeries over the last 18 months. It's also relevant that Rees is no shrinking violet in the heat of battle, either.
"He showed his fire," Kelly said of Rees early in Saturday's contest. "We kicked the field goal because we wanted to see a kicker out there. He said, ‘Coach, what's wrong with you? We would have normally gone for this.' I said, ‘Tommy, it's a spring game, relax.'
"So he's a competitive kid. He wants to be out there and that's what you love when you're working with a quarterback like him."
Rees has noted on multiple occasions that competition has made each member of the quartet better over the last few months. ("We're real close. We understand we're competing for the same job but we help each other 100 percent," he noted mid-spring.) He's also aware of his personal point of emphasis prior to August camp.
"Getting my lower body stronger and that comes with squatting. I took some big strides with that (prior to the spring) and I was really pleased with how that worked in the off-season.
"You throw with legs as much as your arm, so getting that strong base and making sure you can translate that weight from your back hip to your front. That's where a lot of the power comes from when you throw the ball."
Blessed with plenty of power and now half-scrimmage of high-profile field time is Rees' classmate, Andrew Hendrix (either QB # 1C or # 1D for our purposes).
Hendrix was likely the top offensive performer in a spring game that showcased little of the team's actual game menu. While pleased with the confidence boost his two Saturday touchdown runs provided, Hendrix knows his most important steps will be taken prior to the next live whistle that kicks off August camp.
"I definitely will try to apply the offense more," Hendrix said of his summer 7-on-7, and off-season focus. "There's a difference between learning it on paper and trying to run it vs. our defense or the defenses different teams run. Really I'm just going to keep getting all the reads down that apply to all the different defenses."
Little doubt remains that Hendrix can make all the throws necessary to win – and to thrive – at the college level. So while the sophomore will focus largely on the mental aspect of his game, semester freshman Everett Golson plans to go back to basics.
"The big thing for me is my mechanics, as far as footwork and how I secure the ball," Golson said of his chief area for improvement prior to August camp. "A lot of my mechanics are really weak right now. Also just progressing from the first read through the fourth, instead of maybe the first to the second. To read all of all my progressions and take advantage of what (the defense) gives me."
Golson, however, showed wisdom beyond his years relative to the unique understanding of his head coach's read-option attack.
"Giving (the ball) up. Honestly. That's the biggest thing. Knowing when to give it up or get (a pass) out."
No more square pegsFans and media have been quick to pigeon-hole and label each member of the quarterback quartet, often noting Golson as Kelly's ideal, dual-threat spread signal-caller; Rees as the winner and game-manager; Crist as the team's true leader, one with ample skills but maddening inconsistency; and Hendrix as the still-developing triggerman but gifted passer…with running skills to boot.
Which style does Kelly prefer?
"I don't know that we have expectations to just run that kind offense (the spread)...I'm more interested in winning football games, and (developing) whoever that quarterback is that gives us the best chance," he said.
"Obviously, for me and what I'm used to, (the spread) is a comfort level in terms of play calling. But we're going to make it work whoever the quarterback is. I think it's pretty clear that we saw that (newcomers Golson and Hendrix) had the ability to do both, and that's pretty exciting when you're in the spread offense."
Will the competition extend deep into August?
"(Camp) early on (will be) repping for us, and we'll have to obviously cut back and hone in on who the starter and back up in that order is. So, no, we don't have the luxury (of a camp-long competition), but we have knowledge now. Now we can move forward in making some of those tougher decisions relative to who is one, and who is two."
They'll need both, and maybe a third as well. But unlike the remainder of the roster's scrimmage positions, where extensive depth offers no downside, the 2011 quarterback derby will feature at least one frustrated party – a player buried on the Scout Team after more than seven months of heated competition.
It's a balancing act worth watching with four capable college signal-callers in the mix, each of whom remains eligible through at least the 2012 football season.
Note: Next in the publishing schedule will be my impressions of the quarterback unit followed by similar post-spring thoughts regarding each of the team's main position groups heading into the off-season.