Spring Impressions: Quarterbacks

Five days, 10 columns including eight position groups and both sides of scrimmage; somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 words: that's all it takes to wrap-up the spring session and our roster discussions.

The first of 10 rambling Spring Impressions columns focuses on the team's quarterbacks entering the off-season. I've "focused" by including 1,400 words on the subject, most of which have a shelf-life of roughly three months.

Works in Progress

Fans' unfortunate lasting memory of Dayne Crist in Saturday's Blue Gold Scrimmage is that of the senior quarterback one-hopping a pair of far-side throws in front of junior target Theo Riddick. But Crist noted post-game that his goal (and that of competitor Tommy Rees) was to work on aspects of his game considered a weakness, rather than simply showcase his strengths.

Two thoughts on the matter:

  • While not mandatory for success in the spread offense, those should be highly convertible throws for a purportedly strong-armed senior QB.
  • It took some courage for Crist to work through his weak points as a QB in front of 28,000 doubters. What he lacks as a pure passer Crist more than makes up for as a team leader and eager student of the game.

While Crist is a far better runner than is Rees, the former's propensity for holding the ball in the pocket, and less-than-sharp decision-making skills displayed last season actually turned Crist into a less mobile pocket passer than the sophomore Rees. Though not the only standard of measure, Crist was nonetheless sacked 16 times vs. 294 pass attempts last fall; Rees just four vs. 164…

The trio of Crist, Andrew Hendrix, and Everett Golson allow head coach Brian Kelly to utilize the read-option attack as part of his offense, as each member of the trio can pick up yards on the necessary mis-direction keeper. Rees' version of this is the fake-handoff, followed by a semi roll-out and short (to mid-range) throw with his eyes trained on one side of the field. Both approaches allow Kelly to execute his scheme.

Leadership, Improvement, Misconceptions

At no point this spring did it appear Dayne Crist "wasn't" the staff's leading choice to start the season opener vs. South Florida… Crist is better remembered for his errors (7 picks/3 fumbles, 2 lost) than is Rees (10 picks/1 fumble lost), and that's likely because Rees' status as a true freshman thrown to the fray. It's thus relevant to note Dayne Crist had thrown all of 20 passes entering last year as the team's "veteran" signal-caller.

Regarding those errors, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar stated late this spring that Crist 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."

Fans wary of Crist's purported strides since his last snap need not repeat that concern with the younger Rees, whose staggering improvement between his first appearance (Michigan) and next meaningful snaps (Tulsa) was bettered only by his bounce-back efforts following a miserable outing at USC and the Sun Bowl 33 days later…Top misconception of the position battle: Rees is a "game manager." Game managers don't offset 12 TD passes with 8 interceptions…

Which quarterback is mentally tougher? The upperclassman who fought through two career-threatening knee injuries in a calendar year, or the freshman that completed his most important pass of the season – one that followed his third interception of the game – to begin the game-winning drive at program rival USC?

Don't overstate Rees' 4-0 W-L record as a starter: ex-Irish QB Matt LoVecchio began his career 7-0 as a true freshman thanks to a stout defense and reliable running attack; two years later he struggled under center at Indiana…Forget Rees and 4-0: that record was forged first by the team's defense, then its power running game plus a vastly improved roster…and vastly improved coaching…Searching for relevance regarding Rees and his oft-referenced 4-0 mark? The freshman's "worst" game concluded with the first come-from-behind, game-winning drive by an Irish quarterback since Jimmy Clausen offered the same at Purdue in September 2009.

Rees may indeed possess the undefined "It" that defines winning quarterbacks, but that's related more to his cool demeanor, focus under pressure, and toughness than to any undefeated sampling of contests...Though at present, and in contrast, you could not argue that Crist has "It."

You're not alone if you're having trouble shaking Crist's awful performance at Navy from your memory bank – or the fact that Notre Dame's passing game was simply less-than-impressive with Crist under center in half of his eight full contests (Purdue, Stanford, Pittsburgh, Navy). Or as a friend recently noted, "Is it relevant that ND ‘kinda stunk' with Crist?")…I'm not sure, but I know that Dayne Crist could have finished 4-0 if his defense allowed one touchdown over an 18-quarter span as did the Irish under Rees' guidance.

I'm not sure he's the best of the four, and I doubt he's the most talented, but it's impossible to meet, relate to, and interview Dayne Crist, the person, and not root for him to at least earn a second chance as the team's starter.

The promise of the unknown

Irish fans were blessed with a pair of promising triggermen with no warts on their resumes – no proof that they're human. Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson are a marked contrast from the decidedly forgettable skill sets displayed by Crist and Rees last fall…Of course, Crist and Rees operated under fire – Hendrix and Golson under controlled conditions meant to challenge them, but also to help them improve.

Molnar on Golson: "Oh my gosh, his arm and his quickness and his vision are uncanny. Really top level football player from that standpoint. 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."

Golson reiterated the latter in our interview following the Blue Gold Game.

I had the impression that Hendrix was beaming and Golson was fighting off major disappointment in our post-game interviews Saturday…What's the more developed skill set entering the summer: Golson's arm or Hendrix's feet? That secondary skill could determine the standing of both next August…Golson appears more quick than fast (a good thing) and could prove a major annoyance to defenses over the course of his college career – when he breaks the pocket and hits space, few defenders will stop him one-on-one…

Unlike Hendrix, Golson's redshirt option remains…Unlike Crist, Rees' redshirt option remains, though it would be a far tougher sell from Kelly to his undefeated sophomore…None of the team's quartet of quarterbacks will exhaust his collegiate eligibility this fall – only Crist will do so following 2012 – in other words, the presence of a top quarterback recruit next February is going to cause a ripple effect among the current signal-callers...

Hendrix's arm strenght + delivery isn't approached by that of his competitors, in fact, I'd consider Crist's "ball" (in scouting parlance) to be the worst among the quartet: it's best described as a tight wobble…Golson's is easily the second-best, and he can deliver on the move…Rees throws three key pass patterns better than his competitors: the fade; the seam to the tight end; and the corner route – unfortunately, those three routes would be the extent of Notre Dame's vertical passing game with Rees under center in 2011…

I can't stress enough that Rees performed in the clutch after playing terribly at USC – his 11-yard rolling out pass (left, no less!) to Michael Floyd to begin the game-winning drive was the most underrated pass of the 2010 Irish season…Rees, Crist and Hendrix desperately need Floyd to beat South Florida and Michigan next September; Golson might be enough of a playmaker to overcome that loss of possibly still-suspended perimeter talent, at least in South Bend, but Golson's game is nowhere near polished enough to withstand a 13-game set…

The last time four QBs entered an off-season in heated competition, one transferred in the summer, another did so in the fall, and Notre Dame finished 3-9 – I can say with complete confidence the latter is impossible regarding the 2011 season…Who would you feel most comfortable with taking the first snap at 8 PM in Ann Arbor next September, Rees… or anyone else? I think I'd choose the former as of today…

If Rees starts 1-0 next year, he'll be lauded as a winner; if Crist starts 1-0 next year, his stats will be discussed ad nauseum by Irish fans over the ensuing seven days…If either Golson or Hendrix start the season 1-0 next September, something unforeseen occurred in August.

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