Choosing the triggerman

With 12 practices in the books, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly hosted the program's official media day festivities Tuesday morning inside the Stadium press box. Among the topics: his criteria for choosing a starter between quarterbacks Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees, what he likes about his second Irish squad, and which newcomers and seasoned vets have impressed through two weeks.

Two weeks previous, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly noted shared expectations as his 2011 squad's greatest strength: ("They know what to expect from us and we know what to expect from them.")

Today, with 12 training camp practices in the books and his team one week away from its beginning preparations for the season's first contest, Kelly offered another big-picture observation to define his second Notre Dame roster.

"This group has been as focused about the task at hand relative to their preparation for 2011, than any team I have coached," Kelly said. "They really enjoy the practice and the preparation – I enjoy that as a coach. If you have a captive audience it makes it enjoyable to go out and coach every day."

Few coaches offer poor work ethic or a lack of camaraderie as team components entering a season, and Kelly was quick to note future results are far more important than simply enjoying one's line of work.

"The greatest joy will be in winning, I get that," he added. "But this is a team that I really enjoy coaching because they come to work every day. They really enjoy being around each other. We have a bunch of young men that respect each other and know they're all in it for the same reason."

Kelly guided the 2009 Cincinnati Bearcats to a 12-0 finish and Big East Championship. He won a MAC title with Central Michigan and two national championships at Grand Valley State – why would the remnants of an 8-5 football team rank as the most focused of his 21-year coaching career?

"Some of the teams that I've had have been extremely focused on Saturdays; so locked in that they had a steely-eyed focus that when you walked in the locker room it was just, ‘Let them play…let the dogs hunt,'" he explained.

"This group does a great job of keeping the distractions at bay. They really want to practice football; they really want to play football. (They have) the want and desire to be a championship football team. It's been a long time. They've only won six games (2009) and eight games. If you look at the progression, they want more."

Everyone's favorite game manager

As expected, the first offering of Kelly's Q&A segment involved the team's quarterback race. So did the third question…and the sixth, the ninth, the 19th, and the 21st.

What will be the decisive factor in the now two-horse quarterback race between senior Dayne Crist and sophomore Tommy Rees?

"I'll know it when I see it. Not to be cute with the answer but we still have 7-8 days of a lot of work," Kelly admitted. "A lot of scripted work, a lot of situational work – whether it be in the red zone or 3rd and long.

"Now we start putting them in situational work and see how they perform. That will be one area. I think the other area will be when it's 7-on-7 and the patience that they to make sure that we don't turn the football over. We need more of that…because its going to be such a close margin, however it comes out."

(Note: For a breakdown of how both Crist and Rees fared in 3rd and long situations last fall, click here.)

What does Kelly ultimately need from his 2011 signal-caller? Apparently its not that he morph in Everyone's All-American.

"Mastery of the offensive system. There are so many different things that we can do within our offense that the quarterback has to be efficient in all areas," Kelly explained. "That (includes) getting us in the right play; checking to the right protection; making sure the right people get their hands on the football.

"It's more than just arm strength; it's more than just leadership capabilities," he continued. "There are so many other factors involved within the structure of our offense that the quarterback must excel at."

And proving that self-assessment, reflection, and improvement is the greatest attribute a head coach can possess, Kelly offered, "There's an added dimension that we feel very confident about the kind of defense we can play, that taking care of the football now is a premium.

"That's one of those boxes that we have to check off with the quarterback. We have to ensure he's not somebody that's going to turn the football over."

For those still wondering if talented but untested sophomore Andrew Hendrix or true freshman Everett Golson enter the equation?

"Crist and Rees have separated themselves. By virtue of their knowledge, by virtue of their ability to manage the offensive system and structure that we have," Kelly explained. "They can take the whole offense and run with it; both of those kids. So really you have two quarterbacks that I have great trust and confidence that they can play championship football for us.

"Then you have two young guys that have not managed the offensive structure, but have excelled in small doses," he continued. "If either one of them would enter the game for whatever the circumstances are, they would not be able to run the entire offense that we want to run against South Florida. I can tell you that with great certainty.

"However, there are some things they do very well that if they had to enter a game, we would move to what their strengths are. How those mix up during a game? I'm going to leave that up to a tactical advantage going into each and every game."

Talent to the fore

Managing the game, mastery of the system, avoiding costly mistakes…

All doubtless part of winning football and coach-crucial elements Kelly can impart throughout his roster. But more important: who on this roster can flat-out play?

"It's hard not to see the young defensive players," he began. "Start with Louis Nix. Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas. Those guys are physically imposing, they get your attention right away," before deadpanning, "They get my attention because I'm on the offensive side that when we put our second unit out there it feels like a screen every play, where we're cutting people loose. You notice them from that perspective."

"Some of our young guys on the offense that have shown they're going to be really good players: DaVaris Daniels, George Atkinson, Cam McDaniel – those guys are going to play this year for us. Are they ready right now? No. But they have the athletic ability to play BCS football right now," he said.

The next name Kelly included was the surprise of the bunch.

"Nick Martin. When (sophomore) Tate Nichols went down (knee) we had to push Nick right into second team tackle position. He's being mentored by someone who has a vested interest in seeing that he does well (his brother, Zack). Nick has done a nice job."

Aside from senior outside linebacker Darius Fleming, of whom Kelly has spoken in glowing terms throughout August, and junior inside ‘backer Manti Te'o, who Kelly referred to as, "our best linebacker," who are camp's veterans of note?

"Kap-Lewis (Kapron Lewis-Moore) is a different football player. Gary Gray, Robert Blanton, our safeties – they are so much more mature and physical," Kelly said of his safety trio Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta, and team captain Harrison Smith. "Then offensively, if there was one guy that we would pick out in camp it probably would be Cierre Wood in the sense that he's really been, ‘Complete.'

"He wasn't complete, as you know (last year)," Kelly continued of his junior running back. "But in terms of blitz pickup, catching the football, and running physically. He's been very impressive as well."

Bumps, bruises, and one significant tear: Kelly confirmed the Irish Inter Webs worst-kept secret of the week: that freshman safety Eilar Hardy is out for the season with a knee injury. Additionally, 5th-year senior tight Mike Ragone has missed significant time with a quadriceps injury.

Conversely, sophomore left tackle Tate Nichols appears ahead of schedule in his recovery from a dislocated knee cap, and that y.

All other Irish are apparently injury-free, or as Kelly noted: "About 50-to-60 percent of our team is in a period of time where we're hurt, but not injured."

They're called the dog days for a reason.

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