Ending a String of Struggles?

This week's subscriber question deals with the program's prior struggles, and conversely, stars, under center.

A glass half-empty submission this week -- that's a troublesome, recurring theme of my mailbox this summer, by the way -- but one that piqued my interest nonetheless:

"Is this three-year drought the longest Notre Dame has had without competency at quarterback? At least in your lifetime?"

First, it's not yet a three-year drought. It's a two-season drought with a third straight QB issue and/or competition. The Irish could be anywhere from sub par again to surprisingly great at quarterback this fall. (They'll likely fall somewhere in between.)

But it is relevant that for the third straight pre-season and the duration of the Brian Kelly era to date, Notre Dame enters August with major questions at the game's most important position.

A quick look at the Notre Dame QB situation over the last 30 years shows intermittent struggles under center, but only two other extended time frames in which so many questions lingered before, during, and after a pair or string of seasons.

1981-86: Too Many Turnovers

The late Blair Kiel was the first freshman to start at quarterback for the program. He finished his Irish career 8-4-1 as a starter after a 10-5-1 mark as a freshman and sophomore, but interceptions marred his tenure in South Bend (32 interceptions vs. 17 touchdown passes). Following an injury truncated 1982 (junior year), Kiel eventually lost his starting job, save for a Liberty Bowl start and victory over Boston College, to freshman Steve Beuerlein.

Beuerlein's ensuing three seasons saw the Irish win just 12 of 22 games but with no quarterback controversy to speak of.

QB Evaluation: Below average and bellow the program's previous standards until Beuerlein's senior season, one that coincided with Lou Holtz's first year in 1986. After three years in which intermittent success was washed away by a whopping 37 interceptions (vs. 14 touchdowns), Beuerlein finished with a flourish, tossing 13 touchdowns and just 7 picks while throwing for 2,211 yards as a senior leader.

Kiel and Beuerlein tossed 64 interceptions in a six-season span (1981-86) span that saw the Irish win just 35 of 68 games.

Era of Excellence: 1987-93

A sophomore ineligible to play in 1986, Tony Rice earned his first start following a Week Four injury to incumbent Terry Andrysiak. The future national champion triggerman won his first five starts before dropping a pair to end the season as well as the team's slim national title hopes. Andrysiak regained the starting role for a blowout Cotton Bowl defeat to Texas A&M to conclude the '87 campaign.

23 months later, the Irish finally lost again, with Rice guiding the team to a 24-1 mark in his final two years including a program record 23 straight from the season opener in 1988 to the season finale in 1989.

Rice's option excellence gave way to dual threat local product Rick Mirer, who guided the Irish to 28 wins 7 losses and a tie as well as a top 10 national ranking in 35 of 40 polls during his tenure. Only in the spring of 1990 did Mirer battle for the starting role; his victory over fellow blue chip prospect Jake Kelchner forced the latter's transfer to West Virginia.

Another senior/freshman quarterback competition followed Mirer's graduation with the nation's top prospect Ron Powlus beating out career backup Kevin McDougal in August camp. Powlus' status was a short-lived, the result of a broken collarbone just prior to the start of the season. McDougal famously took the reigns, the Irish finished 11-1 and the best run of success under center in program history was completed.

QB Evaluation: Rice kicked off the Golden Age for Notre Dame quarterbacks. Along with Mirer and McDougal (and a few spot starts from Terry Andrysiak and Paul Failla), the Irish won 72 games including five major bowls with just 13 defeats and one tie over a seven season span.

The Powlus and Jackson Eras: 1994-99

The aforementioned Powlus succeeded McDougal and proceeded to win as many games (29) as any quarterback in program history over the next four seasons. Unfortunately, the Irish also lost a whopping 16 with a tie intermixed in that span. Jarious Jackson, 14 wins and 9 losses followed, though the latter was unquestionably the best player on the team during a disappointing 5-7 senior season in 1999.

Neither quarterback ranks among the five best in program history, nor was either a root cause for the program's sudden (relative) struggles. Powlus' pair of arm injuries (1993 and 1995) likely contributed to his intermittent struggles, though so too did the team's evolving offense that occasionally used the slow-footed, strong-armed signal-caller as an option "threat."

Jackson is perhaps the most undervalued player at the position over the program's last 40 years and a player who would have thrived under both the option offense of Lou Holtz before him and the program's current spread attack under Brian Kelly.

QB Evaluation: If a Notre Dame team ever could have used a two quarterback system it was in 1997 with the 5th-year Powlus and an evolving offense occasionally giving way to the more athletic Jackson. It never came to fruition, though neither did any real QB controversy. The Irish teams of the time struggled far more due to a sudden lack of skill position excellence and drop-off in the overall quality of its offensive line than they did any minor problems behind center.

The New Millennium: A Mixed Bag

It's likely best to illustrate the disparate results on a year-by-year basis:

2000: Respected athlete and future wide receiver Arnaz Battle was the clear-cut leader but was lost to injury (broken wrist) in the seminal Week Two loss to #1 Nebraska. He ceded his spot to future tight end Gary Godsey (1-1 as the Irish QB including a win over none other than Purdue's Drew Brees) who gave way to true freshman Matt LoVecchio, winner of his first seven starts thereafter. Reality set in at the hands of ultra-athletic Oregon State in the Fiesta Bowl and Lovecchio's one-turnover, 13 touchdown regular season seemed far less impressive heading into 2001.

2001: Lovecchio started the season's first two games, both defeats, and gave way to classmate and option threat Carlyle Holiday who finished off the Bob Davie era with 5 wins and 4 losses as a first time starter.

2002: Holiday had no challenger for the role under first-year head coach Tyrone Willingham and the team finished 10-3 despite sub par play under center and an ill-conceived "West Coast Offense" that forced the running Holiday into three-step drops, reads, and quick throws.

2003: Holiday wasn't challenged in August camp but after an unexpected 1-2 start, gave way to true freshman Brady Quinn. (The "Quinn to Win" T-shirt campaign on campus was perhaps the student body's most embarrassing moment; unconscionable treatment of the ultimate teammate Holiday.) Quinn and the Irish didn't win, falling in five of nine to conclude the lost season in which the Irish were ranked #15 in Week Two and not again for two calendar years.

2004: Quinn was unchallenged in camp and the team muddled through a 6-6 season and another coaching change. The sophomore signal caller ended his second season with 10 starts, 11 losses, 26 touchdowns and 25 interceptions.
From 2001-2004, Notre Dame won 26 games, lost 22, and suffered through a 48/66 TD scored/interceptions thrown ratio from its quarterbacks.

2005-06: Quinn took off under the guidance of new head coach Charlie Weis, guiding the Irish to a 19-5 record with 69 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions. His junior and senior seasons represent the last back-to-back standout seasons by a signal-caller in South Bend. If the Irish received this type of quarterback play last year they'd have finished the regular season 12-0 or 11-1 at worst (not necessarily the case in 2010, which is why its somewhat relevant).

2007: Demetrius Jones, Jimmy Clausen, Evan Sharpley, the worst offensive line in program history and three wins. Aside from a quarterback competition that resulted in a comedy of errors over the season's first two months, not much can be gleaned from looking back.

2008: Clausen took his lumps, finishing with a 7-6 record, 25 touchdowns but a whopping 17 interceptions.

2009: Now a junior, Clausen set a program record completing 68 percent of his passes with 28 touchdowns and just four interceptions -- this one year after he tossed four picks in a single contest at Boston College. He had officially arrived as a collegiate star but left campus shortly thereafter, leaving Brian Kelly's cupboard nearly bare under center.

2010-11: Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, 16 wins, 10 losses, 53 touchdowns produced by the team's quarterbacks but with 41 off-setting turnovers.

2012: To be determined…


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