20 For a Title: QB2

Notre Dame kicks off its season in less than two weeks and Irisheyes.com has identified 20 key players, positions, and developments if the Irish are to return to the BCS Championship game. Today's focus, the backup quarterback(s).

"It's just, I think, understanding the game more than anything else. It's just film study and watching film and being in the film room and all those things that go with. It's just come a little bit later for him but it's coming."
-- Head coach Brian Kelly regarding senior QB Andrew Hendrix

For a senior quarterback at a program led by a head coach known for his quarterback machinations, Andrew Hendrix's sample size is relatively small: 23 for 44 passing, 304 yards, two interceptions, one touchdown, plus 203 rushing yards on 33 carries and a score. The total includes a long run of 78 yards vs. Air Force in 2011.

A fair summation of Hendrix's strengths and deficiencies to date is as follows:

  • He has the strongest arm on the team (including expelled quarterback Everett Golson)
  • He's likely the fastest runner, from point A to point B, among the quarterbacks -- including Golson and freshman Malik Zaire
  • He's likely the hardest to bring down among the triggermen when he tucks and runs.
  • And most important, he's nowhere near the most accurate passer, nor is he proven to be a trustworthy decision-maker, pre or post-snap, nor does he seem particularly calm as a pocket closes and the passing windows close around him.

And therein lies the rub.

"It's a huge jump. You don't even know that you don't know, honestly. The game is so much faster," said Hendrix of his long-assimilation to the college level. In high school it was one read, two reads, run. Here you have to check (among other things), it's something I wasn't ready for. The learning curve has gotten so much better now that I'm in my fourth year."

Development that was imperative the moment Golson was lost for the 2013 season, because no Brian Kelly-led squad has started the same quarterback over an entire season since 2005 (Central Michigan's Kent Smith).

Hendrix's classmate and the team's starter Tommy Rees has a chance to end that streak, as running and therefore contact with angry linebackers and safeties isn't an integral part of his repertoire -- but taking a hit while delivering a pass on third down, is. Pocket quarterbacks go down, too.

"When you're (No. 2) you're one play away from being the starter, you have to be ready at all times," Hendrix said. "If Tom goes down, if Tom's helmet comes off, you're in. The offense can't miss a beat and you have to be ready at all times to go in and play."

He was ready last August, too, competing with Golson for the starting job when Rees was suspended for the squad's season opener vs. Navy. Golson won the job, won his first 10 games as a starter, and Rees became the nation's most notable "QB2," always ready in a pinch.

That's Hendrix's role this fall, though it seems likely he'll help the Irish in other situations even with Rees upright.

"I think you've watched me. I get a feel for the game, try to win games," said Kelly. "I'm here to win games. If I think he can help us win, I'll put him in. I'm confident Andrew can help us win this year. If I think I can insert him at any time to give us that, I am not hesitant to do that. I'll go to the bullpen and ask him to help us."

Short-yardage? Red zone? Change-of-pace?

"He does things differently. We'd obviously feature some more runs like we did with Everett Golson. But he can still throw it, he can still run the offense," Kelly continued. "We're not going to change into an entirely different offense but we would feature some more quarterback-inspired runs and reads which are already in our system.

"But I think you've already seen that with him. He has enough of a resume and everybody here who has seen Andrew plays knows what his background is: he has a strong arm, he's athletic, he can run, and he's more comfortable in running our system of offense."

Kelly noted that Hendrix the senior is a far cry from the kid that ran around Palo Alto frenetically trying to bring the Irish back from a three touchdown deficit in 2011.

His final stats that evening: 11 for 24, 192 yards, a garbage-time touchdown, a crucial interception, three sacks, 53 rushing yards (not including 20 lost to sacks) and a game-pertinent rushing touchdown that brought the Irish to within 21-7 in the third quarter.

"He's just more aware of circumstances of the game and the game itself. Down and distance and pressures and what teams are trying to do and what defenses are trying to do. I think just an overall understanding of the game," Kelly noted.

"He's not that prototypical gym rat if you will. And I don't want to say that's a negative but he didn't grow up kind with the game itself. He's become so much more understanding of the game itself. He can recognize things so much easier when you're talking about different looks and understanding the concepts."

QB3 at the ready?

Among most fan bases, the most popular player on a football team is usually the backup quarterback. But Notre Dame is unique, and of late, that fan favorite wasn't backup Rees to starter Golson, nor is it Hendrix to Rees last fall -- each precluded from such status by their years of service, a body of work paling in comparison to the "potential" of the new kid on the block, 2013 rookie Malik Zaire.

"Malik is an incredibly hard-worker and he loves the game," said Hendrix. "You can tell that from the second he comes in. He is always football, all the time. He's a mature kid and he's been doing great. It'll be interesting to see how he progresses from here."

Told of Kelly's "clear pecking order" (Rees, Hendrix, Zaire), Hendrix was asked if Zaire could "push him for the No. 2 role."

"I'm sure he could, he's a great player. But when you're out there and the bullets are flying it's hard to focus on anything but your own game and what you're doing. If you start looking ahead or back, the offense won't function. We all work together. But when we're out there (the goal) is making the next play."

Hendrix is back in position to play because he never gave up. A transfer, an expulsion, and now an opportunity likely awaits. In each of Kelly's first three seasons, three quarterbacks too game-relevant snaps:

  • 2010: Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees, Nate Montana
  • 2011: Crist, Rees, Hendrix
  • 2012: Golson, Rees, Hendrix (BYU)

It'll happen again for Hendrix (and likely for Zaire).

"You don't want to let your guys down and become lazy and complacent," he said of his approach as both the No. 3 last season and the No. 2 this August. "That's not the kind of person that I am, to let a team down or take the foot off the pedal."

A student with aspirations of a medical career following his playing days. Hendrix expects to maintain that approach over the next two seasons and beyond.

"Absolutely. No doubt," he said when asked if he'd pursue a fifth year of eligibility in 2014. "I want to use all five of my years here for sure. I love this game and I want to play it as long as I can."

History, recent and otherwise, tells us he'll get that chance, soon.

So might Zaire...and Notre Dame's chances for a BCS Championship berth will likely hinge on their development.

Note: Click the links below for the first five installments of our 20 For a Title series:

Finding the Best Five

The Difference-Maker?

The Assumed: Sheldon Day

The Left-Siders: Martin and Watt

As Advertised? Tuitt and Nix

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