SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Brian Kelly steps into his third season at Notre Dame looking for a quarterback who can run his spread offense. Sure sounds familiar.
He needs someone to run the offense quickly and efficiently and not commit crucial turnovers – the Irish threw 17 interceptions a year ago – that can send any coach into a sideline tizzy.
After back-to-back 8-5 seasons, Kelly has to find that guy. All other personnel decisions aside, nothing will be more important than how the quarterback plays with Notre Dame facing one of its most challenging schedules in years.
The four-quarterback derby that kicked off in the spring is down to two – Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson – three weeks before the Irish go to Ireland to play Navy in their season opener Sept. 1.
Talented freshman Gunner Kiel is feeling his way, and last year’s starter for most of the season, Tommy Rees, is suspended for the opener after a confrontation with police after an off-campus party. Rees, who’s been lending advice to the other three, is expected to be back in the mix after the first game.
“Just going to go at it with all I got,” said Golson, a sophomore who ran the scout team last year but did not get on the field. “You got four quarterbacks who want to start at Notre Dame. It’s one of the greatest opportunities you’ll ever have.”
Hendrix was a change-of-pace backup last year with the ability to break out of the pocket and take off.
No matter who takes that first snap in Dublin, he won’t have Michael Floyd to throw to. The leading receiver in school history is off to the NFL, and that means everyone else, including standout tight end Tyler Eifert, will get more chances.
“They’ve got to raise their level of game because Michael set a standard for the wide receiver position,” Kelly said.
Kelly will call the plays again, but he’s got a new offensive coordinator in Chuck Martin, who coached the Irish safeties for the past two years. Kelly is expected to take a more hands-on approach this season, especially with the quarterbacks. And who knows? Maybe he’ll use more than one, like he did successfully at Cincinnati.
“I’d like to have one quarterback and have him be the guy, “ Kelly said. But he added that if the Irish needed to use both Hendrix and Golson, they could do it.
“Obviously they both have the ability to be starters. I can’t say I wouldn’t be comfortable,” Kelly said.
Comfort on defense rests in the middle where linebacker Manti Te’o returns for a fourth year after deciding to bypass a shot at the NFL. With 324 tackles – eighth on Notre Dame’s career list – he will end up as one of the top defensive players in Irish history.
“I hope I stand out as one of the best, but I don’t get too caught up in all that stuff. Hopefully at the end of the day I’m one of the best,” Te’o said. “That opportunity presented itself, to go to the NFL or play your senior year. It was a hard decision, but after thinking about it with my parents and talking with them, it’s the best decision for us.”
Three veterans and a fourth player who started four games last season return to the offensive line that will try to protect the quarterback and open holes for returning 1,000-yard rusher Cierre Wood. On the right side, where the Irish lost Trevor Robinson and Taylor Dever, tackle Christian Lombard and guard Mike Golic Jr. are probable starters.
Eifert will be the main target in the passing game – a 6-foot-6, 260-pounder with the size to make it tough on safeties and the speed to blow by linebackers. He caught 63 passes and had five touchdowns last season. Speedy Theo Riddick, with 84 catches in three seasons, will likely line up in the slot where he excelled two seasons ago before returning to running back near the end of last season.
Wood is a shifty runner with speed and the Irish will need to find that tough yardage runner they had last season in Jonas Gray. George Atkinson III, who returned two kickoffs for TDs as a freshman last season, is in the mix to split time with Wood. Amir Carlisle, a transfer from Southern Cal, is bouncing back from a broken ankle suffered before spring practice.
Beside Te’o on defense will be Dan Fox, who became a starter last season. Linebacker Carlo Calabrese will also be counted on after he sits out the first game, part of the punishment stemming from the same party that got Rees in trouble.
Kapron Lewis-Moore, who started 13 games two seasons ago and seven straight last year before suffering a knee injury, returns at defensive end, but Notre Dame lost arguably its most promising and talented player when Aaron Lynch – a freshman last season – transferred to South Florida. He had 5 1/2 sacks and started six games. Stephon Tuitt, who started three games as a freshman a year ago, will be the other end on the other side and Louis Nix and Kona Schwenke will split time at nose guard.
The most crucial area on defense will be the corners, where the Irish are relatively untested with Lo Wood and former wide receiver Bennett Jackson replacing veterans Gary Gray and Robert Blanton. Team leader Harrison Smith is also gone, but the Irish have returning veterans at safety in Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter.
The Irish need a quick start, unlike last season when they were stunned in their opener at home by South Florida.
After games against Navy and at home against Purdue, Notre Dame’s schedule includes road trips to Michigan State, Oklahoma, Boston College and Southern California, home games against Michigan, Stanford and Brigham Young and a game against Miami, Fla., at Soldier Field in Chicago.
There will be no gimmes and Kelly will be watched closely to see if the Irish are indeed ready to play their way back into the national spotlight.
“I know we’ll be judged by wins and losses. And we know that,” he said.