Apr. 21, 2012; South Bend, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly yells at quarterback Andrew Hendrix (12) in the first quarter of the spring game at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-US PRESSWIRE
It seems like forever since Notre Dame had an entrenched veteran starter at quarterback, although the Irish are only two seasons removed from Jimmy Clausen's record-setting passer rating in 2009, and back-to-back multi-year starters in Clausen and Brady Quinn gracing the sidelines for a combined seven straight years.
Like most programs who enjoy such fine quarterback play in the same decade with consecutive top-notch recruits, the Irish have been wandering in the wilderness for a couple seasons searching for an answer at the game's most important position.
It wasn't supposed to be this way for head coach Brian Kelly, who enters his third season in South Bend. He wasn't quite the deified quarterback guru that Charlie Weis was, but Kelly came to Notre Dame with his own sparkling resume of developing quarterbacks.
Things looked on the up and up when 5-star recruit Dayne Crist would finally get his chance at playing after patiently sitting behind Clausen for two years, while simultaneously having the opportunity to be mentored by another strong developer of quarterbacks.
However, beyond the kool-aid drinking fantasies of a seemingly perfect Notre Dame quarterback in Crist lighting the world on fire, there were many warning signs pointing to major growing pains.
First, Kelly was walking into one of the worst situations with experienced signal callers that any Notre Dame coach was dealt in decades. Crist had a lot of stars out of high school but he took a redshirt as a freshman and barely played as a sophomore. To make matters worse, Crist was coming off an ACL injury that he suffered on Halloween night in 2009 at Notre Dame's neutral site game in San Antonio against Washington State.
Compounding all this were the natural changes in system from a pro-style attack to spread, and the fact that Weis missed out on a quarterback for the 2009 class, leaving precious few bodies at this position once Clausen left early for the NFL.
As 2010 began, it was Crist as the lone returner with two true freshmen (Tommy Rees & Andrew Hendrix) battling it out with walk-on Nate Montana for backup duty. After a solid season opening performance by Crist against Purdue, the Notre Dame quarterback controversy began in week two against Michigan and hasn't stopped since.
After a beautiful opening touchdown drive against the Wolverines, Crist went out with a bizarre eye injury. The freshman Rees came in and promptly threw a pick on a failed flea-flicker. Montana came in and proved why he's a walk-on. Crist came back and played well, but it was too late to make a full comeback.
Crist settled into the starting role after regaining his eye sight, only to end his season again with another knee injury on the first series against Tulsa. Rees started the rest of the season, showing some moxie and smarts for a true freshman while the Irish finished the season on a strong note with 4 straight victories.
Last season Crist battled back from his injury and narrowly won the job again after fall camp, only to come out and look lost in the season opener against USF. He was replaced by Rees who sparked the offense, but a victory would prove to be too elusive. Since that moment, the quarterback competition has been owned by Tommy Rees as he started the remaining 12 games of the season.
Rees played well at times, showing good accuracy on short throws and decisive decision making, but he didn't improve as the season wore on and he became the major liability in an offense with a great supporting cast.
Heading into 2012, the quarterback picture is still cloudy.
Thanks to an offseason arrest by Rees, this will be the first time in nearly 50 years that a new quarterback will be starting the season at Notre Dame ahead of a multi-year starter.
So for now and in the immediate future of the early season, the competition is coming down to junior Andrew Hendrix and sophomore Everett Golson, while incoming heralded 5-star recruit Gunner Kiel gets his feet wet on the Scout team.
Hendrix sat as a freshman and ran the scout team as Rees gained an the upper hand being an early winter enrollee in 2009, while Golson came in for winter 2011 but focused on adding weight, adjusting to the academic life, and picking up the playbook with three quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart.
Hendrix does have the advantage of playing a little bit last year in a change of pace role. The Cincinnati native saw plenty of action against Air Force, a few snaps against USC, and then played a lot in the last two games of the season against Stanford and Florida State. He's got great size, good running skills, and a rocket arm, but there are concerns over his accuracy, general throwing skills, and his ability to handle the pressure of such a scrutinized job.
As of the second week of August, it appears Everett Golson may have the leg up in the competition in fall practice. One of the most accomplished high school athletes in South Carolina history, Golson is slight of build (generously listed at 6'0" and 185 pounds) but is otherwise the perfect fit for the Notre Dame offense. Despite his size, Golson has a very strong arm and a great throwing technique. He's an excellent improvisational runner, but as one of the country's greatest high school passers, he's always been able to keep his eyes down field and hurt teams more through the air than with his legs.
After two spring games in which Golson more or less shined while still looking a little raw, it appears all the massive potential is starting to bubble to the surface and become a reality.
Since the first two years under Kelly have been a quarterback carousel, the fans are understandably insecure about the opening day starter holding on to the position. After a plethora of back-breaking turnovers from Crist and Rees in 2011, there isn't much hope that those turnover problems are going to go away with a new starter in game one and possibly beyond.
But there is hope.
With Hendrix as starter the team might be more reliant on a strong ground game behind a powerful offensive line, depth at running back, and quality tight ends. With Golson, the team might be welcoming a true playmaker with a history of winning who finally allows Kelly to open up the entire playbook.
In the end, it's probably Golson who grabs the starting spot and begins his own lengthy career at Notre Dame. The coaching staff wants a quarterback who can run, but it is still a pass-first spread. Golson fits the mold and was the first quarterback fully recruited by Brian Kelly. Hendrix can run, but is still a very raw passer. Rees has the knowledge and experience, but he can't run, has a weak arm, and there are whispers that the staff is now moving in a different direction.
The quarterback controversy has been a major headline for Notre Dame going on two years, but Golson might put an end to that in 2012.