Notre Dame Football: Why Brian Kelly Doesn't Need an Elite QB to Win

Matt Smith@MattSmithCFBCorrespondent IIIJuly 7, 2013

November 26, 2011; Stanford, CA, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish head coach Brian Kelly (right) talks to quarterback Tommy Rees (left) during the second quarter against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

OK, it's trivia time.

Who was the opening day starting quarterback for Brian Kelly's 2008 Cincinnati team that won the Big East title and played in the Orange Bowl?


That's what I thought. The answer is Dustin Grutza. Ring a bell? Probably not. Grutza, a senior, was injured in the second week of that 2008 season and played significant snaps in just two other games that season in relief of Tony Pike.

In all, three different quarterbacks threw at least 65 passes that season for Kelly due to a variety of injuries. Despite the adversity at the most important position on the field, Kelly guided Cincinnati to an 11-2 regular season and its first-ever BCS bowl.

A year later, Kelly juggled Pike and sophomore Zach Collaros in a season for the ages, as the Bearcats finished 12-0 before Notre Dame hired Kelly away.

It was more of the same once Kelly arrived in South Bend. Notre Dame has had multiple starting quarterbacks in each of Kelly's three seasons. Like he did at Cincinnati, his third season featured an unblemished regular season.

For many of those 12 wins a season ago, the Irish won in spite of the play of Everett Golson and Tommy Rees, not because of it. The question going forward now becomes, can the Irish take the next step and bring home the program's first national title in 25 years without an elite quarterback?

History would tell us the answer is a resounding yes.

Not only Kelly's history, but the makeup of recent national champions has also shown that it's not all about the quarterback if you have the right pieces around him. Those pieces begin with an elite defense and an efficient running game.

Kelly's staff has based its recruiting philosophy around those two focal points, with those efforts paying off for the first time in 2012.

2013 should be no different.

Oh sure, quarterbacks such as Cam Newton and Tim Tebow were the best players in college football in their respective national title years, and A.J. McCarron was a bona fide star last season, but Chris Leak, Matt Flynn, Greg McElroy and even McCarron in 2011 were strictly asked to play smart, sound football and let their respective defenses carry the team.

Notre Dame's roster isn't yet as complete and balanced as LSU in 2007 or Alabama in 2009, but it's getting closer and closer every year. Had Ohio State not been given a bowl ban or Kansas State avoided an upset at Baylor, Kelly may have already won the ultimate prize.

For the Irish to again reach a BCS bowl and contend for the national title in 2013, they don't need Rees to be Johnny Manziel. They just need him to not be the Rees of 2011 who committed untimely turnover after untimely turnover.

That's a winning strategy—not only for Kelly, but for national champions like Urban Meyer, Les Miles and Nick Saban.

Like everything in college football, it all goes back to Grutza.