How Brian Kelly Can Solve Quarterback Problem Before the Start of the Season

Keith ArnoldNotre Dame Lead WriterApril 21, 2014

USA Today

Fifteen practices later, Everett Golson is still standing. The quarterback entrusted with the Irish football program made it through spring practice after failing to make the grade last May, an academic casualty that derailed the Irish before the 2013 season started.

Now he's tasked with a different challenge: winning a quarterback battle not many people saw coming. 

Golson rejoined the program in January, returning to Notre Dame as he pledged he would. He did his best not to throw away the 2013 season, spending 10 weeks with quarterback guru George Whitfield in San Diego. But while Golson's return had him looking like a savior to a program without a quarterback that's taken a competitive snap, he returns to a battle far more competitive than many expected. 

Malik Zaire earned fans by playing well in the Blue-Gold game.
Malik Zaire earned fans by playing well in the Blue-Gold game.Joe Raymond

If you're looking for a sign of program strength, viable options at quarterback is a good indicator. But that asset can turn to a liability pretty quickly, and Irish fans witnessed something similar just a few years back. 

It may feel like an eternity ago, but the last time Notre Dame had two scholarship quarterbacks in spring practice, Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees were learning Brian Kelly's system together. There couldn't have been more disparate quarterbacks on a roster. Crist, a well-put-together junior, was a 5-star recruit handpicked by Charlie Weis who looked the part of an NFL quarterback. Rees, a scrawny early-enrollee freshman, looked like a kid plucked from the dorm league with scholarship offers only modestly better. 

But pitfalls early in the 2010 season had Irish fans grumbling about Crist, even before a second major knee injury ended his first season as the Irish's starting quarterback. And while Kelly kept the status quo intact by naming Crist the team's starting quarterback entering the 2011 season, the decision lasted exactly 30 minutes, with the Irish head coach pulling the plug at halftime after Crist completed less than half his passes and threw an interception in the end zone against South Florida. 

To compare Golson to Crist is a major stretch. Golson led Notre Dame to the BCS title game in his debut season, while Crist completed just 10 passes as a redshirt freshman backing up Jimmy Clausen. But Malik Zaire's strong spring game made it clear that the sophomore quarterback plans on doing more than just talk about winning the quarterback job, even if it appeared that Golson was entrenched at the position. 

We will hear nothing official between now and August about a position battle that may or may not be open. But leadership is needed out of the quarterback position, and while Kelly owes nobody a decision on his starting quarterback, his team will be looking to the position to run the offseason workouts that will continue to build the foundation of this program.

Gunner Kiel (right) threw for 300 yards in the Cincinnati spring game.
Gunner Kiel (right) threw for 300 yards in the Cincinnati spring game.USA TODAY Sports

That balance has made things interesting in summers past. And in a program that stresses competition, fostering a battle while maintaining stability is a delicate balance, one that Kelly hasn't always navigated properly. 

Crist left the program after 2011, choosing to play out his fifth year under the head coach who recruited him to South Bend. Andrew Hendrix did the same this winter, heading to Miami (Ohio) to join Chuck Martin. Gunner Kiel left the program when he didn't believe he had a chance to play. While Irish fans feel certain that says more about the quarterback than the head coach, it's another datapoint that shows a rocky evolution at a position critical to overall success. 

In 2012, Golson was beloved by some fans for being the quarterback he wasn't. He wasn't Dayne Crist, the prototype who struggled processing the information presented to him on the field. He wasn't Tommy Rees, the overachiever who got every ounce out of his talents but made too many mistakes. 

Golson isn't the new kid on the block anymore. And he's used up any goodwill after his self-inflicted mistake cost him last season. Viewed as the missing link in 2013, he's going to need to play like it. 

Because at a program like Notre Dame, the backup quarterback is everybody's favorite player. And after flashing plenty of talent in the Blue-Gold game, Zaire is gaining fans quickly.