Andrew Hendrix may have the talent to take over for Tommy Rees right now, but Brian Kelly is doing the right thing for Notre Dame by denying him that opportunity.
Right now, the idea of Andrew Hendrix may actually be a better weapon for Notre Dame than the actuality of Andrew Hendrix.
Think about it. Why is a “secret weapon” so threatening?
Because it’s a secret.
When assessing an opponent’s inventory of assets, it’s smart practice to assume the worst about any assets that are not fully understood. Though it will certainly take more effort, it’s best to be overprepared for the worst-case scenario.
That’s the situation that Notre Dame’s opponents face with Andrew Hendrix. The mystery around Hendrix’s role and capabilities make it more difficult for opponents to prepare for the Irish.
All season long, Brian Kelly has fueled the fires:
"I want to be careful not to pigeonhole Andrew Hendrix into an option quarterback. That's not what he is. He adds a little dimension to that position with his ability to run. Quite frankly, we didn't need another dimension to the game (against Navy)... Finding a place for him in our offense isn't just to run option. It's to keep the defense off balance and provide them with many different facets to chose from."
Regardless of whether or not Kelly actually intends to use Hendrix more in the passing game, his statement forces future opponents to reconsider how they might deploy their defense against the Irish.
It’s no secret that Hendrix’s strength at this point in his college career is his running ability, but there’s a reason that Kelly hasn’t sent him into the game whenever the Irish face a third-and-short.
Solely running the option isn’t the best thing for Andrew Hendrix's development, nor is it the best thing for the Notre Dame football program as a whole.
Kelly has two priorities with Hendrix: merchandising him as a weapon that Notre Dame’s opponents must prepare for, and developing him as a complete quarterback that could start for the Irish in the future. So far this season, he’s done a brilliant job of utilizing Hendrix in situations that balance those two goals.
Hendrix has played in three games this season: twice in Irish wins (Air Force and Maryland) and once in a loss (USC).
His appearance in the loss to USC was an aberration. The Irish offense was completely stagnant in the first half of that game, and Kelly needed to do what ever he could to find a spark.
He probably would have preferred not to use Hendrix in that game, given that USC has the eighth-best rushing defense in the nation, but Kelly needed to completely empty his clip against the Trojans.
On the other hand, Notre Dame’s matchups with Air Force and Maryland represented perfect opportunities for Kelly to give Hendrix some game experience in a low-risk, high-reward environment.
In both games, it was clear from the opening kickoff that Notre Dame was the superior football team. That talent discrepancy afforded Kelly the freedom to be more creative with his offense, knowing that the outcome of the game was never really in doubt.
Additionally, neither situation thrust Hendrix into a hostile environment. The Air Force game was at home in cozy Notre Dame Stadium, and the Maryland game was played at a neutral site in front of a crowd that was clearly biased in favor of the Irish.
Finally, Air Force and Maryland are two of the worst run defenses in the nation, ranking 110th and 115th respectively in rushing yards allowed per game. Against those defenses, Hendrix was almost guaranteed to achieve some level of success.
In those games, Hendrix completed all four of his pass attempts for a total of 33 yards, and rushed seven times for 112 yards. In total, that adds up to 145 yards of total offense on just 11 touches—an average of over 13 yards per touch.
Admittedly, it’s a ridiculously small sample size, but it undeniably paints the picture of an explosive player that defenses should fear.
That’s all he needs to do.
Kelly has mostly used Hendrix as a decoy, only inserting him into the lineup in advantageous (or emergency) situations. His approach has the dual benefit of helping the Irish in the short term, without forcing Hendrix into any uncomfortable situations that might lead to bad habits or otherwise hurt his development.
Even more than running or passing, Hendrix’s most effective skill is forcing a defense to prepare for him. Regardless of whether he actually enters the game, any time that an opposing defense spends preparing for Andrew Hendrix is time that they don’t spend preparing for Tommy Rees, and that can be a tremendous help to Notre Dame’s first-team offense.
Over the last two games of the season, I don’t expect to see much of Andrew Hendrix. There’s a chance he might get some action this week against Boston College, but the Eagles’ 62nd-ranked run defense doesn’t present an ideal situation. Barring an emergency, I’d be extremely surprised to see Hendrix take the field against Stanford’s seventh-ranked rush D.
Next season? That’s another story.