Let me take you back in time to a familiar yet alternate universe. It’s the Spring of 2011, and the Notre Dame football squad is fully immersed in spring practices. Coming off a solid end of the year and bowl win over traditional power Miami, optimism is abound. Maybe, just maybe, Notre Dame is finally on the cusp of becoming a national power again….
Over on the sidelines, Brian Kelly contemplates the future of his program. The most important decision, the one the press is hounding him about, is who will go into next season as his quarterback. The sun’s in his eyes and he has to squint a little to survey the field and his options. Currently running with the first team is a guy who just looks like a professional quarterback. 6’4”, strong arm, commanding presence, and well liked, Dayne Crist takes the snap, scans the field, and then wings an out route in the direction of T.J. Jones. The ball looks majestic. Tight spiral, great zip, and then…..over Jones’ head by two feet. Kelly lets out a sigh. He thinks to himself “if I’d had this kid from day one, he might have been great. Injuries have derailed him, and now he can’t quite seem to get into the flow of things. I wish he hadn’t taken 5 seconds to find Jones on that out route. It was a simple look.”
Off to the side, tossing the ball around with a few of the guys and watching the first team for a few minutes is rising sophomore Tommy Rees. He doesn’t look like a college quarterback. He looks like Elijah Wood's taller and moderately more athletic brother. His ball has no natural zip to it. In order to get anything on it, Rees seems to coil his entire body and then unleash a knuckler that frequently misses the intended target. During running drills it’s pretty apparent that Rees couldn’t outrun the student manager who’s standing on the sideline. For a second time, Kelly lets out a sigh and thinks “he can’t run, he’s barely passable with his arm, but the kid gets it. He understands what I’m trying to do. Makes quick reads…though not always correct, and gets rid of the ball. I don’t love him, but at least he understands what I’m trying to do. And, he’s still young and developing.”
It’s already become clear that the battle for the quarterback position will be between these two. Crist, the senior leader versus Rees, the guy who “finds a way to win.” Kelly’s not enamored with either, but expectations are high. After a slow start, they’d found a way to finish 8-5. They have enough playmakers to wreak havoc even without stellar quarterback play, and the defense is coming along fast. If Michael Floyd straightens himself out, they could be great. Kelly looks down at a sheet of paper on his clipboard which lists the 2011 schedule: Most of these games should be wins. “We could go 11-1, 10-2 without much problem. Hell, Stanford’s the only team on here that scares me, and who knows what they’ll be like without Harbaugh around…”
Kelly blows a whistle, barks out a few instructions, and then the second team offense comes onto the field. Under center is Kelly’s third string quarterback. He’s watched this kid from a distance for several years now and knows what he’s capable of. When Crist went down during the middle of last season, Kelly refused to throw him to the wolves. This was just the first season of a major overhaul and he was not going to waste a year of eligibility. Besides, he’s really not ready. Still unsure of the correct reads and so physically gifted that he has not yet adjusted to football at a level where where he can’t just impose his will, Andrew Hendrix still displays flashes of truly elite talent. Perfectly suited to Kelly’s system.
Hendrix’s unease is not all his doing. Kelly knows this. But committing to Hendrix would alienate a senior who’s put in his time to be a starter. Even worse, he’s also got Rees to think about. Rees isn’t the answer, but he’s light years ahead of Hendrix in terms of understanding the offense, and he won a bowl game. Hendrix needs snaps with the first team to get better. He needs to get used to the speed of the game, the tempo Kelly wants, and the first team needs to get used to running Kelly’s spread offense with a true running threat at quarterback. Sadly, there are not snaps to be had…at least not yet.
From press conferences, speaking engagements, fundraisers, and alumni events, ND nation has made it very clear…they want to win NOW. “The Nation” has been appeased by the bowl win, and everyone keeps pointing to how manageable the 2011 schedule is. Taking a step back right now is not an option. “Just don’t make mistakes guys. We’ll need to be more conservative on offense than I’d like to be and certainly more limited than we should be, but with that schedule, if we just avoid mistakes, we can get to 10 wins.” Just at that moment, Kelly watches a play unfold on the field: Hendrix takes the snap out of the shotgun, fakes a hand off to Cierre Wood, and then uses his speed to move out of the pocket and on the run wings a 30 yard bullet through the air to Tyler Eiffert running down the middle of the field. “That’s the future, just not the present, not yet.”
For a fleeting moment, Kelly has one more thought run through his head: “What if I just said screw it? Crist’s not my guy, he’s not made for this system, and I don’t have long enough to retrain him anyways. Rees should be a third or fourth stringer at best. What if I just came out and told everyone we’re going with Hendrix? The Nation would have some questions about that no doubt. Hell, I’d need to be real candid. I’d have to tell everyone that Hendrix is young, that he doesn’t yet understand the system, and is only just now getting first team reps. I’d have to set expectations low for 2011. Tell them 6-6 or 7-5 would be optimistic because Hendrix is not going to be mistake free. But I’d then get 3 years after to let Hendrix command this team. He’ll get it by then, he just needs the reps.” Kelly comes out of his daze, looks up and watches Hendrix throw a ball directly to Manti Te’o. “I can’t do it. I just can’t answer those types of questions all year. What if he makes that bad a mistake in the South Florida game? ‘The Nation’ would never understand. They’d never let me live it down.”