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Senior College Football Columnist

Independents preview: QB quandary could sink Notre Dame

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Despite never starting for Notre Dame, Andrew Hendrix might start against Navy. (US Presswire)  
Despite never starting for Notre Dame, Andrew Hendrix might start against Navy. (US Presswire)    

Brian Kelly needs a quarterback. He needs one bad. For now, for the future, for his job security.

Did you think you'd hear that about Notre Dame's coach three years in? When Kelly was hired 32 months ago, the one thing he was going to deliver was a difference maker under center. That's essentially why he got the job. The position is what has made his career.

It's doubtful whether Kelly would be in South Bend if he hadn't successfully replaced an injured Tony Pike with Zach Collaros in 2009 and taken Cincinnati to the Sugar Bowl. That was a year after using five quarterbacks to get the Bearcats to the Orange Bowl.

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Feel free to wallow in the irony: Five quarterbacks in one season at Cincinnati and yet he can't find one consistent guy in three years at Notre Dame.

You might have noticed by now that Kelly's spread option doesn't work without that triggerman. That doesn't make him different than a lot of coaches, except that this is Notre Dame and the school's 29th coach -- known for his quarterback magic -- hasn't delivered yet.

In his four years at Cincinnati, the pass offense finished an average of 26th nationally (eighth in 2009). In two years at Notre Dame, it has finished 34th and 40th.

Dublin, then, just got a whole lot more interesting. The Irish go there for the season opener against Navy without last year's starter, Tommy Rees. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Rees (20 touchdowns, 14 interceptions) may not have been the starter anyway considering his 19 turnovers were as many or more than 42 teams last season.

But Rees' situation indicates more instability at the position. The junior got himself suspended for the opener when police were summoned to break up an off-campus party on May 3.

He will get limited reps in August because Kelly has to find the starter for Navy (at least). That may cost Rees his Notre Dame legacy. It has been made clear there is (eventually) a four-way battle for the job that includes junior Andrew Hendrix, sophomore Everett Golson and freshman Gunner Kiel.

Golson is fresh off an impressive spring game. Hendrix is the dual-threat candidate. Kiel was the nation's No. 1-rated high school quarterback when he reneged on LSU and headed to South Bend.

This would be a more comfortable situation if this were Kelly's first season instead of his third. Rees, the incumbent with 16 career starts, may have thrown away his career. The others show promise but Kelly needs more than promise. He needs stability.

Dayne Crist, where are you?

No quarterback issue at BYU where Riley Nelson returns for his senior season. (US Presswire)  
No quarterback issue at BYU where Riley Nelson returns for his senior season. (US Presswire)    
The answer is Kansas. Crist was injured last season and never regained his starting job. That points up the problem of inconsistency and turnover -- both in the roster and on the field -- at the position. From 1996 to December 2009 when Kelly took the job, Notre Dame signed 16 quarterbacks. Only three -- Jimmy Clausen, Evan Sharpley and Brady Quinn -- played their entire career in South Bend.

So what's ahead? It seems that whoever wins the job -- multiple QBs could play against Navy -- is going to rely heavily on tight end Tyler Eifert, a CBSSports.com preseason All-American. Fifth-year receiver John Goodman has the size (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) but hardly the experience. If he is going to replace the departed Michael Floyd, it will be with a flourish. Goodman caught seven balls last season.

A middle-of-the-road defense was damaged earlier this year when defensive end Aaron Lynch surprisingly transferred to South Florida. Linebacker Manti Te'o was a bit of a surprise himself when he ignored the NFL and stayed for his senior season.

The season will be historic, if not classic. The Miami rivalry is renewed on Oct. 6 at Soldier Field. The Irish travel to Oklahoma on Oct. 27. The USC game is in L.A. The Irish play six games away from South Bend, not exactly conducive to a turnaround.

But if the quarterback position doesn't get fixed first and quickly, Kelly's fourth season at Notre Dame is going to open against a familiar opponent of Irish coaches lately.

Pressure.

J. Darin Darst's predicted order of finish:

1. Notre Dame: If the Irish can get their quarterback situation resolved, they should be pretty good. The offensive line has three starters returning, including senior center Braxston Cave. The running back tandem of Cierre Wood (1,102 yards rushing) and Theo Reddick should help ease issues in the passing game. Notre Dame’s strength should come on defense where seven starters are back from a team that ranked 24th in the nation in points allowed (20.7 ppg). It all starts with linebacker Manti Te’o, who recorded 128 tackles and five sacks last season. Jamoris Slaughter leads the secondary. The other question mark is will the road schedule be too much? Games in Ireland (vs. Navy), at Michigan State, at Oklahoma and at USC highlight the schedule.

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2. BYU: Get ready for the Riley Nelson, Cody Hoffman show at BYU. Nelson is back at quarterback for his final season and doesn’t have to worry about splitting time with Jake Heaps anymore. Junior Hoffman led the team with 61 catches for 943 yards and 10 touchdowns and should be ready to explode for more this season. The offensive line has three starters back, including tackle Braden Brown. The defense should be good again, especially against the run where it ranked 19th in the nation last year. Linebackers Kyle Van Noy, Brandon Ogletree and Uona Kaveinga all return.

3. Navy: The Midshipmen might be in for a rough season offensively as leading rusher and passer Kriss Proctor is gone. Trey Miller takes over as the starter after seeing some limited action last season. The good news is slotback Gee Gee Greene returns for his senior season after rushing for 501 yards with a 7.8 average. The defense must get better after giving up more than 400 yards of offense per game. Linebacker Matt Warrick (103 tackles) is back as well as senior cornerback David Sperry. Former linebacker Tra’ves Bush moves to safety to help strengthen the secondary.

4. Army: Can Army make a bowl game this year? It’s possible, but its gonna need the defense to be much better against the run, where it ranked 100th in the nation. Zach Watts (6.5 tackles for loss, three sacks) is the lone returner on the defensive line. The secondary should be the strength as cornerbacks Tyler Dickson and Josh Jackson are both back. The rushing attack will no doubt be the best in the nation again as quarterback Trent Steelman will be back to run the option after rushing for 645 yards and 12 touchdowns, along with leading rusher Raymon Maples (1,066 yards, 7.3 avg).


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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