Notre Dame football: QB questions the topic of the week

Post-game analysis

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - The word from Brian Kelly Sunday afternoon that starting quarterback Tommy Rees is expected back at practice Tuesday tamps down the gurgling questions about Plan B for the moment, but doesn’t remove the urgency in fleshing it out for the long term.

And in the hours following Notre Dame’s defense-driven 14-10 subduing of arch-rival USC Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium, Rees’ strained neck actually may be in better shape than what the Irish quarterback picture would look like this coming Saturday at Air Force (1-6) without Rees in it, if it came to that.

That’s even with the Falcons sporting a pass-efficiency defense that ranks second from the bottom among the 123 FBS teams, an overall unit that’s in the bottom 15 in all four major defensive categories nationally, and that allows opposing offenses to convert at a nation’s-high 63.7 percent on third down.

“It will be a day-to-day situation,” the Irish head coach said Sunday.

Kelly was talking about the injury that knocked Rees out of the USC game at the 9:31 mark of the third quarter when a blitzing USC linebacker Lamar Dawson recorded just the sixth sack this season against ND’s offensive line.

Day-to-day might accurately describe senior Andrew Hendirx’s situation — kindly.

The unranked Irish (5-2) garnered just 38 of their 300 yards in total offense (amended from 295  after a scoring change) and two of their 17 first downs once Rees left the game. All 27 of those yards came on the ground. Hendrix was 0-for--4 passing Saturday night, and his receivers never really had the chance to help him out.

For the season, he has as many tackles as completions (1) in 10 attempts, which translates to a 17.56 pass-efficiency rating. Hendrix has 17 rushing yards in 12 attempts this season to go along with his nine passing yards.

Rees was 14-of-21 for 166 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions when he exited the USC game. That translates to a 164.5 pass-efficiency rating, the second-highest mark of the season (to Temple) for Rees and more than 60 points higher than his career rating (101.6) against USC coming in.

“I haven’t really met with the offensive staff yet, but Malik (Zaire) will have to get some reps obviously if Tommy can’t practice on Tuesday, “ Kelly said. “We’re expecting that he can.”

Zaire is a true freshman and the only other Irish quarterback on scholarship, with the unexpected offseason departures of 2012 starter Everett Golson (suspension due to academic misconduct) and 2012 prodigy Gunner Kiel (transfer to Cincinnati).

Perhaps it’s more hope than actual medical evidence at this point when it comes to Rees’ Tuesday availability — and Las Vegas has the game off the board for now because of that — but Kelly said Rees would need at least two days of physical work in practice this week to be a viable option against Air Force.

“(It’s) the repetition, more than anything else, with our receivers, other than TJ (Jones), where has a pretty good feel for where TJ’s going to be,” Kelly explained, noting the mental part of metabolizing a game plan is easy for Rees without the reps.

“We had this situation with Everett a couple of times (in 2012) ... where the quarterback really needs to get into a rhythm out there. We’re not at a point where we can afford to just roll (him) out there on Saturday.”

They may not be able to afford to redshirt Zaire anymore either, even if Rees makes a swift and complete recovery.

Hendrix’s college debut came two seasons against, interestingly enough, Air Force. And he was dynamic, as Kelly introduced the complementary quarterback concept he had been talking about since August training camp in what was game six of the 2011 season.

Hendrix ran for 111 yards on six carries and completed all four of his pass attempts for 33 yards in garnering a 169.3 rating in a 59-33 rout of the Falcons on Oct. 8, 2011. Only once did Hendrix approach that kind of efficiency since — in a relief appearance against Navy in last year’s season opener in Dublin, Ireland.

By Kelly’s accounts, the Hendrix he sees in practice is very different than the one who’s labored in his cameos earlier this season and downright struggled Saturday night.

So where’s the disconnect?

“I don’t think Andrew or myself or (offensive coordinator Chuck) Martin could expect him not to perform at a higher level,” Kelly said. “I think he’s probably as disappointed as anybody.

“Those are basic things he’s got to do better, so I think you can probably look at mechanics and the game and nerves — all those things. (But) he’s been in it too long for those things to affect him, so he’s just got to play better — period. He’s going to be challenged to play better, and he knows that.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge needs to come from Zaire.

Kelly leaned away from redshirting the early-enrolled freshman, who impressed the coaches with his unfreshmanlike quick absorption of concepts in the spring, until Zaire missed three weeks of practice with a bout of mononucleosis. in late August and stretching into September.

“It didn’t set him back as much as it gave Andrew an opportunity to solidify himself as the second quarterback,” Kelly said of the illness. “So Andrew was able to get all of those reps.”

Perhaps Hendrix’s last window of opportunity is closing and it’s time to elevate Zaire?

For the former Cincinnati Moeller standout, it’s always been an internal tug-of-war between a breathtaking passing skill set that wowed scouts and coaches in camp settings and playing in a high school system that never really tested or advanced those particular skills under duress.

Instead, he was part of a mauling running game — handing off and running himself and taking advantage of size and strength superiority while piling up pedestrian passing numbers.

Could game experience earlier in his college career made him less enigmatic? Not likely without living with some growing pains.

Zaire probably brings some of those too, but he’s definitely part of the future and perhaps even the No. 2 quarterback in 2014. And if that’s the reality, it makes no sense to redshirt him when you have no idea what his potential fifth year, 2017, will look like.

The most condemning dots connected to ND’s Plan B is that Penn State is playing a true freshman, Christian Hackenberg, as its starting quarterback and one who beat Michigan recently. His 131.3 efficiency rating has him 65th nationally, just two spots behind Rees.

Then there’s Maty Mauk, a redshirt freshman at unbeaten Missouri who stepped in for injured starter James Franklin. Mauk and the Tigers gashed Florida’s vaunted defense for 500 yards in a 36-17 rout Saturday with 295 of those coming from Mauk’s arm.

Mauk was a QB the Irish offered then ultimately passed on in the recruiting process two years ago.

Kelly’s own history, pre-ND, suggests he’ll figure something out. For instance, he got Cincinnati to the BCS in 2008, the year before the Bearcats’ unbeaten regular season, by going five deep at QB because of injury and dealt with injury again in 2009 to starter Tony Pike.

Moving back to the present, Kelly shares responsibility in what Plan B looked like late Saturday night. If the Irish are going to climb back into BCS contention, it’s clear it can’t look like that again and that he can’t afford to wait until the next crisis to get to the bottom of who at No. 2 gives him the best chance to win.

Tommy Rees, left, was cleared for practice Tuesday after suffering a neck injury against USC. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER