Notre Dame football notebook: Rees will be back, but who's No. 2 for Irish?

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

Within minutes of Brian Kelly’s affirmation that Notre Dame No. 1 quarterback option Tommy Rees had been cleared to practice Tuesday, the Irish finally popped onto the odds boards in Las Vegas for the first time this week, opening as a 19½-point favorite over Air Force.

Not that the ND head football coach would have elicited much sympathy from Falcons coach Troy Calhoun, whose choice Saturday in Colorado Springs, Colo., will come down to convalescing sophomore Karson Roberts, who started the season as Air Force’s No. 3 QB, or option No. 4, freshman Nate Romine, a two-star recruit in the last recruiting cycle whose only FBS offer came from Air Force.

Tuesday’s news meant that it’s much less likely Kelly will have to make a tough choice, at least as it pertains to the starter. Rees was knocked out in the third quarter of ND’s 14-10 win over USC Saturday night with a strained neck, sustained when he was sacked by blitzing Trojans linebacker Lamar Dawson.

“Certainly the medical team is going to make any decisions as it relates to any neck injuries,” Kelly said when asked if there was still a chance he’d hold Rees out anyway to give him an extra week to let the soreness subside. “We're not talking about a knee or a shoulder or an elbow.

“And answering your question as to whether you hold him out this week, I think if we got late in the week and you get to Wednesday and Thursday and you're not clear but maybe you get cleared on a Friday, I think that enters into your thought maybe a little bit. But he was cleared today.

“And when you're cleared on Tuesday, your first day of practice, I don't think there's any hesitancy to go out and play somebody when he's cleared so early in the week.”

With the expectation Rees will start, barring a setback, the intrigue shifts to who’s No. 2.

Senior Andrew Hendrix has been solidly No. 2 and freshman Malik Zaire has been on a tract to redshirt since early in the season, but Hendrix is 1-of-10 passing this season for nine yards, and he struggled mightily after taking over for Rees on Saturday. The Irish (5-2) garnered just 38 of their (amended) 300 total yards on offense and two of their 17 first downs with Hendrix in the game, and all on the ground.

“I think he's a better player than what he showed against USC,” said Kelly of Hendrix. “I think he's got to calm his emotions down. I think he's capable of much more. I have much more confidence in his ability to come in and play better football. And I expect he will.”

Kelly said Hendrix will garner whatever first-team reps Rees doesn’t take this week and that Zaire will get some reps with the second team.

“I think there's better days (ahead) for Andrew Hendrix,” Kelly said. “I think he expects to play better and I expect him to play better.”

As for Air Force (1-6), the Falcons are just one of three FBS teams to have started three different players at quarterback this season, with Nevada (3-4) and Central Michigan (3-5) being the others.

Calhoun, whose school-record string of six straight bowl games ends with the Falcons’ next loss, entered the season as one of eight FBS coaches who had zero QB starting experience on his roster. The only QB with backup experience in 2012, junior Kale Pearson, started the opener against Colgate (38-13, Air Force’s lone win of the season).

By the second quarter, his season was over, with an injured right knee that required surgery. Sophomore Jaleel Awini started the next three games, but is out indefinitely as “a cadet not in good standing.”

Roberts, a sophomore, started the next three games, but suffered a head injury in a come-from-ahead 27-20 loss to San Diego State on Oct. 10, with Romine finishing. The Falcons had a bye week last week.

Roberts reportedly practiced Monday, but Calhoun didn’t indicate who the starter would be against the Irish.

“Their offense didn't look that much different when they were in there,” Kelly said of the prospect of facing Roberts or Romine. “I think both of them add something to (the offense). So we're preparing more for the structure of the offense more than the particular quarterback.”

Golson update

Kelly said Tuesday that exiled junior quarterback Everett Golson will likely remain training with “quarterback engineer” George Whitfield Jr., in San Diego, Calif., until the middle of November, “when the money is likely to run out.”

Golson’s family is footing the bill for the Myrtle Beach, S.C., product’s work with the private quarterback coach as he hones his skills while serving a university-imposed suspension this semester for academic misconduct issues. Golson led the Irish to a 12-1 record and a berth in the BCS National Championship Game in 2012 as a first-time starter at QB.

“He's in a disciplined environment, one I'm very comfortable with,” Kelly said. “He's in contact weekly, either with myself or with (offensive coordinator Chuck) Martin. He's in contact with our graduate assistant coach (Pat) Welsh two or three times a week -- just catching up on what we're doing, game plans, staying connected.’’

After Golson finishes his training in San Diego, he is expected to move his workouts to the Chicago area, specifically with Elias Fitness Training in Highland Park, Ill. Owner/trainer Elias Karras works with numerous NFL and Notre Dame athletes during the offseason and trained former Irish wide receiver Michael Floyd when he was on an indefinite suspension from the team the spring before his senior season.

Kelly said Golson has completed the application process for reinstatement for the spring semester.

Personnel matters

•Starting nose guard Louis Nix suffered a shoulder injury late during the USC game, which sidelined the senior temporarily before he finished the game. But the soreness has lingered into this week.

“We're going to be careful with him,” Kelly said. “We need Big Lou. Option football is not his cup of tea. And he's a great player, and he was battling every play (against USC), and we showed some clips to the officials where we thought he was targeted on some plays that we weren't happy with. But he's a little sore right now.”

Air Force is multiple offensively, though it does incorporate option principles, just not to the extent Navy (ND’s Nov. 2 opponent) does. In the past, Kelly has at times pushed defensive end Stephon Tuitt inside to the nose guard position against options teams, so even a fully healthy Nix might not see his regular high volume of reps.

•Starting safety Elijah Shumate, out for USC with a hamstring injury, has not been ruled out for Air Force yet. Kelly lists the sophomore as questionable.

“We ran him on the treadmill (Monday) without pain,” Kelly said. “He's ahead of schedule. I'm not ready to declare him ready to play Saturday. He will go through drill work (Tuesday), and I'll have more to say on him later in the week.”

•Starting cornerback Bennett Jackson missed some time in the USC game with a shoulder issue, but Kelly didn’t see it affecting his status for the Air Force game.

“It's a surgically repaired shoulder. He's going to have some soreness in that joint probably,” Kelly said. “(It) got overextended on a tackle. Anytime you get overextension with that shoulder, you worry about subluxation. We didn't have any of that. He's a tough kid. He's always been a tough kid, and didn't surprise me that he got back into the game.”

•ND defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has often taken the drop (outside) linebacker off the field against option teams and replaced him with a safety or a cornerback, but Kelly said freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith is adaptable enough to be part of the game plan,

“Air Force is an option team, but they do have some other principles.,” Kelly said. “So Jaylon Smith will be on the field quite a bit for us.”

Out of sight?

Former Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White received so much negative feedback about the Irish not being available on national TV the last time the Irish played Air Force on the road (in 2006), he vowed not to schedule the Falcons again – or any other opponent in that situation.

Seven years later, the Irish are back in Colorado Springs. And the Notre Dame-Air Force game will be carried by CBS Sports Network, which is not a staple in some basic cable plans around the country, including in South Bend.

According to network spokesperson Mariel Brady, the game will not be streamed live on the web.

In the South Bend area, the game can be seen on the following cable or satellite entities: Comcast: Channels 232, 255, 1721; DirecTV: 221; DISH: 158; AT&T: 1643; Mediacom 171.

For those outside the South Bend area, CBS Sports Network has a channel finder on its web site: http://www.cbssportsnetwork.com/channel-finder.

Squibs

•Coaches who voted in the USA Today poll, including ND’s Brian Kelly, are allowed to keep their ballots secret until the final vote of the season. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun decided to make his public.

This week he voted the Irish 21st. Calhoun’s top five comprises Alabama, Florida State, Oregon, Ohio State and Baylor. His entire poll can be viewed at: http://tinyurl.com/pzzb7z3. Kelly, for the record, said he voted ND in his top 25 this past week.

•The bottom line in the stands sometimes says more about job security than the bottom line in the standings. Air Force has yet to come close to a sell-out this season, with its top attendance being 35,389 against Wyoming in 46,692-seat Falcon Stadium.

In their most recent home game, against San Diego State on Oct. 10, the Falcons drew 17,280.

The all-time attendance record was set in 2002, when the Irish and Air Force drew 56,409 before the stadium was down-sized.

•Air Force’s worst quarter this year is the fourth, when the Falcons have been outscored 90-30.

•Yes, ND will be playing at a high altitude in Colorado Springs. The elevation is 6,035 feet above sea level.

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