Notre Dame football: No. 2 is No. 1 on importance list

EVAN SHARPLEY
SBT Correspondent

Who is the most important player on the Notre Dame football team? Perhaps it is not the person you think.

Is it Tommy Rees? No. Is it Louis Nix or Stephon Tuitt? No. Or is it TJ Jones or Troy Niklas. No.

Although all of the previously mentioned players are essential to the success of the Irish, backup quarterback Andrew Hendrix is the most important person on the team.

He is always one play away from the spotlight. As we saw last week, that one play actually happened, and it had a significant impact on the game.

Backup quarterbacks have to prepare each week like they are going to play, without knowing for sure if it will actually happen.

During my career, I experienced stretches of not playing, then playing on and off, and then starting games. Not all individuals are cut out for that type of lifestyle.

For success to happen, there must be a balance between the mental and physical preparation throughout the week and leading up to the game. As much as I wanted to play all the time, I relished the challenge of staying focused each week. I looked at myself as the most important player on the team.

My demeanor, my preparation and my play mirrored this ideology. In 2005, my quarterback coach, Peter Vaas, a man for whom I have the utmost respect, handed me a sheet of paper that created this ideology. It defined my athletic career and it defines me as a man. It taught me to control certain factors that were in my control.

On that paper was the poem "If" by Rudyard Kipling. The poem begins as follows:

If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you. / But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, / Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, / And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise

And it closes with:

And — which is more — you'll be a Man my son!

That poem is the mantra for quarterbacks at Notre Dame because it describes finding a proper balance.

How does a backup stay focused? The answer is simple: intense mental preparation.

Mental preparation is one area that good backups should have an equal or increased advantage to starters. Because physical reps are limited in practice in order to get the starter ready, the backup(s) must pay extra attention to film study, knowledge of the playbook and familiarity of the opposing team.

During the 2007-08 seasons, there were times that I would go an entire week with only four or five live team reps and then play an entire half of the game on Saturdays. I had to make sure that my brain was on point when I entered the contest.

Without getting a multitude of live practice snaps, it is crucial that the backups get as many reps during individual drill time as possible.

I took the drill time very seriously because I knew that it was usually the extent of my live reps during the week.

Once "team" period began, I did a lot of "active" watching. My brain was at work taking mental reps, but I very rarely was given reps.

How does it differ being the starter? During my time as a starter, I made sure to apply the same amount of time and effort to my mental prep because I knew (as a backup) how important it was. It meant watching extra film, studying the defensive concepts of the opposing team, focusing on defensive personnel and reviewing our plays and game plan.

As a starter, the physical prep is much more intense. The majority of the reps go to the starting QB in order to get them game-like reps. The "show team" defense — or scout team — plays coverages that the opposing team plays. Instead of active watching, it is both active mentally and physically.

It is a decided advantage to get reps during the week, because, once the game rolls around, the starter is able to see the coverage and know the type of throw that is supposed to be made. As a backup, the coverage might be easy to recognize, but the type of throw might cause an issue. Not to mention the lack of timing with running backs, tight ends and wideouts.

The disconnect between starter and backup preparation only widens on gameday. That is why it is so important to control the controllable factors during the game — both mental and physical.

As a backup, I made sure to confirm with the starter what my eyes saw. I did my best to ask questions, to stay attentive and to stay involved throughout the game.

I found a balance that allowed me to stay loose as well as hone in on what the opposing defense was doing. It was critical for me to understand that I was one play away from going in.

As a third-string guy, you become the most important on the team when the starter gets hurt. There must be a transition from the thought of not seeing the field, to a very real chance of running the offense.

From a physical standpoint, I always made a point as the backup, to toss the ball whenever I could. Fortunately, I played with QBs that liked to toss before each offensive series, so, if I needed to go in, I knew I was ready. I also took snaps with the backup center.

As the starter, it is easier to get warm and stay warm and easier to get into the flow of the game and stay in the flow.

For Andrew Hendrix, it starts on the mental side. His confidence is sure to have taken a shot after the USC game.

Obviously, there is a physical side that needs to be addressed too. I stayed after almost every practice to make sure that my arm stayed strong, my dropback was on point, my accuracy improved and my timing was tight.

I appreciated the walk-on and student managers staying after to help. Hopefully, per coach Kelly's words, "Hendrix will be getting more reps ..." and "take what he learned in-game into practice."

Consistency in game situations is the next step. Every QB struggles with consistency, but when your opportunities in the game are limited, it is of the utmost importance to deliver when the chance is there.

For Malik Zaire, the physical side is the most important. He hasn't played in an actual game in more than a year, so he needs to complete a pass in a game and needs to get hit a couple of times.

His knowledge of the playbook will increase as he gets more experience, but experience is important for his progression.

Player development is essential to growing a program. The starting QB is the starter for a reason, but the backup quarterback is the most important player on the team.

His development might be all the more important. Injuries happen and starters graduate or leave early, which leaves a new player to fill the void.

Will that player be ready?

Can Hendrix be efficient in the pass game so defenses do not load the box and play hard run?

Can Zaire prepare himself enough physically to put himself into a position in the future?

We’ll see.

Go Irish!

In addition to his weekly column, former Notre Dame quarterback Evan Sharpley previews upcoming games each Friday at 7:50 a.m. on WSBT’s JT In The Morning Show (960 AM and 96.1 FM). On Mondays, Sharpley co-hosts WSBT’s Notre Dame Football Final, which airs from 9-10 a.m. He’ll also be an occasional contributor to WSBT’s Weekday SportsBeat and Gameday SportsBeat radio programs. He serves as the director of fitness at the Eastlake Athletic Club in Elkhart.

Notre Dame quarterback Andrew Hendrix (12) huddles up the offense after starter Tommy Rees left the game with a neck injury during an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, at Notre Dame. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER via FTP