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Monday, March 26, 2012
The blue-chip recruit: Gunner Kiel

By Matt Fortuna

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The question caught Gunner Kiel off guard, despite the fact most of his friends have likely spent much of the spring finalizing their end-of-high-school plans for the coming months.

So, college kid, will you still be going to prom or graduation this year?

"I haven't really thought about it too much," Kiel said. "I've been thinking about schoolwork. A lot of stuff going on here, so I need to work on that. I need to probably do that first."

Life is only busier for Kiel now that Notre Dame's spring practice season is underway, giving the early-enrollee freshman his first live look at the same college players he hopes to lead on the field when the Irish face Navy a little more than five months from now.

It is a process that, by all accounts, started the minute the quarterback showed up on campus Jan. 17 after de-committing from LSU.

"He's always asking for playbooks, always asking for reads," said Andrew Hendrix, a sophomore quarterback. "When we'll be back there watching the play, if he doesn't understand something I'll explain it to him. Sometimes I'll nudge him and be like, 'Well, what'd you see out there?' just to make sure he's understanding, because I can honestly say I wasn't as great at taking mental reps as I was now."

Added receiver John Goodman: "He came here with confidence, and that's what we wanna see out of a guy that's gonna be an early enrollee. You don't wanna see a guy come in here and be scared to talk to guys or be scared to take initiative or anything. He's a leader, he's definitely a leader, and he's gonna be a great player. But right now he's gotta prove himself and we'll see what happens with that."

The credentials may help explain the hype, as Kiel left Columbus (Ind.) East High School as an ESPNU four-star prospect, the No. 1 player in the state and the No. 3 quarterback overall from the Class of 2012.

He also has at least two inches on each of his competitors for the Irish's starting job.

"He's extremely talented, and he has something that the other three quarterbacks don't have, and that's 6-foot-4. When you've got that size it allows you to see some things," Irish coach Brian Kelly said.

"He's asking about, 'What time is film study?' " Kelly added. "I'm like, 'Listen, we're on a 20-hour rule. So everything's voluntary.' He goes, 'Oh, I'll be here.' So you can tell early on this is a guy that's gonna spend the time on watching film, doing those things necessary."

Kiel said the transition to college has been more of a mental challenge than anything else at this point, though he repeatedly expressed how difficult it is to adjust to the speed of the game.

Chuck Martin, the Irish's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, described Kiel as "over-exuberant," saying he's already requested the whole playbook.

"Coach Kelly's like, 'Hey, if we give you the whole playbook you're gonna be useless all spring. Let's give you things you can do every day and be successful and keep growing within the package,' " Martin said. "So far, so good with him."

In his first padded practice Saturday, with media members and Junior Day visitors looking on, Kiel hit Alex Welch for a modest gain on the left side, prompting a slap on his helmet from Martin upon his return to the sideline, along with a hearty "That's it, Gunner!"

Prom can wait. Graduation, in this life, is not even in sight yet.

"It's tough. I can't imagine leaving high school and coming into the flames like this," said Hendrix, who enrolled in the fall of 2010. "I was on my entire year coming into spring and it was really difficult for me, so I can't imagine what it's like.

"He handles it well, he's a big kid, he's got a cannon. But right now I think he just has to start understanding the jump between high school and college. It's not an easy jump, but I think that he can definitely do it and it'll just be about him developing more in his future."