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Irish open up QB competition as opportunity awaits vs. SEC foe

12/7/2014

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This really is 2011 all over again, from the fateful turnovers to the final, attractive matchup with a similarly underwhelming brand name.

Notre Dame will play No. 23 LSU in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl on Dec. 30. And, similar to the lead-up to the Irish's matchup with Florida State to conclude that wayward campaign three years ago in the Champs Sports Bowl, they will enter the game in Nashville, Tennessee, with uncertainty at the quarterback position.

Quarterback was supposed to be settled for three straight seasons after Everett Golson helped lead Notre Dame to the national title game in 2012. Even after Golson was suspended for last season and returned this past spring, he was still supposed to be settled for the next two seasons after several big early-season performances helped spark premature Heisman Trophy chatter.

But as the Irish look to stanch the bleeding from a four-game slide to end the regular season, it appears to be open season on Golson's job security, along with that of everyone else on a roster that helped lift the program into the early discussion of the College Football Playoff after a 6-0 start before falling apart down the stretch.

"The tone is pretty clear about what the expectations are," coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. "There's competition. There's competition at all positions. So we'll be looking forward to that kind of spirited practice opportunity."

Kelly conceded that was never really the case under center this fall, holding true to the stance he took upon anointing Golson his starter early in fall camp. It was not until turnover No. 22, in game No. 12, that Kelly threw Malik Zaire into the fire in a rout at USC.

If this sounds familiar, just peek back to three years ago, as Tommy Rees' 20 turnovers and Andrew Hendrix's flashes of potential late in a different rout in California, that one courtesy of Stanford, led to even more ambiguity around a position that was initially held by another guy, Dayne Crist, to start the season.

"I think that really what we're talking about is some things that I want to see change that will have to change during practice," Kelly said. "And I've already had a conversation with both quarterbacks. So I think it's probably more towards what my eye sees during practice. It will be when I see what I see will be the duration of that competition.

"So it may be eight practices. It may be a year. But I'm going to have to see what I need to see from both of them."

When that time comes is anyone's guess, as the waiting for quarterback answers continues with Year 5 of the Kelly era rounding to an end this month. It didn't happen at the end of the 2011 season, when three more interceptions from two different quarterbacks cost the Irish a chance to gain a respectable victory over the 9-4 Seminoles. And while that hiccup hardly mattered in the big picture of the following season — a surprising 12-1 run that illustrated everything this coaching regime does so well — the feeling of familiarity three years removed from that letdown might linger, which makes the idea of playing LSU, even this year's 8-4 outfit, so appeasing.

"We want to win," safety Matthias Farley said. "At the end of the day, we're going to a cool location to play an opponent we don't normally play, but the focus and the outcome is what we're trying to determine and work toward, so it's just like any other week in that sense."

With a similar cast of characters returning next year, though, this finale against the Tigers from the SEC could help right the ship heading into 2015.

"Especially being a younger team," guard Nick Martin said, "it makes it easier for everyone to buy in."

For the Irish, amends for 2014 start with the guy under center, like so many other years. Figuring out who that is, and how to move forward with him, will help avoid the back-to-square-one feeling surrounding this year's final act.