With Saturday's news that Notre Dame starting quarterback Everett Golson is leaving the school due to an academics issue, discussion quickly turned from "what's a residence life violation?" to "who is going to replace him?" The contenders are as follows:
Tommy Rees (#11, Senior, 6'2, 213)
Golson's departure leaves Rees as the presumptive starting quarterback. The senior was Notre Dame's starter in 2011, and has far more game experience than the other quarterbacks on the Irish roster. Rees, who was recruited to Notre Dame by Charlie Weis, has a career 63.6 percent completion percentage and has thrown 34 career touchdowns.
Of course, Rees entered 2012 as the presumptive starting quarterback, as well. An offseason run-in with the police earned him a one-game suspension. Golson started Notre Dame's opener against Navy in his absence and never relinquished the job. Rees made two starts in 2012, one when Golson was serving a one-series suspension and another when Golson was injured, but failed to retake the position. By the end of the year, he was listed as co-backup with Andrew Hendrix.
In other words, Rees is a default choice if nothing better emerges. This is Brian Kelly's team, though, and Kelly will be looking hard for something better if it's available.
Andrew Hendrix (#13, Senior, 6'2, 220)
Hendrix, another Charlie Weis recruit, looked like the odd man out of last season's quarterback derby. The former four-star recruit out of Cincinnati made just three appearances in 2012, completing five of seven pass attempts for 55 yards and adding another 41 yards on the ground. In 2011, Hendrix struggled in limited action, going 18/37 passing for 249 yards and tossing a pair of interceptions. He has been criticized for his footwork in the pocket, which is not exactly the problem you want to have as a senior quarterback.
Brian Kelly's offensive philosophy has continued to evolve at Notre Dame, from the pass-heavy spread of his early years with Dayne Crist to a more run-oriented, read option-heavy system with Golson. The latter iteration of Kelly's offense was much more effective, allowing Notre Dame to methodically move the ball down the field and put the game in the hands of Bob Diaco's defense.
The decision between Rees and Hendrix could hinge on which version of the Brian Kelly offense Brian Kelly wants to run. Tommy Rees can be a competent dropback passer, but is not a serious threat in the running game. Hendrix, on the other hand, has shown good instincts in the read option and elusiveness at the line of scrimmage. With the Irish returning many of the pieces of their phenomenal 2012 defense, Hendrix could potentially be the quarterback to provide a reasonable facsimile of the 2012 offense.
Malik Zaire (#8, Freshman, 6', 208)
Of course, Kelly could just throw out both seniors and start over with the crown jewel of his 2013 recruiting class. Zaire was one of the nation's top-rated quarterback prospects, a consensus four-star recruit with offers from Alabama, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Nebraska. He committed early to Notre Dame, enrolled in January, and participated in spring drills. His up-and-down cameo in Notre Dame's spring game included a long touchdown drive and a horrendous interception.
Expecting a true freshman -- even one with Zaire's natural ability -- to step in and lead a top-tier college offense is usually wishful thinking. Zaire clearly has much more to learn about playing quarterback at this level before he should be thrown into the fray. But if Rees continues to be Rees and Hendrix doesn't show marked improvement, Kelly could be left with little choice but to play his freshman, take the lumps as he learns the game on the fly, and rely on his defense to limit the damage.
Gunner Kiel (#1, Freshman (RS), 6'4, 210)
Which brings us to the biggest question of all: Would Gunner Kiel reconsider his transfer now that Golson is gone? Kiel was the nation's top-rated quarterback when he graduated from his Columbus, Ind. high school and entered Notre Dame. He redshirted as a freshman, and watched as the sophomore Golson took control of the Irish offense. Golson was good enough to push Kiel out the door; Gunner did not participate in Notre Dame's spring workouts and announced his transfer to Cincinnati in April.
The always-excellent John Infante has explained that Kiel could probably return to Notre Dame next season if he desired, under a rarely-utilized loophole in the transfer rule that allows a player to return to his original school if he has not yet participated in "countable" athletic activities (Kiel is reportedly participating in voluntary summer workouts with the Bearcats, but those are not "countable"). While Kiel may have to pay his own way for a year, he would be eligible to play for Notre Dame when the Fighting Irish kick off against Temple on Aug. 31.
The relevant question, then, is whether Kiel would return. Yes, Golson's dismissal opens the door for Kiel to win the starting quarterback job, but Kiel's chances of actually taking the starting spot were likely reduced by his non-participation in spring practice. The highly-publicized transfer did not exactly sit well with the fiery Brian Kelly, and Kiel's post-transfer comments about offensive coordinator Chuck Martin certainly could not have helped.
There is no indication yet that Kiel is considering a move back to South Bend -- he texted "I'm a Bearcat" to the Cincinnati Enquirer Sunday morning -- and no indication of whether Notre Dame would have him back if he tried. But with the vacancy at quarterback and Kiel's track record for holding commitments, no amount of text messages will stop the speculation. Kiel will be in play until fall camp opens in August.