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April 8, 2012

Martin works on QB makeover

Chuck Martin has been entrusted with a huge responsibility as the new offensive coordinator at Notre Dame under Brian Kelly.

"We start with the world problems, so we've been working on hunger, poverty, inflation," said Martin last week, gathering momentum like a standup comedian.

"This is Notre Dame now. It's a little bigger picture than just football. We're more well rounded than that. Uh, what was the question?"

Comedy routine complete, Martin turned his attention to more pressing matters, or at least more pertinent to the matter at hand, which, of course, is building a better, more mistake-free quarterback.

No one needs a crash course more than junior Tommy Rees, who in two years as the starter has thrown 32 touchdown passes and 22 interceptions. Fourteen of those interceptions came in 13 games last season.

That's not an unusually high interception total for a sophomore. But throw in a handful of fumbles lost, mix in the poor timing of some of those mistakes, and add a restless, outspoken fan base to the equation. Factor in a powerful, energetic junior alternative, a dynamic run-pass sophomore, and the most highly touted pro-style freshman in the country.

Whether it's Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson or Gunner Kiel, the sense of urgency to get the quarterback problems solved at Notre Dame ranks right up there for some with hunger, poverty and inflation - times two.

Charged with helping strike a balance between eliminating mistakes and increasing the big-play quotient is the glib Martin, whose comedic bits may make the ride to improvement a bit more palatable.

"You weigh who makes the most positive things happen versus the negative things," said Martin of the factors that will determine a winner at quarterback. "No one has a sliding scale as to what it is. It's just a constant evaluation because you can't play the guy who never turns it over who never makes a play, either. There's a balance, and obviously you're going to err on the side of the turnovers being more disastrous than the good throw is good.

"But we say it all the time. I say it 60 times a day and the kids are sick of hearing it: We don't decide who plays; you decide who plays. We don't decide who you throw the ball to; you decide. We're giving everybody a chance to run the route. If you've run the route right, and you catch the ball, we may like Johnny better than Steve, but we're going to play Steve because he runs the route right.

"It's the same deal with the quarterbacks. Every day we're evaluating, 'Hey, he made these positive things happen, which are awesome.' Now you have to weigh it against how many disastrous things happened because we lived through those six, seven plays (last year) that can change the whole complexion of the year."

Like the five turnovers, including one inside the South Florida five-yard line, in the 23-20 loss to the Bulls.

Like the five turnovers, including a fumble inside the red zone, in the 35-31 loss to Michigan.

Like the 80-yard fumble return for a touchdown by USC late in the third quarter that turned a potential tie game into a 14-point deficit and an eventual 31-17 loss to the Trojans.

Like the three turnovers, 309 yards total offense and 21-0 halftime deficit in the loss to Stanford.

Like the three turnovers and 280 yards total offense in the Champs Sports Bowl loss to Florida State.

The pursuit for perfection may be an impossible quest. But it's the way Martin and the Irish offense are looking at it this spring.

"If all the positions don't make mistakes - unrealistic, I get it - but that's the goal and that's the sense of urgency we're striving for," Martin said. "It doesn't matter who we put in at X, he's going to be able to play X the way it's supposed to be played. So now who's the best X?

"Talent shouldn't make a difference on whether you execute our offense. If you're less talented, you still should be able to execute our offense. Maybe you don't make as many plays because you have less athleticism, but that's the point we're grinding too, and I think the kids are getting that we're not going to be a mistake-riddled offense. It doesn't matter what level of football, (mistakes) cause losing."

The most mistake-prone of all has been Rees. For better or worse, he still appears to maintain the lead role at quarterback, at least until one of the other quarterbacks steps forward and takes the position away from him.

As it relates to Rees, Martin is heartened by the story of Cullen Finnerty, the starting quarterback at Grand Valley State via the University of Toledo from 2003-06. In '06, Finnerty, a redshirt freshman, led Kelly's Lakers to the Division II national championship.

A year later, Kelly was at Central Michigan, Martin was the new head coach, and Finnerty was a struggling sophomore.

"I became the heir apparent, and there was a stretch during his sophomore year when (Finnerty) threw nine interceptions and we lost back-to-back games," Martin recalled. "The whole world was calling for his head.

"Was it his fault? No, but he was a major part of it. We never point the finger at one guy, but when a kid throws nine picks, he has to take his share of the blame. The whole world wanted him out of there. We had to coach that out of him or we were going to keep losing. He had the ability and he cared and he was smart and it wasn't translating to the field."

Martin's memory skews the statistics a bit. After throwing 22 touchdown passes and six interceptions as a freshman, Finnerty did struggle by comparison as a sophomore. But the nine interceptions in two games Martin remembers actually was seven, although five of those came in the second straight loss - a 35-14 setback at the hands of No. 18 Northwood.

Finnerty would go on to throw just 10 interceptions on the season. He also finished 51-4 as a starter with a 110-to-31 touchdown-to-interception ratio and three Division II national titles before sipping a cup of coffee with the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos.

But the point is well taken. Rees has a chance to be significantly improved if he wins the quarterback derby based upon his past experiences and the added emphasis on protecting the football in 2012.

"No doubt," said Martin when asked if Rees can make the same transformation Finnerty made. "Any kid, any young player, can continue to improve in his game and should.

"I've never seen a sophomore that cared that wasn't a much better player his junior and senior year. So I expect him to be way more consistent than he was his first two years."

Has the transformation from mistake-prone youngster to wise veteran begun for Rees?

"It's starting to," Martin said. "Everybody wants to rule him out. But we're going to play the best guy that gives us the best chance to win. We don't know who that guy is yet. If we did, we'd declare it. It would be better for the football team to declare it and rally around one guy. It's still going to be a while.

"But I'm ecstatic (with the quarterbacks' progress). I don't know if I've felt that way every day, but we're way ahead of where I thought we would be nine days in as far as kids really grasping and buying into what we're trying to sell. Again, the goal is to eliminate all the mistakes so then just the playmakers play."

It starts with the quarterback, just as it did for Martin eight years ago.




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