SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Days away from his 2006 debut against Boston College, Dan LeFevour got careless during a red-zone drill, under-throwing his target. Enraged, his coach at Central Michigan pulled him to the sideline and, in no polite terms, asked him what in the world he was thinking.
"That's gonna be your first touchdown pass in college football, and that's how you're gonna throw it?" LeFevour, six years removed from the scene, recalled Brian Kelly telling him.
That moment, and the thought that no rep can be taken for granted, stuck with LeFevour ever since, from a record-setting career with the Chippewas to professional life between the NFL and CFL. His coach moved on to Cincinnati the next season, where strong quarterback play led to unprecedented heights for the Bearcats. But now Kelly, that coach, is beginning his third season in the spotlight at Notre Dame, after two seasons that were clouded by erratic quarterback play.
Consecutive 8-5 campaigns saw the Irish lose one starter to injury, yank that same starter midway through the next season's opener and welcome three blue-chip prospects along the way. Kelly announced Thursday that one of those highly touted recruits, Everett Golson, beat out another, Andrew Hendrix, and will start Sept. 1 in Dublin, Ireland. Tommy Rees -- the only current Irish signal-caller with starting experience -- could further complicate the situation after the opener against Navy, for which he was suspended following an offseason arrest.
"It's been unusual in a sense that the guy with the most experience is not going to be the starter for Navy," Kelly said last week. "But it's been great, it's been fun to work with young quarterbacks that are learning every day. And it's a captive audience. These guys want to get better. They want to be the starter. Probably in my career, it's probably been the most energized for me to get out there and teach and coach guys that want to learn, and that's been fun for me. Hope it's fun against Navy."
It was fun for Grand Valley State, where Kelly won consecutive Division II national titles using a senior and a freshman, respectively, under center.
It was fun for Central Michigan and LeFevour, who spent two years under Kelly and finished his career atop almost every Mid-American Conference passing mark.
And it was fun for Cincinnati, where Kelly used seemingly every quarterback scenario imaginable -- once using five in a single season -- en route to two Big East titles in three years.
"I think that Coach Kelly does a great job of adjusting to what he has at the quarterback position, no matter what it is," former Bearcats quarterback Zach Collaros said. "If it's a drop-back guy, [or] a guy that can move around, I think he can adjust to game plans and exploit a team's weaknesses."
But Kelly's Notre Dame tenure has been marked largely by inconsistent play from the most important position. Dayne Crist, who was a more coveted Class of 2008 prep star than top NFL draft picks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, sustained his second major knee injury midway through Kelly's first season. Crist won back the job during last year's camp, only to be replaced at halftime of the season-opening loss to South Florida. He will play his final season at Kansas under former Irish coach Charlie Weis, who recruited him to Notre Dame.
The junior Rees, who replaced Crist, is 12-4 as a career starter but tossed 14 picks and lost five fumbles last season. Hendrix, now a redshirt sophomore, saw extended action only late last season, throwing a costly interception that led to a touchdown in the Champs Sports Bowl loss to Florida State. Prized prospect and early-enrollee Gunner Kiel was behind Golson and Hendrix throughout camp.
Kelly had said all along that the player who limited mistakes and earned the staff's trust would win the starting job, and he pointed to Golson's three interceptions through the first 22 preseason practices as evidence of the QB's growth.
LeFevour and Collaros are other examples of players who earned Kelly's trust at a young age, and perhaps are examples that Golson can follow. LeFevour led Central Michigan to the MAC title as a redshirt freshman during Kelly's final season there, and Collaros went 4-0 in place of the injured Tony Pike during Cincinnati's undefeated 2009 regular season, which was Kelly's last campaign there.
"Well, I think if I go back and look at Central Michigan with Dan LeFevour, he was a guy that could extend the play," Kelly said Thursday. "If you look at Zach Collaros, a guy that could extend the play. You're finding out that the coaching's not that good but the player's much better than the coaching. Each one of them had that ability to extend plays. Everett has some of those same traits."
The demand for answers at the position in Year 3 has not been lost on Kelly. After a practice one week into camp, a reporter began a question with a crack that the media were obligated to ask about the position at every opportunity.
"Oh sure, sure," Kelly said, nodding. "No, I understand. Yeah."
During media day, Kelly cut off another reporter who used the word "guru" in a question about his experience with quarterbacks.
"That's one word that as the head coach at Notre Dame, I don't think I get a chance to put that one on myself," he quipped.
Despite 19 mostly successful years as a head coach before coming to Notre Dame, Kelly -- like everyone else -- has been befuddled by some of the gaffes that have plagued the Irish, from Crist fumbling a goal-line snap in a one-possession game against USC to an untouched Rees losing the ball in the red zone late in a loss at Michigan.
During his first preseason practice of 2012, Kelly, on one knee in the middle of the field, tossed bean bags at the quarterbacks, who were working on pocket presence. While shuffling his feet during one rep, Golson lost a shoe. As he recovered and began his throw toward a net stationed near midfield, the ball slipped out of his hands.
Golson walked back to his coach, 28 practices and countless more headshakes standing in the way of the regular season, which he will start for the Irish in large part because of his ability to cut back on such mistakes.
"I don't think I've ever seen someone lose their shoe and the ball on the same play," Kelly deadpanned, greeting Golson with a high-five.
Nineteen days later, Kelly announced Golson as his guy for Week 1 and, he hopes, the foreseeable future.
"I think we prepared the offense to suit a first-time starter," Kelly said. "He's got four seasons of competition remaining, so any time you're starting somebody with four seasons of competition, you know he's gonna learn more, he's gonna experience more as he plays, but we also have to make sure that we put him in good positions, and I think I'll see that on game day."