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Battle for Notre Dame quarterback spot a four-horse race

Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees has been suspended by coach Brian Kelly for season-opening game against Navy. | Joe Raymond~AP

Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees has been suspended by coach Brian Kelly for the season-opening game against Navy. | Joe Raymond~AP

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Updated: September 4, 2012 6:23AM

The cornerbacks on the roster have zero starts between them. The best pass rusher on the team left school. The all-time leading receiver is in the NFL. And the schedule is among the most brutal in the country.

But never mind all that — who’s going to be Notre Dame’s quarterback? That’s the question on the minds of the estimated 40,000 Americans who booked transatlantic flights — and just about every room in every hotel, motel, inn and bed-and-breakfast in Dublin — to see Notre Dame play Navy in the season opener in Ireland on Sept. 1. And that’s the question that will dominate training camp, which begins Saturday in South Bend.

It’s a four-horse race, though the morning-line favorite, Tommy Rees, has been scratched for the Navy game. Last season’s starter has been suspended by coach Brian Kelly in the wake of Rees’ arrest on May 3 after an off-campus party.

Rees’ Week 1 absence greatly improves the long-term chances of his three competitors for the starting job — junior Andrew Hendrix, sophomore Everett Golson and freshman Gunner Kiel.

“It’s now incumbent on the other three quarterbacks to be ready,” Kelly said during a radio interview Thursday. “But the whole camp is not going to be about Navy, either, so Tommy’s going to get some reps. We need to keep him sharp, as well. Clearly, as we move through camp, we’ll make a decision.”

Even without a quarterback in place, the Irish have high expectations and are ranked No. 24 in the preseason coaches poll. But it won’t be easy to achieve that long-awaited return to national prominence with a schedule that includes road games at No. 3 USC, No. 4 Oklahoma and No. 13 Michigan State as well as home games against No. 8 Michigan and No. 18 Stanford.

It’s a daunting slate, especially considering none of the three QB candidates eligible for the opener has started a college game — in fact, only Hendrix has even appeared in one. But each brings something different to the competition.

Golson has an electric running ability that Kelly craves in a quarterback and was Notre Dame’s best passer in the spring game, completing 11 of 15 passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns.

Hendrix has a strong arm and solid mobility and acquitted himself well in the second half of the Stanford game last season, leading two touchdown drives after relieving an ineffective Rees.

Kiel, the nation’s top quarterback recruit, only saw mop-up duty as an early enrollee in the spring game and is a long shot to win the job. Kelly said that the quarterback who wins the job will be the one he “trusts” the most not to turn the ball over.

The other position to watch in camp will be cornerback. The Irish lost Gary Gray and Robert Blanton — who both started all 13 games last season — to graduation and didn’t bring in a recruit at the position (two high-profile recruits, Tee Shepard and Ronald Darby, reneged on their commitments). Kelly likely will turn to Lo Wood, who had a pick-six against Maryland last year, and converted receiver Bennett Jackson.

Meanwhile, the defensive line should be a strength despite Aaron Lynch’s abrupt departure in the spring, and T.J. Jones is expected to step into Michael Floyd’s role as the go-to wideout.

The only question remains, who’ll be throwing him the ball? Kelly has 29 practices left to come up with the answer.

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