6:59 am, March 24, 2012
SOUTH BEND — The hardest hit freshman quarterback Gunner Kiel sustained Saturday during his first Notre Dame football practice in full pads came in his first media interview session.
There, he was asked to frame the post-signing day dig LSU head coach Les Miles zinged at the 6-foot-4, 210-pound prodigy almost eight weeks ago.
If Kiel finesses opposing pass rushes and coverages as smoothly as he does toxic words, then perhaps this four-man QB audition might get more interesting and more protracted than it first appeared.
To rewind, Kiel flipped his commitment from LSU to Notre Dame hours before he was supposed to enroll early in Baton Rouge, La., in mid-January. On Feb. 1, national signing day, at a fan function near the LSU campus, Miles uttered the following:
“There was a gentleman from Indiana that thought about coming to the Bayou State,” Miles said. “He did not necessarily have the chest and the ability to lead a program, so you know.”
Kiel has been sequestered from the media until Saturday, at which time he responded.
“I'm just going to use it as fuel,” he said. “I'm not going to disrespect him in any way, shape or form. He's a great coach and that's a great team. But I feel great to be at Notre Dame. Love the place, love the guys, love the coaches and love the surroundings.”
And for the moment, he may not be loving the chaotic nature of trying to catch up to incumbent starter Tommy Rees, junior challenger Andrew Hendrix and sophomore sleeper Everett Golson, but Kiel is dealing with it admirably and openly.
On Saturday, he noted his former Columbus (Ind.) East High School classmates were on spring break.
“I had to go to school and get up early and have workouts,” he said with a smile. “But it feels good to be here.”
How he got to Notre Dame isn't nearly as intriguing anymore as where he's headed at this point, but Kiel did reflect on how the end of the recruiting process resulted in a 975-mile shift.
“For me, I think I just struggled with recruiting,” said Kiel. who originally committed to Indiana, then LSU. “I think I put so much stress on myself and overanalyzed everything that it just kind of kept pushing back my decision.
“And I just kept freaking out whenever I wanted to get into something and whenever I would settle and I would just have one foot in instead of jumping in. I would just freak out at the last minute, I guess. I just stressed myself out and got overwhelmed a little bit.”
In comparison, he is merely “whelmed” about life at Notre Dame. Predictably, he said the speed of the game on the LaBar Practice Fields is “10 times faster” than it was in the Hoosier Hills Conference.
He admits to getting nervous some days, to having trouble finding his classes initially because all the buildings looked the same, to going back to Columbus on occasion to decompress, to being so busy with college life he hasn't given any thought to whether he'll try to attend his prom or walk with his graduating class back home.
“When I first got (to practice), I felt like Rudy,” Kiel said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I'm young. I'm on the field with all these guys, and there have been so many great football players that have come from Notre Dame.' To be part of this team is definitely something special.”
Not that he is treated special.
“They told me, coach (Brian) Kelly, he'll yell at you and get in your ear and stuff,” Kiel sad. “You've just got to keep working hard, shake it off and go play.
“I've (gotten that) a little bit. I don't think I've gotten the full red-face look yet, but he definitely has (yelled). It's not really yelling. It's been coaching me more. Whenever he yells, he does it for a reason. He's just there to help you.”
The people who have probably helped the most, at least behind the scenes, are Kiel's older brothers, Drew and Dusty. Drew is a former quarterback at Illinois State. Dusty spent two seasons as a QB at Indiana before stepping away from football this winter to contemplate his future in the sport.
Dusty was also the last person Gunner competed with for a starting job. He was a junior incumbent when Gunner arrived at Columbus East as a freshman.
“I tried competing with Dusty my freshman year, but I kind of knew he was going to be the starter,” Kiel said. “I definitely tried to pick his brain and learn. And with this (situation), I try to pick Tommy's brain, Andrew's brain, Everett's brain and do the best I can.
“I actually liked (that competition) 10 times better. (Dusty) was never dogging me. He was always there to protect me and all that kind of stuff. He always had my back no matter what.”
Not that his current competition is trying to undercut him, but the dynamic is different.
The last time there was a four-man competition at QB on the ND campus, a freshman — Jimmy Clausen — eventually emerged as the starter, but not initially. Clausen got his first start in game 2 of the 2007 season, displacing game 1 starter, sophomore Demetrius Jones.
Kiel has a different aura about him than Clausen did in the early days. For starters, there was no film crew on hand to put together an infomercial about a private quarterback tutor at the first college meeting with the media, as there was with Clausen.
Kiel on Saturday was measured, but real, and never once hinted at a feeling of entitlement.
“I don't know what's going to happen,” he said. “I'm fine with that. I just want to go out and do my best and have fun.”
And some days — amidst absorbing a playbook that looks like an old New York City phone book and doing classwork that Kiel deems Ivy League caliber — it is fun.
“All the guys, they've been great,” Kiel said. “When I first got here, nobody asked me any questions about LSU and that stuff. They were just happy to have me on the team.
“To have that family atmosphere was huge. It definitely made me feel part of the team very quickly, and I can't thank them enough.”
Saturday marked the third overall practice of the spring, but first in full pads. Among the standouts Kelly singled out were running back George Atkinson and the fledgling cornerback corps.
“One of the things with George, in the learning curve, is he's just a little bit out of control,” Kelly said of the 6-1, 210-pound sophomore. “I thought he showed great patience today.”
Former Navy hoops and NBA star David Robinson was among the visitors at practice Saturday on a day when the sidelines and stands at LaBar were teeming with top junior prospects.
Among them was Robinson's son, Corey, a 6-4, 195-pound wide receiver from San Antonio Christian High School.
As Kelly was walking off the field after practice, he couldn't help but joke with Corey's 7-foot-1 father.
“We were going to throw some to you, but your son said you didn't have good feet,” he said.
Apparently, the Admiral took it in good fun, later tweeting on his Twitter account: “Enjoyed the day at Notre Dame! There has always been high respect between Navy and ND. Only increased today.”
Sophomore defensive linemen Chase Hounshell and Tony Springmann, both recovering from offseason surgeries, were riding an exercise bike while the team scrimmaged.
Sophomore wide receiver DaVaris Daniels, one of the early sensations of the spring, sat out Saturday with a leg injury. He is expected to be held out of Monday's practice then return to action on Wednesday.
“He had a nice day yesterday,” Kelly said. “We're doing a lot with him, because we're moving him around (in the formation). But we're really, really pleased with what he showed (Friday).”