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They unloaded their black Chevy Suburban and filled their son's dorm room with boxes of belongings and suitcases of clothes. Then, after hooking up a television and filling a chest of drawers, the moment finally arrived: It was time for Kip and Aleta Kiel to say goodbye to their youngest child, 18-year-old Gunner. As mom and son hugged on Jan. 17, Gunner, Rivals.com's No. 1--ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2012 class, quietly said, "I'm glad I'm at Notre Dame."
It took a long time for the 6'4", 215-pound Kiel to choose South Bend. In July, before he began his senior season at Columbus (Ind.) East High, Kiel (pronounced keel) shocked fans across the country by committing to perennial Big Ten cellar-dweller Indiana, where his brother Dusty was battling for the starting quarterback job. But in October, with the Hoosiers stumbling toward a 1--11 season, he withdrew his pledge. On Dec. 27 he committed instead to LSU, but while he was packing his bags for Baton Rouge, where he had planned to enroll for the spring semester, he had another change of heart. "Gunner is a Midwestern kid, and distance from home became a big factor," Kip says. "In the end Gunner felt more comfortable at Notre Dame." In a statement Gunner said, "This recruitment process was a roller-coaster ride at times, but I know I have made the right decision for my family and me."
Kiel is the signature recruit of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame—and may well mark a turning point for the program. An early enrollee, Kiel will battle with Tommy Rees, who started 12 games as a sophomore in 2011, Andrew Hendrix (who will be a junior in the fall) and Everett Golson (sophomore) in the spring. But even if Kiel is not in the lineup in the Irish's season opener against Navy on Sept. 1, he's clearly the team's long-term answer at quarterback. Shaky play behind center has been Notre Dame's biggest weakness during Kelly's two seasons, but Kiel appears to be the solution to that problem.
But will he stay? Since 2007, players ranked in the Rivals top 100 who change their commitment are nearly twice as likely to transfer, fail to qualify academically or be dismissed from their team (34.2%) as players who stuck to their original commitment (18.7%). "The only thing you have to question about Gunner is his decision-making based on his decommitments, but otherwise he's got everything you're looking for in a quarterback," says recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. "He can make all the throws, and he runs well. He may not be ready to play as a freshman, but Gunner gives Notre Dame's class a lot of luster."
Kiel, whose uncle Blair played quarterback at Notre Dame in the early 1980s, should be an ideal fit in Kelly's spread attack. In 2005, when Kelly was at Cincinnati, Columbus East coach Bob Gaddis attended a coaching clinic at which Kelly taught the finer points of his spread. Gaddis then installed much of that scheme, and last season Kiel threw for 2,517 yards and 28 touchdowns. "We played a watered-down version of Kelly's offense, and Gunner took off with it," says Gaddis. "As a senior he had full [freedom to] check off and could change the play at the line of scrimmage at any time."
When Kiel called LSU quarterbacks coach Steve Kragthorpe on Jan. 15 to tell him he was having second thoughts, Kragthorpe offered to immediately hop on a plane and visit the Kiels. But Kiel told him that he needed more time alone to think; the next morning he phoned Kragthorpe again and told him he was going to South Bend, which is only a three-hour drive from Columbus.
"Gunner has grown up during this whole process," says his father. "He's ready to start the next chapter." That was clear when the Kiels drove away from his dorm, where for the first time in weeks their boy was beaming.