Kelly opens up quarterback competition
Alex Carson | Wednesday, March 16, 2016
When Notre Dame opened spring practice Wednesday, most expected the quarterback battle would dominate the headlines until the season opener at Texas on Sept. 3.
“If there is one kind of underlying fact about this spring, all eyes would be on the quarterback position,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “I think that’s an understatement.”
But while most thought Kelly would be considering two quarterbacks for the starting role, he put an end to that thought at his first press conference of the year Tuesday: Notre Dame’s competition will feature three players, with sophomore Brandon Wimbush joining senior Malik Zaire and junior DeShone Kizer in contention for the job.
“We’ve got really three outstanding quarterbacks, and obviously DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire are easy names to throw around, but we really like Brandon Wimbush, as well, and Brandon will get an opportunity to compete,” Kelly said.
Notre Dame had planned to redshirt Wimbush last season before Zaire’s season-ending ankle injury Sept. 12 at Virginia, and while it may still be a possibility for 2016, he’ll compete for the starting job in a battle that might not be truly resolved by the season opener.
“If we had a tape recorder on our meeting, it would be a consensus that we’d love to be able to come out of the spring with a No. 1 quarterback,” Kelly said. “But we know that the nature of the guys that we have here and the guys that are competing are probably not going to let that happen.
“ … We don’t see it happening that way. We’ve got a feeling that this thing is going to be so closely contested that it’s going to take us some time to figure out, if we ever get to that, that we clearly have a No. 1.”
Kelly said Zaire, who opened last year at the starter, is fully cleared for practice.
“No [limitations], none,” Kelly said. “It’s been full for him. He’s been — his numbers were really good, too. I mean, even with the ankle, he didn’t back off from any of the testing. We gave him an opportunity not to do some of the testing, and he didn’t want anything to do with that.”
Quarterback is far from the only position Kelly said he expects to see battles during spring practice, though, with the Irish looking to replace seven offensive and six defensive starters ahead of the 2016 season.
The most glaring openings might be at linebacker, where captains Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt held down starting spots last season. Kelly said junior Nyles Morgan, a highly-rated recruit who sat behind Schmidt on the depth chart the last two seasons, enters the spring as the favorite for the middle linebacker job.
“I think really for Nyles, for him, I think it’s going to be a great spring,” Kelly said. “He’s got nobody in front of him, and I think that’s going to help him dramatically. There’s no Joe Schmidt in front of him, and as much as we loved having Joe Schmidt here and as much as we’ll miss him, it’s going to help Nyles not to have Joe Schmidt here because now he can just go and play and not have a wall in front of him.”
Kelly said sophomore Josh Barajas, who redshirted the 2015 season, figures to be a player at either open spot, while sophomore Asmar Bilal is also in the conversation at linebacker. Freshman defensive lineman Daelin Hayes, one of five early enrollees, might be cross-trained at outside linebacker, he added.
The cornerback battle between senior Cole Luke, junior Nick Watkins and sophomore Shaun Crawford was one that interested Kelly, as well as the competition for slots on the offensive line, where senior Hunter Bivin, junior Alex Bars, junior Sam Mustipher and sophomore Tristen Hoge figure to compete for three open slots.
Senior running back Tarean Folston, who missed nearly the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL, isn’t yet cleared for full practices yet but is getting workouts in, Kelly said.
“He’s doing everything with us,” Kelly said. “He’s [partially cleared], but he had surgery done on [Sept. 5]. He’s healed, it’s strength and it’s really volume for him, but he’s in all of our drill work. I suspect that he’ll do quite a bit with us.”
Folston and Zaire highlighted Kelly’s long list of injury updates Tuesday. Other notables included two linebackers — junior Greer Martini and sophomore Te’von Coney — who will miss spring practice, as well as Hayes and senior cornerback Devin Butler, who will be limited during spring.
Bars, who started twice on the offensive line last season, is partially cleared but nearing a return to full practice, according to Kelly, while sophomore receiver Equanimeous St. Brown is fully cleared.