Déjà Vu: For second straight year, Notre Dame has questions at quarterback
Zach Klonsinski | Friday, April 15, 2016
Everyone experiences inexplicable flashes of déjà vu during their lives.
As Notre Dame closes out the spring practice schedule, Irish players, coaches and fans find themselves in the midst of one such moment.
Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, especially when the déjà vu is having more talent at the quarterback position than you know what to do with.
“Let’s be honest, all three guys, you put a blue jersey on them, they’re pretty exciting,” Irish co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford said following practice March 21. “And we’ve seen all three of them on Saturdays do it.”
It’s been the biggest storyline of the spring and will continue to be so through the dog days of summer and into fall camp, perhaps until the final hours before Notre Dame’s season opener against Texas on Sept. 4.
It might even be such a tightly guarded secret that it’s only finally answered by watching who trots out with the other 10 offensive players onto the Darrel K. Royal — Texas Memorial Stadium turf in Austin, Texas: senior lefty Malik Zaire or junior right-hander DeShone Kizer.
What started as an open three-horse race — with sophomore Brandon Wimbush being included in the fray, although never too seriously — has at least been whittled down to two, listening to Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s more recent thoughts on the matter.
Nonetheless, watching two players lay claim to the position with a third on the outside biding his time is a situation Notre Dame doesn’t need to look far into its past to find: Last season, Everett Golson and Zaire were locked in a duel for control of the offensive reins with the unknown Kizer taking third team reps, far out of the picture.
Irish fans will remember how the story went from there.
Still, this year does have its unique qualities: Zaire and Kizer, who haven’t earned their degrees yet, would have to sit out a year if either decided to transfer, unlike Golson, who was able to take advantage of the NCAA’s graduate transfer rule to earn the starting job at Florida State last season. So there are no outside incentives luring one or the other away from the competition.
Of course, to hear them discuss the competition, transferring was never an option either considered anyway.
“I’m just excited to be back out there, another opportunity to compete and have some fun, play the game that we came here to play,” Kizer said March 18, following the first week of spring ball. “Obviously, it’s a different situation than it was last year, but you kinda have to expect that when you’re at school like this.”
“I don’t compete with people. I compete with myself to get better,” Zaire said the same day. “I’m looking to be the best that I can be all the time and be the best quarterback in the country. I don’t know what competition that they feel is out there. But I do know it’s good being around the team and good being with the guys and working all the time and getting right because we got a tough schedule this year. We gotta put a lot together to get a lot done.”
Both quarterbacks said they are also aware they need to keep the team united if the Irish want to reach the standard the football program at Notre Dame is held to.
“Part of being quarterback is knowing how to lead and understanding the game and the guys around you,” Kizer said. “Malik has good relationships with a lot of the guys, and Brandon has really taken over his class, but at the end of the day, you have to be able to take the relationships you have and the knowledge you have of each person on a team and be able to lead through that.”
“[Kizer]’s been doing a good job, taking advantage of the opportunity he’s gotten,” Zaire said. “I can’t do anything but continue to support my teammates. I think it would only be destructive if I didn’t support guys that were doing well. It’s all about winning a championship and things fall where they may.”
One thing Kelly has stressed as spring practice has progressed, however, is the need for Notre Dame to find its identity as it begins the 2016 season. That starts with a clear No. 1 at the quarterback position, a lesson Kelly said he learned from watching the chaos at the helm of the Ohio State offense for most of last season.
“It seemed to me that Ohio State found their identity after the Michigan State game, where I think in a lot of ways Ezekiel Elliott can be credited with waking up their entire coaching staff and saying, ‘Who are we?’” Kelly said following practice April 6. “So I think the lessons learned there are, ‘What’s your identity going to be?’ And they clearly decided who they were going to be after that game. They went with [J.T. Barrett] and said, ‘This is what we’re going to be,’ and that’s who they were against us [in the Fiesta Bowl].
“So I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen to us.”
That said, Kelly has emphasized that the decision won’t be made this spring.
“I don’t think we’ll make a decision after spring,” Kelly said. “I will say this, I mean the two quarterbacks are really good players. … They’re both No. 1s. They both probably can’t play at the same time. So one’s going to have to be the starter, and somebody is going to be unhappy.
“But I can’t keep them all happy, and we’re not going to go into the season with a team that does not have an identity. We’re going to have an identity as to who we are, and it doesn’t mean we can’t play more than one quarterback, but we’ll have a quarterback and we’ll get that established.”
Getting to that point serves as a reminder of the complexities of position competitions in the 21st century.
“We’re charting third-down completions, everything that has to do with third downs, red zone, when we get into backed-up situations, two-minute situations,” Sanford said. “All those situations really are what separate the great ones from the guys who are a 10-win quarterback, and we want to be above and beyond that.”
Despite rumors he was being considered for head coaching positions around college football, Sanford returns for his second season with the Irish, meaning he’ll be the first coach Zaire and Kizer have had for more than one season in their careers at Notre Dame.
“Three [quarterbacks coaches] in three years, that was a lot to deal with,” Zaire admitted. “But I grew a lot in those three in three years and having somebody that’s still here and didn’t decide to take a great position somewhere else I think there’s an appreciation on the fact that we can continue to work and build on our relationship.”
Sanford, for his part, said he has been able to dive deeper into each player’s needs as he begins year two.
“I think for [Zaire], a day like today, he just did a great job of letting the game come to him and not trying to be too ambitious and not try to make too many things happen pre-snap,” Sanford said. “I think that’s one thing, just being comfortable, just being smooth with what he does. That’s one thing, he looks smooth right now.
“With DeShone, his smoothness, his intellect, the reps he got not only in practice but in games, that’s showing up big time in his experience. … The great part about being a 6-foot-5 quarterback is your vision’s incredible, but the downside of that is that you have to be completely fine-tuned mechanically or things can go awry. So we’ve been working with him, and he did a good job working on it in the off-season, of tightening everything up and staying lower to the ground on his delivery, and it’s showing up.”
Sanford also said he’s excited with the “immense” growth from Wimbush so far this spring as well.
“It’s funny even today at practice there was a time where you could tell he’s starting to play football, and he’s starting to just go out there and execute what we want from a detail standpoint as opposed to always feeling like he’s behind the eight-ball,” Sanford said. “Now he’s anticipating, he’s managing protections really well. He’s out there playing, and it’s fun to watch when he’s completely dialed into what he’s doing and he’s playing free.”
Regardless of who’s under center — or, probably more accurately for Notre Dame, catching the shotgun snap — Sanford said the rest of the pieces will be in place when the Irish meet the Longhorns under the lights on the first Sunday night of September.
“If we play championship-caliber football at the quarterback position, we know we can win one.”