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Ready to take over

| Friday, April 17, 2015

BlueGold_BannerGraphic_WEBErin Rice | The Observer

Football is a game of numbers.

Touchdowns, field goals, safeties, turnovers, yards per game, carries, receptions — these all have values that can be added and subtracted, and they lead to the total tallies in the win and loss columns.

For Notre Dame, a team with hopes each year of keeping that loss column clean, the quarterback duel has become more than a choice between two simple numbers, 5 and 8.

It’s come down to something of a science.

“What we’re doing is quantifying it as much as we can, the competition,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford said April 1. “Statistically, they’re getting graded on every rep. We want those guys to feel like there’s accountability for every rep that they take.”

The Irish coaches expect their players to keep their grades up in the classroom, and now they want their starters to make the cut on the field as well this spring — even though head coach Brian Kelly said the final decision probably won’t be made until fall camp.

Sanford explained that the system essentially rewards or penalizes quarterbacks on if they did their job on a play and said he hopes the new system will keep the competition from turning into a controversy between graduate student Everett Golson and junior Malik Zaire.

“There’s not going to be any guesswork,” he said. “You know obviously we’re going to go, when we make that decision, whenever that may be, as a staff, we’ll have the backing of the data. Empirical data obviously provides great feedback for them as they go along.”

Zaire said moving past just film and looking at the numbers — “something that sticks with you a little bit more” — help him and his teammates figure out where they need to improve.

“I think that’s a step up from what we didn’t do last year,” he said. “I think it gives us a visual of our actual performance of how we did efficiency-wise and consistency-wise after practice.”

While Irish coaches have developed a more complex way to gauge the quarterback competition, they’ve also decided to get back to basics to develop both their signal callers as much as possible during Sanford’s first year at Notre Dame.

“When [Chuck] Martin was running the offense, there was a real focus on the quarterbacks and protections and really being cognizant of how to protect themselves. … With [Matt] LaFleur, it was concepts, concepts, concepts. … Those two things they are really good at,” Kelly said. “Some of the fundamentals, which we saw were exposed last year, are the areas that Mike Sanford is really strong at.

“ … We’re seeing that come together at practice. So, where are we with them? I’m seeing them so much more in-tune with the fundamentals of the positions and doing the little things now that I think can accelerate their growth.”

Zaire: the learning curve

Football is a game that plays out on the field, between teams whose players have specific training regimens developed for them and undergo Bod Pod scans to assess their body fat percentage.

But it’s also a game in the mind, filled with plays and schemes and quick reads right before the snap.

When it comes to that mental aspect, Kelly indicated Golson might have a leg up.

“Sometimes, [Zaire]’ll check into some things that we’re not quite certain as to what he was thinking,” Kelly said last Saturday. “Everett, there’s no doubt about where his mind is relative to what he’s seeing and what he’s thinking. Like, ‘Why did you go to that, Everett.’ Makes total sense. For that, as it relates to Malik, we’re still kinda in that process of, ‘What were you thinking?’”

Sanford said Zaire was “very coachable and very zealous in wanting to learn and correct everything,” but he also admitted Zaire’s enthusiasm can be problematic at times.

“It’s a double-edged sword because if he makes a ton of progress, then he believes he’s the offensive coordinator at the line of scrimmage, or he believes he’s the play caller,” Sanford said. “We want him to be a great quarterback, get us out of danger problems; when there’s an overload pressure, get us the right protection, get us the right concept. … We don’t want to give him full autonomy or really any quarterback full autonomy.”

Irish offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford watches as junior quarterback Malik Zaire winds up for a pass during Notre Dame’s practice last Saturday at LaBar Practice Complex.Caitlyn Jordan | The Observer
Irish offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford watches as junior quarterback Malik Zaire winds up for a pass during Notre Dame’s practice last Saturday at LaBar Practice Complex.

That won’t keep Zaire from looking for full autonomy when it comes to getting the first snaps of the season opener against Texas on Sept. 5.

Zaire earned the start in last season’s bowl win against LSU, but he and Golson switched off behind center and split time on the final, game-winning drive.

The left-handed gunslinger said he doesn’t want to adopt that game plan this season — it’s all or nothing.

“I mean, it’s not the ideal situation,” he said. “I mean at the end of the day, there’s only one Captain Jack Sparrow of the offense. You know, Coach Kelly makes the decisions on the team — like I said, I don’t get paid to make decisions; I wish I did — but I just do what I’m supposed to do, and however it plays out, it plays out. I’ve just got to make the most of my opportunities and go from there.”

No matter if he wins the starting job or not, Zaire said his mind is centered around one objective, the same goal he’s had during all his time at Notre Dame.

“I came in hungry, still hungry, will always be hungry, continue to get better,” he said. “My confidence has never been lower or higher at this point. I think if anything it’s maintained the same and continuing to be around my teammates and continuing to focus on that goal of winning that ring. That’s all that’s on my mind right now.”

Golson: fully committed

Rumors swirled after Notre Dame’s bowl win that Golson, who had started every game in 2014 before Zaire usurped him in the finale, was considering a transfer next fall.

While Kelly said he wouldn’t be surprised by anything a college-age player does, he does not foresee handing the starting job to Zaire based on Golson’s absence in South Bend.

“He’s had his best spring since he’s been here,” Kelly said last Saturday of Golson. “He’s fully engaged in everything that he’s doing. It’s the best that I’ve seen him do the things that we’ve asked him to do since he’s been here. … But there’s no indication that anything that he’s done would mean that he’s just doing this as a way to go somewhere else. If I sensed it at all, I would’ve pulled the plug on it myself because we’re wasting our time.”

Golson himself has remained mum since the bowl game, declining to talk with reporters, but Kelly said he trusts his quarterback’s decision.

“He doesn’t want to do media and stuff like that because he’s focused on his academics and graduating, and I’m OK with that,” Kelly said Saturday. “I’m fine with that. He’s had his share of living in the bright lights of it.”

Irish junior quarterback Malik Zaire (8) looks on while graduate student Everett Golson (5) prepares to toss a pass during a drill at LaBar Practice Complex last Saturday.Caitlyn Jordan | The Observer
Irish junior quarterback Malik Zaire (8) looks on while graduate student Everett Golson (5) prepares to toss a pass during a drill at LaBar Practice Complex last Saturday.

Sanford said he’s noticed that commitment in Golson as well, even in just the few weeks that make up the spring slate.

“The thing about Everett that I’ve been so appreciative of is his buy-in,” Sanford said April 1. “Everett’s been outstanding in the meeting room environment. He’s been taking unbelievable good notes, attentive. He’s very engaged in the process, very engaged in the mental side of the game, and then at practice he’s self-correcting.”

Golson has 23 career starts under his belt compared to Zaire’s one, but an array of late-season fumbles in 2014 proved he’s far from a perfect quarterback. Kelly said Golson’s pocket presence has been a point of emphasis this spring.

“I would say that Everett’s done a great job in the pocket,” Kelly said Wednesday. “He’s really progressed in the area’s that we’ve asked him to. … He’s had a really good spring, and I expect him to have a good spring game as well.”

As with Zaire, Sanford said he’s trying to tone down Golson’s eagerness in certain situations.

“I think for Everett, it’s just sometimes he gets so excited when there’s a wide-open throw — his feet show excitement when you’re watching the tape, his body language shows excitement, and basically just taking the offense as it comes and just throw the appropriate throw and don’t get so fired up,” Sanford said Monday. “He gets jacked up when there’s a post open.”

A good dilemma

No matter who’s under center, the rest of the team won’t get caught up in the final decision.

“For us, speaking as a whole, it doesn’t really matter to us,” graduate student receiver Amir Carlisle said last Friday. “Both guys have done great things. Everett did great last year for us. Malik did a great job finishing last year for us.

“I’m a fan of both of them. Both of them are friends of mine, and I’m glad I don’t have to make the decision because both of them are great quarterbacks.”

Kelly added the Irish want a leader who will be willing to give his all to collect a win each Saturday.

“They’re just looking for somebody that is committed and somebody that is going to help them be successful, so that’s all they want from a quarterback,” Kelly said Saturday. “So the quarterback here at Notre Dame is gotta be somebody that’s 100 percent committed to winning, and both of those kids are, and as long as they are, they’re gonna embrace whoever’s out on the football field.”

Even with a close decision ahead of him and his staff, Kelly said he knows they have enviable talent from both candidates — no matter what the final numbers say.

“In terms of depth, I don’t know that anybody has a better situation than we do with the two quarterbacks that we have,” he said.

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