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Carson: Kelly’s two-quarterback decision introduces unneeded risk

| Friday, September 2, 2016

They said it was a good problem to have.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly had the choice of two quarterbacks: the guy who led his team to within a 2-point conversion drop of the playoff and the guy who beat him out for the job last summer.

Choose junior DeShone Kizer, and you’ve got tons of great reasons to do so. He excelled in the role last year, became the leader of the offense and helped the Irish turn what looked like a season-ending day at Virginia into a 10-2 record and a Fiesta Bowl berth.

Choose senior Malik Zaire, and you’ve got tons of great reasons to do so. There’s a reason everyone was gutted when he went down with his season-ending injury at Virginia, and where Kizer has flaws — the red zone being the most obvious — the jury’s still out about Zaire.

But Kelly chose both. Who knows where that’s going to go.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly addresses the media following Notre Dame’s 2015 season-opening win over Texas on Sept. 5. The Irish downed the Longhorns 38-3 last year, kickstarting a 10-3 season.Michael Yu | The Observer
Irish head coach Brian Kelly addresses the media following Notre Dame’s 2015 season-opening win over Texas on Sept. 5. The Irish downed the Longhorns 38-3 last year, kickstarting a 10-3 season.

To be fair to Kelly, there are plenty of reasons to go with a two-quarterback system. Let’s start with Kizer’s red-zone woes; perhaps having Zaire to call on inside the 20-yard line is a good thing. Or if the Irish are looking to establish the ground game, Kelly can go to Zaire within a well-defined role. Where a deep ball is required, Kizer’s strong play with those in 2015 could help him see the field a little better.

There exist reasons why we all called this a “good problem” in the first place. There are very few places in the country where Kizer or Zaire wouldn’t be the undisputed starting quarterback. Notre Dame just happens to be one of those.

As a quick aside, before we dive deeper: Let’s keep the 2006 Florida team, the one that blasted Ohio State in the 2007 BCS National Championship Game, in our minds. While it’s hard to know exactly what Kelly has in mind for his quarterback rotation Sunday, we should remember that Urban Meyer used both Chris Leak and Tim Tebow to win a national title that year.

But while Kizer and Zaire are both top-end college quarterbacks, Kelly’s certainly taking a risk when it comes to the stability of the offense.

If one quarterback throws an early interception, will Kelly quickly abandon the two-quarterback system and play the hotter hand? Or will he stick to his guns in a move that could see more unnecessary mistakes made? Either decision would run a strong risk of harming the team.

If the Irish need a late-game touchdown to win at Texas, who’ll it be? Kizer was great on the road against Virginia and Temple to bring home wins, and equally fantastic in the final minutes at Clemson and Stanford. But wouldn’t Zaire be the better call from inside the 20? Could things look like they did in the 2014 Music City Bowl, perhaps?

When the dust settles on the Notre Dame season, I ultimately think it’s the play of the defense that will make the difference between 12-0 or 11-1 and 9-3 or 8-4. A month ago, I’d have said no matter who plays at quarterback, the Irish offense will be a playoff-caliber unit. Either Kizer or Zaire, surrounded by the talent the offense has, would put up the points he needed to.

But what if the instability of a two-quarterback system costs the Irish in Texas? The Longhorns probably still won’t be that good this year, but they’re at least talented. Notre Dame fans shouldn’t expect this to be another 38-3 rout; there’s a reason the betting line for this game is well within a touchdwon.

Kelly may well have made the right call here. After all, he’s the one paid the big bucks to lead this football team, not me.

I just can’t keep the thought out of my mind, though, that Kelly just didn’t need to do this. Pick one, whichever’s ahead, and I’d feel confident about Notre Dame cruising to another quick start.

In making the call he has, Kelly’s opened a can of worms. If this goes horribly wrong at Texas, you’ll be reading me second-guess him in a column Monday morning asking a slew of, “what ifs?”

Though maybe you’ll be reading a column of praise instead.

Kelly’s made his call. All that’s left is to see how it works.

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About Alex Carson

Alex Carson graduated from Notre Dame in 2017 after majoring in Applied and Computational Mathematics and Statistics and living in O’Neill Hall. Hailing from the Indianapolis area, but born in Youngstown, Ohio, Carson is a Cleveland sports fan convinced that he’s already lived the “best day of his life.” At The Observer, Carson was first a Sports Writer, then served as an Associate Sports Editor (2015/16) and an Assistant Managing Editor (2016/17), before finishing his tenure as a Senior Sports Writer. A man of strong convictions, he ardently believes that Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 release E•MO•TION is the greatest album of his generation, and wakes up early on Saturday mornings to listen, or occasionally watch, his favorite least-favorite sports team, Aston Villa. When he isn’t writing, Carson spends his time counting down the days to the next running of the Indianapolis 500 and reminding people that the Victory March starts with the lyric, “Rally sons of Notre Dame,” not “Cheer, cheer for Old Notre Dame.”

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