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Hoonhout: Regardless of outcome, Kelly needs to name a starting quarterback

| Friday, April 20, 2018

For all intents and purposes, the Irish this offseason look an awful lot like the team heading into the fall two season ago.

And that’s not necessarily a good thing.

Heading into the 2016 season, Notre Dame had a number of question marks on both sides of the ball.

Gone were the leading wide receiver and running back in Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise.

Gone was left tackle Ronnie Stanley, as well as Butkus Award winner Jaylon Smith.

But perhaps most importantly, gone was any certainty of who would start at quarterback.

Chris Collins | The Observer
Irish senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush stands in the pocket during Notre Dame’s 21-17 victory over LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1.

Both Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer had shown flashes of brilliance in the previous season, one in which the Irish finished the regular season a respectable 10-2 and went to the Fiesta Bowl. While Zaire had started the season as the unquestionable starter and looked the part with a dominant performance against Texas in the season opener, a broken ankle in the Virginia game made way for Kizer, who promptly kept the Irish in the playoff hunt all season with some gutsy performances.

So when springtime came around, Irish head coach Brian Kelly had a dilemma on his hands.

One that he didn’t solve definitively until after the Irish fell in a heartbreaker to Texas to start the 2016 season.

Now, I’m not questioning the difficulty of the decision. Kelly had two very good quarterbacks on his hands, and throughout the offseason, neither decisively separated himself from the other.

“I think I’m going to have to make a judgment call,” Kelly said after the Blue-Gold game in April 2016. “Oh, I don’t know when I’ll make it. But there will be a time when I’m going to have to say, that’s our quarterback, let’s go with him, we’re all in and let’s move forward. They are both that good; I already know that. But there will be a day, and we’re going to have to say: It’s time to go, he’s our quarterback, everybody’s behind him and we need to go, and that’s who the quarterback is.”

The thing is, that call came way too late.

Sure, hypotheticals aren’t definitive. And the Irish definitely didn’t prove defensively that even if Kelly had named a starter in the spring, Notre Dame would have had a winning season. Regardless, the way the situation was handled seemed to alienate both quarterbacks.

There’s no question that Zaire was a shadow of his former self. He was shaky right from the start against Texas and finished the year with a completion percentage of 47.8 percent, one touchdown and a mere 122 yards. What went wrong? Maybe he wasn’t the guy for the job. But from Zaire’s perspective, the job was his to begin with. To say that Kelly’s decision to wait and not name him starter did not have an effect on his mindset and motivation is just naive.

And Kizer wasn’t the same player, either. For while the production was there, many questioned if the fire was. As the Irish lost game after game, Kizer seemed to put his head down and focus on his game rather than that of the team. It was no surprise when he declared for the draft after the season. After all, he had shown time and time again the year before that he was up to the task, and yet it took all the way until two weeks into the season for his hard work to be validated.

Fast forward to 2018, and the same indicators are back. Notre Dame has a number of question marks to address on both sides of the ball. And at the quarterback position, Kelly has yet another dilemma. While senior Brandon Wimbush and junior Ian Book have both been getting first-team reps this spring, neither has yet to distance himself as the clear favorite. Enter the Blue-Gold game, which should ideally serve as a good gauge; but with the program recently announcing the rules for the scrimmage, it sounds like neither quarterback will have to deal with that much pressure.

So while it may be tempting for Kelly to sit back and hold out on a decision, he shouldn’t.

In situations like this, decisiveness is often better than agonizing over the right answer. The reality is, with two starting-caliber quarterbacks and a third on the way in freshman Phil Jurkovec, Kelly and Notre Dame have to be willing to sacrifice one of its seasoned quarterbacks — potentially even to transfer — for the sake of giving the team a real purpose and direction heading into the season.

Because at the end of the day, I’m pretty sure nobody wants a repeat of two years ago.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

Contact Tobias