Perhaps no coach in America has had a better quarterback competition on his hands this summer than Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly.
“Better” in the sense that, with senior Malik Zaire and junior DeShone Kizer each fighting for the starting job, Kelly and the Irish almost can’t go wrong.
If your college football radar was up this week, you may have taken notice of Kelly’s decision to play both Zaire, the starter to begin the 2015 season, and Kizer, who performed well for 11-plus games after Zaire broke an ankle, in the Sept. 4 opener at Texas.
“If I list our top five playmakers, they are in it,” Kelly said during the team’s on-campus media day. “So my ultimate decision was I couldn’t put one of those guys on the sideline against Texas.”
With one of the stronger quarterback groups in the country, Notre Dame seemingly was looking at a win-win scenario. Zaire complements his potent left arm and dangerous speed with palpable confidence and passion. Kizer — once buried on the depth chart behind both Zaire and Everett Golson — brings NFL size, uncommon poise and tremendous skill to the equation.
Whichever guy won the job was going to be very well cut out for it.
Instead, neither guy gets to head into the season feeling like a winner; neither gets to lock into an early groove. Kelly has added fresh accelerant to the flames of uncertainty at the most important position on his team. It’s risky, to be sure, but that’s why Notre Dame pays Kelly the big bucks.
“It’s never easy playing two quarterbacks. It’s much easier just playing one,” Kelly said. “But we’re in the business of winning, and so, if it’s a little bit harder on us, then we can make that work if the net is we win the football game.”
Kelly has wrestled with difficult quarterback calls before. Remember the Irish’s ugly loss to USF in the 2011 opener? Despite having declared Dayne Crist the victor in a camp competition with Tommy Rees, Kelly benched Crist for Rees after half a game. One season later, Rees gave way to Golson and the Irish reached the BCS title game.
Yet Golson’s grip on the job never was firm; Kelly pulled him for Rees on multiple occasions. Looking at the Zaire-Kizer competition through that lens, it seems likely that both were going to see significant playing time in 2016 regardless of how Kelly sized up matters in August.
A Kelly quarterback can’t ever get comfortable or let his guard down. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.
But it can’t be easy for the player.
Zaire and Kizer have played terrific football for Notre Dame when given the chance. Coaches say each quarterback has been excellent throughout camp; that each has risen to the level of a starter. Kelly knows his decision to postpone choosing one over the other has disappointed both.
“It was a lot to take in,” Zaire said. “But being here, I’ve become adjusted to things that can happen that are out of your control. Coach Kelly is the head coach, and he makes head-coaching decisions. He told us to trust him.”
Kizer — who threw for nearly 3,000 yards last season and kept the Irish in the College Football Playoff hunt until the regular-season finale — is doing just that.
“I’m going to trust him with whatever he has to say,” Kizer said. “Whatever it takes for this team to win games is what I’m going to be all-in for.”
It starts in a little over two weeks at Texas — which, it should be pointed out, is mired in yet another summer of quarterback uncertainty of its own. We could see four quarterbacks in action when the Longhorns and Irish meet. In that scenario, Notre Dame’s two would be, by a substantial margin, the better pair.
But will it hinder Zaire and Kizer to have to share the snaps with each other? And for how long will the current arrangement last? How much will it take for either quarterback to play his way into — or out of — the starting job?
At this point, there are more questions than answers. Kelly is betting on himself to keep that from becoming a problem.
THEY’VE GOT SKILLS
Will Fuller, Notre Dame’s star receiver last season, is shining in Houston as a Texans first-round draft pick. Leading rusher C.J. Prosise now plays for the Seattle Seahawks.
Yet there’s a good deal of clarity at the Irish’s non-quarterback skill positions.
With Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle all gone, Torrii Hunter Jr. is the team’s top returning wideout. Who has moved into the No. 2 role? According to wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock, the answer is a player who made his mark in 2015 as a first-year return man — C.J. Sanders.
“We knew his talents as a special teams player and as a minor contributor,” said Denbrock, “but I think he can do some pretty amazing things at the slot position.”
Josh Adams, who rushed for 869 yards and six touchdowns last season, has too much breakaway ability not to have a significant role in his sophomore campaign. But expect senior Tarean Folston — who tore an ACL in the 2015 opener — to resume his former role of starter.
“That first time out there — 98,000 people — you kind of go to the guy that has a little bit more experience,” Kelly said. “And Folston is that guy.”
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.