SOUTH BEND, Ind. — While Mike Sanford fielded questions last week about how excited he is to coach such a great quarterback group, only one of those three players has significant experience at the college level.
DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush may comprise the most talented quarterback depth chart in the nation, but Zaire only has three career starts and Wimbush received nothing more than a handful of garbage-time snaps last fall.
That leaves Kizer, the rising redshirt sophomore who started 11 games, as the only one of the three players with enough gameday data to make accurate judgements as to how he’ll respond to certain situations. It’s a designation that comes with both positives and negatives, but more importantly, that experience gives Kizer a base on which he can improve over the coming months.
Coach Brian Kelly said the snaps Kizer took in red zone, goal line and third down situations last year won’t necessarily help him in spring practice, which mostly focuses on smaller-picture stuff like footwork and mechanics. But Kelly added it will be an advantage for him when Notre Dame plays the closest thing it will to a game until September — April 16’s Blue and Gold game.
“This is the season where I want to take what I did last year and build off it,” Kizer said. “I don’t want to set myself back and clean off the slate and pretend like last year never happened. Last year was a pretty good year. Obviously we want to take it to the next step and try to win a national championship. In order to do that, I would expect the coaches to treat me as a guy who’s already out there, played for them in games and develop from there.”
Notre Dame’s offense yielded a mixed bag of results in specific situations last fall. The Irish averaged 5.06 points per trip inside the 40-yard line (38th in FBS), but converted only 58.5 percent of its red zone trips into touchdowns (79th). Those numbers are the product of Notre Dame largely relying on big-chunk touchdowns — 23 of the team’s 54 offensive touchdowns came on plays of 20 or more yards.
But with Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise off to the NFL, Notre Dame probably can’t count on explosive touchdowns as much. That puts Kizer’s red zone/goal line performance under the spotlight, with memories still fresh of his two interceptions near Boston College’s end zone last November.
“I think the base is comparing our situational football numbers against a year ago, because we gotta get better in those areas,” Sanford said. “We gotta be a better third down quarterback group, we gotta be a better red zone quarterback group. We gotta be even better in two-minute, even though we’re pretty good, because that’s what’s going to make the difference between being good and great.”
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Notre Dame ranked seventh in third down S&P+, a nod to Kizer’s knack for making plays and getting the ball to his playmakers in key situations. So there is a positive there, too, as well as his ability to run the two-minute offense, as Sanford mentioned.
Zaire efficiently ran Notre Dame’s offense against LSU (in tandem with Everett Golson) then torched Texas with as many incompletions as touchdowns (three) in 2015’s season opener. But those snaps, plus what he had against Virginia and in 2014 blowouts against USC and Michigan, don’t represent a significant sample size of data or film on which to evaluate him.
Where Zaire scores well is in the nebulous world of intangibles, though. Notre Dame coaches know they can trust him with the offense no matter the situation — he helped end a moribund season on a positive note with the Music City Bowl in 2014, and excelled when given sole possession of the keys to the Irish offense in primetime last September.
Zaire’s natural leadership qualities could be enough to make up for the gulf in experience separating him and Kizer. But how he’ll perform on a week-to-week basis in those critical situations is still somewhat of an unknown.
“I never expect the job to be guaranteed,” Kizer said. “… I want to be able to build off what we did last year, and being a starter is part of that, but at the same time I’m expecting that every season from here on out, whether Malik and Brandon are here or it’s me and one other walk-on guy, I’m going to compete for the position I’m playing.”