SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Maybe the 2015 Ohio State Buckeyes aren’t a direct comparison for this year’s Notre Dame side, but how Urban Meyer’s offense handled having two talented quarterbacks does serve as a cautionary tale.
Ohio State’s offense never found a rhythm last year as it flipped between Cardale Jones (who previously powered the Buckeyes to a national title) and J.T. Barrett (who got Ohio State in a position to make the College Football Playoff in 2014 before suffering a season-ending injury). It was an offense without an identity, despite having all-world running back Ezekiel Elliott at its disposal.
Having two talented quarterbacks is easily described as a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem. Barrett, prior to the Fiesta Bowl, explained a pitfall of wondering if Jones was going to come in for him: “If you focus on that bad play and then you’re looking over your shoulder after that bad play, that’s when you’re going to get another bad play and it’s a domino effect.”
Both Kizer and Zaire said Wednesday they’re not worried about the other, though, be it in practice or in a game.
“I’m not too worried about that with those pressures,” Kizer said. “And to focus in on that would be very naive of me with three weeks left before the first game. We really don’t know how it’s gonna look. We just know we’re both gonna play. So as long as I focus in on what I’m doing and stay focused on me and not looking over my shoulder, I think I’ll be all right.”
Zaire drew upon his “professional” mantra in his response to those comments made by his friend Barrett.
“When you’re a professional and you treat the job like a pro and train like a pro, those things shouldn’t come up as a concern because you have so much to focus on yourself and how to make the team better,” Zaire said. “For me, I honestly just treat it like a pro. I’ve been through so much being here that it’s kind of just shaken down into just, I just gotta go into there and do what I gotta do.
“We have a lot of experience, it’s just a different challenge. For me, I prepare like I’m always playing. That’s what I’ve been doing since I’ve been here.”
Kizer pointed to Kelly’s success interchanging Zaire and Everett Golson in the 2014 Music City Bowl, though those circumstances were different in that both quarterbacks were viewed as significantly different players. Zaire was viewed as an accomplished runner toward the tail end of his redshirt freshman season, while Golson was a far more natural passer than he was a runner.
Kelly and his coaching staff don’t see much of a difference between Kizer and Zaire, at least with how the offense will be run. There will be a few different playcalls for each, and Zaire is better at scrambling and making something happen outside of the pocket than Kizer.
But the surface-level evaluation is that both can do similar things in the Irish offense.
“The offense is seamless when one of them would come out of the game,” Kelly said. “There's not a big change when one is in versus the other. There's play call differences, but that doesn't require much change at all. And then there are some situational down and distance and field position consideration that will go into that as well.”
The best-case for Notre Dame is that it’s able to replicate the flow of that two-quarterback Music City Bowl over the course of the 2016 regular season, because as Barrett said, any doubt that creeps into the mind of a quarterback can lead things to spiral out of control.
One of the advantages Notre Dame has over Ohio State, though, is having its offensive coaching triumvirate — Kelly, Sanford and Denbrock — back for a second consecutive year. Some of Ohio State’s issues last year can be traced to the departure of offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Tom Herman and the unpreparedness of his replacement, Tim Beck (http://www.cleveland.com/osu/index.ssf/2016/04/in_evaluating_cardale_jones_do.html).
The message to Notre Dame’s quarterbacks hasn’t changed over the last 18 months, which should help successfully deliver the message between now and Sept. 4.
“The thing I’ve really challenged each of them individually on is when you’re on the field and in a practice rep, you’re the starting quarterback of Notre Dame,” Sanford said. “And conduct yourself in that manner, lead in that manner and then when you’re off on the side and not taking the rep, encourage and just like you would if the backup was out there from the standpoint of leadership and correcting guys and helping out young players and picking each other up.”