SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame wants its quarterback competition to be conducted on a level playing field this month. But there’s a thorny issue in that plan: How does Notre Dame take into account the greater level of experience possessed by DeShone Kizer in comparison to Malik Zaire?
The short answer to that question coach Brian Kelly provided last week: The 2015 season offered a “glimpse” of what Kizer can do, but those 11 starts could be balanced out by Zaire’s offensive mastery in the three games he’s started at the college level.
“You put the Texas film on and see how easy it was for Malik, or you put on the LSU game and you see how easy it was for him as well,” Kelly said. “That's why we are where we are. We've got two really good quarterbacks, based on what we've seen on film, and we've got to let them both compete and continue to compete.”
But Kizer has so much game experience across so many different situations. He’s led a miraculous comeback in a far-more-hostile-than-expected atmosphere at Virginia. He engineered what could’ve been a game-tying drive against national runner-up Clemson in a driving rainstorm on the road. He engineered what should’ve been a game-winning drive at Stanford with a potential playoff berth on the line. He teamed up with Will Fuller to trash USC and Pitt’s secondaries, and kept Notre Dame’s final four hopes alive with a game-winning touchdown drive in the biggest game in Temple’s program history.
Those are all significant data points. Zaire has Notre Dame’s final drive against LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, in which he tagged in and out with Everett Golson. (It was Golson who completed three consecutive passes to move Notre Dame to the LSU 22, after which Zaire set up Kyle Brindza’s walk-off field goal with an eight-yard rush.) That game is important, but it’s only one game.
“I’ve been through pretty much every situation — a must-win game, I’ve been through a game we’re supposed to win, a game we’re supposed to lose, I’ve been thrown into some really tough fourth-quarter situations,” Kizer said. “And with all that, those are all experiences that I can kind of build upon and act as a platform for me when I’m trying to set myself up to put myself in position to start this year. All those learning processes and all those situations are gonna be things that hopefully edge me out when it comes time to make a decision.”
And it’s not just that Kizer was in those situations, but he handled every one of them with a remarkable level of composure for a first-time starting quarterback (Fuller, who caught that game-winning 39-yard touchdown against Virginia, marveled at how poised Kizer was immediately upon subbing in for the injured Zaire). While coaches can justifiably expect Zaire to handle those pressure-packed situations well, there remains some level of uncertainty there.
Zaire isn’t oblivious to the fact that he doesn’t have the experience of Kizer or any of college football’s other top quarterbacks, despite being a former early-enrolling freshman who’s in Year 4 at Notre Dame.
“I think (Clemson quarterback) Deshaun Watson has also played a lot more games than me,” Zaire said. “And so has (Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett), and so has (former Cal quarterback) Jared Goff and a bunch of other guys that have played. So I just think it all comes down to being able to be ready for that opportunity and I always pride myself on being able to produce so I just focus on producing.”
In another sense, though, the stuff Kizer didn’t do well last year could benefit Zaire over the next few weeks.
Notre Dame’s offense wasn’t lethal in scoring positions last year, averaging 5.06 points per trip inside an opponent’s 40-yard line (38th in FBS). Things were worse in the red zone, with Notre Dame scoring a touchdown on just 58.49 of its possessions inside the 20 (79th). And with explosive get-out-of-jail-free weapons in Fuller and C.J. Prosise off to the NFL, the Irish offense can’t afford to run into those same issues — either in settling for field goals or turning the ball over — when it moves deep into opposing territory.
“I look at the things we did, last year’s offense, and the things we can improve on, which are the important things, and I think my focus on that has always been keeping me busy,” Zaire said. “So focusing how to score more in the red zone is something that we haven’t had in a good amount of time and I think I can add some value to that aspect of our team and that can only help us get to that next stage.”
(Zaire’s right about Notre Dame not having red zone success recently — the last time the Irish ranked in the top 40 in red zone touchdown percentage was 2011.)
Notre Dame’s offense also struggled in short-yardage situations last year (their 66.7 percent power success rate ranked 58th in FBS). Those critical third-and-short downs are another area Zaire could target to show coaches how he could improve the offense from which he was sidelined after about seven and a half quarters last fall.
But those middling or below-average data points have also been Kizer’s focus for the last few months. And with Kizer largely running the show, Notre Dame’s passing offense ranked 10th in S&P+ last year. While there’s plenty of offensive personnel turnover from 2015 to 2016, the base Kizer built last year was impressive.
Notre Dame had a good-to-very-good offense under Kizer’s guidance last year. Whether or not it can be good, or better, without him as the quarterback is one of the central questions Kelly, Mike Sanford and Mike Denbrock have to answer in August.
“That decision isn’t in my hands,” Kizer said. “As of now I’m pretty confident in what I’m doing, with the experiences I’ve had last year and what I’ve done all offseason, I’m pretty happy with where I stand. And now it’s time to go out there and prove it and lay down what I have and see what the coaches say.”