SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame’s Blue and Gold Game on Saturday has a little more importance than the annual glorified scrimmage usually carries. All the collective eyes in Notre Dame Stadium, as well as those watching on TV, will be trained on DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire as the two Irish quarterbacks fire their final spring salvos with an eye on being named the team’s starter Sept. 4 against Texas.
Kizer and Zaire will be on separate teams, tasking each with running and leading an offense. With that responsibility comes a few challenges — for example, given some depth issues and inexperience at plenty of positions, each may have to deal with missed blocks or wrong routes over the course of the afternoon.
Both quarterbacks will be allowed to be hit for part of the game, though Notre Dame won’t pour defensive pressure on them. But just because they may not see much in the way exotic blitzes from Brian VanGorder’s group doesn’t mean the heat won’t turned up a bit in the 15th and final spring practice of 2016.
“That’s why I got them on two different teams competing against each other,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Both of them want to be the starter. Badly.”
Kizer and Zaire will exit spring practice having taken nearly equal practice reps with the first-team offense, which offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford said is key in giving each a fair evaluation. But the two quarterbacks, out of necessity, took different approaches to those reps over the last few weeks.
For Kizer, his experience last year means he’s used spring to refine his game, whether that’s involved throwing mechanics or red zone decision-making.
Zaire’s certainly worked on those things, too, but he’s also had to learn the offensive wrinkles put in place during his recovery from the fractured ankle he suffered in Week 2.
Notre Dame won’t make any decision after the Blue and Gold game on who its starting quarterback will be when the curtain lifts on the 2016 season. And even if one quarterback is ahead of another at this point, there’s still four and a half months separating Saturday from that trip to Austin.
While there will be a competitive Kizer vs. Zaire aspect to things this weekend, Sanford has worked to cultivate a “competitive, not combative” culture in his quarterback room.
“As long as each and every one of them can keep it about themselves and their personal improvement and their drive to be not only the best quarterback in that room but one of the elite quarterbacks in the country, I think that we’ll be in a pretty good airspace,” Sanford said. “And I think we do a pretty good job of that.”
It’s natural to have a knee-jerk reaction to the only publicly-available look at the quarterback competition between now and September. But it’s worth noting that the quarterback who performed the worst in 2015’s Blue and Gold Game wound up leading Notre Dame to a 10-win season and Fiesta Bowl berth. There’s a lot of time between the end of spring practice and the start of preseason camp for players to make strides.
On the other hand, though, Kelly & Co. designed this year’s spring game with the quarterback competition in mind. It’s another data point, yes, but it’s also a more important one than the previous 14.
“I’m doing it for a reason because I want them to be in a competitive situation where we can evaluate,” Kelly said. “We split the squad, we try to get them balanced as best we could, and let this be one more evaluation tool for both of these guys in this game. It’s important to them.
“And for us to make it offensive versus defense, and they’re in red jerseys, I don’t know how much you get out of that. Part of this is for the quarterbacks and giving them this fair chance to really lead their team and distinguish themselves in the game.”