SOUTH BEND, Ind. — After a sun-splashed Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish exited spring practice without a clear picture of who their starting quarterback will be Sept. 4 at Darrell K. Royal Stadium in Austin, Texas.
That was always going to be the case. But in the only publicly-available window into Notre Dame’s quarterback competition between now and the season opener, DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire each did some good things and each revealed areas in which they need to improve.
Neither player has a distinct advantage over the other, which very well may not change any time soon.
Kizer picked up where he left off in 2015, looking comfortable in command of his half of the Irish offense. Zaire, who hadn’t played in even a semi-competitive game since fracturing his ankle Sept. 12 at Virginia, volleyed reminders of his strong arm (with a 50-yard highlight-reel bomb to Torii Hunter Jr.) and running ability (with a 13-yard touchdown run).
Kizer completed 10 or 17 passes for 113 yards and rushed four times for 21 yards; Zaire completed 6 of 15 passes for 120 yards and rushed five times for 12 yards with the game’s only touchdown until walk-on Montgomery VanGorder plunged in for a touchdown against his dad’s defense late in the fourth quarter.
But the on-field results were just a part of Notre Dame’s Blue and Gold Game, and the quarterback competition as a whole. Kelly designed Saturday to split up Kizer and Zaire and give each an opportunity to lead a segment of the offense.
After Tarean Folston, clad in a green non-contact jersey, took his first carry, Kizer — who’s barely played with the senior running back given Folston’s season-ending torn ACL came before Kizer stepped in for Zaire last year — urged the crowd to cheer. When early-enrolling freshman Kevin Stepherson dropped a pass on a deep fade route, Kizer raced over to him to pat him on the back in a “get-them-next time” gesture.
While Kelly cautioned he’s not giving Kizer the starting nod, he did say that the redshirt sophomore “continues to show the things that you want a starting quarterback to show.” Kizer said he wants to continue to display those traits while building off 2015’s Fiesta Bowl berth.
“Last year was pretty good,” Kizer said. “Obviously we were about four points away from being an undefeated regular season team and with that, I've just got to make sure that I can develop off that.
“… As long as I continue to have the confidence in myself and once again continue to develop, hopefully it will be an easier decision.”
As for Zaire, he commanded the offense well, though some of his calls and checks were a little off. Still, Kelly said Zaire was much better in those areas than he was upon returning to practice in mid-March.
“What we didn't have today were some communication errors that we had earlier in spring,” Kelly said. “I thought he really accelerated that end of his game, where I thought he was a little rusty earlier in the spring. Really did a nice job today and clear communication with his offensive line.”
Both quarterbacks were live in the first half, and Zaire showed no ill effects of his ankle injury. His first run looked like the same play call on which he fractured his ankle in Charlottesville; he was hit and popped right back up after it Saturday. On his touchdown run, he planted and cut back to his right before turboing off into the end zone. And before that score, Zaire escaped some third down pressure from linebacker Asmar Bilal, rolled to his right and found running back Justin Brent for a 28-yard gain.
Kizer began spring practice ahead of Zaire, given he had 11 starts to have the Irish offense evolve with him at the helm. While clearing the mental hurdle was important for Zaire in his recovery process, spring football was important for him too in learning those wrinkles added to the offense, as well as the tendencies of new teammates, after his injury.
“We've got a new team,” Zaire said. “Last year's team is different than this year's team, so getting acclimated and adjusting to those guys, building chemistry not only with the tight ends and receivers and running backs, but also the O-line. … We've got a lot of time before our first game. I think getting closer to that chemistry is something we worked on in the spring and is something we accomplished.”
Kelly said Zaire exited spring practice on the same plane as Kizer in terms of offensive knowledge. While both quarterbacks were scrupulously evaluated over the last few weeks, they now can be evaluated on an even playing field.
“He was at a bit of a disadvantage coming into the spring, and I thought he caught up,” Kelly said. “So I think now that he has a better understanding of everything that we're doing, I think now you've got the race and that will obviously be decided through camp.”
We don’t know when Notre Dame will name a starting quarterback. In fact, neither Kelly nor offensive coordinator Mike Sanford nor associate head coach Mike Denbrock have an idea with four and a half months separating the Blue and Gold Game from that season-opening trip to Texas.
Eventually, one will be picked. It may come down to the head coach and offensive staff making a call between two players with equal ability to run the offense. Kelly wants his team to develop an identity with whoever the quarterback is, and that kind of stuff doesn’t happen overnight.
“There will be a time when I'm going to have to say, that's our quarterback, let's go with him, we're all in, and let's move forward,” Kelly said. “They are both that good. I already know that. But there will be a day, and we're going to have to say: It's time to go, he's our quarterback, everybody's behind him and we need to go, and that's who the quarterback is.”