SOUTH BEND, Ind. — DeShone Kizer was in the middle of a statistics exam last spring when his phone started going off incessantly with text messages. The reason for the barrage of buzzes in his pocket: He just became Notre Dame’s backup quarterback.
In a perfect world, Notre Dame would’ve entered preseason camp with Malik Zaire still competing against Everett Golson for the team’s No. 1 quarterback job. Brian Kelly, Mike Denbrock and Mike Sanford would’ve entered the season with a quarterback depth chart that’d be the envy of any program not named Ohio State. And, if Zaire still got hurt in Week 2, Notre Dame could’ve turned to a guy with plenty of experience.
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“I would’ve liked to have him stay here, no question,” Kelly said. “My feeling was that he was going to stay because he went through spring ball and there was no inclination that he was going to transfer. In all honestly, I thought he was going to stay. But I knew once he came into my office that he had made his decision.
“I wasn’t going to try to talk him out of it at that point. As to what school, he had earned his degree, so he had the right to go anywhere so I wasn’t going to dictate what school he went to.”
But the Golson-Zaire competition never existed in a perfect world. Golson, at it turns out, was eyeing an exit long before he went public with his decision to bolt South Bend a few weeks before graduating. The signs existed that Golson and Kelly’s relationship had frayed, and the 22 turnovers charged to Golson in 2014 were a black eye on a team that absorbed plenty of haymakers last fall.
“He was a guy who was kind of the same way at all times,” Kizer said of Golson. “Whether he liked it, whether he didn't like it, whether he was happy or whether he was sad he kept a very stern and calmness about himself, so I had no idea he was heading out. I was preparing to learn from him another year and watch him and Malik battle it out through the summer and see who was going to be the guy next year. So I had no idea.”
Kizer is taking over for Zaire on a full-time basis this week after the redshirt sophomore left-hander fractured his ankle against Virginia on Saturday. But would Notre Dame be better off if Golson were still on campus? It’s a question without a simple yes or no answer, but one worth re-visiting with Zaire sidelined for the rest of the season.
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Kelly admitted starting Zaire against LSU in the Music City Bowl precipitated Golson’s exit, but starting Zaire also helped Notre Dame end a four-game losing streak and beat a Top 25 SEC West team in Nashville. Since Golson was benched in the second quarter of an embarrassing regular season-ending loss against USC, Notre Dame hasn’t committed a turnover, a span of a little over 14 quarters.
Golson’s skills are known — clean throwing mechanics, a strong arm and good elusiveness outside the pocket. But his issues are clear, too. He fumbled 12 times last year and lost eight of them, and was responsible for 14 interceptions.
If Kelly and Sanford could’ve minimized Golson’s drawbacks and maximized his talent, Notre Dame could’ve had a Heisman contender at quarterback this year. But if those turnovers, which had a tendency to come in bunches, returned, it could’ve spelled disaster for the Irish. That’s part of the intrigue with Golson at Florida State — Jimbo Fisher is regarded as a strong quarterback coach, but can he fix Golson’s turnover issues?
Kizer is an unknown, having redshirted last fall and served as Notre Dame’s third-string quarterback during spring practice. He’s not as strong a runner as Zaire, but showed a strong arm in finding Will Fuller for a game-winning touchdown in Charlottesville on Saturday. Kelly and Kizer’s teammates praised the Toledo native’s poise against Virginia, with Fuller saying Kizer’s level composure “shocked me a little bit” for a guy who hadn’t taken a meaningful snap before Saturday.
Whether Kizer can be more than a poised first-time starter with a strong arm remains to be seen. Kelly is confident Notre Dame can still run its offense with Kizer as its quarterback. This Saturday’s game against a Top 20 Georgia Tech side could require Kizer to engineer a high-scoring win, with the Irish defense struggling against the triple option in the past and Paul Johnson’s Yellow Jackets running it with ruthless efficiency.
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Of course, Golson — or another quarterback with any experience — isn’t walking through that door. True freshman Brandon Wimbush is Kizer’s backup, and former walk-on Montgomery VanGorder is the third-stringer. If Notre Dame does make a legitimate playoff push with a greenhorn quarterback an injuries peppering the rest of the depth chart, it’ll be one of Kelly’s best coaching jobs in over two decades in the profession.
“It wasn’t like we didn’t have our eyes wide open that the potential (of Golson leaving) could exist, I just didn’t think going through spring ball that it would happen,” Kelly said. “Now obviously we had to get another quarterback ready, so we were prepared for this eventuality. And we got DeShone Kizer ready, and now it’s his chance.”