Thinking outside the pocket

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly introduced his new quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator today. To a man, the trio believes it has a pair of dual-threat quarterbacks ready to compete for one starting job under center.

Three days after his undefeated Fighting Irish escaped a season-crushing defeat at the hands of Pittsburgh, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly previewed his team's offense for the forthcoming season.

"It'll be driven by the quarterback, by his consistent play, by his decision making, by his athleticism."

Kelly was speaking of then redshirt-freshman triggerman Everett Golson, the game's hero and chief figure in a comeback from a 20-6 second half deficit.

Fast forward to the present and Golson, entering his senior season, finally appears poised to make good on his head coach's promise of a quarterback-driven attack.

Well, if not Golson, at least Kelly's newest redshirt-freshman dual-threat signal-caller, Malik Zaire.

"I know we're always in this rush to move to Everett, but I just want to caution everybody that we have, I think, a very good quarterback in Malik Zaire as well," said Kelly at Friday afternoon's press conference that officially introduced new quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur and announced the promotion of passing game coordinator Mike Denbrock to the offensive coordinator position.

"And I'm not ready to hand everything over to Everett.  I love Everett, he played in the national championship game, I'm like everybody here, but I'm also someone that wants to make sure that the quarterback position is such, especially with Matt now with us, that we give everyone an opportunity to compete for that position and Malik is going to get that chance as well. 

Everett is doing great, he looks physically like he should be at this time, and the reports have been great and we're very, very excited," Kelly continued. "But I do want to caution everybody including anybody that's around the program, and our players in particular, I'll use this opportunity to do that, this is a pretty good quarterback that we didn't play this year, Malik Zaire, that's going to get a chance, too."

Golson remains the odds-on favorite to reclaim the spot he relinquished last May after suspension from the University and football team for an academic violation.

Both Zaire and Golson possess a key trait offered by Denbrock for the future of the Irish attack.

Redshirt-freshman Malik Zaire

"I think it starts with the quarterback, and his ability to be a playmaker within the offense," said Denbrock. "An offense that certainly at times, we really haven't been able to craft it to fit a player behind the center, and I think what I'm looking for in particular is somebody that can make some things happen outside the pocket. We have been driven behind the tackles for the last couple of years.  We would like to be a little bit more dynamic outside the pocket."

It's an approach that fits LaFleur's background, both as a former quarterback and coach.

"Matt has always -- he's had that quarterback as well and he will go back to his experience as a quarterback.  That's what he did," said Kelly of the ex- Saginaw Valley State signal-caller. "He's used to being outside the pocket, then at Central Michigan with (future Detroit Lions draft pick) Dan LeFevour, so he's very familiar with what I like to do offensively as we talk in those terms."

LaFleur envisions competition and opportunity for both the prodigal son Golson and upstart Zaire.

"From my standpoint, both these guys are coming in with a blank slate as far as I'm concerned," he said of the spring session's only scholarship quarterbacks. "I don't have history with either one of these guys so I'm just excited to see what these guys are all about and, you know, watch them work and see how they compete, just kinda learn along the way."

LaFleur tutored 2012 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III during the pair's run to the playoffs as members of the Washington Redskins. No player that season got more from breaking the pocket and making a play than the former Heisman Trophy winner.

Golson took over the Pittsburgh game in 2012

"It's a fine line because as a coach, especially with the quarterback position everything is based on timing and rhythm," said LaFleur. "There is a fine line that you can't be too strict in your teachings to take that playmaker ability out of that quarterback."

Despite 117 yards lost to quarterback sacks, Golson gained 298 rushing yards and scored six touchdowns during his 2012 stint under center. 177 yards and three touchdowns from that total occurred during a three-week stretch in wins over Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, and Boston College in which Golson finished third, second, and second on the squad in rushing yards with three of the team's four total rushing scores in those contests.

His six scores that fall led all Irish runners. His suspension since likely opened the door for spring 2014's competition with the rookie Zaire.

Both have much to prove.

"I try to get the most out of my players, however that would be," said LaFleur. " I think each guy learns a little bit different and really ultimately you have to find out what makes each guy tick, and that's what I'm going to try to do over these next few months is really develop that relationship with these guys and find out how they he perform the best to their ability."

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