Favorite Son, For Now

The starter, the backup, the plan: Everett Golson and Malik Zaire go head-to-head -- and work side-by-side -- as the Irish prepare for LSU.

"It’s definitely a tough position. They’ll love you one day and want to replace you the next."

Notre Dame redshirt-freshman quarterback Malik Zaire was referencing the journey of his mentor, starting signal-caller Everett Golson, but he could have just as easily been foreshadowing his own career arc and that of every collegiate and professional triggerman that's preceded him.

At some point, the starter, no matter how golden, is a bum. The backup, invariably, is the most popular player on a team's roster, at least if said squad has the audacity to lose too often.

The Irish have done the latter and Golson was supplanted as a result. He's in a battle no one had forecasted at season's end, at least not at season's outset when Notre Dame's prodigal son returned to fanfare, touchdowns, and nary a turnover through three games.

Since? Aside from those 22 turnovers, how did you enjoy the play Mrs. Lincoln?

"I think stuff like that is more so -- it's on the field and to be honest off the field stuff, too," said Golson in a cryptic answer regarding his journey from flawless to xx.

"To eradicate that stuff on the field, we know I have to take care of the ball. Maybe I need to stop taking chances, not taking risks. Stuff like that."

Asked if he needed to be benched to answer the proverbial "wake-up call" Golson dismissed the notion. "I don't know. I mean -- I think the competitor in me hates to lose, so that was enough of a wakeup call. This might be adding some fuel to the fire so to speak."

The fire presents in the form of competition. Both he and his understudy will play, purportedly often, against LSU on Dec. 30. Who'll start, who'll finish, and who'll play more than the other is anyone's guess. It's a situation that, at least on the practice field, has made both better.

"I look at Malik really like my little brother," said Golson. "Seeing what he's going through and has been through is a similar situation from when I came in (2011). It's competition for sure. There's no other way to put it, it's competition. With that being said, off the field, there's no animosity. It's pretty competitive on the field but off the field it's a solid relationship."

Solid, at minimum, is what head coach Brian Kelly needs from both of his signal-callers in

"They’re still competing. They’re still working at their craft," said Kelly as the team braced for its final two pre-Christmas practice sessions, both of which would include live scrimmage work. "The most definitive statement that I made on it probably still stands and that is they’ll both play. As we get closer, we’re starting to hone in on some of the things that we want to do with both of them. I’ve got an eye towards what I want to do with Malik and what specifically I want to do with Everett as it fits the game plan.

"As it gets closer as we get down there, we’ll probably start to hone in on who the starter is and how that plays out."

It seems the situation will govern Kelly's substitution pattern with the pair, at least until one distinguishes himself as the hot hand (or feet). If that proves to be Zaire, the relative rookie promises to be ready.

"My confidence level has always been the same throughout the season," said Zaire. "Just being able to be locked in and continue to be a leader for those guys around me because I know whenever my number is called, whenever that opportunity came, I needed to take advantage of it."

It will come again on Dec. 30. What then does Zaire need to do to ensure success, both against the Tigers and entering what promises to be a heated off-season competition.

"Just being more efficient. Third down is important for every quarterback," he said. "Third down blitz is the most important thing for a quarterback. Moving forward, just being efficient on third down, being consistent on third down, being consistent against beating the blitz I think is important as people view us as an offense. Being able to convert on third down is something big that we should expect higher things from ourselves."

The Golson-led Irish were 57 of 120 in third-down conversion situations en route to a 7-1 start (47.5 percent). They finished 19-47 (40.4 percent) during a four-game losing skid before the senior ceded his starting spot near the conclusion of a first half debacle in Los Angeles.

The former mark would rank 16th nationally and played a large role in a 7-1 record. The latter just 66th during a time in which Notre Dame's depleted defense desperately needed its offense and special teams to pick up the slack.

"It was difficult, to be honest," said Golson of the moment he was pulled. "It was before I threw the dig to Corey (Robinson), the interception (a pass that went through Robinson's hands before being intercepted by USC's Gerald Bowman).

"I saw (Zaire) warming up. I knew he was (breathing) down my back. It was tough. It's nothing I can't endure or come back from."

Golson actually received one more series, one that ended in a fumble, his 12th such dropped pigskin of the season with eight lost to the opponent.

Enter Zaire, and a long-dormant competition renewed.

"Striving to get each other better, that’s what’s important," said Zaire. "At the same time we realize it’s about us, it’s about the other 10 guys on the field with us (too). The more we focus on winning games as an offensive unit and not so much as a position battle, our relationship will continue to be the way that it is."

A win, however it's achieved, is paramount for the program to avoid an off-season of discontent.


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