Notre Dame needs a starting quarterback. Eventually.
That date figures to come in August, but with how Brian Kelly has staged the competition between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire during spring practice it seems Notre Dame’s head coach values competition more than resolution.
Golson and Zaire continue to rotate through the first team – Zaire took starter’s reps Wednesday – as Kelly attempts to simultaneously determine a starter while making the backup feel like one too. That’s part of the reason why Kelly said the battle between quarterbacks would drag into training camp, making plain a point that’s been assumed since the Music City Bowl.
“They'll continue to compete into August,” Kelly said. “There's no question.”
That’s the ideal for Kelly because a training camp competition means both quarterbacks remain on the roster.
Golson will have his own decision to make should he graduate on time in May, granting him the chance to transfer to another program and be immediately eligible. Dayne Crist and Andrew Hendrix took that escape route too, but neither helped get Notre Dame into the BCS National Championship Game.
Zaire hasn’t ducked questions about winning the job and his expectations to start against Texas.
It’s a balance delicate enough that when Kelly is asked about one quarterback he’s made a point to mention both. That was the case Wednesday and will likely be again Saturday after Notre Dame’s scrimmage when the quarterbacks will be live with the media in attendance.
“Individually, today Everett had a great day in the pocket. His feet were settled. He was calm, he was protecting the football. The things that were flaws for him and problems last year, if you watched him today … you would not think that that was an issue at all last year,” Kelly said. “Malik was throwing the ball accurate and on-time today.”
“So the areas where we've asked them to improve on, both of them were on their games today. I think that's healthy competition. They're both trying to get better and working to get better in the areas we've asked them to focus on.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said he’s open to a two-quarterback system but wants a decision at least before the pregame introductions of the opener. That’s when he found out he’d lost his own quarterback competition as a senior at Boise State.
“Ultimately, I think the progression of one over the other as it starts to separate will make the decision,” Sanford said. “Going into fall camp, I have a feeling we’ll have a very clean definition of … the starting quarterback.”
Assuming both remain on the roster, it would be a surprise if both don’t play next season considering their skill sets. Sanford said unlike most quarterback competitions, Golson and Zaire are more similar than different. While Golson is the better passer and Zaire the more athletic runner, the quarterbacks coach believes both can thrive in both areas.
From a practical perspective, that means the staff can expose the quarterback to more contact than seasons past because the backup can run the full offense too. That hasn’t been the case under Kelly with a collection of underclassmen and walk-ons.
“(That) actually gives you the freedom to run both those guys,” Sanford said. “The thing that is interesting, they are both good runners, generally there’s one pocket passer and one runner.”
Neither coach expects to find a starter after the scrimmage.
But for Notre Dame, prolonging the competition is a win unto itself.