The inherent, overlooked challenge of most collegiate quarterback competitions doesn’t concern the main combatants themselves, but instead presents in those that surround them.
Or to be blunt, those aligned in front of them. But that doesn’t appear to be the case this spring in South Bend.
“I've never been a part of a second offensive line group that's playing this physically,” said first-year offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. “I love their competition, their fight, and I love the fact that it gives us the opportunity to have meaningful reps across the board.
“I knew the reputation of Coach (Harry) Hiestand -- I had been beaten in recruiting head-to-head with Coach Hiestand on a few offensive linemen so I knew what they had here -- but the cohesion of two-deep offensive lines doesn't happen in spring ball in college football.
“To see what coach has done, and what that group has bought into…to have two groups that you feel good about, it actually helps us in the quarterback competition, because a lot of times you're running with the (first unit) and you have protection and you're running with the (second string) and it's a sieve.
“It's just a bad look and you don't really get any meaningful offensive snaps. When we're running with our No. 2 offensive line, it's not a marked difference. That to me shows a great football coach and a lot of buy-in from that offensive line group.”
Sanford was familiar with some of the Irish competitors up front because of three-year stint at Stanford (2011-2013). But two years removed from a game against Notre Dame after serving as offensive coordinator for Boise State in 2014, he was not as well-versed in the program’s youth-filled perimeter targets.
“I really didn't know much about the wide receivers here before I got here. A lot of those guys (DaVaris Daniels, T.J. Jones) were gone. I'll tell you what, I didn't even know much about Will Fuller at all.
“My goodness, what he's been doing with a cast on his hand, been very impressed with him. I've been very impressed with Chris Brown. Those guys are really competitive, they're well-coached, they understand breaking down leverage. Coach (Mike) Denbrock has done an incredible job of putting that group together. I've been very impressed with that group.”
INPUT – AND AUTONOMY – APPRECIATED
Sanford’s own group ranks as the program’s highest-profile collection of talent. Four players at present, five when August camp rolls around – and two firmly entrenched at the head of the table.
Everett Golson vs. Malik Zaire has dominated spring headlines, and Sanford, in congress with head coach Brian Kelly, has the toughest and most-publicized decision of the Irish pre-season to sort through.
Communication to that end has been ideal. For Sanford, that seems to be the case throughout the offensive meeting rooms.
“The biggest thing for successful staffs that I've been a part of, there's great communication and flow for everybody, but 'Farm Your Own Territory,’” Sanford offered. “That's a big thing for me. I want to develop the quarterback group and I need to farm that territory. I need to get those guys to a place where we can win a championship.
“I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that Harry Hiestand, and Mike Denbrock, and Autry Denson (running backs), and Scott Booker (tight ends) are going to develop their groups. Then we get together and talk through the issues that show up and we have dialogue. That's a positive thing.
“When it's time to get into our meetings and practices with our players, you are the head coach of the offensive line, Harry Hiestand, you're the head coach, Scott Booker, of the tight ends group. I think we have really healthy balance of that here.”
Sanford, Denson, secondary coach Todd Lyght and defensive line coach Keith Gilmore are likely still in need of a healthy work/life balance. It’s naturally escaped the quartet after a whirlwind two months in which the foursome was officially hired two weeks prior to spring practice and has yet to have a chance to come up for air as the session nears its conclusion.
This week, Notre Dame’s new quarterbacks tutor finally had a chance to step outside his single-minded self, largely because he was finally able to step outside. Literally.
“It's surreal,” he said of his new position at the nation’s most famous college sports program. “Even being on the (LaBar) practice field for like the first time all spring, it seemed, (the team has been indoors for 11 of 13 practices to date), just sitting out there, taking in the magnitude of the program, every once-in-while it hits you, but then you get back to work.
“There are fun moments where you're able to sit back, take a deep breath, and realize this is an unbelievable place to be a part of.”
NO ROOM FOR ROSTER FODDER
The Irish offensive personnel features 32 scholarship players this spring, and it seems the vast majority have carved a niche in the operation.
“From an offensive standpoint the depth has been very encouraging,” said Sanford. “Honestly, in 10 years of doing this, in every spring I've been a part of, you're rolling guys out there consistently that you know aren't going to play for you in the fall. And I don't think we're at that point really with any position.
“Coach (Paul) Longo and his (strength and conditioning) staff…very few injuries we have that are soft tissue related, and we practice hard, we practice fast, we ask those receivers on the perimeter to run.
“I've been really impressed that we get meaningful reps, and quite frankly, it makes the quarterback competition really good. You're not surrounded by guys that have no chance of playing in the fall.”
For Sanford, what ultimately remains is determining which quarterback, or quarterbacks, will.