Brian Kelly didn’t expect the Blue-Gold Game to decide Notre Dame’s quarterback competition.
Everett Golson started the spring game but rotated with Malik Zaire during a first half as realistic as anything Notre Dame could create for its quarterbacks this spring. Both were live during that half, both took hits and both threw under pressure. The day finished with two quarterbacks looking more similar than different.
“I thought they both competed at a high level in the first half, and I think we all say they're all capable of playing championship football,” Kelly said. “Both Everett and Malik played well, did very good things.”
Neither quarterback spoke to reporters after the game, a Blue-Gold Game first under Kelly even though open quarterback competitions are not. Golson and Zaire exited spring ball competing for the starting job last year too and both talked to media afterward.
This time they were forced to let their play speak for them.
Golson finished 7-of-15 for 83 yards passing. His one interception was a gadget play to Zaire, a deep ball Max Redfield picked off and returned for a touchdown, running it back 85 yards after telling Zaire about it. Zaire went 8-of-14 for 137 yards and two touchdowns, a 68-yard bomb to Will Fuller and a dart to Justin Brent for a 29-yard score.
Zaire again proved the more capable rushing quarterback with four carries for 40 yards. Golson finished with nine caries for 24 yards and a touchdown, his average dinged by a nine-yard loss took on a slip behind the line.
“Malik probably made one poor decision putting the ball up for grabs, but neither one of them turned the football over,” Kelly said. “Everett tried to force a ball late in the third quarter. Other than that, I thought their judgment was excellent. The zone read game was strong. The decisions they made were excellent, so really pleased with them in the first half.”
Both quarterbacks went to customary red jerseys in the second half before giving way to third-string DeShone Kizer and scout team quarterback Montgomery VanGorder. Kizer went 1-of-5 for three yards. VanGorder finished 3-of-3 for 43 yards and a 25-yard score to Nic Weishar before taking a sack on a potentially game-tying two-point conversion.
That neither Golson nor Zaire won the job during spring practice surprised no one, including Kelly, who complimented both quarterbacks for not getting consumed into the competition itself.
“They can't control that,” Kelly said. “All they can control is what's in their purview and that is the fundamentals of what we've asked them to work on, and the rest they can't really worry about. It's not their call.”
Next comes the real off-season for both, short of the “OTA” opportunities for the coaching staff this summer. What Kelly wants to see from the quarterbacks between now and August are the same things he wanted to see between January and March.
For Zaire, it’s consistency in the passing game.
For Golson, it’s most small picture items.
For Kelly, each quarterback checked that box, at least for the most part.
“So game management situation with Everett, consistency and efficiency with his read option game we've got to continue to work on,” Kelly said. “I thought he ran the ball effectively and efficiently today. He ran with his pads down. He made good decisions of turning it up and stepping out of bounds when he needed to. Those two things in particular. Game management, I thought he worked in the pocket well, stepped up, when he had nothing he took off, and then again, I think the read option game. Those things he's got to continue to work on.”
“And Malik, it's really about his consistency in all the things that he does. He does some things so well and then there'll be a couple things that are not consistent. He'll do it so well in the same play, then there's a dropoff. So we think that's more concentration, that's just more focus and just working on those things with him.”