Notre Dame’s quarterback room didn’t live up to its lofty billing Saturday afternoon in South Bend. But as the purported “best quarterback room in the country” scuffled a bit during its third of 15 scheduled practices this spring, the unit’s chief tutor barely blinked.
After all, such a bump in the road is to be expected at the outset of an arduous process, and that reality sits just fine with Mike Sanford.
“A day like Saturday, we struggled a little bit,” said the second-year Irish quarterbacks coach. “The game of football is great at reminding you that your group isn’t as good as you think you are. And there are times where it shows they’re not as bad as I thought they were, too.
“The truth lies in the middle.”
That’s where Sanford resides today – in the middle of the nation’s most intriguing quarterback battle. But it’s the minutia involved with the three-headed quarterback monster of DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire, and dark horse Brandon Wimbush that captures Sanford’s daily attention, not the group’s larger place on a national scale.
“We just want to be a championship-caliber quarterback group and we weren't a year ago,” Sanford said. “We weren't. We won 10 football games, which is great, but we want to win 14 football games and we have to play that way every single opportunity we're on the field in practice and games.”
To get there, Sanford has wiped the slate clean, and it’s not because Kizer would, by virtue his overall body of work last fall, have an inherent leg up on the competition.
“We all start from scratch. We’d have done that if Malik and Brandon and Montgomery VanGorder and Nolan (Henry) weren’t even here, we’d have started from ground zero,” said Sanford. “We look to see how we can improve mechanically; situation-ally. Comparing our situational football numbers to a year ago because we have to get better.
“We have to be a better third-down quarterback group. We have to be a better red zone quarterback group. We have to be a better two-minute group even though we were pretty good there. That’s the difference between being good and great.”
NOT EVEN CLOSE
Three disparate talents, one role, one room, and one extensive, exhaustive process. That’s what awaits Sanford and his trio of triggermen over the next five months and likely beyond.
“The biggest challenge is constantly keeping everybody process-oriented,” said Sanford. “If we could stay on the process and really not worry about the big picture because it's going to be proven out over the course of time. We're going to figure out the best way to give our team the chance to win a championship and that's what we're going to do with that group…we have to work with that group about being focused on just that next step.
“Each and every day there's another door you have to bust through and once you bust through that door, hypothetically there's another door waiting for you and you have to bust through that door. We have to be process-oriented and not worry too much about the big picture.”
That means not getting caught up in one good or bad practice, or who’s repping where and why.
“By the end of spring, they will have gotten almost identical repetition,” said Sanford of last year’s starters Zaire and Kizer. “And Brandon’s not too far off. We’ve changed up our rotation a little bit so you’re never just the second quarterback. One day you might be the 7-on-7 QB out with the first group but you’re the second (QB) with 11-on-11, and then we’ll flip those with even and odd day rotations in terms of the practice number (of reps).”
As was the case last season, detailed statistical analysis will be part of the process.
“We’ve expanded on it to include situations: third-down, red zone, two-minute drive efficiency when we scrimmage,” said Sanford. “We’ll look at the success of drive per QB that ran the drive. We’re also (tracking) every single grade we have plus/minus every rep in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11. We’re grading it not only in terms of ‘Did you get your job done’? But how well did you get it done based on exactly what we’re asking you to do from a detail standpoint?”
The devil is in the details, but the decision regarding Notre Dame’s starter behind center won’t necessarily reflect the quarterback that compiles the most impressive data points along the way.
“The data is just a guide, not the end-all, be-all,” Sanford admitted. “Because there are a lot of factors playing into data: dropped balls, various receivers…it’s a bit of science vs. feel. Really it’s going to be about Coach (Brian) Kelly making a decision for this team.
“All I can do for the quarterback group is present the situation the best that I can see it, both from a statistical standpoint and also a coaching, dependability standpoint. That will help Coach Kelly deem what’s best for this football team.”
The latter won’t be decided any time soon.