Malik Zaire’s burning desire to play is well known in Notre Dame circles. He chafed for two seasons before getting a chance to start at quarterback when the 2015 campaign began.
DeShone Kizer was an afterthought a year ago as Everett Golson and Zaire received the overwhelming majority of snaps with the top units in spring drills.
Now, after helping lead Notre Dame to 10 victories in ’15 following a season-ending injury suffered by Zaire in the second game of the season, Kizer refers to the quarterback meeting room as “his” room.
Such is the confidence level of the two signalcallers battling it out this spring in an effort to win the starting job. There’s also Brandon Wimbush, the understudy, with the cannon for an arm and tremendous athletic ability, but realistically, the quarterback of the future.
Battle lines haven’t been drawn between Kizer and Zaire, but the desire to be “the man” at quarterback in 2016 is on the front burner.
“It’s Coach (Brian) Kelly’s room,” corrected Irish offensive coordinator/quarterbacks Mike Sanford with a wistful smile.
“It’s a relationship that transcends the competition and the game of football. As long as they keep it about themselves and their personal improvement and their drive to be not only the best quarterback in that room but one of the elite quarterbacks in the country, we’ll be in pretty good air space.”
And yet the competitive juices are in play often enough to have a catchphrase to address the possibility of an over-heated quest for the brass ring.
“Competitive, not combative, has been a line we’ve used for the last year-and-a-half,” Sanford said. “It was a very similar situation a year ago and I thought we navigated those waters pretty well. It proved itself how important it was for a third quarterback to be prepared to play as well.”
Of course, the battle last spring was between Golson and Zaire with Kizer mostly on the outside looking in. Golson, after spring ball finished and he was assured of receiving his undergraduate degree, transferred to Florida State.
Zaire moved into the No. 1 spot with Kizer -- the previous No. 3 -- sliding up to the second slot. When Zaire broke his ankle against Virginia, Kizer took the reins and Wimbush moved to No. 2 on the depth chart.
“We always want to focus on the top guy at any position competition, but often times, you’re only as good as your second, third and fourth groups at that position,” said Sanford, who will welcome in freshman Ian Book this summer as the fourth recruited scholarship quarterback.
“The guy we weren’t even talking about in these meetings a year ago ended up taking 90 percent of the reps on the season.”
And that’s why, in part, Kizer believes he is the man for the job. It was Kizer who repeatedly led Notre Dame on game-winning drives during the 2015 season that paved the way for a 10-victory season and a bid to the Fiesta Bowl.
Zaire, meanwhile, had to endure the agony of sitting out what was, by and large, his third season in a row. (Zaire started and assisted Golson in leading Notre Dame to a Music City Bowl victory over LSU the previous December after preserving a year in 2013.)
So while Sanford tries to groom two, even three, starting quarterbacks, the balancing act of reps, expectations and egos requires a deft touch.
“We’re charting every single thing,” Sanford said. “We’re charting the amount of runs and passes each guy is getting with the ones.”
The media, and thus, the public, often misinterpret the snippets of information that comes out of the 15 spring practices. If a practice is open for observation, every media outlet notes which quarterback comes out with the first unit during the 30-or-so minutes the practice session is under outside scrutiny.
“If you guys come the first 45 minutes of practice, you might not see the whole picture,” Sanford said. “If you’re with the ones in 11-on-11, that means in 7-on-7 and skel(eton drills), you’re going to be working with the second group.”
In other words, the coaching staff is going the extra mile to make sure that Kizer and Zaire get the exact same number of “chances” with the best players surrounding them.
Sanford wouldn’t publicly give an edge to either quarterback.
“If we’re being 100 percent honest it’s a typical deal -- it ebbs and flows,” Sanford said. “There are days guys have a strong day, and even in waves, too. There might be a day where DeShone strings together three great practices and takes a step back.
“You don’t really have the flexibility to have those kinds of slumps because you’re going to fall behind. Today (Monday, April 4), all three guys played particularly well.”
Zaire has re-adapted to the game more quickly than Sanford expected considering the severity of his injury and the time off the field.
“The surprising thing for me was how quickly Malik got off to a good start,” Sanford said. “There wasn’t quite the rust early on that we all anticipated. He did a nice job of coming back and playing football the way he left off.
“With him it’s always about simplifying it and making the game easy, letting the game come to him because he can do some great things when things are right.”
With a body of work from nearly a full season as the starting quarterback, Kizer has expectations that Sanford wants to monitor right up until the final day of spring practice on April 16 in the Blue-Gold Game.
“With DeShone, I want to see him continuing the process of ball placement,” Sanford said. “I want to see him be very intentional and purposeful in where the ball is placed.
“If he can be a consistent ball-placement (quarterback), which he shows at times, he can be an elite player.”
Another step in the process for Kizer and Zaire goes beyond their individual, solitary development. Each has to establish chemistry with a receiving corps that is, by and large, completely different than the unit they learned how to mesh with in 2015.
Four of last year’s top five receivers, including Will Fuller (62 catches, 1,252 yards, 14 TDs), Chris Brown (48-597-4) and Amir Carlisle (32-355-1), have moved on in their quest for a foothold in the NFL.
“If there’s a larger story line than the actual QB competition, from an offensive standpoint, that’s the most significant story line,” said Sanford of the quarterback-receiver chemistry.
Only one receiver has truly emerged in that capacity.
“There’s incredible chemistry with Torii Hunter and the whole quarterback group,” Sanford offered. “(Hunter is) playing at an unbelievable level. But then we’ve also moved around some pieces.”
Those pieces include Alize’ Jones, Equanimeous St. Brown, Miles Boykin and Corey Holmes, which means there’s a ton of work to be done through the rest of spring practice and beyond.
“We’re in the infancy of this,” Sanford said. “We’re just getting off the ground. We’re making progress, but it’s a work in progress, and it’s going to put more emphasis on the off-season. This summer, the quarterback-led workouts are going to be really important.”
Those drills will be led predominately by DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire, or Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer, depending upon how one chooses to look at it.
The competition is far from over. If anything, it’s just getting started.