THE QUARTERBACK QUANDARY
Though a decision regarding Notre Dame’s No. 1 triggerman for 2016 won’t likely come until the Irish are well into August camp, head coach Brian Kelly offered clarity on the obstacles facing both potential starters, DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire.
“The two quarterbacks are really good players,” said Kelly after offering a post-spring decision is unlikely. “Each has different things to work on. One thing that we’re realizing is we did a lot of things offensively (with Kizer) that we did not do with Malik in camp as we evolved offensively during the year. There are a lot of things he’s doing for the first time.
“So knowledge base for Malik has been important this spring. He’s needed the spring to pick up things we put in offensively during the year. So it’s hard to evaluate strictly who’s ahead of whom, because we're installing for Malik. But communication, footwork, all those things – balance, those are the things Malik needs to continue to work on.”
Kizer’s challenges are commensurate with a collegiate junior but one who’s just11.5 games into his playing career: “Across-the-board reads, red zone efficiency, and his consistency,” according to Kelly.
The Kizer-led Irish offense finished with 27 touchdowns in 45 red zone visits last season. Zaire’s much smaller sample size produced three touchdowns in eight trips, though one of the failures was turned into a touchdown courtesy a fake field goal pass from the right hand of Kizer.
“They're both No. 1s,” Kelly offered, adding the bottom-line, “They both probably can't play at the same time. One is going to have to be the starter and somebody is going to be unhappy. I can’t keep ‘em all happy. We’re not going to go into the season with a team that does not have an identity. We’re going to have an identity as to who we are. That doesn't mean we can't play more than one quarterback, but we'll have a quarterback and we'll get that established.”
WHAT NOT TO DO
Kelly was asked if his decision-making process regarding the Kizer/Zaire duel would be influenced by what Ohio State infamously endured last season in a similar competition involving former starter J.T. Barrett and 2014 Buckeyes season-saver Cardale Jones.
“Well it seemed to me that Ohio State really found their identity after the Michigan State game (a 17-14 mid-November defeat) where in a lot of ways, (running back) Ezekiel Elliott can be credited with waking up their entire coaching staff and saying, ‘Who are we?’
“I think the lessons learned there are, ‘What is your identity going to be?’ And they clearly decided what their identity was going to be after that game. They went with JT and said, ‘This is what we’re going to be.’ And that’s who they were against us,” Kelly added in reference to Elliott’s standout performance against the Irish.
“I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen to us,” he continued. “We’ll have an identity, we’ll know who we are. That doesn’t mean we can’t play two quarterbacks. You just can’t keep three quarterbacks happy. Somebody is going to be disappointed, but they’re going to have to know their roles and accept their roles moving forward.”
A relatively healthy spring sessions has not been without casualties for Kelly’s Irish. In addition to the ongoing absence of Corey Robinson, sophomore slot man and punt returner C.J. Sanders eventually did undergo surgery for a hip injury.
“He was at practice today,” said Kelly of Sanders. “Everything (points to) him being able to get into physical activity in late June, then July will be a very big month for him in terms of getting back physical and into camp, hopefully using camp to get him in a position to compete against Texas.”
Kelly noted that early enrollee Kevin Stepherson, senior Torii Hunter, Jr, and sophomore walk-on Chris Finke have returned punts this spring in Sanders’ stead. Finke is backing up redshirt-sophomore speedster Corey Holmes in the slot as well.
As for Robinson, the senior target still awaits a consultation on his concussion suffered on or about March 19 or 21.
“He’s going to have his evaluation with a specialist this week,” said Kelly. “He’ll have a consultation. He’s doing better. We’ll know a lot more about his situation after he has that consultation.”
Last Year’s Leftovers: Still working their way back from 2015 injuries are projected starters Durham Smythe and Jarron Jones.
“Getting physically stronger is priority No. 1 after two surgeries,” said Kelly of Smythe. “He missed a whole (season) of weight training, really. Just developing that strength back in terms of in-line blocking. Lower body. He wasn’t able to do much at all in terms of gaining strength. That’s really the process that he’s in.”
Smythe had surgery on both his shoulder and knee in mid-September before returning to play in the Fiesta Bowl on January 1. Also on the field that day albeit in a more limited capacity was the squad’s top nose tackle, Jones. The fifth-year senior has played in less than a handful of snaps since mid-November 2014 as the result of LisFranc and (August 2015) knee surgeries.
“I would say that Jarron is still playing a bit tentative,” Kelly offered. “I think he understands that he’s got to play with more confidence. I’m confident that he will when the lights go on.
“But having said that, he’s going to be challenged. There are a lot of good players in there. He’s going to have to really bear down and make that concerted effort to really challenge himself because we know he has some really unique qualities. His size, his ability to push the pocket, those things are still there.
“I think a little bit of his confidence has to come back and when it does, I think he’ll definitely be able to help us.”