NOTRE DAME, Ind. – Now the quarterback competition can really start.
If there was any revelation during the Blue-Gold Game it was that head coach Brian Kelly saw the past month as time for Malik Zaire to get caught up more than DeShone Kizer to get ahead.
Based on Saturday, Zaire is basically there. He completed just 6-of-15 passes for 120 yards but worked against the starting front seven and top safeties. He hit a 50-yard bomb to Torii Hunter Jr. and ran for a 13-yard touchdown. Kizer picked up where he left off last season, finishing 10-of-17 for 113 yards to go with four carries for 21 yards.
When spring practice opened, Zaire was off Kizer’s pace in understanding an offense that had evolved since that broken ankle suffered at Virginia. Communication with the revamped offensive line wasn’t on point. He needed to adjust to a new group of receivers too.
Now that Zaire has done that he can get to competing with Kizer on a more level playing field this summer and into training camp.
“The offense developed under Kizer during the year, not Malik,” Kelly said. “So he was at a bit of a disadvantage coming into the spring, and I thought he caught up.
“So I think now that he has a better understanding of everything that we're doing, I think now you've got the race and that will obviously be decided through camp.”
When Kelly makes that quarterback call is unclear. How he makes that quarterback call is unclear. About all that’s known is Kizer and Zaire might not be able to do much to separate themselves from one another. Kelly said this is the tightest quarterback competition he’s had since coming to Notre Dame.
Kelly did say sophomore Brandon Wimbush is basically out of the running as he got little work during spring and won’t get much more during training camp. The focus will be on Zaire and Kizer.
“I don’t know when I’ll make (the decision),” Kelly said. “But there will be a time when I’m going to have to say, ‘That’s our quarterback, let’s go with him, we’re all in, and let’s move forward.’ They are both that good; I already know that.
“I think I’m going to have to make a judgment call.”
Both quarterbacks used the word “national championship” after the Blue-Gold Game, revealing an unsurprising bar for the Ohio products. Working in Notre Dame’s favor might be the rapport between Zaire and Kizer, which wasn’t an element in Zaire’s competition with Everett Golson last spring.
“The good thing is that we had a relationship before all of this even transpired,” Zaire said. “I’m glad he’s on the roster and I’m glad that we are in a position that we can both be better and I think it’s going to help the team in the end.”
“That’s my brother and we work out every day and we get a lot of things done together.”
While Zaire spent spring relearning an offense he led for barely seven quarters last season, Kizer worked toward making that system more efficient. Kelly pointed to red zone miscues – Kizer led one red zone touchdown drive but had another stall out at the five-yard line – that dogged the Irish last season.
Kelly and Kizer talked Friday about those issues – Notre Dame ranked 79th nationally in red zone touchdown percentage last fall – and his spring game revealed some of the improvements still necessary.
“I just think that he continues to show the things that you want a starting quarterback to show,” Kelly said. “We’ve got to continue to grow in the red zone with him and come up with some touchdowns instead of field goals. So there are areas of growth that are still out there.”
What comes next for Notre Dame’s quarterbacks is a long off-season of directing workouts as two of the roster’s best leaders happen to play the position. There’s little either quarterback can do to win the job between now and August, although the coming months should let both prepare for a whirlwind camp.
Both believe they’ll start in Austin, Texas on Sept. 4.
“I've always had confidence,” Zaire said. “If you don't have confidence in yourself to get the job done, then you might as well not even be out there. I always feel I can help this team.
“I'll be ready.”