The game of football is, generally speaking, won in the trenches. But a triggerman at the quarterback position is the engine that powers the offense.
When Notre Dame takes on its 12 regular-season opponents this fall, only one – Miami – has notable experience/established success at the quarterback position.
That’s good news for Notre Dame’s transitioning defense, which was a sieve in the red zone in ‘15, and that was with defensive linemen Sheldon Day and Romeo Okwara, linebackers Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, and defensive backs KeiVarae Russell and Elijah Shumate, all of whom are gone.
Only Miami’s Brad Kaaya, who passed for 3,238 yards and a 61.2 completion percentage with 16 touchdown passes and five interceptions in ‘15, returns with a notable track record among quarterbacks on Notre Dame’s 2016 slate. Kaaya now has nearly 6,500 yards passing, 42 touchdowns and just 17 interceptions in two years as a starter. He’s also part of a program that has gone 14-12 the last two years.
Prolific quarterbacks lost from teams on Notre Dame’s 2016 schedule include:
• Michigan State’s Connor Cook (3,131 yards passing, 56.1 completion percentage, 24 TDs, 7 interceptions).
• USC’s Cody Kessler (3,536 yards passing, 66.8 completion percentage, 29 TDs, 7 interceptions).
• Navy’s Keenan Reynolds (1,202 yards passing, 1,373 yards rushing, 24 TDs).
• Stanford’s Kevin Hogan (2,867 yards passing, 67.8 completion percentage, 27 TDs, 8 interceptions).
• N.C. State’s Jacoby Brissett (2,662 yards passing, 60.0 completion percentage, 20 TDs, 6 interceptions).
In their combined careers, Michigan State’s Cook, USC’s Kessler, Stanford’s Hogan and N.C. State’s Brissett threw for 34,641 yards and 280 touchdowns. Reynolds rushed for 4,559 yards and 88 touchdowns for the Midshipmen.
Even Duke, which expected to have a fully-functioning Thomas Sirk at quarterback (2,625 yards passing, 803 yards rushing in ‘15), will be searching for an alternative after Sirk suffered his second Achilles tear in a February workout.
Sophomore Parker Boehme, with 78 career passes, likely will replace Sirk if Sirk can’t rebound in time for the 2016 season.
Among the more experienced quarterbacks to face the Irish this fall is Nevada’s Tyler Stewart, who threw for 2,139 yards, 15 touchdowns and seven interceptions in ’15. Stewart also rushed for 323 yards and four touchdowns.
Syracuse will go with sophomore Eric Dungey, who threw for 1,298 yards, 11 touchdowns and five interceptions on 176 pass attempts in ’15 after Terrel Hunt went down with a season-ending injury. Zack Mahoney (535 yards passing, 46.2 percent, seven TDs and 2 interceptions) could compete for the spot.
Texas, Notre Dame’s season-opening opponent, still has quarterbacks Tyrone Swoopes and Jerrod Heard, who combined for less than 1,800 yards passing, nine touchdowns and six interceptions last year. Look out, however, for Steve Buechele, who could give the Longhorns a quarterback around which to build.
First-year Virginia Tech head coach Justin Fuente must replace Michael Brewer (1,703 yards passing, 13 TDs, 7 interceptions), who battled injuries throughout the ’15 season. Brenden Motley is the most experienced of a list of about half a dozen prospects after throwing for 1,155 yards, 11 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Navy’s replacement for Reynolds will be a somewhat familiar name to Notre Dame fans. Tago Smith filled in for an injured Reynolds in last year’s 41-24 Irish victory and rushed for 47 yards on nine carries.
N.C. State’s replacement for Brissett likely will be Boise State graduate transfer Ryan Finley, who completed 46-of-70 passes in three games of action last year for the Broncos before suffering a broken ankle. Jalan McClendon is the only quarterback on the roster who has thrown a pass in an N.C. State uniform.
Hogan threw for 9,385 yards and 75 touchdowns in 51 games for Stanford. His replacement likely will be highly-touted sophomore Keller Chryst -- the nephew of Wisconsin head coach Paul Chryst – who threw nine passes in ’15.
Kessler threw for 10,339 yards and 88 touchdowns in 51 games for USC. Max Browne has the edge to replace Kessler with Sam Darnold trying to narrow the gap.
Will Michigan State go from Connor to O’Connor? Cook passed for 9,194 yards and 71 touchdowns with the Spartans. Fifth-year senior Tyler O’Connor, who started the victory over Ohio State last year, will battle fourth-year junior Damion Terry for the job.
At worst, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, who is expected to win the starting job over Malik Zaire, is the second best quarterback among the Irish and their 12 opponents this fall. Kizer threw for 2,880 yards, 21 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in his first year of collegiate action. He also rushed for 520 yards and a Notre Dame quarterback record 10 touchdowns.
None of Notre Dame’s 12 opponents comes close to the one-two punch of Kizer and Zaire at the quarterback position, let alone a one-two-three with up-and-coming Brandon Wimbush.