Like life, ties aren’t usually fair.
They’re not fair in baseball, where the tie supposedly goes to the runner. They’re not fair in basketball, where a held ball goes back to the offense.
And they’re not fair in quarterback competitions, where a relative tie almost always favors the incumbent.
Such is life for Notre Dame senior Malik Zaire, at this point last summer the no-doubt starting quarterback and potential new-face-in-waiting of the Irish football program.
Fast forward to the present where Zaire is back – in the minds of most – in the role of hungry challenger. And the incumbent, former distant backup DeShone Kizer, would seem hard-pressed to be pushed from his starting role that included a combined 31 rushing and receiving touchdowns in 11.5 games and, as important, myriad clutch moments from beginning to end – at least one forever notched in Irish lore.
Both are respected leaders. Both can run and throw (or throw and run, in the case of Kizer), and both believe they’re the best quarterback orbiting the amateur football planet, much less their own locker room.
Assuming both triggermen continue to improve as the staff and head coach Brian Kelly project, what realistic chance does Zaire have to unseat Kizer, not only the incumbent but the superior passer – a passer that rushed for a program position-record 10 touchdowns last fall – before the team touches down in Austin for its opener at Texas?
“Let’s look at what you know,” said Kelly in reference to Zaire’s ability to run the football. “What can Malik do that could separate him from DeShone? Malik is a guy that is an off-schedule playmaker. He can see the field very well (when forced to escape the pocket).”
In short, while Kizer made ample plays with his feet last season, it’s Zaire that can blow a game open by turning a pristine collegiate football field into his personal sandlot.
But while that unique sandlot skillset is available to Zaire, it doesn’t define a Kelly system quarterback. Rather, it’s instead the ability to read a defense and execute a game plan that’s paramount, and after a season on the sidelines in which the Irish offense changed to match Kizer’s strengths, Zaire opened spring ball with work to do just to level the playing field.
“I waited for him to catch back up (during the spring) and I feel like they’re on that same level in terms of knowledge,” said Kelly. “He’s going to have to run the offense a little bit different than DeShone. DeShone is going to be who he is, and hopefully he continues to grow in the areas that we’ve asked.
“But Malik is going to have to be that off-schedule playmaker. That does a little bit more, maybe out of the pocket, hitting somebody down the field. Seeing somebody running (free) up the sideline.
“That would be what has to happen.”
IT TAKES TWO…JUST NOT TOGETHER
Ten of Kelly’s 12 seasons in charge of an FBS football program have included starts by more than one of his quarterbacks. It’s a reality of the modern game, the spread/read-option era that mandates quarterbacks A.) Know how to protect themselves, and in general, B.) Are able to make plays on run.
(It’s no coincidence that Kelly’s only triggerman in South Bend to make it through a season’s slate unscathed was 2013 senior Tommy Rees, a quarterback that identified blitzes and called protections with aplomb and rarely ventured outside the pocket, and was thus not often exposed to dangerous hits.)
Zaire was hurt on the run last season. Kizer or Zaire likely will find himself felled by harm’s way as the starter next fall. And then the other will be called upon.
And only then.
“I worry about that, quite frankly,” said Kelly when asked if a two-quarterback system could emerge if both players are “lights out” during training camp. “I saw what happened at Ohio State as the measuring stick. There was no real identity in that offense until they went with (JT) Barrett.
“Once they said ‘He’s our guy, we’re going with him,’ they were able to say, ‘Okay, here’s what we’re going to do in this offense.’
“And then they played us,” Kelly chuckled.
“So I worry about that. I think I’m more convinced that there’ll be a No. 1 and a No. 2 and the No. 2 will have to play when the No. 2 is called upon.”
History and the odds of injury portend QB2 will be needed. The key will thus be keeping QB2 fully engaged while QB1 is likely to shine as the face of college football’s most famous program.