Welcome, Mike Sanford, to the hardest coaching job in America, at least for the next few weeks.
Notre Dame’s second-year quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator entered Wednesday morning’s practice with two basic realities, one unforeseen, the other, well, predictable to say the least.
1.) Sanford now has two quarterbacks to coach that are going to play against Texas on September 4…
2.) Neither of them is particularly happy about it.
“How’ve you been?” A reporter asked incumbent starter DeShone Kizer as he sat down in front of the media horde.
“I could be better,” was Kizer’s response.
The foil to Kizer’s happiness, former starter Malik Zaire, put it a bit more bluntly, repeatedly, throughout his media session.
“It was a lot to take in,” Zaire admitted of Brian Kelly’s decision to play both quarterbacks against Texas, a plan he announced to the pair Tuesday evening. “But being here, I’m used to stuff like that happening out of my control. He’s the head coach; he makes the head coaching decision. He told us to trust him and I don’t have a choice. I’m just doing what I have to do.”
What is it exactly Zaire feels he has to do?
“My whole goal is to make chicken crap into chicken salad,” he said of the decision. “We have to make him (Kelly) right.”
Asked if he believed he could win the starting role down the line, Zaire offered:
“I know that if I’m anywhere else, I don’t think the decision should be that hard. But being at Notre Dame, nothing is ever easy,” he said. “That’s why I chose here. There’s a lot of opportunity here for me, at the end of the day, I have to treat it like a pro. It’s about winning games and that’s what I’ve always been about.”
DUAL OR DUEL?
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Zaire is undefeated in three starts with Kizer offering a helping hand in his most recent, a truncated outing early last September in Charlottesville, one that ended in, as Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson mused post-game, “Shock and Awesome” – aka, the Kizer to Will Fuller miracle pass from 39 yards out.
It was a throw that launched Kizer’s budding career. It was a throw that changed the arc of the aforementioned Sanford’s 2016 season. And he realized that reality on the spot.
“Right when that moment happened, I knew of this, right here,” said Sanford of the program’s never-ending quarterback controversy. “I knew we’d be standing here in some way shape or form. Honestly. That’s having been around the flow of football – it’s inevitable.”
So too is a butting of heads. In some form or fashion.
Asked if there can be two leaders at the quarterback position, Zaire noted, “That’s like having two head coaches. That could be a lot,” he laughed “It’s unique. I know what I can do. My focus is treating my job like a pro and doing my job to help the team win.”
Kizer’s focus appears to be making it work…or at least until the job becomes his.
“There’s supposed to be one quarterback on the field at one time. I committed here and decided to play college football so I can be that one guy,” said Kizer. “When you decide to play this position, especially at this level, you have to have the desire to be the only guy out there to truly take credit for all the good and all that happens within a team, that’s being a complete quarterback. I would love for it to be just me. But in this situation, Coach Kelly makes the calls and I completely trust his judgment.
Asked the pointed, pertinent question, ‘How is this going to work?’ Kizer offered. “You know, I don’t know. But I have 100 percent trust in my head coach and I’m absolutely committed to the mission of winning a national championship and he’s the guy that’s leading us. He’s the one to make a decision and we’ll see how it goes when the time comes.”
Kizer seemed more prepared for the contents of Tuesday evening’s season-defining meeting than did Zaire.
“To say I found out yesterday, we’ve kind of had the same mindset going through camp that there’s probably going to be a good chance that we’re both going to be out there,” Kizer admitted. “That’s been something preached to us and we put it into words last night.”
Until today, that message hadn’t hit home for Zaire.
“I swear I’m coach Kelly’s favorite quarterback the way these challenges keep coming up,” he said. “But every great quarterback has a story that’s similar in terms of going through adversity.”
Zaire told reporters he had a few moments of discourse “with himself” following his meeting with Kelly & Co.
“This is not my first go-around,” said Zaire of quarterback competitions. “Being at Notre Dame, you have to know what to expect, that you always have to be on your toes. My development starts from within and I need to focus on winning games.
“I’d rather the decision and choices made be because of me and not for me,” he added. “If I can’t handle the job, I want that to be on me. I want that to lie on my preparation, on my leadership, I want that to be on me if the team is not successful. I don’t look at it as an outer source determining my future and my greatness.
“How can I get better and make this team better and win the championship?”
Asked if the quarterback battle with Kizer could make him better, Zaire offered: “I think it’s a quarterback battle with myself every day.”
That battle promises to rage on beyond a trip to the Lone Star State. At minimum, Nevada and Michigan State, Notre Dame’s foes in Games 2 and 3, are thus forced to be on alert.
And that’s the silver lining. The part most have overlooked according to Sanford.
“As camp played out, and backed by their body of work with respect to in-game play, it became evident that to beat Texas, where there’s going to be 98,000 people, 98 degrees, and 98 percent humidity, we’re going to need some playmakers behind center,” Sanford said. “It’s a lot to really think about from a defensive standpoint and we’re excited about implementing some creativity from a game-planning standpoint.”
Asked if his pupils’ respective leadership approach in the immediate future could impact a final decision on a full-time starter, Sanford did not hesitate:
“I think how they respond to this on the field, how they carry themselves going forward, that’s something we will look for and it’s important to us to continue to evaluate during the year,” he said. “The game has purity to it and the way people are going to respond is going to show up on the practice field and the game field.”