Matt Cashore / Irishillustrated.com

Crossing The Lines

Brian Kelly made the hardest decision by not making a decision at all. Now he’ll have a circus to manage all season. Yet this big quarterback bet is worth making.

This column was supposed to be about rebuilding versus reloading, and how well Notre Dame could reconcile that difference. For a program that hasn’t won double-digit games in back-to-back seasons since the early 90’s, it made sense to wonder if Brian Kelly actually could. I mean, it's not like Media Day ever includes any actual real news.

Then Kelly killed this column before it could get past the first paragraph.
 
That’s what happens when a head coach stakes the season on a personnel decision in mid-August and does so almost without precedent.

You probably heard Notre Dame will play Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer at Texas. Maybe a lot. Maybe at the same time. Maybe in the same quarter. Maybe in the same series. And this circus might run all year.

Instead of ending college football’s best quarterback drama, Kelly poured gasoline on it. Now he gets to control the blaze.

“If there’s anybody in the country who’s got a great feel for how to do it and how to make it work, he’s the guy to make sure that gets done,” said associate head coach Mike Denbrock. “He’s got some, obviously, very good experience with playing more than one quarterback throughout his head coaching career.”

But rarely has it been this voluntary. Let’s be clear, Notre Dame was <I>always</i> going to play Zaire and Kizer this year, even after the Blue-Gold Game when Kelly said he wouldn’t. He’s gone wire-to-wire with a quarterback just once in the last decade and that was Tommy Rees three years ago. His backup left divots in the Notre Dame Stadium turf.

Still, the easy decision was sticking with Kizer.

The tough decision was going back to Zaire.

The holy-hell-this-looks-hard decision is this.

It means the quarterbacks really were that close during training camp because Kelly was desperate for them not to be. He doesn’t make this decision unless absolutely backed into a corner by Zaire and Kizer this month. Kelly knows the gamble. He’s got enough job security to make it.

“These two guys are too good,” Kelly said. “I'm just watching them in practice every day and they are making plays. Then I watch our other players around them, and they are clearly not as good as these two guys. These two guys make too many plays.

“And it was just counterintuitive for me to take one of them off the field at the expense of putting somebody else on the field for so many more plays and saying, you're the No. 2, you're not going to play in this game. It just didn't make any sense to me.”

Kelly said the quarterbacks combined to throw two interceptions on 257 scrimmage reps going into Wednesday. We didn’t see a third during Media Day’s open practice. We saw Kizer turn four straight red zone passes into touchdowns. We saw Zaire’s game progress to where his scrambles are less panic runs and more manipulations of the defense.

So there’s a lot to like about this personnel move. It might juice an offense that needs it, not only because the entire receiver corps turned over, but because it’s opposite a defense running on hope. If Notre Dame makes the College Football Playoff, it will need an out-of-body experience somewhere to get in. This quarterback situation might deliver.

It might also blow up in Kelly’s face.

And really that’s the issue, the downside.

Let’s say this job share falls apart in the worst way, Notre Dame ends up in the Champs Sports Bowl and both quarterbacks bounce after the season. Zaire mentioned working like a “pro” more than 30 times during Media Day. Kizer is already getting mention as a first-round pick next year. So let’s say all that happens. Then you’re stuck with Brandon Wimbush next September. And Notre Dame should be totally fine with that.

If the worst-case scenario in '17 is you start a third-year quarterback good enough to lead most Power 5 programs right now, that’s not so bad.

As for how Kelly is going to make all this work this season, I have no clue. I don’t think his assistants do either. Quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford sounded like he heard the Kizer-Zaire news from the media. Denbrock admitted he had no idea how Kelly would pick who plays and when. It’s not clear if Kelly himself knows how all this will function.

It’s going to be messy in Austin. Things will probably stay that way too.

But Kelly made the right call by really not making a decision here. Playing Kizer and Zaire is admitting you can’t tell the difference between quarterbacks, which is what Kelly gets paid millions to do. Instead, he’ll play both. It won’t be easy. It might go sideways Labor Day weekend. He might lose both quarterbacks. But if Notre Dame is going to win big this season, this is a gamble worth taking.


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