Depending upon which website you choose to listen to, the battle between Notre Dame quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire is anywhere from a friendly competition between loving teammates to a full blown, knockdown, drag out war.
Quite honestly, there is nothing friendly about the competition for the starting spot, and that was made perfectly evident during a media gathering on Meyo Field in muggy Loftus Sports Center Wednesday when the smoke coming out of the ears of the two quarterbacks wasn’t wafting from peace pipes.
It took Kizer a few minutes to gain control of his emotions and settle into diplomatic conversation with the media after Brian Kelly announced Wednesday that both quarterbacks would play against Texas in the season-opener.
Zaire spent a good 45 minutes seething, biting off responses to questions, using the word “pro” -- as in preparing like a pro and preparing to be a pro -- about three dozen times. When asked about leadership, Zaire deferred to Kelly, which was his way of saying, “Ask the man; he’s the one making the decisions, not me.” And it wasn’t offered as “coach knows best” player-speak.
Kelly simply isn’t ready to pick one, partly because both have played so well and partly because the ultimate decision to pick one will have an impact on the dynamics of the team.
“I made this decision this early because it was clear to me that the more we practiced, the more they were going to make plays,” Kelly said. “It was not going to change anything. Both of these guys (are) two of our top playmakers.
“They have both been outstanding. They both make plays. They both are playmakers. We would just continue to practice and continue to see both of these guys make plays. So we’re going to play both of them at Texas.”
The question left unanswered: Which of the two will actually take the first snap against the Longhorns?
Don’t believe anything you hear about both handling it well or putting the team ahead of the individual or doing and saying what’s best for the team. At least not on Wednesday, Aug. 17. They’re pissed. So instead of one being happy and the other perturbed, the battle for playing time rages on. Neither is happy.
Kelly is delaying the inevitable, which in this delicate situation is understandable. He probably could have made the decision after media day to avoid the vitriol that was spewed Wednesday, but he put it out there, perhaps to see which would show leadership amidst the turmoil.
He will use two quarterbacks against Texas. As Tim O’Malley pointed out, Kelly likely can afford to use both of them in the home-opener against Nevada, too. But after that, it will be time to choose one with the meat of the schedule kicking in, starting with Michigan State.
Could both play throughout the season? Kelly has cited in the past how that backfired on Ohio State in 2015 with Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett. Urban Meyer admitted as much at the Fiesta Bowl.
It’s one thing to formulate a game plan with two quarterbacks prior to the Music City Bowl. It’s one thing to use two quarterbacks for the season-opener against Texas. It’s one thing to keep the dual system for a home-opener you should win.
But devising game plans for two quarterbacks on a weekly basis is a drain on the coaching staff, not to mention a situation in which neither can get the volume of reps he needs in practice.
Kelly said they’re in the business of winning, and putting a strain on the coaching staff comes with the territory. But they don’t want to and probably won’t go with two quarterbacks throughout the season.
Rather, he’s going to allow two games to decide which one needs to be in the game on a full-time basis, a decision that quite frankly is impossible to make on the practice field.
Make no mistake, this is a full-blown controversy between two very tough-minded, motivated individuals who absolutely believe he should be the choice over the other. Stay tuned because Kelly’s decision/announcement Wednesday just made the competition a potentially detonative situation, not that there was any way to avoid it. The only thing he could have done was delay it, and who’s to say that would have been better.
THE WIDEOUT WHISPERER
Corey Robinson isn’t catching passes for the Irish anymore. But when you watch him over the course of a full Notre Dame football practice, you realize what a positive contribution he’s making to the 2016 Irish squad.
Robinson has become the Wideout Whisperer. He’s not the type to raise his voice toward another player. He likely wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that anyway. Instead, he’s the voice that first offers praise, followed quickly by some quiet counsel, whether it be the alignment, the get-off, the route, the reaction to the defender, the use of hands/body to keep the defender away, etc.
Do it one day and it’s minor input; do it on a daily basis and it’s beneficial to have a former player taking them through every rep with receivers coach Mike Denbrock ultimately having the most say…beyond Brian Kelly, of course. Robinson even offers praise to the defensive back if it’s he who has won the rep.
It was interesting to hear Denbrock offer a gentle critique of Robinson as it related to a route run by Miles Boykin. It wasn’t harsh and it wasn’t loud, but Denbrock let Robinson know that he was responsible for Boykin’s less-than-perfect alignment in relation to the hash mark/coverage
It’s a good working relationship. Not sure that it’s a game-changer per se, but if a former player is going to add the right touch to a situation like this – particularly with so many freshman and sophomore receivers whose heads can be swimming during training camp -- Robinson is the guy.
Kelly said Robinson likely won’t travel with the team for away/neutral site games, but they ultimately may want to reevaluate that. Robinson looks, sounds and carries himself like a real asset to the receiving corps.
BOYKIN ON THE RISE
It was mentioned in our Monday podcast that receiver coach Mike Denbrock spoke to red-shirt freshman receiver Miles Boykin about not being so plodding when coming off the line of scrimmage. Wednesday, Kelly went ballistic – he had several of those moments – with a route Boykin ran in relation to the other receivers on the field.
Often times, however, when a coach goes nuts on a player, it’s because he believes that player a) has a ton of potential or b) is needed to take a more prominent role. Boykin falls into both categories.
Boykin, with his 6-foot-3½, 222-pound frame, is an inviting target, particularly as it relates to the over the head fade throws. The Irish are always looking for ways to improve their red zone offense, and Boykin would appear to be a prime candidate for some red-zone scores if he can continue to grow reading coverages and maximize the physical advantage he has over smaller cornerbacks. In one-on-one coverage, he’s an easy choice for a jump-ball situation on any part of the field.
The biggest concerns with Boykin are a lack off quickness off the line of scrimmage and correctly deciphering coverages. Much of that concern can be negated by simply letting the big dog eat and allowing his physical prowess to take over.
THE Z RECEIVER
It was just one rep during a seven-on-seven drill, but it was telling.
C.J. Sanders has gotten the vast majority of the reps with the No. 1 unit at the Z receiver position. He is the starter, he is the best player at the position and he deserves to be No. 1. Max Redfield hasn’t been able to contain Sanders in four one-on-one situations during practices open to the media.
The second spot will go to one of three people – freshman Kevin Stepherson, red-shirt sophomore Corey Holmes or red-shirt sophomore walk-on Chris Finke.
Stepherson is a more natural X, but he’s playing behind Torii Hunter, Jr., so they’re going to have to find ways to get him on the field. They’ll move Hunter around, so Stepherson will get his opportunities.
Holmes played Z in the spring and has gotten reps at X this August. He has to catch the football more consistently to get consistent playing time.
Finke is a Z all the way. Wednesday, Kelly waved Holmes out of a rep at Z in favor of Finke, who then took a jet sweep handoff. Whatever the stopwatch says, the reality is that Finke is functionally faster and more productive on the football field than Holmes. Kelly obviously wanted to see Finke in that role. This position will be interesting as the season evolves.
AROUND THE GRIDIRON
• Not sure how he does it, but Torii Hunter, Jr. has an uncanny knack of making catches on plays in which the defender has position between Hunter and the football. I’m not talking about the jump ball throws. I’m talking about chest-high throws in which a defensive back has position on Hunter to make the pass breakup/interception. Hunter uses his hands to somehow outfight the defensive back with ideal position. Watch. You’ll see it happen this fall.
• We often talk about players with “another gear.” Running back Dexter Williams has that extra gear. So do C.J. Sanders and Chris Finke.
• Max Redfield wore a towel tucked into the back of his pants that read RIP GB 1 in honor of the late Greg Bryant.
• Equanimeous St. Brown is coming on. The question with young receivers is always consistency. St. Brown won’t offer the consistency that senior Chris Brown did a year ago. But make no mistake, St. Brown is going to make plays this fall. I’ll put his over/under touchdown total at six.
• Wow, did Kelly blister freshman running back Tony Jones, Jr. when he failed to come up with a swing pass. Not sure if it was the miss or his depth on the route, but Kelly screamed to get him off the field until, after another snap, Tarean Folston came in. Don’t be deceived by that. Kelly loves Jones’ game and for good reason. The Irish have three running backs ahead of him, so it might be wise to preserve a year of eligibility. He looks to be too good to keep off the field as a freshman, even with limited snaps.
• When I see Jonathan Jones getting reps with the No. 2 defense ahead of Josh Barajas, I can’t help but think of former Irish inside linebacker Bobbie Howard, the former high school teammate of Randy Moss and another undersized player who was smart and proved to be a very productive player not only for the Irish, but for a few years on the NFL level.
• How does an offensive lineman who has never played a meaningful snap get invited back for a fifth-year? Show versatility and notable improvement. Mark Harrell, who literally can play any position along the offensive line, has done that. The reps he took Wednesday with Harry Hiestand’s instruction were the best reps we’ve seen – by far – in Harrell’s career.
• This likely is the first and last time you hear or see his name written. But there’s another walk-on receiver besides Chris Finke who is capable of making plays, at least on the practice field. His name is Austin Webster, a 5-foot-11 ½, 195-pounder out of Beverly Hills, Calif. He beat safety Avery Sebastian on a crossing route Wednesday, and that’s not the first time we’ve seen him make a play. He also is frequently seen helping teach the younger receivers. Webster is a hidden asset.
• We haven’t said much about right tackle Alex Bars because a) it’s so much fun to watch the left side of Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson thrash people and b) the competition at right guard continues to rage on. But Bars is going to be another good and probably great one. His single greatest trait: It is impossible at times to get off a Bars run block. Once he leans on you, he latches on (without holding, of course) and has a 6-foot-6, 320-pound frame to make it happen.
• Baseball pitchers’ lives are ruled by pitch counts. That doesn’t seem to apply to quarterbacks, who are asked to throw a ton of passes every day. You can imagine how a QB’s shoulder and elbow feel 10 days into camp. Like jell-o.
• We all laughed when Jarron Jones ran 80 yards uncontested on a fumble recovery. But make no mistake, Jones’ ability to run that distance late in practice on a very hot and humid day 10 days into camp is a huge sign of progress for the 6-foot-5½, 315-pounder. Stock up on Jones.
• IrishFan435 cited in a podcast question earlier this week that red-shirt sophomore nose guard Pete Mokwuah’s has made improvement. We downplayed it. Let the record show that Brian VanGorder noted Mokwuah’s improvement Wednesday. That’s a first. For Mokwuah, that means he’s gone from no way he could play in ’15 to perhaps half-a-dozen reps in a game. Noted, IrishFan435, and a nice job by Mokwuah continuing his fight for playing time.
• Is it time to be concerned about Justin Yoon? He struggled the few times we saw him in three open practices. Wednesday, he drilled a 45-yarder, converted from 21 yards, pulled a 37-yarder wide left, and then hit a 34-yarder. He’ll be fine.
• It was interesting to hear Kelly throw responsibility on Hunter for a poor play/decision by Stepherson. Kelly is looking for some leadership out of his best receiver. Plus, he knows the Irish need Stepherson to emerge. He will. Over-under: two touchdowns.