Brian Kelly still believes he has two legitimate starting quarterbacks.
The open question for Notre Dame after last weekend’s 50-47 double overtime loss at Texas is if the Irish have a legitimate backup between DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire. While the starting job figures to go to Kizer against Nevada based on his six-touchdown night in Austin, it’s not clear if either he or Zaire are wired to be a true No. 2 anymore.
And while Kelly has obfuscated all things quarterback for the past month, he was direct in addressing what he needs from Zaire or Kizer when they’re not playing.
“If you can’t accept the role then you need to move out of the way and let somebody go into that role that can accept it and prepare themselves accordingly, so when they are called upon they’re ready to play,” Kelly said. “So to me it’s really all about the attitude.”
While television cameras focused on Zaire plenty Sunday night while he wasn’t playing, Kelly was quick to dismiss the notion the senior needed to be at the ready with his helmet on while Kizer played. That being said, if Zaire wants to be on a headset while Kizer plays, Kelly is all for it. And if Kizer wants to signal plays while Zaire plays, that’s fine too.
“It depends,” Kelly said. “Each one of the No. 2’s that I've had have a different way of feeling that as those they’re engaged in the game and part of it. That would be a conversation that I would have with DeShone or Malik depending on who the No. 2 is.”
While Kelly again refused to name a starter on Tuesday, as he did Sunday night postgame and Monday afternoon during his day-after teleconference, it’s hard to imagine Kizer not taking over the job based on his production.
The junior went 15-of-24 for 215 yards and five touchdowns at Texas while rushing 13 times for 77 yards and another score. Zaire finished 2-of-5 for 23 yards while rushing three times for zero yards.
Of his three series, Zaire was on the field for two three-and-outs.
“We plan on having two really good quarterbacks the rest of the year,” Kelly said. “I haven’t sat down and talked with to either one of them, so before we do that we don’t have any plans to make any decisions.”
Keeping the backup engaged is critical considering past precedent under Kelly. He’s had a starting quarterback go wire-to-wire just once in the past decade. That was Tommy Rees in 2013 during a season when backup Andrew Hendrix proved incapable of leading the offense beyond spot duty.
There’s no doubt this is Notre Dame’s most talented one-two punch at quarterback under Kelly, which is both a boost and a burden to the head coach. It made managing expectations for Kizer and Zaire a challenge all August. After last weekend that job will only get harder.
“It’s about your attitude and your attitude has to be such that whoever the No. 2 is, whether he’s the No. 2 quarterback or the No. 2 running back, you’re one play away from being in there,” Kelly said. “So you can’t let your teammates down and you can’t let yourself down. You can’t have got in the way of yourself from preparing the way you need to to lead your football team.
“That’s really 99 percent attitude and accepting the role that you have.”