With the first week of college football looming, we expect to see a top-25 program like the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the headlines. Unfortunately, head coach Brian Kelly’s crew has made headlines for all the wrong reasons thanks to two separate and unrelated incidents that’s left six different players in varying degrees of legal hot water.
But the scandal surrounding those six players still isn’t the biggest story related to this year’s Fighting Irish. That honor belongs to the game’s greatest quarterback controversy between last season’s savior DeShone Kizer and former starting signal-caller Malik Zaire, and it doesn’t look like it will be solved anytime soon.
While speaking to the media on the eve of the first day of training camp, Kelly’s comments concerning the country’s top quarterback competition did little to clarify the situation and left neither competitor with a firm grip on the position’s top job.
”For me to stand here right now and tell you one guy’s going to be the starter every single game would be foolish of me,” said Kelly via ESPN. ”I’ve got two really good quarterbacks, so I really couldn’t tell you what I’m going to do other than we’re going to have a starting quarterback; and we know that the no.2’s going to be ready too. I’ve got to have two really good quarterbacks in college football. I think we’ve all seen that your guy’s going to get banged up, he’s going to come out and you better have the other guy ready to go, because nobody really cares that your starter went down; you’ve got to win anyway. So I’ve got to get both of them ready to play at the highest level and then what happens, how they go in, we’ll just figure that out when they get there.”
Entering Notre Dame’s second game of the 2015 regular season, Zaire had a firm hold on the starting job as the ninth-ranked Irish took their 1-0 start into Charlottesville for a contest against the Virginia Cavaliers just one week after losing projected lead rusher Tarean Folston. But in the second half, a fractured ankle sent Zaire to the sidelines and Kelly was forced to call on Kizer.
Facing Notre Dame’s first loss of the season and an unfortunate start to his own collegiate career, Kizer answered the call, running for a key first down in the final frame before hitting wide receiver Will Fuller for a 39-yard score with 12 seconds remaining to deliver the win and instantly become a hero to Irish fans everywhere.
Zaire had played well during his brief stint as the starter, but in the eyes of Fighting Irish football purists, he couldn’t compete with what Kizer had done. It may have only been one pass, but that one pass delivered a victory that the Notre Dame faithful wasn’t going to forget.
As the starting quarterback, Kizer exceeded expectations and was even briefly considered as a long-shot candidate to claim the Heisman Trophy, throwing for 2,884 yards and 21 touchdowns while rushing for another 10 scores and collecting 520 yards on the ground.
Along the way, Kizer kept Notre Dame in the playoff hunt while guiding the Irish to a 9-3 record and an eventual berth in the Fiesta Bowl. Usually, that would be more than enough for a quarterback to keep his job, and understandably, Kizer wasn’t thrilled about the idea of competing for a job he considers to be his while speaking to the media 24 hours before the beginning of training camp.
”That’s going to be one of the weirder parts of camp, when you’re trying to compete for your own job and you have some of those selfish thoughts that come to your mind because you want to make sure you get completions while also trying to develop young guys,” said Kizer via Irish Illustrated. ”It’s going to be different.”
Before fracturing his ankle against Virginia, Zaire opened Notre Dame’s 2015 season with an impressive performance consisting of 313 yards, three touchdowns, and a completion percentage of 86.4 in a 38-3 destruction of Texas.
Had he stayed healthy, Zaire probably would’ve kept his job due to the fact that Kizer was so inexperienced. But regardless of how well he performed versus Texas, Zaire’s body of work as the starter can’t compete with Kizer’s. And while frustrated about the current quarterback controversy, Zaire was clearly trying to stay positive when speaking at last week’s media day.
”I know that if I’m anywhere else, I don’t think the decision should be that hard,” said Zaire via CSN Chicago. ”But I think being at Notre Dame, nothing’s ever easy. That’s why I chose here. There’s a lot of opportunity still here for me, but at the end of the day, I gotta treat it like a pro. I gotta do what I still need to do and remember that it’s about winning games. That’s what I’ve always been about.”
According to Kelly, both quarterbacks will see significant action in Notre Dame’s season-opener at Texas on September 4, a decision that’s only an option because Kizer and Zaire are both dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks who can succeed in the same system.
But if both Kizer and Zaire remain healthy and fulfill their on-field potential, the starter will constantly be looking over his shoulder, and at some point, that alone could be more than enough to shake the confidence of both quarterbacks and seriously hurt Notre Dame’s playoff chances.
[Photo By-Jared Wickerham/Getty Images]