SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Faced with picking an incumbent starter or a former starter as its quarterback, Notre Dame made the bold choice to complicate matters exponentially, at least through the first weekend of September. Both junior Deshone Kizer and senior Malik Zaire will play against Texas in the season opener, head coach Brian Kelly announced on Wednesday. That promptly ticked off two players instead of one, as neither Kizer nor Zaire were happy about a decision they’d had about 12 hours to digest. No one grasped how it would work, exactly, and no one could cite a precedent for two healthy quarterbacks with the same skill set sharing a job. It seemed that Notre Dame opted to do something that hardly anyone has done or would think to do, and that Brian Kelly doubled down on Brian Kelly being smarter than everyone else and therefore equipped to pull it off.
“My whole goal is to turn chicken crap into chicken salad,” Zaire said of his coach’s call. “We gotta make him right.”
This is not a so-crazy-it-might-work endeavor. It is crazy, and it actually might work, but these two truths are exclusive of one another. The Fighting Irish have two quarterbacks who have not separated in any discernible way in spring practice and preseason camp—in a good way. They’re locked in an endless loop of doing the right thing, which puts pressure on the other guy to do the right thing, too, and so on. So Kelly left it to them to figure this out. His plan more or less counts on both Kizer and Zaire being mad. It counts on them feeling pressure. It challenges them to be effective anyway, a cold-blooded approach that is not terribly surprising given the coach and the position in question. If one falters, then the other guy is the guy. If neither falters, then presumably Notre Dame is winning a lot.
People might prefer that the program doesn’t risk its season on an experiment. But the head coach is betting it isn’t risk as much as audacity, which doubles as a nice introduction to Brian Kelly for those who don’t know him.
“It's never easy playing two quarterbacks,” Kelly said Wednesday. “It's much easier just playing one. But we're in the business of winning. So if it's a little bit harder on us, then we can make that work, if the net is we win the football game. Yeah, there's no question that some people shy away from this kind of business in terms of playing two, because it's easier to just play one. My job is to win, and my belief is playing both of them gives us a better chance to win.”
How will it do so? Everyone will ponder that over the next 17 days, Notre Dame coaches included.
After tapping a paper cup filled with coffee to indicate how he will survive the next two and a half weeks, Mike Sanford noted that the staff has studied quarterback timeshares for best practices. Notre Dame’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach also referred to the program’s 2012 season, in which both Everett Golson and Tommy Rees had hands in a run to the BCS championship game, as well as Kelly’s past experience using both Tony Pike and Zach Collaros at Cincinnati. Sanford even drew on his own experiences as a frustrated Boise State backup to sell his two frustrated protégés on the plan. “I said, guys, listen, you’re going to have a chance to play,” Sanford said. “That’s way better than the alternative.”
The reality is that no one in the football complex has an adequate reference point on this. Golson was Notre Dame’s appointed starter in 2012 and Rees came on to save the season once or twice only after Golson imploded. Injury issues led to Pike and Collaros sharing the load. The J.T. Barrett-Cardale Jones battle at Ohio State last fall is inapplicable on many levels; one, Urban Meyer made it clear during July’s Big Ten media days that Jones outplayed Barrett in the 2015 preseason, and two, Meyer actually picked a guy.
No precedent for what Notre Dame is doing comes to mind immediately. This isn’t a runner versus a passer, or pro-style versus spread. This isn’t about style or capability. It’s a hugely fascinating and consequential non-choice.
“It’s out of the box,” Sanford said.
Physical attributes are perhaps the only distinguishing characteristics for Zaire, the 6-foot, 225-pound left-hander who started the first two games of ’15 before suffering a season-ending knee injury, and Kizer, the 6’4”, 230-pound righty who stepped in and threw for 2,885 yards and 21 touchdowns from Week 2 on. The playbook does not vary significantly at this point, no matter who is under center. “Our offense doesn’t operate differently no matter who is back there,” tackle Mike McGlinchey said. And while there are subjective ways to differentiate how they play—in short, Zaire might be able to get you out of trouble more dynamically, but Kizer is better at avoiding the trouble in the first place—both its quarterbacks do basically the same stuff.
“Two dual-threat quarterbacks who can throw it, run it, catch it, kick it, whatever you want,” Kizer said.
And if you believe that an offense needs a clear No. 1 quarterback to have an identity, Kelly will happily correct you on that.
“Play-calling develops the identity,” he said. “It's going to be plug-and-play with the quarterbacks and running backs, provided your system of offense allows to you grow an identity, and we'll do that from some play-calling.”
So, again, Notre Dame will play two quarterbacks because it believes it is brilliant enough to manage it. We will see if that brilliance extends to selling the participants on the plan.
As he sat down in the indoor facility for his media day audience, Kizer was asked how he was doing. “I could be better,” he deadpanned. Thrust into action after Zaire’s injury at Virginia in Week 2 of 2015, he helped forge a playoff run that lasted until the final week of the regular season, which was followed by a Fiesta Bowl bid. Kizer’s bandwith grew as the season progressed. “We evolved significantly and really got to some fun things, from a formational standpoint,” Sanford said. And no one would blame him for believing he had money in the bank, so to speak, after proving to be a bonafide starter capable of leading a championship charge. Then came this week’s quarterback announcement, such as it was. Kizer perhaps suffered flashbacks to his summer internship at GE Capital Aviation Services, where the idle time spent in a cubicle drove him batty. “I need to be active,” Kizer lamented.
There was no mistaking his disappointment at the prospect of being a spectator, even for a series -- “I would love for it to be just me,” he said. But he was diplomatically resigned to the predicament. “We both have track records,” Kizer said. “Malik didn’t have the opportunity to put together 10 games and see how successful he was. We all know he would’ve been very successful in that time as well. This is a very unique situation, in that we’ve both proved how successful we can be out on the field. We’re both complete quarterbacks.”
Zaire was a little less measured. He smiled a lot on Wednesday, perhaps to avoid grinding his teeth. He talked about being “a pro” from here out. “I know if I’m anywhere else, I don’t think the decision should be that hard,” Zaire said. “Being at Notre Dame, nothing’s ever easy.”
Arguably, Zaire’s personality and positivity and potential should have elevated him to the No. 1 spot over a fizzling, unreliable Everett Golson long before the 2014 Music City Bowl, in which Zaire started and earned game MVP honors with 96 yards passing and 96 yards rushing with two total TDs in a 31-28 win over LSU. Zaire then faced an open competition with Golson for the job in 2015, which he won only after Golson elected to transfer to Florida State. And then in Week 2, Zaire fractured his ankle against Virginia. That precipitated the current state of affairs—another season, another torturous round of ambiguity.
In fairness, time and again, Zaire insisted he was focused on beating Texas, whatever it took. But at this point, it’d be fair if the words “quarterback battle” afflicted him like jumper cables attached to his earlobes. “My love for the game is beyond Notre Dame, so my vested interest in getting better as a quarterback is what’s important to me, my vested interest in becoming a championship quarterback is what’s important to me,” Zaire said. “This is not the first time or the last time that you’re going to deal with situations that aren’t in your favor. For me, continuing to treat things like a professional and handling things as they come, I think that makes me a stronger person. And it plays out how it plays out.”
Both players were informed of this plan on Tuesday, which gave two high-level competitors precious little time to digest the fact that they had won nothing yet. Realistically, they could not be blamed too much for their irritation.
It’s also entirely possible that the timing of the announcement is another test from Kelly, another swerve to see how Zaire and Kizer would process a piece of unsatisfactory news and deal with the fusillade of media day questions that followed.
“What's in their best interest is that they are the starter,” Kelly said. “What's in our best interest is that both of them help us win and help us beat Texas. That's in the best interest of Notre Dame football, and I make decisions as the head football coach as to what is in the best interest of Notre Dame football.”
Surely, there was more than a little discord Wednesday among Irish faithful over what constitutes “best interest,” a holy row over a non-answer to the most prominent question facing the program this August. Just as surely, Kelly likely couldn’t care less. “If I list our top 5 playmakers,” he said, “they’re in it.” Moreover, in a span of 10 years at both Cincinnati and Notre Dame, he has had one quarterback start every game of a season: Rees, in 2013. It is impractical to expect that Notre Dame would need only Kizer or Zaire—and not both—at some point this season anyway.
It’s a bit extreme that “at some point” is Sept. 3, but Kelly has placed his bet. Now the dice roll.
“He told us to trust him,” Zaire said, “and I don’t have a choice.”
At that, the senior quarterback smiled and laughed big. Notre Dame fans better hope the coach laughs last.