While Everett Golson and Malik Zaire battle to be Notre Dame's QB, the key to the Fighting Irish's success could be their run game.
SOUTH BEND, Ind.—About 24 minutes before the start of Notre Dame’s spring game, Malik Zaire lifted his right foot a few inches off the sun-splashed turf below it. The playlist for warm-ups cycled to Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It,” and the rising junior became a quarterback instantly in rhythm. Zaire turned his foot in, then kicked it out before winding it behind his left leg, repeating the choreography as he turned to face fellow signal-caller Everett Golson. And thus a position battle momentarily morphed into a dance party: Golson mirroring Zaire’s footwork, one’s cleat tapping the other’s in synch, their movements perfectly aligned.
Stadium construction forced the Fighting Irish to stage their final spring showing on a practice field Saturday, with skyscraping cranes and an ad hoc broadcast booth serving as a backdrop. A little improv from Zaire and Golson fit the day. Likewise, with zero clarity regarding who will take the first snap of the 2015 season, it was no surprise that acts put on by a pair of quarterbacks drew attention. Building projects of great magnitude are going on all around Notre Dame. None of them matters so much as sticking to a blueprint that has little to do with suites or pass-slingers.
If the Irish are to sandblast last fall’s regular-season nosedive from their memory, if they are to match lofty expectations in what should be a 10-win 2015 campaign in the worst-case scenario, they must take what they learned in a 31-28 Music City Bowl win over LSU and run with it. The season shouldn’t rise or fall on a quarterback’s dependability. Fortunes shouldn’t be staked on a defense that, while flush with experience, has few proven game-breakers. Notre Dame must stay grounded above all, using a deep offensive line and stable of running backs to alleviate the burden on both the defense and whomever the quarterback is. Head coach Brian Kelly and his staff must take a cue from Zaire and Golson’s pregame dance and concentrate on what the offense can do with its feet.
“We know that if we want to be a championship team,” left tackle Ronnie Stanley said, “we’re going to have to run the ball when it matters.”
That “when” can be contextualized very simply: From the first snap against Texas on Sept. 5 through every Saturday after that. Notre Dame finished its spring work on April 18 but should recognize that its identity was set on Dec. 30. It must accept that it redefined itself with every one of the 263 rushing yards piled up in that Music City Bowl effort, the most the Irish had recorded since they raced for 281 in a 48-7 rout of Rice in the 2014 season opener.
In between those two contests, the rushing game was a mash of inconsistency, producing the same number of 200-yard outputs as sub-100-yard ones (three apiece). The variability highlighted just how much (or how little) Kelly and company wanted to rely on a ground attack. Too often, when problems flared up, the fallback plan was to go to the air. This was problematic when the quarterback sometimes carried a fire extinguisher, and other times a canister of gasoline.
Response to resistance this fall should be blunt: Run it again. What should be relieving to Notre Dame fans is Kelly appears to recognize this. “We’ll continue to go to our strength,” the Irish coach said, “which we believe is up front.”
Putting his play calls where his mouth is will be the next step (though Boise State offensive coordinator Mike Sanford was hired this off-season, Kelly seems poised to call the shots in 2015), but the spring game offered some auspicious answers. Of the 12 snaps on the first offensive series, which ended with a Golson scoring run, nine appeared to be called run plays. Two others saw Golson tuck the ball and scamper instead of forcing a throw. When Zaire took over, his capacity to inflict damage with his feet carried over from the bowl game, when he was Notre Dame’s leading rusher with 96 yards. Zaire carried four times for 40 yards in the spring game, complementing a 137-yard passing afternoon that featured a 68-yard touchdown toss to receiver Will Fuller.
Quick post-spring game appraisals from the players might not be the most reliable testimony there is, but the Irish indicated the recognized need to generate more consistent ground production wasn’t the product of a single epiphany or manifesto delivered during a team meeting. It was more a constant low hum triggered by the bowl game that carried through the winter. “It was definitely a good feeling coming off the LSU win,” guard Steve Elmer said. “We knew we were going to build off that in spring. That was the main focus: Keep this going. This is what we’ve been capable of the whole time. We just put it together and we have to keep rolling on that. Don’t fall back into the rut.”
In fact, Notre Dame believed itself capable of this during all of the 2014 campaign. “We would do a lot of things we did during [the LSU game] at certain points during the season,” Elmer said. “It just wasn’t all the time.”
Improved talent and experience on all fronts ought to limit the dips in 2015. The 315-pound Stanley might have been a first-round NFL draft pick this year but elected to return for his senior season. He, Elmer and center Nick Martin have a combined 67 starts between them. Offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey technically is a new starter, but he logged time in 13 games last season. Left guard may be the only question coming out of spring. Behind the starters, Kelly has what he considers his deepest trove of linemen to offset potential injuries.
Notre Dame would be foolish to ignore a receiving corps that boasts the emergent Fuller (76 catches, 1,094 yards, 15 touchdowns in 2014) and his jet-fueled speed. But the strengths of the offense are undeniably greater on the ground. With that line, three capable backs and both Golson and Zaire schooled in the read-option, Notre Dame’s run game could render the identity of the quarterback a non-issue, or at the very least less of one. A defense that wilted beneath injuries in '14 welcomes back 11 players with eight career starts or more, including the return of cornerback KeiVarae Russell (26 starts over two years) from academic exile. But there is no sense in testing that unit’s depth or overall playmaking ability following offensive possessions that could end quickly due to an over-reliance on an ineffective air attack. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s ever-shifting, high-pressure system seems aptly suited to complement a soul-and-bone-crushing offense.
“It’s almost like we’re enforcing our will upon the defense we’re playing against,” said tailback Tarean Folston, who led the Irish with 889 rushing yards in 2014. “If we can just smash the ball down their mouth and continue to do it and continue to get first downs and score and such and such, we can also control the clock as we did in the bowl game and get them weak and tired.”
Naturally, the resolution to the Golson-Zaire dynamic will dominate speculation in the coming months. And naturally, no one offered much of a hint as to what will happen once spring drills came to a close.
“They both have differences, but they both get the job done,” Fuller said.
“It’s really no difference between those two guys,” Folston said.
“Whoever is going to help us win is who I like,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said.
It could be no decision at all. Mere days after the bowl game, which Zaire started, reports of Golson’s interest in a transfer—possibly to LSU, in fact—bubbled up. The senior didn’t speak publicly once during the spring and therefore did nothing to quash speculation. He can answer all the questions—about his rapport with teammates, about how strained his relationship with Kelly became in 2014—by showing up for the first August practice.
Kelly likely won't name a starter until well into preseason workouts, but given that both quarterbacks might play if they stay on the roster, this may be a duel that is less consequential than it seems. “All they can control is what's in their purview and that is the fundamentals of what we've asked them to work on,” Kelly said. “The rest they can't really worry about. It's not their call.”
Notre Dame lingers on the fringes of preseason playoff discussion, but its schedule sets up nicely for double-digit wins. With little margin for error, the Irish will have to capitalize on their potential from Week 1 and avoid any slip-ups.
“We want to have an identity when we come into camp,” Kelly said. “We've got to play Texas, Virginia and Georgia Tech right out of the gate. We have to have an identity of who we are. We can't wait four or five weeks to find out oh, well, we're a running team, we're a passing team, we’re this, we’re that.”
After the spring game, Kelly collected his team near the sideline for the standard post-workout address that sends the Irish into the next phase of the off-season. After kicking a nosy television camera out of the mix, Notre Dame’s coach lauded his crew’s effort that afternoon and emphasized that players would get right back to work with weight training set for Monday. Let’s keep it going, Kelly told his team.
Left out of the brief monologue was any lengthy discussion about who Notre Dame would be just more than four months down the line. Such talk would have been extraneous, or even redundant. The Irish’s identity ought to be set, their plan for 2015 already up and running.