SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The major construction enveloping Notre Dame Stadium forced the football program’s spring game to migrate and downsize: Everything shifted to the practice fields a few hundred yards to the east, where temporary bleachers and a provisional broadcast booth went up and a mere 3,590 took in the quaint, somewhat ad hoc event. That solved one logistical issue. Another contrivance – a fan-submitted play to start the second half – theoretically solved another.
The Irish have two quarterbacks competing for one spot, with senior Everett Golson and junior Malik Zaire vying for the starting honors, but this particular design made room for both. Golson split wide. Zaire took the snap. Golson then took a lateral and looked downfield for Zaire, who ran a route deep into the secondary. Golson lofted a pass as Zaire crossed into open space…and then safety Max Redfield stepped in front of the would-be receiver for an interception he subsequently returned for a touchdown.
“Obviously the intention was for us to sit back and let it happen,” Redfield said. “I wasn’t comfortable with that.”
No, Notre Dame’s quarterback quandary wasn’t settled on that snap, nor on any other during Saturday’s game, won 36-34 by the defense. Here are three quick thoughts after observing the action:
1. No one is saying anything to clarify the quarterback competition
In one light, this is literally true: Neither Golson nor Zaire were made available to the media following the spring game. Golson didn’t speak once all spring, actually. Zaire made one previous appearance. And Irish coach Brian Kelly was more or less effusive about both options, deeming their judgment “excellent” for the most part and their zone-read game “strong.”
“I thought they both competed at a high level in the first half, and I think we all saw they’re capable of playing championship football,” Kelly said. “Both Everett and Malik played well, did very good things.”
The spring game will not be a separation point. “The decision on playing time will take care of itself,” Kelly said, alluding to the work both quarterbacks will put in from this point on. Golson was 7 of 15 for 83 yards in the air and added 24 yards on the ground with a rushing touchdown. Zaire was 8 of 14 passing with two scoring tosses – the highlight being a 68-yard touchdown bomb to Will Fuller – while adding 40 yards on the ground. Both had shaky moments. Both had revelatory drives. Without Golson speaking to douse the months-old speculation that he might transfer from Notre Dame once he earns his degree this summer, there exists at least a faint possibility that Zaire wins by default and the decision is ultimately no decision at all. But if it’s a two-man race, it’s a marathon that will last through the summer and well into August. And it wouldn’t be surprising if Kelly found a way to use both quarterbacks anyway, if not on the same play.
2. It’s tough to gauge the defense, especially because the whole defense wasn’t there
The offense scored touchdowns on its first two drives of the day, and at the end, it amassed 464 yards overall at a clip of five yards per play. For a defense that wilted late in 2014 due to injuries and various other issues–Notre Dame surrendered more than 400 yards in six of its last seven regular season games, including 500 on three occasions–it wasn’t profoundly auspicious. But it’s tough to judge anything on Saturday. Linebacker Joe Schmidt, who had 65 tackles in eight games before suffering a fractured and dislocated ankle, dressed but watched from the sideline. Defensive lineman Jarron Jones, who started 11 games in 2014, didn’t participate as he recovers from a fractured foot suffered in November. And cornerback KeiVarae Russell, suspended as a result of an academic fraud investigation, won’t return to campus until the summer. “He’s going to bring the juice,” linebacker Jaylon Smith said of the voluble Russell, who started 26 games in his first two seasons. Without Schmidt, the unit’s cerebral cog, and the energy of Russell and the equally talkative Jones, where Notre Dame’s defense was Saturday is far less significant than where it might go once it is at full strength.
3. C.J. Prosise may make the backfield dynamic very interesting
Prosise, a 6’0”, 220-pound junior, arrived as a defensive back and primarily was deployed as a receiver during his career, averaging a team-best 17.8 yards on 29 catches last season. He spent this spring at running back, though, and led all spring game rushers with 64 yards, averaging 5.3 yards per tote. At one point, on a run up the sideline, Prosise collided with Redfield and knocked the hard-hitting safety onto his back. “He's a guy that you're going to fear,” Kelly said of Prosise. “When you turn on the film, you're going to look at him and go, ‘He scares me.’” Tarean Folston, who piled up a team-best 889 yards in 2014, is likely to be the primary option again.
But the emergence of Prosise – as well as Kelly gushing about his performance – raises the question of what happens with former five-star tailback recruit Greg Bryant. Notre Dame regularly used three tailbacks in 2014 and, should it move to a run-first offense in 2015, having a capable trio is almost more of a necessity than a luxury. But if Bryant senses he’ll spend a season getting what’s left after Folson and Prosise get theirs? Who knows how patient he’ll be for his opportunity. (He was another player who didn’t speak to the media all spring.) There will be enough bodies to run out there either way, between Folston and Prosise and the ability of Golson and/or Zaire to use their feet. But Prosise’s presence in particular adds a layer that no one expected.