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Last looks: Quarterbacks


When Everett Golson pulled the chute and headed south to Tallahassee, Notre Dame’s quarterback competition quickly cleared up. This is Malik Zaire’s football team.

Depending on how you look at it, that could be a very good thing or a very bad thing. Those in favor of having Golson stick around liked the idea of a three-year starter and a quarterback with an elite throwing arm. Those ready to see him go were sick and tired of watching him cough up the football, each mistake erasing a highlight that would’ve looked great on YouTube, but was erased as it derailed a football team that couldn’t withstand critical mistakes, especially with a second-half, swiss cheese defense.

The Irish move forward, with Zaire implanted as the unofficial leader of the offense, a quarterback with no fear being the face of a unit with great expectations. But with zero experience behind Zaire’s own limited snap count, it’ll be a bit of a tight rope walk.

So let’s take our last looks at the quarterback position, always the most critical spot on the field.


Position Coach: Mike Sanford



QB1: Malik Zaire, Jr.*
QB2: DeShone Kizer, Soph.*
QB3: Brandon Wimbush, Fr.
QB4: Montgomery VanGorder, Soph.*

*Denotes additional year of eligibility available. 



Malik Zaire. No kidding, right? Zaire now steps into focus, allowed to let his confidence and off-field leadership abilities mesh with the opportunity afforded to him. We’ve spent a few thousand words talking about Zaire this offseason. But I’ll be interested to see if they treat Zaire like Golson in 2012 or give him a full menu.



DeShone Kizer. In a perfect world, Kizer is the world’s most boring kick-holder. But in case of injury—or if Zaire’s helmet pops off—Kizer’s number is going to be called, and it’ll be up to the sophomore to be ready to take over.

Watching the spring game, it sure looked like there was an ocean between Kizer and being ready to take over the quarterbacking duties. But with Golson gone and Kizer having a great offseason (I’ll choose to believe what Brian Kelly and Mike Sanford have said about him) and fall camp, there’s nobody this staff wants more as No. 2, especially with the preference to keep a redshirt on Wimbush.



Can Zaire keep the turnovers under control? There’s nothing more important to Notre Dame’s offense than limiting game-changing mistakes. So finding a way to run this offense in both an explosive way, but also one that limits potential mistakes, will be one of the critical balancing acts of the season.

There is too much talent on this offense to be overly vanilla. But all the talent in the world won’t help you win if you’re giving the football away. This is one of the largest big-picture questions I have for this season.


Can Zaire be a weapon in the running game… without getting hurt? Zaire is an elite option quarterback, based on a high school career that was almost exclusively triple-option until his senior season’s offense opened up. And add to that a rugged 230-pound frame that might make Zaire the most powerful runner in the stable, and you’ve got to wonder how the quarterback can be both a critical piece of the ground game, while also not getting hurt.

Early in Kelly’s time in South Bend, he seemed to put restrictions on Dayne Crist, knowing full well that he had nothing behind him. It didn’t matter, with Crist going down twice with season-ending (and career detouring) injuries. I expect Kelly has learned from that.

No, it’s not realistic for Zaire to run 22 times a game like he did against LSU. But finding a way to let Zaire impact the game on the ground while also limiting his “pitch count” makes sense.


What happens if things go wrong? Last season was ruined when Golson couldn’t pick himself up and revive his confidence. Zaire doesn’t look like he’ll have that problem, but it’s impossible to know how he’ll respond until he makes his first big mistake.

Building on this, things going wrong could also include losing the team’s starting quarterback. It’s a scenario that this staff has to be ready for, and if that happens, they need to be ready to not just take the redshirt off of Wimbush, but to potentially build him a package of plays that utilize his speed and big arm. This team is too good not to go all-in on salvaging the offense.



Does this offense need a game manager? Zaire is hardly a “game-manager” type, but is that what the Irish need?

I don’t think so, only because the Irish defense isn’t like the unit Notre Dame trotted out in 2012. But on a scale from “no-risks to full-throttle,” you’ve got to expect this staff to hand Zaire the reins slowly, keeping things as vanilla as they can until they need to outscore teams like Georgia Tech, Clemson and USC.


What will Mike Sanford’s impact on this position be? In Matt LaFleur’s single season in South Bend, he didn’t accomplish many of the things optimists expected, especially when it was clear that Golson was regressing down the stretch.

Sanford is a more polished offensive coach than LaFleur, who found himself a much better fit in the pro grame. And Kelly also likely looked hard at his arrangement last time around, where LaFleur focused on the guys behind Golson while the head coach seemed to work exclusively with the starter. Sanford wasn’t coming to South Bend to take a secondary role in this offense, especially after Urban Meyer offered him the keys to the Buckeyes offense.

But what changes should we expect at quarterback? We saw small tweaks—especially in the footwork in the zone read game—this spring. But expect Sanford’s DNA to be all over this offense (especially at quarterback), even as we wait to figure out how the offensive collaboration will work.


Can Zaire make progress in the red zone, especially near the goal line? While the Irish actually made great strides in converting opportunities to touchdowns (the Irish jumped from 100th to 45th in TD%), there’s still work to be done. And while Zaire’s decision-making in the passing game is still up for debate, his ability to run the ball near the goal line has to be a huge asset.

Stack the box and you leave guys like Will Fuller, Corey Robinson or Tight End X/Y/Z in single coverage. Respect the passing game and you’ve got a 230-pound quarterback barreling your way.

Even if we expect the special teams operation to get better, it’s still never good to rely on a freshman to get you three when you really want seven. The Irish can bury a lot of opponents by being opportunistic in the red zone, allowing Brian VanGorder’s defense to pin its ears back when an opponent gets down two scores. So cashing in on red zone opportunities is a key piece of the puzzle.


Kelly: Play-calling will be a collaboration

Brian Kelly, Malik Zaire

So who’s calling the plays? That was one of the main questions  still unanswered heading into the season’s opening game, and when head coach Brian Kelly was asked about it, he was staying mum.

With Mike Sanford (the offensive coordinator) taking his cues from Mike Denbrock (the associate head coach), you already knew that the org chart looked different than most. So maybe it makes sense that Kelly’s going relatively new-age with his philosophy on play-calling.

“We are going to collaborate,” Kelly said Tuesday. “There will be collaboration. Mike Sanford, myself, Coach Denbrock, there will be collaboration on Saturday.”

In theory, it makes sense, and likely shows just how much Kelly trusts the opinion of both Denbrock, an assistant coach Kelly’s know for the better part of 25 years, and Sanford, an assistant he’s worked with for roughly nine months.

With Kelly and Denbrock on the sidelines and Sanford upstairs in the box, game day operations will be worth watching. Especially the first time Zaire gets behind center only to notice that the playclock is moments from zero and a blown timeout earns the scorn of the Irish head coach. Collaboration? That’ll be the collective groan you hear emanating from Notre Dame Stadium.

Yet there’s a good chance that frustrating scenario might not ever happen. In fact, you could also argue that this collaboration could actually speed up an operation that sometimes struggled to move quickly, with both Tommy Rees and Everett Golson prone to evaluating what the defense showed and then counter-punching.

Building on this theory, you could also take the leap that the three-man effort could be to help speed up an operation that wants to move at significant pace this season. With Sanford above the action, he can better fill in Kelly and Denbrock on what he sees and what the defense is doing. With the game plan set and scripting in place, the Irish offense could finally dictate terms to the defense, after years of watching quarterbacks read and react.

Of course, we’ve spent five years talking about Kelly’s offense going up-tempo, a veritable white whale for some Irish diehards. And for all the clamoring and discussion about turning Kelly’s offense into Oregon’s, we’ve really only really seen it happen a handful of series. But with Zaire at quarterback and Notre Dame’s best running signal caller since Carlyle Holiday, the option to finally “call it and haul it” is available to this offense, if they choose to utilize it.

Kelly confirmed Tuesday that he holds veto rights on what play goes to the quarterback, pretty much what you’d expect from a head coach with a reputation for being one of the best play-callers in America. (Yes, Irish fans, that’s what people outside our little bubble think.) But with Zaire, a veteran of roughly six quarters of action and a new offensive coordinator, the Irish offense is finally an unknown, likely the head coach’s rational for playing this one very close to the vest.

“I’m just not going to give you much more than, you know, all three of us are collaborating,” Kelly said. “We’re all in unison as to how we want the game to unfold. So we are all going to be working off the same play sheet. We are going to all be working off the same openers. We are going to all be working off the same down and distance sheet.

“So whether it’s coming out of Mike or Mike or Brian’s lips, is really immaterial as far as I’m concerned. All I know is that we’ve got great collaboration between the three of us.”

And in that corner… The Texas Longhorns

AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl - Arkansas v Texas

Game week is finally here. After nearly nine months—spent wondering about transfers, speculating upon returns and predicting what’ll happen come September—we finally get to see a football game.

And the 2015 season kicks off not just with an ordinary football game, but a showdown between two of college football’s proudest programs. Notre Dame will receive a visit from Texas on Saturday night, with the Irish kicking off their home season in style with a primetime affair on NBC.

After a difficult first-season that saw Charlie Strong take some lumps as he fought tirelessly to rework the Longhorns in his image, Texas looks to build off a six-win season. Strong has hit the recruiting trail hard since arriving in Austin and brings with him a young team that’ll have two dozen true or redshirt freshmen on the depth chart.

To get us up to speed on the state of the Longhorns, Wescott Eberts of Burnt Orange Nation rejoins us. Nice enough to get us up to speed on things earlier this summer, Eberts cleared some time in a busy week one schedule to answer some questions for us before the games begin.

Hope you enjoy.

It looks like quarterback Tyrone Swoops is the man who’ll lead the Longhorns offense into South Bend. How has he been during fall camp? And what do you expect out of him in a night game on a very big stage in a fairly hostile environment?

By all reports, Tyrone Swoopes has been the better of the two quarterbacks, with particular development in his leadership ability. Normally a low-key guy, he’s been much more fiery and demonstrative in practice.

However, head coach Charlie Strong said back during the spring that while he thinks Swoopes is improved, he didn’t know how much better the Texas quarterback will be until he steps on the field. I think that’s still the case and there’s no question that much of his success will depend on improved play from the offensive line and consistency from his wide receivers, a position currently suffering from a lot of drops in practice.


I’ve been reading about some of the shakeups on the Texas offensive line. Charlie Strong has sounded complimentary when discussing his running backs, but how will the line be in front of him?

The early returns from practice are that the offensive line is much more physicality in the running game. In pass protection, the Horns may be a little bit more suspect, especially if freshman offensive guard Patrick Vahe remains a starter and pushes junior Kent Perkins out to right tackle, where he struggled last year. The flipside is that Texas will use run-pass options on a number of plays, which will reduce the number of pure drop-back situations for Swoopes.


How does Strong’s defense look as it prepares for an offensive opponent that should be one of the more explosive units in the country? Also — what’s the scouting report from Texas’ POV on quarterback Malik Zaire, who has really only played six quarters of football.

There are a lot of question marks for the Texas defense right now, which was missing a couple of key pieces at defensive tackle through much of fall camp. There will be six new starters against Notre Dame and several of them will likely be freshmen, including potential star linebacker Malik Jefferson and maybe even one of three cornerbacks who are making waves. If the linebackers can play well, then the Horns should be okay, efforts that the defensive line could enable by consistently occupying blocks.

As for Zaire, I think the Longhorns coaches respect his arm and his ability to scramble for big plays or be a part of the Fighting Irish power running game, which poses some problems for Texas. Against Big 12 teams, Strong likes to concede some rushing yards in order to reduce big plays down field in the passing game, but with Zaire so dangerous on the move, he may have to switch that up and try to take away the spread-option elements of Notre Dame’s offense.


Fill in the blanks. For Texas to win on Saturday night, the offensive key is ________________. For Texas to win on Saturday night, the defensive key is ________________________. 

For Texas to win on Saturday night, the key offensively is to produce explosive plays and avoid three and outs. While that may sound simplistic, the Horns struggled mightily in both of those areas last year, ultimately affording the defense little rest and poor field position to defend.

For Texas to win on Sunday night, the defense has to turn Notre Dame over and keep Zaire from making off-schedule plays with his feet, especially in long down-and-distance situations. Like most teams, there was a major difference in turnover margin in wins and losses — Texas was +9 in wins and -12 in losses.


What position group or specific player’s progress are you most interested in monitoring on Saturday?

The quarterback position is the obvious one and the offensive line’s development will factor heavily into the team’s success this season, but the freshman class may be an even bigger key this season. Two freshmen could start on the offensive line, one could start at wide receiver, and several could start on defense.

Seeing Jefferson in action will be particularly interesting — he made plays in the spring game, but also suffered from some inconsistencies that ultimately resulted in a poor grade for his efforts. The guess here is that he’ll have some growing pains in his first truly live action in college, but will also flash that playmaking ability that resulted in so much hype around him during his recruitment.


Not to put you on the spot, but do you have a prediction for Saturday night’s game? And if you’re calling the Longhorns’ getting the victory, who is your offensive and defensive MVP?

Not really too into predictions, but this looks like a game that Notre Dame should win, perhaps even handily. If the Horns do pull it off, I think that Tyrone Swoopes has to be the MVP offensively, while junior defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway will need to create some serious disruption inside.


For more from Wes and the crew at Burnt Orange Nation this week, check out the site or follow him on Twitter @SBN_Wescott and the site @BON_SBNation.