Quarterback battle will take center stage

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Throughout spring practice, summer workouts and fall camp, Brian Kelly did everything he could to make us believe a quarterback battle was taking place between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire.

Twelve games and 22 turnovers later, the Irish finally have one.

Fueled by Golson’s struggles to protect the football over the season’s final nine games and Zaire’s competent play in his 2.5 quarters of lopsided action against USC, the most important job in the program will be open for competition.

That means for the first time since Golson returned to campus last spring, he and Zaire will take snaps on equal footing, with both quarterbacks taking dead aim at a starting job.

“We have to go into that practice with a mindset of giving Everett and Malik both an opportunity to show what they’re made of and how they’re going to compete,” Kelly said on Sunday. “But at the same time, see what competition looks like from that standpoint—true competition.

“Because, obviously, this was not a competitive situation during the year. Malik was the backup, and I think I made that pretty clear. We’re going to let them compete, and we’ll see where that puts us come game time.”

Game time means the opportunity to go against LSU’s defense. A young, talented and deep group that’s played excellent football since giving up 41 points to Auburn in early October, the Tigers will give a very blunt assessment as to where the Irish quarterback is, especially with over three weeks to prepare for Notre Dame.

But regardless of where the chips fall heading into the Music City Bowl, it’s clear that Kelly has taken not just the November slide, but Golson’s play on whole as an opportunity to reevaluate how he views the quarterback position. And it could mean a harsh reboot of a position that’s the key to driving the Irish offense.

“There’s some things that have to change at that position,” Kelly said. “So we’re going to have to see how quickly they are, if we’re on the right track, if we’re making progress there. That could be an extension into the spring. I really think it’s just a matter of we’re going to have to take it really step by step.

“We know there’s competition at the position. Now let’s let them go and compete.”

After hearing from Kelly, it’s clear that the next three weeks aren’t necessarily about the best quarterback for the Irish to beat LSU, but rather the best quarterback to lead the program. And that should leave both candidates feeling recharged.

For Zaire, it’s an open competition at a position that looked spoken for through January 2016. For Golson, it’s the chance to clear the slate and get back to the basics. And for Kelly, it’s a chance to reiterate the ground rules and reboot a competition that desperately needs someone to take hold of the job.

“Let’s be clear. The best I can give you is there’s a way I want that position to operate, and it’s going to operate the way I want it to operate,” Kelly said. “If you operate it the way I want it done, you’ll be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame.”

With 2014’s fate largely settled, there’s no urgency. Meaning we’ll have the opportunity to see Golson and Zaire battle until the coaching staff is settled on an offensive leader.

“It may be eight practices. It may be a year. But I’m going to have to see what I need to see from both of them,” Kelly said.