One of the most impressive statistical seasons in school history was flushed down the toilet when Everett Golson could not stop turning the football over. With fumbles, poor decision-making and some plain bad luck plaguing Golson’s otherwise exceptional season, Brian Kelly chose Malik Zaire to be his starter for the Music City Bowl.
Zaire’s performance against LSU essentially rebooted a quarterback battle that at one point seemed near impossible for Golson to lose. But entering spring camp, it’s a two-man race to see who’ll get a chance to run a Notre Dame offense that should be the best of the last decade.
Heading into spring practice, let’s take a deep dive into the quarterback depth chart, headed by one of the best position battles in college football.
QUARTERBACK DEPTH CHART
1. Everett Golson, Grad Student
or Malik Zaire, Jr.*
3. DeShone Kizer, Soph.*
4. Montgomery VanGorder, Soph.*
*Signifies fifth-year of eligibility available.
With new quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford getting his first look at the three quarterbacks on the roster, don’t expect this battle to start during practice one. But before Brandon Wimbush gets to campus, all three quarterbacks have to be sharp from the open of practice, as the head coach won’t ever be too far away from the action.
Everett Golson: While getting reacclimated to campus life and working his way through the media circus was Golson’s challenge last spring, the microscope will be just as fixated on the veteran quarterback during these 15 practices.
Last year, many wondered if Golson’s return would deliver the Irish offense its savior. Now, many are wondering if Golson even wants to fight for his job back or does he plan to transfer after he graduates in May to another program.
Golson knows Kelly’s offense better than any quarterback on the roster. He’s also the most talented passer. But making the extraordinary play doesn’t mean much if you can’t do the ordinary correctly, and a commitment to the little things this spring is crucial.
One last piece to keep your eye on: Golson’s leadership. Far from a natural born leader, Golson’s ownership of the offense could transfer to Zaire this spring if he’s not fully engaged.
Malik Zaire: For this spring to be a success, Zaire needs to prove to Kelly and the Irish coaching staff that he’s just as good of a practice player as he is a gamer. We’ve seen Zaire shine brightly on the big stage — playing well in his first two Blue-Gold games and making his minutes count against USC before breaking loose against LSU.
But to be the face of an offense like this you need to be more than just a game day standout, you need to be the best practice player on the roster as well. Zaire just didn’t do that the last two seasons — with Kelly speaking openly about that struggle multiple times.
Zaire is ready to lead this team — he’s got charisma and confidence that most quarterbacks would kill for. But working with a new offensive coordinator and an offensive staff that’ll demand the quarterback owns the entire playbook means Zaire can’t afford to be the guy who can turn it on when he wants to. Not if he’s going to win the starting job.
DeShone Kizer: He may be the forgotten man in this quarterback battle, but Kizer’s got an important spring in front of him as well. Most importantly, it’s getting a foot forward in the battle for the No. 3 job — before Wimbush gets to campus.
Kizer is an intriguing quarterback and going through the phase of his career where he’s forgotten (a redshirt year and a blue-chipper in the recruiting class will do that to you), with Wimbush the newest and shiniest at the position. But at 6’5″ and with good speed and a solid arm, there’s plenty to like about Kizer, and he’ll need to show that he’s making progress this spring.
Montgomery VanGorder: Earning a scholarship last season as he served as the emergency third-stringer, VanGorder isn’t likely to take many snaps this spring, with reps going to Golson and Zaire with Kizer getting a sprinkling as well.
But that’s life for a walk-on, and VanGorder will have his chance to earn his keep by learning Sanford’s way of running the offense. That could mean this spring is about learning new hand signals. Or new techniques. Whatever it is, a fourth-stringer’s job is about doing the little (sometimes off field) things right, and this spring will be a chance to do that.
Notre Dame, Ian Book turn to passing game in blow out of Wake Forest
The instinct is to lead with a “book” pun here to cleverly recognize Notre Dame junior quarterback Ian Book’s performance in his first career start made by coaching choice rather than injury to usual-starter Brandon Wimbush. Such wordplay would be a disservice to Book’s showing in the 56-27 Irish victory at Wake Forest on Saturday and minimize the decision made by Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly to make the change despite a No. 8 ranking and remaining undefeated.
“I didn’t sleep great last night because that’s a pretty big decision to make when you’re 3-0 and your quarterback that was leading your team is [12-3] as a starter,” Kelly said. “Had a lot of confidence in Ian and I thought our offense played to the level I thought it was capable of.”
Book improved that record to 4-0 without any trouble, even if the Deacons did hand the Irish their first deficit of the season with a first-quarter field goal. Book responded by completing all four of his passes on the subsequent drive, three of them going to senior tight end Alizé Mack for 41 yards. Once sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong found the end zone with a 30-yard score, Notre Dame never trailed again, rattling off 28 unanswered points in one stretch spanning much of the second and third quarters.
Armstrong finished with 98 yards and two touchdowns on only eight carries, part of the Irish gaining 245 yards on 39 carries (sacks adjusted). Book threw for 325 yards and two more scores — giving him five total thanks to three short jaunts across the goal line of 2, 2 and 1 yard — to bring the Notre Dame total to 566 yards, its most of the season by 152.
Despite giving up more than 17 points for the first time of the year, the Irish had little trouble with Wake Forest’s up-tempo attack. The Deacons gained 398 total yards, their first time falling short of 500 this season, on 92 plays, a lackluster average of 4.2 yards per play. Their final two scores came against what was increasingly Notre Dame’s second and third-units, the first time those reserves have gotten a chance to stretch their legs in a game.
They can thank Book for that opportunity, above all others.
PLAYER OF THE GAME Book, obviously. His stats jump off the page no matter the situation: A 73.5 percent completion rate to gain 325 yards by connecting with 10 different receivers (two more than the season’s previous high, set last week against Vanderbilt). Nine rushes for 47 yards (sacks adjusted). Five total touchdowns.
If this proves to be Book’s coming-out party, that will be a tough standard to maintain.
His connection with Mack stands out. Though the senior did not reach the end zone, Book looked for him eight times, including repeatedly early to build a rhythm. Mack caught six of those for 61 yards, both career highs. Frankly, he nearly matched his combined output in the season’s first three games of six catches for 74 yards.
Book found Mack both in the flat and headed downfield on a seam route, displaying a diverse skill set from the tight end previously only speculated about. Mack was not the only tight end Book looked to, also connecting with sophomore Brock Wright for a three-yard score, Wright’s first in his career and only second career catch. His first? It came last week, on a pass from Book.
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME If not the early days of the week when Kelly decided to switch his primary playmaker, inserting Book into the starting lineup and moving Wimbush to the sideline, then …
For the first time this season, the Irish did not score on their first possession. The Book experiment looked to be a questionable one when Notre Dame could not muster much on its second possession, either. A fumble from sophomore receiver Michael Young ended the third. At that point, 12 plays had yielded 42 yards and no points. Wake Forest led. Another long day appeared imminent.
The Irish scored touchdowns on eight of their next nine possessions. The fourth of which eliminated any Deacons hope before it could genuinely take root. Wake Forest had just run a breakneck drive covering 75 yards in 10 plays that took fewer than three minutes to come within 21-13. The Deacons had begun the day trading field goals for touchdowns, but when senior running back Matt Colburn scored from two yards out, suddenly their offense seemed more viable. The execution it needed had shown up.
Notre Dame responded with a play many have become conditioned to cringe at. It is nearly a pavlovian response: When the Irish run a bubble screen to a receiver, express frustration and doubt the play-calling acumen as soon as the pass is thrown parallel to the line of scrimmage.
It is hard to doubt the concept when it results in a 66-yard dash by Young, sprung by blocks from Mack and senior receiver Miles Boykin. Book’s stat line was the beneficiary, thanks to both the yards after the catch and the chance to score a 2-yard rushing touchdown. In just 62 seconds, Notre Dame’s lead was back to two possessions before halftime. Wake Forest would not score again until the Irish had already raced to a 49-13 lead near the end of the third quarter.
STAT OF THE GAME At halftime, Book’s stat line read 16-of-24 passing for 189 yards. The two dozen pass attempts stood out, especially in comparison to the team total of 15 rushing attempts to that point. It was the first time Notre Dame’s offense skewed toward the air in the first half.
Vanderbilt: 27 rushes in the first half; 17 passes. Ball State: 20 rushes; 17 passes. Michigan: 25 rushes; 15 passes.
Even with the hefty lead, the Irish balance came closer to even than it had all season.
Wake Forest: 40 rushes in the game; 36 passes. Vanderbilt: 48 rushes; 26 passes. Ball State: 41 rushes; 31 passes. Michigan: 47 rushes; 22 passes.
“It’s where we have wanted it to go and grow,” Kelly said. “The balance necessary of run and pass is where ultimately this offense has been (going). I brought [offensive coordinator Chip Long] in to run a balanced run-pass offense.
“You saw what it should look like today.”
The shift toward the air showed in both the total of 566 yards and in the average of 7.4 yards gained per play. The previous peak for the Irish was 5.8 against Ball State. (Vanderbilt: 5.1; Michigan 4.4)
PLAY(S) OF THE GAME Young’s bubble screen nearly to the end zone could qualify, but instead this space will include mention of a moment that occurred long after the result was determined. Freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec undoubtedly did not expect his first collegiate playing time to come anywhere but Notre Dame Stadium, but the last two weeks of close games had changed those plans. With about four minutes left at Wake Forest, the heralded passer entered.
On his third snap, he comfortably and confidently fired a deep pass toward classmate Kevin Austin. The receiver’s legs innocently tangled with the defensive back’s, removing any chance of a completion, but it was telling how at ease Jurkovec was with the heave.
On the next snap, Jurkovec ran around the right end for a 7-yard gain, enjoying every step of it.
It was not all wonderful by the supposed quarterback-of-the-future, as he then missed a wide-open Wright on a crossing route, the exact kind of spot a quarterback praised for his accuracy should shine.
WHAT? A rematch from last year’s 48-37 Irish victory, though both of these teams have since lost their greatest offensive weapons. Notre Dame can no longer claim a record-setting back running behind two offensive linemen already starting in the NFL, and the Demon Deacons are without four-year starting quarterback John Wolford and his impeccable understanding of the scheme.
WHEN? 12 p.m. ET. Yes, a rare early kick for the Irish, their first since back-to-back noon kicks to start October in 2016, a 50-33 victory against Syracuse in East Rutherford, N.J., and a 10-3 loss at North Carolina State in a literal hurricane.
WHERE? BB&T Field, Winston-Salem, N.C. The smallest home stadium of all 65 Power Five schools, BB&T holds 31,500. The next smallest is Washington State’s Martin Stadium, holding a bit more than 32,000.
ABC will have the national broadcast, and one presumes it will be available for streaming through the Watch ESPN app.
WHY? In many respects, the schedule has set up nearly-ideally for the Irish, and this trip plays right into that. Notre Dame got to face Michigan before the Wolverines found anything of an offense, having scored 49 and 45 points in the two weeks since. Then the Irish could work through offensive struggles of their own against Ball State and Vanderbilt. Now Notre Dame’s first road trip of the season also looks to be its easiest of only four true road games.
That has opened the door for Irish head coach Brian Kelly to reportedly start junior Ian Book at quarterback in place of a healthy Brandon Wimbush, the starter in 15 of the last 16 games, only sitting at North Carolina last year due to a mild foot injury.
IT SEEMS LIKE NOTRE DAME HAS PLAYED WAKE FOREST A LOT OF LATE. That is not false. The two met for the first time in 2011, and this will be their fifth matchup in only eight years. The Irish have won the previous four, with the only trip to Winston-Salem being the only one-possession contest of the bunch, a 24-17 outcome in that first game. At the time, it did not feel low-scoring; No. 1 LSU was holding off No. 2 Alabama 9-6 in overtime without anyone finding the end zone as Brian Kelly began his own postgame press conference.
BY HOW MUCH? After spending much of the week with Notre Dame favored by eight points, the spread swung Friday to a 6.5-point margin with a combined point total over/under of 59.5. If sticking to those marks, a 33-27 Irish win would be the conclusion.
Two parts of that stick out. Notre Dame has yet to give up more than 17 points in a game while the Deacons managed just 23 in their opener at Tulane. The Irish, meanwhile, have not scored more than 24 points in a game since running up those 48 against Wake Forest last year, a seven-game stretch.
Then why the elevated over/under? The Deacons defense is bad enough, bookmakers expect Notre Dame’s offense to finally break through, no matter who leads the way at quarterback.
I’ll believe that when I see it, though the atrocious Wake Forest defense should give way more often than speedy and shifty receiver Greg Dortch finds the end zone.
Notre Dame 27, Wake Forest 24. (3-0 in pick; 1-2 against the spread, 3-0 point total.)
It took me four years to watch every episode of “Cheers.” Late at night, wanting background noise while turning notes into coherent sentences, the banter filled the silence at an appropriate rate. The few laughs every 22 minutes were a bonus. Once Sam Malone turned off the lights at the bar for the last time, it was only natural to continue with “Frasier.”
An episode late in season four played on a screen to my side while compiling the needed scores, stats and spreads for this week’s Notre Dame’s Opponents entry. I barely heard Frasier’s son, Frederick, explain he had long known his dad wasn’t perfect.
“You couldn’t fix my computer. You thought Venus was the North Star, and I’ve seen you run.” Frederick told Frasier before explaining why he had never pointed out these deficiencies. “I thought it might hurt your self-esteem.”
I have never worried about those feelings with my father. His shortcomings are too apparent to pretend not to notice. He finishes off the tray of potatoes at dinner without asking if anyone else wants them, before they have made so much as one trip around the table. Calling his handwriting illegible is an insult to any three-year-old who ever picked up chalk.
And, he’s a Boston Red Sox fan.
Despite that terrible mistake, my father still always gave a nod to New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter as someone he could tolerate. More than that, he outright respected Yankees closer Mariano Rivera. Greatness like that should not be clouded by rivalry, no matter how many times Rivera and the Yankees shut the door on the Red Sox.
The same can and should be applied in any sport. Make no mistake, Rivera is the extreme of a fandom’s struggle. He was such a class act while throwing the single-greatest pitch in baseball history, a Red Sox (or Braves or Mets or Phillies) fan could hate how effective he was, but not the player himself. Watching Mariano required a touch of admiration.
By no means are any of the following examples anywhere near Rivera’s caliber. He may be on his own in that right. (After all, more men have walked on the moon than knocked in an earned postseason run against Rivera.)
So early in his career, perhaps Wake Forest junior receiver Greg Dortch should be considered near the other end of this thought process, but Notre Dame fans should watch Dortch tomorrow and expect to marvel at what he can do on a football field, even as he keeps the score a bit closer than they may like. If not rationally capable of that, then perhaps table the appreciation for afterward and provided an Irish victory, return to some of Dortch’s dashes down the field. He is electric with the football in a way not seen often enough. Then again, it is its rarity that makes it so worthwhile.
Dortch has touched the football 45 times in three games this year. He has gained 674 yards. At some point, he will beat Notre Dame’s secondary. Separate the effect on the game from the actual ability for just a moment, and recognize how unfathomably quick Dortch is.
In a year, expect to experience something similar when Boston College visits South Bend in late November. Sophomore running back AJ Dillon may already be the best running back in the country. With another year, he could be approaching the platonic ideal of college football.
It will be tougher to appreciate Dillon than it should be with Dortch, though. The Eagles will be a better team than the Deacons are. Given last week’s result, Boston College already is. Unless a player is as peerless as the Great Mariano — who holds the record for throwing the last pitch in the most World Series. How many did he do so? Answer at bottom. — some ill will remains as they succeed at your team’s expense. Despite Dortch’s best efforts, Notre Dame should still win this weekend, just not by as much as if he was out with another injury. Topping Boston College in 14 months will not be as certain.
That is part of the formula to appreciating individual opponents in college football. An excellent player on a defeated foe is more palatable to reminisce over thanks to the eventual victory. The win makes the remembered frustration feel deserved afterward.
It is why names like Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly, Georgia Tech receiver Calvin Johnson and Pittsburgh receiver Larry Fitzgerald are remembered with nothing but fondness. Combined, they went 0-6 against Notre Dame.
In an informal survey of a dozen Irish fans this week asking what past opposing players they had most enjoyed to watch, those names were mentioned frequently, but combined they did not outpace USC running back Reggie Bush. The praises uttered for the Heisman-returnee all included caveats. Those disclaimers did not tie to any of the Trojans’ vacated wins or issues with the NCAA. They boiled down to one thing: USC went 3-0 against Notre Dame during Bush’s time there.
Dortch has not played the Irish. A life-threatening intestinal injury sidelined him last year. He may well end his career 1-0 against Notre Dame, but that is not reason enough to not take a moment Saturday afternoon and mutter some four-letter words under your breath out of respect, appreciation and admiration.
Even my father mustered that much for Mariano after he threw three scoreless innings in game seven of the 2003 ALCS to keep the Red Sox at bay for another year. His handwriting remains terrible and Thanksgiving potatoes are a 50/50 proposition for the rest of us, but he at least got that acknowledgment right.
(Five. Mariano threw the last pitch in five World Series, which includes the 2001 defeat.)
Brian Kelly refuses to tip Notre Dame’s hand amid QB rumors
Brandon Wimbush will play. Ian Book will play. That much is clear, and it is not a change from the season’s first three weeks.
Which will start? Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly would not divulge that Thursday, though that was probably more an inclination to stick to inane modern coaching standards than it was actual indecision.
“We need them both to win,” Kelly said of his quarterbacks. “They are both ready.”
The questions arose out of speculation from national media personalities the Irish may turn to the backup Book more at Wake Forest, if not even start the junior. Book has seen less than a handful of snaps in each game thus far this season, usually within yards of the goal line.
Notre Dame turned to Book in those spots as they fit his aptitude in read-option packages beginning under center. That does not mean Book was not ready to play no matter the field position.
“He was prepared to play anywhere,” Kelly said. “That’s just where he played in those games.”
Once asked, there was no situation in which Kelly was going to say more than that. Given the Irish have already made it a point to include Book in each game plan, downgrading that status to insist Wimbush is the starter would serve no function but internal confusion. If Book’s role is going to increase, then Kelly gains nothing by warning the Demon Deacons.
He did make one unexpected acknowledgement, though. Throughout Kelly’s tenure, the backup quarterback has taken about 40 percent of the reps in practice. That was true with Book during the preseason, but the ratio has apparently since skewed.
“They’ve been pretty close,” Kelly said. “… This has been pretty close to 50/50. We’ve been managing it that way.”
The one quarterback not in the mix is freshman Phil Jurkovec, working primarily with the scout team. Kelly would like to get Jurkovec some playing time in line with the new NCAA rule allowing up to four games of action without jeopardizing a year of eligibility. Any playing time for Jurkovec would come in the specific scenario of a blowout, naturally.
“If we got an opportunity, we would love to get him some playing time, as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve been in some close, hard-fought games.
“… It’s hard when you’re running someone else’s offense each week. We bring him up [to practice with the offense] and he’s working off a card. What we like most about him is his leadership presence, just the way he handles himself, but I couldn’t really tell you whether he could go in there and run the offense. He hasn’t had that much work.”
Other freshmen are on the verge of contributing in competitive moments, some perhaps not in more than four games. Kelly noted cornerback Tariq Bracy and linebacker Shayne Simon, having appeared in three games and the latter two contests, respectively, as well as cornerback Noah Boykin and receiver Joe Wilkins, neither of which has taken the field yet.
“There’s probably half a dozen guys that we’re seeing that, ‘Hey, we’re probably going to see two or three or maybe four games on some of these guys,’” Kelly said. “I don’t want to say this in a negative way, there’s a list that are moving from suspects to prospects relative to playing time now.”
Freshman receiver Braden Lenzy is not among that grouping at the current moment as he recovers from a concussion, per Kelly. Lenzy was not in uniform last weekend and will not travel to Wake Forest.
ON NOTRE DAME’S NICKEL BACK PACKAGES Against the Deacons and junior receiver Greg Dortch, the Irish will rely on sets with more defensive backs than the usual base will. Without senior Shaun Crawford (torn ACL), Notre Dame lacks an established nickel back. The luxury of junior cornerback Donte Vaughn allows star junior cornerback Julian Love to spend more time across from the slot and therefore probably Dortch.
“Julian has that flexibility to move inside,” Kelly said. “We taught him the nickel, (he) had known it. It puts three veteran players on the field for us [at cornerback].”