No position had a microscope on it like quarterback did this spring. In one of the country’s most-watched position battles, Everett Golson and Malik Zaire began their work with new offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Mike Sanford… and—well, that was about it.
For those who had expected a true battle for the No. 1 quarterback job, you have only yourself to be disappointed with. Because it was always Brian Kelly’s intent to develop both Golson and Zaire this spring, not eliminate one of them from the depth chart.
For Golson, the end of last season had many wondering if he was out the door once he received his diploma. For Zaire, quality performances against USC and LSU— and a powerful running style—had turned him into the people’s champion. But both had plenty of areas for improvement, keeping the focus on the here and now even with all eyes looking forward.
Finals are just around the corner, with graduation weekend set for mid-May. While no stock report will be complete until then, let’s take a look at where the quarterback depth chart sits after spring practice.
POST-SPRING DEPTH CHART
1. Everett Golson, GS (6-0, 200)
2. Malik Zaire, Jr* (6-0, 222)
3. DeShone Kizer, Soph.* (6-4.5, 230)
*Denotes fifth-year of eligibility available
Malik Zaire: While it’s difficult to push Zaire into a virtual dead heat with Golson atop the depth chart, it’s also difficult to find much wrong with the work the young quarterback did this spring. After more than patiently waiting his turn in 2014, Zaire exploded onto the scene in the season’s final two games, and he took that momentum with him into spring practice.
Zaire spent the spring working on his deficiencies. Right now, that’s in the passing game—specifically throwing the ball with proper timing and accuracy on the intermediate routes. There’s no question he’s a significant step behind Golson in that area, a fairly important one at the quarterback position.
But Zaire’s also made it clear that he’s taking leadership seriously. After Kelly chided Zaire last season by joking that he wasn’t falling asleep while eating Chipotle in quarterback meetings after he became a part of the game plan, it’s clear that whether it was a joke or not, Zaire wasn’t living up to the standard that Kelly set for the team’s most important position. And the young quarterback has certainly got the message.
We saw that on the field late last season, with Zaire willing the Irish to victory against LSU. We saw it again this spring, with Zaire unabashed about his intention to be the team’s starting quarterback, and then practicing like it.
As a runner, Zaire has no equal at the position. As we saw with his perfect deep ball to Will Fuller, the vertical passing game will be just fine as well if he’s under center. And while he’s still probably a stride or two behind Golson in the race for the job, it was a successful spring practice for one of the most important players on the roster.
Mike Sanford: No, he’s not an actual quarterback. But the work the team’s quarterback coach did with his players this spring deserves mention.
We saw cleaned up footwork in the zone read game, a key to Everett Golson’s season. We saw more focus on the fundamentals. And we probably took for granted just how much work Sanford had to do this spring, all while getting to know the three quarterbacks in his position room.
Ultimately, we’ll know if the teaching took hold when we watch the position play in the spring. But after a Blue-Gold game with no turnovers*, it was a great step in the right direction.
Everett Golson: Brian Kelly called this Everett Golson’s best spring since he’s been at Notre Dame. That alone would usually earn you a “buy” grade, but none of that matters until after May 15.
If Golson returns for summer school and to the Irish, it was a successful spring, and a tremendous job by the coaching staff navigating a very tricky situation. But until then, consider this the ultimate wait-and-see proposition. The ceiling of the 2015 football team is very much still in flux until a decision is officially made.
(It’s worth pointing out that Golson has said all along that he wasn’t going anywhere.)
On the field, Golson looked much better running the football in the zone read game, improved footwork at the mesh point on display during the Blue-Gold game. He protected the football better when he was a runner, something that’s absolutely necessary if he wants to stay on the field. While Kelly said his pocket presence improved, it’s worth pointing out that so did his offensive line and running game. Those two things go hand-in-hand with Golson standing tall in the pocket.
At his best, Golson is one of the finest quarterbacks in college football. At his worst, he’ll be wearing a baseball cap helping call in plays as he watches Zaire run the show. While just about every datapoint suggests he’ll be back in South Bend for the 2015 season, until it’s official, we’re staying neutral on this one.
DeShone Kizer: It’s never easy to be the guy on the outside of a two-quarterback battle. But for Kizer, this spring was about learning a new set of fundamentals, and honing his craft for the future.
With Brandon Wimbush on his way in this summer, the battle behind Golson and Zaire will certainly get more competitive. But any drop in Kizer’s hypothetical stock would mostly be a product of recruiting buzz, not anything that happened inside the program. And next year—or whenever the Irish get their next blue-chip recruiting pledge—we’ll start forgetting about Wimbush, too, until he makes a move in South Bend, not on a 5-star list.
Given significant snaps in the second half of the Blue-Gold game, Kizer didn’t wow anybody. He was just one of five passing before giving way to Montgomery VanGorder, a disappointing stat line regardless of context. (But then again, you could understand if Kizer’s head wasn’t 100 percent in it this spring.)
But Kizer has all the physical attributes you’re looking for in a quarterback. So with some time to develop, Kizer is a long play that didn’t do anything to push himself off track.
Hold. This rating changes to a buy the minute Golson decides to return, and stays the same even if he doesn’t. With Brandon Wimbush coming in, the Irish will have a four-man scholarship depth chart among the best in the country.
But if Golson departs and it’s Zaire alone at the top, it’s among the most dangerous depth chart’s Kelly’s had since the Crist/Rees years. While Zaire as a starter wouldn’t change the ceiling of this team, any injury to him turns into a dangerous scenario, and could rob the offense of its biggest asset, a power running game built with a quarterback in the mix.