Post-spring stock report: Quarterbacks

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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

 

STOCK UP

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.

 

STOCK NEUTRAL

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.

 

OVERALL TREND

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.

 

Notre Dame will face South Carolina in the Gator Bowl on Dec. 30

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Notre Dame and South Carolina will meet for the first time in nearly 40 years in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on Dec. 30 at 3:30 ET (ABC). The Irish and Gamecocks have not played since 1984, a South Carolina win in South Bend. That was part of Notre Dame’s struggles (going 12-11 in 1984 and 1985) that led to Lou Holtz being hired; Holtz, of course, went on to coach the Gamecocks for six seasons after he left the Irish.

Though the No. 21 Irish (8-4) finished the season strongly, including competing gamely at USC a week ago in a 38-27 loss, a driving storyline over the next month will be wondering if head coach Marcus Freeman can handle this bowl game better than the second half of the Fiesta Bowl faceplant last year in his first game as Notre Dame’s leader.

No. 19 South Carolina (8-4) enjoyed an even more impressive finish to the season, knocking both Tennessee and Clemson out of the College Football Playoff in its final two games of the season. Not that gambling spreads mean anything on the football field, but to give an idea how unexpected those two wins were, realize the Gamecocks were expected to lose them by a combined 37.5 points and instead won them by a combined 26 points.

There may be some rough parallels between South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer and Freeman, though Beamer is a year ahead in his head-coaching career.

Beamer was an unexpected hire in Columbia in 2021, never having been a head coach before and most recently the associate head coach and tight ends coach at Oklahoma for three seasons. The Gamecocks went 7-6 in his first year, his head-coaching inexperience perhaps rearing its head as they lost their first three games against Power-Five competition and four of their first five, the exception coming against worse-off Vanderbilt.

Thus, the surge to end the 2022 season stands out, particularly since it again took until October to notch a win against a Power-Five opponent, losing to both Arkansas and, more understandably, Georgia in September.

South Carolina found its most success this season through the air, led by former Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. He averaged 230.5 yards per game and 7.9 yards per attempt while completing 66.6 percent of his passes. The Gamecocks managed just 123.3 rushing yards per game and 3.8 yards per attempt.

Their rushing defense is one of the worst in the country, which could play right into the Irish offensive strength. Opponents gained 0.194 expected points per rush attempt against South Carolina, the No. 123 ranking in the country, per cfb-graphs.com.

Notre Dame fell to Ohio State, 21-10, to open Freeman’s genuine tenure, a worthwhile loss though one quickly diminished when the Irish fell to Marshall just a week later. Of course, the Buckeyes’ relied on that season-opening win to successfully burgeon their Playoff résumé today.

The Irish already know they will be without both senior cornerback Cam Hart and junior quarterback Drew Pyne in the bowl game. Hart announced last week he will return for a fifth season at Notre Dame, but a shoulder injury will sideline him this month, while Pyne announced Friday he intends to enter the transfer portal, presumably when it officially opens tomorrow.

Star tight end Michael Mayer will almost certainly opt out of the bowl game, his top-20 draft stock assured, and senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey could logically, as well.

Notre Dame nearly ended up in the Holiday Bowl in San Diego on Dec. 28, per reports. The ACC could place the Irish in any of three bowls, the top tier of ACC-affiliated bowls below the Orange Bowl, with some input from the bowls and from the University. That give-and-take seemingly delayed the announcement for a stretch of Sunday.

Drew Pyne to transfer from Notre Dame; Tyler Buchner reportedly a bowl possibility

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Notre Dame may start its third quarterback of the season in its bowl game after junior Drew Pyne announced he will transfer from the program on Friday. A graduate, Pyne has three seasons of eligibility remaining.

ESPN’s Pete Thamel first reported Pyne’s intention to transfer, with Pyne soon thereafter taking to Twitter to confirm as much.

“One of my proudest honors is to have been a student-athlete at the University of Notre Dame,” Pyne wrote. “… It’s time for me to take on a new challenge, and I will be entering the transfer portal.”

Pyne took over as the Irish starter after sophomore Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the second week of the season. Pyne went 8-2 as a starter, completing 64.6 percent of his passes for 2,021 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

His final action at Notre Dame may have been Pyne’s best game of his career, throwing for 318 yards and three touchdowns at USC while completing 23 of 26 passes, the second-most accurate game in Irish history.

He appeared in two games in 2021, stepping in for Jack Coan when he struggled against Wisconsin and Cincinnati. Keeping Pyne to minimal appearances in 2021 was intentional, preserving a season of eligibility for him.

That eligibility will now be used elsewhere.

Without Pyne, Notre Dame will have freshman Steve Angeli and possibly Buchner available in the bowl game, a location and opponent to be announced on Sunday. Football Scoop’s John Brice reported Friday afternoon that Buchner will play in the bowl game, though perhaps that optimism should be measured throughout practice this month.

Regardless, the Irish are expected to pursue an incoming transfer quarterback this month. With names like Texas’ Hudson Card and Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong already in the transfer portal, Notre Dame will have a few options to chase.

That is why Pyne’s transfer makes sense, even if he spoke earnestly about the bowl game following that 38-27 loss in Los Angeles.

“I think we have a lot to play for,” he said. “We’re going to be in a bowl game, I want to send all the seniors out the right way. We have a lot to play for. We have another game, I’m going to prepare as hard as I can for that and finish the season off on a positive note.”

Reversing course from those words is understandable given they came minutes after a competitive game, and the last week has shown Pyne how quickly the quarterback transfer market will move.

In the game of musical chairs that is quarterbacks moving across the country, Pyne waiting until after the bowl game to transfer could serve only to leave him with fewer destinations as options. Not that Pyne may have been looking at Iowa, but the fact that one Power Five starting gig appears to have already been filled by Michigan transfer Cade McNamara presumably underscored the rapid nature of this process.

Understandably, Pyne needs to make the most of this opportunity, coming off a strong season as Notre Dame’s starter but knowing he is unlikely to start for the Irish in 2023. Depending on the level of transfer joining the Irish and Buchner’s health, it was distinctly possible Pyne would be Notre Dame’s third quarterback next year.

For someone who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, specifically a Brady Quinn fan, assuredly this decision was not an easy one for Pyne.

He had a lengthy and notable offer sheet coming out of high school, but Pyne at his best this season would not draw interest from the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU as he did three years ago. It may be more pertinent to point out he is a Connecticut native, so schools in the northeast could be most logical for his landing spot.

The Irish should also have quarterback commit Kenny Minchey in the pecking order this spring, expected to sign with Notre Dame on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame’s QB room creates a friendly trust that has been crucial to Pyne’s success
Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 10 Drew Pyne, junior quarterback

Notre Dame adds a fourth receiver commit to recruiting class, helping a roster need

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Notre Dame is addressing its most glaring roster deficiency with a numbers approach. The Irish had only five true scholarship receivers for much of this season, a number they will nearly match in next year’s freshman class alone after adding a fourth receiver commitment on Thursday. Consensus three-star receiver Kaleb Smith (Rick Reedy High School; Frisco, Texas) announced he will join Notre Dame’s class, and he should sign with the Irish on Dec. 21 when the early signing period begins.

Smith was committed to Texas Tech for more than nine months before he backed off that pledge in early November. Marcus Freeman does not welcome official visitors who are committed to other programs, so if Smith wanted to take an official visit to South Bend to watch Notre Dame play Clemson, he needed to open up his recruitment.

The Irish 35-13 win against the then-No. 4 Tigers assuredly helped tip the scales away from his homestate Texas Tech.

Otherwise, Smith has hardly been recruited by anyone. The only other Power Five program to chase him was Baylor when current Notre Dame receivers coach Chansi Stuckey was there.

Listed at only 6-foot and 168 pounds, it is easy to pencil in Smith as a slot receiver, but he is also willing to go up in the air to get the ball. His highlight footage features him repeatedly and astonishingly open.

His size, or lack thereof, will make Smith unique among the quartet of incoming signees. By snagging four receivers in this class, the Irish are proactively fixing an undeniable roster problem. In last year’s Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame had only four receivers available. Through most of this season, in part due to injuries to Avery Davis and Joe Wilkins, the Irish had a total of six receivers available, including former walk-on Matt Salerno.

While Braden Lenzy will not return for the Irish in 2023, current sophomores Jayden Thomas, Deion Colzie and Lorenzo Styles should all come back, along with current freshman Tobias Merriweather. With these four commitments, a position group of eight may allow Notre Dame to have a genuine two-deep.

If signing four receivers in a class and seven in two years seems like an unsustainable influx, keep in mind two things. First of all, the Irish desperately need to find receiver depth. Lenzy was famously and admittedly exhausted at the end of that Fiesta Bowl faceplant 11 months ago. One more injury this season would have further crippled Notre Dame’s passing game in 2022. Secondly, the one-time transfer allowance will make departures from the program both more common and more alluring to the players. Natural attrition will occur.

RELATED READING: A third four-star receiver commitment, Jaden Greathouse, elevates Notre Dame’s class of 2023 from good to Great
Four-star receiver Rico Flores Jr.’s commitment gives Notre Dame some receiver hope for 2023
Four-star Texas receiver Braylon James gives Notre Dame needed offensive piece in class of 2023

CB Cam Hart out for Notre Dame’s bowl game, but will return in 2023

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Perhaps earlier than expected, Notre Dame has already received good news this offseason. Senior cornerback Cam Hart will return for a fifth year in South Bend, though he will not put on pads for the Irish in any bowl game, he announced Tuesday evening.

“Due to a shoulder injury that I sustained during the Boston College Game [sic], I could not participate in our final regular season game and will not be able to participate in this year’s bowl game,” Hart wrote on Twitter. “Consequently, I believe my time here isn’t necessarily complete. Choosing to attend the University of Nore Dame has been the best decision I’ve ever made in my entire life.

“In light of that, I’ve decided to return for a fifth season and look forward to taking the field with my brothers in 2023!”

Hart’s 2023 return should give the Irish four returning cornerbacks with starting experience, only fifth-year nickel back Tariq Bracy a notable departure from this year’s cornerbacks group.

Note: The use of “should” is not meant to imply anything about other possibilities. The conditional verb is chosen as recognition of the constantly changing rosters in college football in 2022.

Hart took part in Notre Dame’s Senior Day festivities before facing Boston College, which suggested he was at least considering jumping to the NFL. This quick announcement indicates the injury ruled out that thought process, though the injury had plagued him at points earlier in the season.

A shoulder injury first flared up for Hart this year in the spring of 2022, costing him spring practices. A concern had previously cost him some of 2019, as he adapted from playing receiver in high school. He nonetheless played in 11 games in 2022, starting 10 and making 25 tackles with three for loss and breaking up four passes.

His passes defensed fell from nine in 2021, along with two interceptions, in part because opposing quarterbacks were less enticed to test the increasingly-experienced cornerback. His 6-foot-2 ½ length made Hart something just short of a shutdown cornerback.

With current freshman Benjamin Morrison surging to close this season and classmate Jaden Mickey stepping in for Hart at USC, Notre Dame should enjoy a plethora of tested cornerbacks in 2023. (Current junior Clarence Lewis is the aforementioned fourth.)

In many respects, this will allow the Irish defense to begin the 2023 season with the same calm it had in 2022, when Hart, Lewis and Bracy provided experienced pass defense.

“You have three older veteran corners that can really play at any moment, which makes you feel good,” head coach Marcus Freeman said in August. “Those three guys can play those two corner spots and I don’t feel there will be a drop off with any of them.”

There are a few key decisions left on Notre Dame’s defense — most notably, defensive end Justin Ademilola and safety Brandon Joseph could return in 2023 — but most of them may come after any Irish bowl game. Hart’s choice was presumably expedited by his apparent exclusion from the bowl game due to this injury.

HART CAREER STATISTICS
2020: 8 games; 3 tackles, 2 passes defended.
2021: 13 games, 10 starts; 42 tackles with four for loss, 9 passes defended and two interceptions.
2022: 11 games, 10 starts; 25 tackles with three for loss, 4 passes defended.

RELATED READING: Notre Dame 99-to-0: No. 5 Cam Hart, senior cornerback, second-year starter