LaFleur refines Notre Dame quarterbacks

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Matt LaFleur fielded questions about Malik Zaire’s wow quote as if the Notre Dame sophomore-to-be had predicted he was going to make a sandwich for lunch.

With a shrug. With context. And eventually with the revelation that the man ahead of Zaire on the Irish quarterback depth chart, senior-to-be Everett Golson, on Wednesday delivered his best practice of the spring so far.

“Without a doubt. There will only be one guy starting on Aug. 30 against Rice at Notre Dame Stadium,” Zaire was quoted as saying late last week. “There will only be one guy out on the field, and I believe that will be me.”

Then again, Zaire has the confidence/work ethic combo working for him to the point that if Joe Montana were back on the team and at his statistical peak, Zaire would likely have uttered a parallel thought.

The reality is that 10 practices in of the allotted 15, Golson still takes more snaps overall than Zaire and gets virtually all of the work with the No. 1 offense, two indicators that Zaire is on an arc to start the season No. 2 behind the reinstated 2012 starter with a 10-1 record in that role and the lowest career interception ratio by far in Irish history (1.89).

“In order to get better and to show improvement, you’ve got to be detailed,” said LaFleur, ND’s first-year quarterbacks coach. “I could tell (Golson) had more focus when he was out there, and I could tell he was on the details.

“There’s no doubt about it that he’s studied that script, and I think that’s why the results were the way they were. He was better today.”

It’s LaFleur’s charge that both Golson and Zaire — and eventually incoming freshman DeShone Kizer when he arrives in June — get better incrementally. A four-year concoction of inexperience, odd QB fits and injuries before LaFleur’s arrival have resulted in the last QB to play for Irish head coach Brian Kelly and reach the top 50 nationally in passing efficiency was Tony Pike in 2009 at Cincinnati (12th).

The last ND quarterback to crack the top 50 was Jimmy Clausen, who finished third nationally that same year, in Charlie Weis’ final season as head coach, behind only Florida’s Tim Tebow and Boise State’s Kellen Moore.

ND’s backup QB situation was even more statistically flat in 2013. Zaire started the season as a spectator while he recovered from mononucleosis before settling in at No. 3. Andrew Hendrix, No. 2 behind starter Tommy Rees while Golson served his season-long suspension, completed 14 percent of his passes in a very limited sampling (14 attempts).

When former offensive coordinator/QBs coach Chuck Martin left in December to become head coach of Miami of Ohio, Kelly decided to pour more resources into quarterback development. He re-immersed himself into the offense and QB teaching, and he hired a QB coach in LaFleur who didn’t have to combine that job with constructing and evolving the Irish offense.

LaFleur had spent the past four seasons coaching quarterbacks for the NFL’s Washington Redskins, and he does pull out RG3 tape (former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL offensive Rookie of the Year Robert Griffin III) on occasion as a teaching point.

“I just want a consistent level of play,” LaFleur said of his goals for the spring, which culminates with the annual Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium on April 12.

“I want to set a standard on how these quarterbacks are going to operate our offense. It comes back to the whole consistency issue. We want to have consistent players out there, that are going to be productive and going to be able to manage and to lead this team to a lot of points.”

LaFleur had a blank slate with Golson — well almost. He admitted, catching just snippets of ND’s games in 2012 from time to time on TV, never seeing a full game during the school’s run to the national title game and certainly not scouting and breaking down Golson’s performance in those games.

He was much more familiar with Kelly, against whom LaFleur made his first start as a quarterback for Saginaw Valley State — when Kelly was leading Grand Valley State’s Division II powerhouse — and for whom he later coached briefly at Central Michigan.

The first thing that struck LaFleur about Golson was that sometimes he threw with the laces and sometimes he did not. During his time as the starter in 2012 and growing up in South Carolina, Golson never threw with the laces. Private QB coach George Whitfield, with whom Golson worked last fall during his exile, pressed Golson to throw with the laces. But by the time spring practice rolled around, Golson was no longer diligent about that lesson.

“It still comes up every now and again, so that’s also been a point of emphasis,” LaFleur said. “It’s like, ‘Hey man, you’ve got to throw with these laces.’ He’s had a ball slip out of his hands, and that’s the first thing I was looking for — where was his hand placement on that ball? Did he have the laces? I mean, they’re there for a reason. Right?

“There’s other guys who don’t always grab the laces, but I never even thought about it or knew about it until I saw a picture of him. And I was like, ‘How come your hand’s not on the laces?’

“He said, ‘I never throw with the laces, coach.’

“I said, ‘Well you are now.”

LaFleur has had to make his own adjustments this spring, not having been in the college game since serving as the offensive coordinator for Ashland (Ohio) University in 2007.

“You really don’t take anything for granted about what they know,” LaFleur said of Golson and Zaire. “You can’t assume that they know really anything. They’re a blank slate, so you can really kind of mold these guys more so than in the NFL.”

And then there’s recruiting.

Kelly handed LaFleur most of what used to be promoted offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock’s old territory. LaFleur has the West Coast from Los Angeles north to Seattle, his home state of Michigan, and Hawaii, where Punahou School in Honolulu has produced another must-have defensive prospect in the mold of former Irish All-American Manti Te’o (defensive end Canton Kaumatule).

Denbrock’s revised territory includes the Southernmost part of California and Chicago.

“I guess from the NFL perspective, dealing with guys in their mid to late 20s, even in their 30s, and then you’re talking to a 16-year-old,” LaFleur began. “Just wrapping my brain around that has taken some time. But it’s been a quick adjustment and we’ve got a great product here, so it’s an easy sell.”

For the next five spring practices, though, it’s Golson and Zaire doing the selling. Kelly/LaFleur aren’t in a hurry to officially designate which one is No. 1, even though the signs are pretty clear.

That doesn’t mean LaFleur ever wants to see the eventual No. 2 back off when it does become official.

“If we don’t have a (backup) who wants to be the guy, then we’ve got the wrong guy,” LaFleur said. “I want them to be competitive. I think it brings out the best in people when there is that competitive spirit in the room. But at the same time, I think there’s a level of respect between the two, and I think it’s a good situation.”

Tuitt ahead of schedule

The tweet from NFL.com’s Gil Brandt Wednesday about former Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt was shocking in a sense.

According to Brandt, the player in the late-first-round/early-second mix for next month’s NFL Draft, worked out for the St. Louis Rams Tuesday and the Pittsburgh Steelers Wednesday, and will audition for the New England Patriots on Thursday.

That those particular teams have an interest is not a surprise, necessarily. It’s that Tuitt was fit enough to work out at all — for anyone.

Just four weeks removed from surgery on a small fracture in his left foot, Tuitt said two weeks ago, while in town for ND’s Pro Day, that he wasn’t expected to be able to resume football activities until around April 10 and wouldn’t likely be 100 percent until around April 24.

Tuitt wore a protective boot on his left foot at the Pro Day and did not participate in any of the drills or physical testing.

Eric Hansen: 574-235-6112

Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur throws to Everett Golson during the opening day of spring practice last month. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)