Notebook: Who will it be at QB for Notre Dame in bowl game?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Three days into an open quarterback competition that may extend beyond Notre Dame’s Music City Bowl matchup in roughly two weeks, Brian Kelly is suddenly open to a new outcome.

A tie of sorts. Or, more accurately, a QB tag team.

“They’re both going to play,” the Irish fifth-year head coach said Monday evening of incumbent senior Everett Golson and suddenly hard-charging sophomore Malik Zaire.

“I want to play them both, because I think both of them have some different traits,” Kelly said. “We need to find a way to win the game, and I think both of them can help us win.”

In LSU (8-4), the quarterbacks will face the nation’s No. 1 team against the pass and No. 8 defense overall. The Irish (7-5), 16th nationally in passing offense, are the most prolific aerial attack the Tigers will see this season but one with turnover issues (22 by Golson alone). Hence the re-auditioning of roles originally decided, and decisively so, last spring and summer.

It won’t be the first time Kelly has gone into a bowl game, or even a season, with the idea of having a QB bullpen, but he does so somewhat reluctantly. At his core, he prefers quarterback monogamy.

“I’m open really to anything at this point,” Kelly said. “We want to put the best football team, the best offense that we can put on the field. Ideally, you’d like to have one (QB), but if we’ve got two, then that’s what we’ll do.

“We’ll see how this plays out and evaluate it as we move forward, so I haven’t closed the door to any kind of scenario.”

That includes the 2015 season.

As Notre Dame begins finals week, the practices will become shorter and more intermittent, then pick up their intensity and duration Saturday after exams conclude

For his part, Golson has responded to the semi-demotion exactly the way Kelly had hoped, with a drive to compete and get better.

“I wasn’t even interested in really going down this road unless he was fully committed and engaged in working on the things he needed to work on, and he’s been all of that,” Kelly said.

Had he not been, Kelly was ready to hand the keys to the offense to Zaire, with 20 career passing attempts — and none before Thanksgiving of this year — 11 touches in the run game and a small-sample, pass-efficiency rating (116.4) roughly 30 points lower than Golson’s.

“That would have been the case at any position,” Kelly said. “That’s pretty standard. Anybody that’s not interested in getting better at the areas a coach feels he needs to get better at, he generally transfers or moves on.”

Day to day for Day?

The most pivotal question on defense as it relates to ND’s matchup with LSU has to do with junior defensive tackle Sheldon Day’s convalescing left knee (MCL sprain).

There’s still no definitive answer as to when ND’s most productive defensive lineman will be available to play in the Music City Bowl.

“He’s clearly not 100 percent,” Kelly said. “It’s a two-way kind of deal. I don’t want to play him unless he’s healthy enough to really contribute.”

After only giving up more than 200 rushing yards in a game to the nation’s leading rushing team (Navy) and holding three teams to less than 60 each (Purdue, Stanford, Florida State), the Irish have yielded more than 200 in consecutive games to three teams ranked 69th or worse in rushing offense (Northwestern, Louisville, USC) while Day has been sidelined.

LSU ranks 27th in rushing offense, the only team other than Navy the Irish have faced in the top 50 nationally in rushing.

“Look we’re really thin there,” Kelly said of his defensive line, which will definitely be without nose guard Jarron Jones (foot surgery). “If (Day) is not 100 percent, I’m not going to put him in a position that would not help him.

“He’s confident that he’s going to be ready but we’ll make that decision together. And we’re not near that date where I feel comfortable saying, ‘He’s going be there and he’s ready to go.’ He wants to be and he says he is, but I’m pumping the brakes a little bit until we get closer before we make that decision.”

Hardy eligible

Senior safety Eilar Hardy has been cleared to play in the bowl game, a development that wasn’t necessarily shocking but, nevertheless, is a boost to the position group diluted the most by injuries.

Hardy’s presence gives ND three at least semi-healthy scholarship safeties for the bowl game, along with junior Elijah Shumate and sophomore Max Redfield. The latter has been practicing despite suffering a broken rib 2½ weeks ago.

The question regarding Hardy involved his reinstatement after being involved in the school’s academic fraud investigation earlier this year that sidelined him for the first eight games of the season.

The gray area that had to be clarified was whether the reinstatement ended at the end of this semester, which comes to a close at the end of this week, or would be extended until the start of the spring semester in mid-January.

Personnel matters

• Kelly was oblivious to the rumors that a couple of his players were purported to be in line to be suspended for the Music City Bowl and perhaps beyond, but he addressed the subject when asked Monday.

“Nobody,” he said. “The only problem we would have is if there was an academic situation, and we’re right in the middle of exams, but we have no players that have done anything that have put them in jeopardy of suspension.

“And that would be notification that would go to my desk, given our communication system right now. There is no player on our roster that has been suspended or kicked off the team or has run afoul with the law.”

• Kelly admitted he may move 6-foot-4, 290-pound sophomore defensive end Isaac Rochell inside to help compensate for the depletion on the interior of the defensive line.

Rochell has played inside very effectively in some of ND’s third-down packages.

• Sophomore Mike McGlinchey continues to press third-year starter and grad student Christian Lombard for the starting spot at right tackle.

Food for thought

Brian and Paqui Kelly kicked off Monday evening’s press conference with a presentation that will benefit hungry kids.

The Kelly Cares Foundation presented a check for $10,000 to the Food Bank of Northern Indiana to use specifically in its Food 4 Kids backpack program.

The money came from the more than $100,000 raised during the foundation’s Football 101 event last June.

“We send about 2,000 kids home every single weekend during the school year with a backpack full of food so that they have an opportunity to have nutritious food on the weekends,” said Milt Lee, the food bank’s executive director.

“A lot of those kids rely on the food they get during the school day, but when they get home, hunger doesn’t end there. Because of this incredible contribution, we can add almost 100 kids to our Food 4 Kids program, and that’s a great thing.

“Some of the Notre Dame students and some of the athletes actually pack the backpacks. And $10,000 for our purposes has about $100,000 worth of impact.”

Smith picks Louisville

Junior college running back Jeremy Smith, who last week said he would visit Notre Dame for the team's football banquet, committed to Louisville Monday.

Smith, who plays at Fresno (Calif.) City College, visited Louisville instead last weekend.

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly likes the way Everett Golson responded after his benching in the loss to USC.SBT File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN