FOOTBALL

Notebook: Mike Sanford evaluates Notre Dame's quarterbacks, offense

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Mike Sanford has undoubtedly been told that a team that has two quarterbacks doesn't really have one.

But to counteract that position, Notre Dame's first-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach might present Exhibits A and B:

Everett Golson and Malik Zaire.

Two quarterbacks.

In Sanford's eyes, two potentially prolific starters.

Both players have the physical tools to take the reins in 2015 and lead the Irish to a successful season. But perhaps more importantly, they each possess a more intrinsic quality crucial to a healthy relationship with their new position coach:

A willingness to learn.

"You look at players who have been doing things since high school. They’ve been taught a certain way," Sanford said Monday. "You’ve got a guy who’s played a lot of football (Golson). We’re giving them a reason why we’re utilizing certain footwork and certain pass concepts. Those guys are really taking to it and trusting the coaching.

"Now it just becomes a matter of training the muscle memory and having it become second nature, so when we’re working through the summer and we don’t have a chance to be out on the field with them, they’re utilizing the same footwork. That’s what we’re trying to get accomplished.”

Outside of fundamentals, though, both quarterbacks also need to continue making a mental progression in their first spring under Sanford. That begins and ends with protecting the football, an area where Golson and Zaire experienced steady growth before combining for three interceptions in Saturday's scrimmage.

“The turnovers are really uncharacteristic of spring," Sanford said. "We had a couple early, in the first three days of practice — but very few. We hadn’t turned the ball over at that position in eight or nine practices consistently, and that’s what you’re looking for.

"That’s not a ‘pat ourselves on the back’ kind of thing. That’s our expectation. We don’t turn the ball over at this position.”

Thus, Saturday's output hovered below those lofty expectations. And though all interceptions are frowned-upon, some are worse than others.

Zaire's red zone pick that tipped off the hands of linebacker Jaylon Smith and into the waiting grasp of safety Max Redfield, for example?

"We’ve got to be a better situational football team, in particular at the quarterback [position]," Sanford said. "When we’re in the red zone and we’ve got three points in our back pocket, we can’t jeopardize those three points.

"That was discouraging. That was something we hadn’t seen out of those guys in quite a while.”

Even so, Sanford has spotted many more positives than negatives in his first 13 practices at Notre Dame.

To disprove the old notion that one quarterback is greater than two, however, both Golson and Zaire must continue to improve.

***

Here are some more notes and quotes from Sanford's session with the media.

TO THINK, OR NOT TO THINK?

That is the question. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly noted following Saturday's scrimmage that there are times when Zaire changes a play at the line of scrimmage and the coaching staff has trouble understanding why.

Sanford said Monday that while he wants his quarterbacks to understand how to read defenses and shift formations, there's a fine line between awareness and overthinking.

“It’s a double-edged sword, because if (Zaire) makes a ton of progress, then he believes he’s the offensive coordinator at the line of scrimmage, or he believes he’s the play caller," Sanford said. "We want him to be a great quarterback. Get us out of danger. When there’s overload pressure, get us into the right protection. Get us the right concept.

"But you’re not the play caller. We don’t want him to make too much progress in that area, because then ultimately he feels like he’s the play caller at the line of scrimmage. We don’t want to give him or any quarterback full autonomy. We want them to play within the structure of our offense and trust that the play calling is going to put them in good situations.”

Of course, that advice goes for both quarterbacks. While the Irish signal callers aren't forbidden from shifting a protection at the line, they also must understand that it's often better to trust the play call than to imitate Peyton Manning. 

“That’s their competition, to see who can make the best check. They enjoy that, and I enjoy that," Sanford said. "But there’s times (when you have to say), ‘Both of you guys, run the plays that were called, and run them fast. Let’s go have some fun and play ball.’”

RED ZONE PHILOSOPHY

When it comes to the red zone, Sanford's directive is simple:

Keep doing what got you there. And if you can't score a touchdown, don't force a mistake.

“Run what you run," Sanford said. "You have to be able to run the football down in the red zone, and the quarterback has to understand it’s touchdowns and check downs. That’s really what it is. We’re going to throw touchdowns when they’re there.

"If they’re not there, we’re going to take check downs and scramble. We’re not going to jeopardize the three points in our back pocket to force something.”

POSITION BREAKDOWN

Sanford provided a brief evaluation of Notre Dame's offensive positions and who has stood out at each spot. Here are some of the highlights.

Quarterback

Where are the fundamental areas both Golson and Zaire need to improve moving forward?

On Golson: “With Everett, sometimes he gets so excited when there’s a wide open throw. His feet show excitement when you’re watching the tape. His body language shows excitement. Basically, just take the offense as it comes. Throw the appropriate throw and don’t get so fired up. He gets jacked up when there’s a post open. But he has improved a lot with his fundamentals. He had a tendency to bounce around, hop around, as opposed to playing with his cleats in the ground. That’s improved.”

On Zaire: “Malik, from a fundamental standpoint, he has a tendency to play with a really wide base. I don’t want a very narrow base, but he’s done a great job in the last week of really tightening that base up. It makes him a lot more accurate passer. When he gets really wide, he has a tendency to not be able to get through his throws with his back hip. We’re really working on tightening his base, and he’s taken to it. He self-corrects during practice, which is great.”

Offensive line

Sanford was no stranger to Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, even before he got the job.

“I knew the reputation of Coach Hiestand. I’d been beaten head-to-head in recruiting by coach Hiestand on a couple offensive linemen, so I knew what they had with personnel here," Sanford said. "The cohesion of two-deep offensive lines doesn’t happen in spring ball in college football. To see what coach has done, to have two groups that you feel good about, it actually helps us in the quarterback competition.”

Running back

Just as Kelly emphasized following Saturday's practice, the surprise of the spring at the running back position has been the fluid transition of wide receiver C.J. Prosise.

“C.J. Prosise has been an unbelievable surprise for us," Sanford said. "He’s making that atmosphere more competitive, and that’s what you want at every position.

“This guy’s a natural runner. He presses the line of scrimmage well, he sees things and he plays with good pad level, which is tough for a tall guy. I’ve been really impressed with C.J. That’s been a great storyline for our offense, just the depth, quality and versatility he brings to that position.”

Wide Receiver

Sanford admitted that he didn't know much about Notre Dame's slew of capable wide receivers when he first accepted the job.

That changed very quickly.

"I'll tell you what, I didn't even know much about Will Fuller at all. My goodness," Sanford said. "What he's been doing with a cast on his hand...I've been very impressed with him.

"I've been very impressed with Chris Brown. Those guys are really competitive. They're well-coached. They understand breaking down leverage. Coach (Mike) Denbrock has done an incredible job of putting that group together, and I've been very impressed with that group."

Tight end

In physical sophomore tight end Tyler Luatua, Sanford sees a great deal of promise, even if much of it is still unfulfilled.

“Tyler Luatua is a very young player," Sanford said. "So there’s times when he flashes. There’s times, like today and in the scrimmage, he played really well. That’s been positive to see because he’s a really athletic guy that can do a lot of things as a blocker.

"If he can catch the ball consistently, you’ve got something special.”

For the time being, however, junior Durham Smythe has separated himself as the starting tight end at Tight End U.

“Durham Smythe has had a very, very solid spring," Sanford said. "He has clearly emerged as a guy that’s doing great things for us.”

Notre Dame Offensive Coordinator Mike Sanford during Notre Dame football practice on Wednesday, March 25, 2015, inside the Loftus Sports Center at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN