Why a two-quarterback system wouldn't add up at Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Quarterback math is a funny thing.

Sit down, everyone. Take out your notebooks. Did you remember to pack a calculator?

Good, you’re going to need it.

Here in quarterback math class, things work a little differently. Having one starting quarterback, the dusty old textbook teaches, is greater than having two (or three, or four, etc.). If you have two, that means that neither one was good enough to decisively win the job. If you have two, in other words, you actually have zero.

Now write this down in your notebooks.

1 > 2.

2 = 0.

These equations, of course, don’t come without their critics.

“It’s better to have two or three than none,” said Mack Brown, former head coach at Texas and North Carolina and current ESPN analyst. “Really and truly, it’s better to have two really good ones — maybe one older great one and one young great one with some separation — and then it’s clear-cut when his time comes.

But with injuries at quarterback now, and people running the quarterback so much, you have to have a second quarterback ready to play and ready to win if you’re going to win a championship. We saw that at Ohio State and Notre Dame over the last two years.

“I’d rather have three than none. I’d rather have two or three than one. So I don’t think it’s an issue. Coaches always call it competition. There’s some other words people use. They talk about ‘problems.’ It’s really not. You just have to manage it and handle it.”

OK, so maybe your textbook is a tad outdated. Maybe, in the (many) years since its original printing, offenses have grown more complex, injuries have grown more frequent and the quarterback position has remained as vital as ever to a team’s success. Maybe a few distinguished coaches have employed two-quarterback systems that have actually worked.

Take Brian Kelly, for example.

Back in 2012, Notre Dame’s third-year head coach alternated between redshirt freshman Everett Golson and junior Tommy Rees with the skill of a master juggler. Golson was the mobile up-and-comer with a knack for improvisation. Rees was the steady, veteran pocket passer with an expert knowledge of the Irish offense.

Together (and with the help of a historically good defense), they went undefeated in the regular season. Golson was the starter, but Rees was the occasional closer.

It wasn’t traditional, but it worked.

“You understand the plays they like to run for each guy, what he’s willing and able to do in the check system, and you adjust with that,” said Mike Golic Jr., Notre Dame’s starting right guard in 2012. “With a guy like Everett, we knew that with his feet, he was going to make plays and buy some time, so you have to hang on to blocks a little longer.

"You have to be willing to ignore that clock in your head and really go past your comfort zone, because you know there’s a big play waiting on the other end. Whereas with a guy like Tommy Rees, you always knew he was going to have you in the right play.

"He was going to know all those checks. His mastery of the offense was second to none, so you knew you could count on those things.”

Likewise, in 2009, Kelly led Cincinnati to a 12-0 regular season and berth in the Sugar Bowl, again with two quarterbacks at the helm. Tony Pike (the 6-foot-6 redshirt senior and established passer) and Zach Collaros (the redshirt sophomore and dual-threat specialist) together operated one of the most lethal offenses in college football, averaging 39.8 points per game in the regular season.

The combination happened sort of unintentionally. PIke was thriving as the starter and was the lone option until game 6 of the 2009 season, when he suffered a broken forearm (non-throwing arm) against South Florida. Collaros came in and started the next four games and put up big numbers. When Pike returned, he resumed his starring role, but Kelly would mix and match the two over the balance of the season.

Now that I think about it, cross out those equations in your notebook. Tear out the pages of your textbook. Let’s rewrite the quarterback math.

2 > 1.

2 > 0.

If we’ve learned anything from recent history, it’s that a two-quarterback system can work — at the right time, in the right place.

But not this season, and not at Notre Dame.

“I've never had in my entire career two quarterbacks that you could run the same system of offense with,” Kelly said. “At Cincinnati, I had two different quarterbacks. I had a 6-6 quarterback that was a pocket passer (Pike) and then I had a 5-10 quarterback who was more of a perimeter-run player (Collaros). These two guys can do the same kind of things and run the same offense.”

He’s referring, of course, to DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire. It wouldn’t be fair to label Zaire solely as a shifty read-option runner, considering that the Irish senior completed 19 of 22 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns in last fall’s season-opening 38-3 rout of Texas.

Likewise, Kizer is much more than a prototypical 6-5 pocket passer. He has the arm and accuracy, sure, but the rising junior also set a school record with 10 quarterback rushing touchdowns and 520 rushing yards in his first season behind the wheel.

In 2012 and 2009, Kelly used two quarterbacks to run the entirety of one offense.

Now, that’s not the case.

“I think they have two big-time quarterbacks that could start for about anybody, and I think that’s a real plus,” said Brown, who won a national championship at Texas in 2005 with Vince Young as his quarterback. “They can both run and they can both throw and maybe one of them is a little bit better at one of the things than the other, but I also think they can run the offense that Brian wants to run.”

So when Notre Dame opens its season Sept. 4 against Texas, there will be a starter, and there will be a backup. There will not be a two-quarterback system.

There will be two capable quarterbacks but one offense. And if the starter ever changes, the game plan won’t have to.

“It’s really important to the play-caller, because he doesn’t have to have two offensive game plans,” Brown said. “It’s huge for him. Understanding that one quarterback may do this a little bit better, he’ll lean a little bit heavier on that side of the game plan. But he won’t change the game plan.

"Secondly, it saves your offensive line, because you don’t have to have two offenses for them. That way, it helps your depth, because your second-team offensive line with your second-team quarterback is getting the same plays exactly called as the first-team offensive line, so they become interchangeable.

“I think it’s huge when you can run the same offense with both quarterbacks.”

So, what have we learned? Because Kizer and Zaire are both capable dual-threat quarterbacks, it wouldn’t improve the offense to juggle them within a game. But because of the unpredictability of college football and the need to develop quality depth, it’s still ideal to have more than one potential starter — as Notre Dame learned last season.

Two is greater than one, but only one can be the one.

On that note, let’s end the lesson. Enjoy your summer. Class dismissed.

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Want to learn how to successfully run a QB competition at Notre Dame? Find that story and much more in the 2016 ND Insider Season Preview magazine, which publishes on July 1. Click here to pre-order.

Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire, left, passes as teammate DeShone Kizer looks on during Notre Dame spring football practice on Wednesday, March 16, 2016, inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex at Notre Dame in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN