A how-to guide for selecting Notre Dame's starting quarterback

Avoiding A Split Decision

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Let’s say you’re Brian Kelly.

Let’s say that you’re the program-building, headset-wearing face of Notre Dame football. You pull all the strings. You’ve won more games than any other active FBS head coach. You swat NFL rumors with the persistence of a shot-blocker protecting the rim. You’ve led the Irish to bowl games in each of your first six seasons, a first for an Irish coach.

Your résumé is both extensive and impressive.

Also, incomplete.

That’s because, despite all your memorable wins and prodigious play calls, you’ve yet to summit the mountain. You keep climbing, year by year, and in your seventh season in South Bend you’re tantalizingly close to reaching the peak. Last season (sorry for opening old wounds), your Irish fell a few injuries, a two-point conversion and a field goal shy of the College Football Playoff.

But now, who knows?

Maybe the right quarterback is all you need.

Identifying him, however, is a challenge — even for you. In one corner, there’s Malik Zaire, with a strong left arm and a bottomless reserve of braggadocio. The 6-foot, 225-pound senior corralled MVP honors at the Music City Bowl in 2014, dissecting defensive kingpin LSU in his first career start. He backed that up with an incineration of overmatched Texas, completing 19 of 22 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns in a triumphant season debut.

He was a solar eclipse: brilliant, then gone. Zaire shattered his right ankle on Sept. 12 and was sidelined until the spring.

And yet, you kept winning. DeShone Kizer kept you afloat.

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior passed for 2,884 yards and 21 touchdowns in 13 games. He rescued you against Virginia and flapped his arms in Philadelphia. He rumbled for 10 touchdowns, more than any other quarterback in school history. When you needed a leader, he became one.

And now, you need to choose.

These decisions, of course, are all part of your lofty position. They're painful, like tetanus shots, but they also serve a purpose. Your offense can't move forward without a quarterback leading the way.

So when fall camp hits, there will be a competition. You have to make a decision, but you don't have to do it alone.

When the pressure becomes unbearable, the answer seemingly out of reach, here’s a how-to guide for selecting a starting quarterback at Notre Dame.

1. Evaluate everything.

Both on the field and off.

“The way you separate them is you let them compete in so many different ways, and you count every one of them,” said Mack Brown, the former head coach at Texas who won a national championship in 2005. “You count leadership. You count arm strength. You count his ability to make plays off schedule with his feet. You count his timing and who turns the ball over.”

At Notre Dame, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford has given Brown’s methods a more statistical spin.

“We’re charting everything from a third down standpoint, from a red zone standpoint, from a two-minute standpoint, overall drive efficiency,” Sanford said. “Every time you take the field, what did the offense do? We’re looking at the whole picture and drilling it down bit by bit.”

Last spring, Sanford graded every quarterback, every play, assessing not only whether he accomplished his job but also the minute, improvable details. He preached red zone efficiency to Kizer and decision-making to Zaire. The former Boise State quarterback posted the grades each day during his team’s position meeting, then took them down and started again.

Each play was another question, each practice another exam.

“If we play championship-caliber football at the quarterback position, we feel like we can win one of them (national championship),” Sanford said. “But we have to do that every single day in practice. We have to do that every single day in team situations and then carry that over to all 14 games next fall.”

Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire, left, passes 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

Notre Dame’s quarterbacks faced 15 exams last spring with more coming in August, and the player that passes more in camp will arrive in Austin, Texas, for the season opener with the starting job. Kelly and Sanford have whittled their competition down to a statistical science.

And while coaches have their biases, the statistics cannot be swayed.

“They all understand what they’re being graded on, the information that they’re going to be evaluated on,” Sanford said. “It’s not just, ‘Did you do your job? Did you not do your job?’ It’s also how the stats are going to work together.”

2. Competitive, not combative.

That’s easier said than done.

“As a quarterback, we’re greedy guys by nature,” explained Brady Quinn, who passed for 11,762 yards and 95 touchdowns, both school records, as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback from 2003 to 2006.

“You want to be in that position. You want to be in the spotlight. You want to be that guy that’s the commander on the field, so we don’t want to share that with someone else. That’s how we’re brought up. That’s the nature of a quarterback, starting from the first day you step behind center.”

Joe Theismann is living proof. In 1978, the Irish alum and former Canadian Football League standout found himself in a quarterback competition against Billy Kilmer for the Washington Redskins’ starting job. Theismann eventually overtook the veteran incumbent and later led the Redskins to a Super Bowl victory over the Miami Dolphins in 1983.

But not before enduring a cold war in Washington.

“Neither one of us liked each other,” Theismann said. “He had something I wanted, and he had something he wanted to keep. I can remember sitting in a meeting room where he ignored me completely for six weeks.

“I can tell you something, I learned a lesson: if you want to get under somebody’s skin, don’t yell at them. Ignore them.”

So, besides maintaining a healthy line of dialogue, how do you avoid a Theismann/Kilmer-like quarrel at Notre Dame? How do you hold a heated competition without splitting the quarterback room and corroding team chemistry from within?

“First, you have to handle the message to the fan base, because they will choose sides, period,” said Brown, who was a college head coach for nearly 30 years and is currently an analyst for ESPN. “They are going to have favorites, and it’s usually the one that hasn’t played as much, because (they think) he’s got fewer problems because they don’t know him as well.”

In the midst of widespread speculation, implore your quarterbacks to ignore 140-character sermons from supposed experts on social media. Ignore the endless stream of stories examining every angle of the race. Ignore the cameras. Ignore the critics. Ignore everything that isn’t the team.

And then, coach Kelly, remember to follow your own advice.

“At North Carolina, not as many people decided that they wanted to coach quarterbacks as they did at Texas,” Brown said with a laugh. “So that got to be a little bit tougher because there was more attention nationally.”

If you’re looking for national attention, you’ll find it at Notre Dame.

And if you’re searching for an example to follow, look no further than Ohio State.

“You found all these people that were just entrenched with ‘Team Cardale’ or ‘Team J.T.,’” said Austin Ward, who covered last season’s Ohio State quarterback competition between Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett for ESPN.com.

“Cardale and J.T. were always ‘Team Ohio State.’ They said it publicly, privately. That was the way it went. They were so close, they just wanted to win games. They didn’t really care who the credit went to. In some ways, they maybe handled it better than anybody else.”

Notre Dame’s James Onwualu (17) and Andrew Trumbetti (98) work together to sack Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett (16) during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl on Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

While Ohio State’s quarterback conundrum presented its fair share of flaws, there’s a lesson to be learned in the way Jones and Barrett embraced it.

Both Zaire and Kizer want to win the job, but winning games is more important.

“There’s a relationship that transcends even this competition and the game of football. You see that,” said Sanford, Notre Dame’s second-year offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “But as long as (Zaire and Kizer) can keep it about themselves and their personal improvement and their drive to be not only the best quarterback in that room but one of the elite quarterbacks in the country, I think that we’ll be in a pretty good air space.

“‘Competitive, not combative.’ That’s been a line that we’ve used for the last year and a half.”

3. Pick the right guy.

Not necessarily the tall guy, or the experienced guy, or the mobile guy, or the brash guy, or the guy with five-star hype or an impending NFL future.

Greg McElroy wasn’t any of those guys, but he was the right guy for Alabama.

“You want to be the most gifted guy on the field, but that’s probably not always going to be the case,” said McElroy, who won a quarterback competition as a junior in 2009 and proceeded to lead the Crimson Tide to a national championship.

“Who’s the guy that the team responds to most? Who’s the guy that the team follows? Who’s the guy that the team enjoys? Who’s the guy with the best relationships on the team? Who’s the guy who would win a most popular contest but would also win a most hard-working contest?

“That’s a lot of what playing quarterback is. It’s not necessarily the best guy. It’s the right guy.

So who’s the right guy at Notre Dame? Sure, Zaire can scramble out of a sack and flip a broken play into improvised riches. And yeah, Kizer’s capable of stretching the field vertically and hitting tape measure home runs to Torii Hunter Jr.

But which quarterback has the trust of his teammates? Which quarterback inspires?

And which guy’s strengths are better suited for his surroundings?

“Chance Mock was the No. 1 passing efficiency quarterback in the country (at Texas in 2003), but we were really young up front and we couldn’t pass protect,” Brown explained.

“Chance wasn’t a great runner. So we put Vince Young in when we had the No. 1 passing efficiency quarterback in the country, because we needed to run the ball. We just couldn’t throw.

“Then we won 30 games and lost two (with Young as the starter). Was it fair to Chance? Probably not. But it was the best thing at that time for our football team.”

4. Timing is everything.

Quarterback competitions decide the “who,” but don’t disregard the “when.”

“I think it’s important that a decision be made at least a couple weeks before the season gets started, so that everybody on the team knows who their quarterback is going to be,” Theismann said.

“You can’t serve two masters. To me, that’s just bad coaching. If you wait until the week before the start of the season to decide who your starting quarterback is, then I don’t think you’ve done a very good job as a coach of giving direction to your team.”

Exhibit A: The 2009 Cleveland Browns. After Romeo Crennel was fired, Eric Mangini took over as the Browns’ head coach and promptly commenced a quarterback competition between Quinn and the strong-armed, turnover-prone Derek Anderson for the starting job.

It was even. Too even, without an end in sight.

“You could count all the reps from OTA’s and minicamp and training camp, and they tried to literally make it as even as possible,” Quinn recalled. “The only issue with that was it was literally so even that, going up to that first game, neither of us really had a great rapport with our group, because we mixed in with so many different groups and combinations of offensive lines.

“At that point, it’s like our offense couldn’t really take strides until the halfway point of the season. We went 4-4 in the last eight games and it probably had something to do with the fact that we had more consistency.

“That’s the downside of quarterback competitions,” Quinn concluded. “When you wait too long you can really handicap yourself.”

Cleveland Browns quarterbacks Ken Dorsey, left, Brady Quinn, center, and Derek Anderson competed for the team's starting job in 2009. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

In football, as in life, chemistry takes time. After planting a seed, there’s no way to speed up the process. You water it every day, and if you’re diligent, something grows.

Throw enough passes, too, and your receivers will digest the details: how you throw, when you throw, where you throw and why.

“You’ve got a righty and a lefty, so spin is going to be different,” Quinn explained. “The tail of the ball is going to be different for tracking it. You think it’s not a big thing, but when you’ve got timing routes, a lot of times the ball is out before the guy comes out of his break, and now all of a sudden the guy has to pick up the ball and it’s going to be moving a little bit different.

“Or they’re coming out of the break and they’re accustomed to the ball coming out of the right shoulder or left shoulder. When you switch that up, they pick it up a half second later. That’s the difference between it being a catch or being bobbled or not being caught at all.”

Or, it’s the difference between a touchdown and a turnover, a win and a loss, a playoff appearance and another December disappointment.

Kizer and Zaire enter the fall on even footing, but it can’t stay that way forever.

“I think at some point Brian is going to have to say, ‘OK, this is going to be the guy that’s going to get the most snaps,’ because you do a disservice to the individual if you only give him 50 percent and the other guy 50 percent,” Theismann said. “You’re really looking at an 80/20, 70/30 setup, because the guy that’s going to be your starter should be the guy that gets the work.”

Pick the right guy, and feed him reps.

Then sit back and watch him grow.

“I'm going to have to make a judgment call,” Kelly said. “I don't know when I'll make it. But there will be a time when I'm going to have to say, ‘That's our quarterback. Let's go with him. We're all in, and let's move forward.’”

5. Establish an identity.

What kind of offense do you want to be?

A year ago, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer couldn’t decide. First, he named 6-foot-5, 250-pound wrecking ball Cardale Jones his starting quarterback, after Jones led the Buckeyes through the College Football Playoff to a national championship in 2014-15. Jones edged out sophomore J.T. Barrett, who went 11-1 as a starter the previous fall before fracturing his ankle and ending his season.

But while Jones started the first seven games in 2015, his inconsistency yielded an ongoing competition. Jones started, but Barrett played. The offensive scheme fluctuated. The game plan was written in pencil, so it could be erased and written again.

“There have been teams that use two quarterbacks successfully and Urban Meyer has done that before,” Ward said. “But what they needed last year was one guy and one offense. They seemed to waffle so long last year that in some ways the offensive identity never really became established.”

Eventually, Barrett grabbed the reins and the Buckeyes won their last two games decisively — a 42-13 stomping of rival Michigan and a 44-28 Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame. Meyer built his offense around star running back Ezekiel Elliott, to great success. Barrett protected the football, made smart decisions and extended plays.

The Buckeyes committed to Barrett, and when it mattered, their offense clicked.

“When the game is on the line, you have to know who to look to and you want to make sure your leaders are clearly established,” said McElroy, who is currently an analyst for the SEC Network. “If you have a two-quarterback system in which the roles are not clearly defined, I think it’s very difficult to be successful offensively.”

So how does that translate to Notre Dame — and more specifically, to Kizer and Zaire — in 2016?

“I don’t want to put ourselves in a position that we don’t know who we are moving forward, and that we’re flip-flopping, and it’s one quarterback one day, and the other quarterback the next,” Kelly said. “I’d really like for this to be clearly defined.

“There will be a 1. There will be a 2. But it’s going to be a very competitive situation, because they’re both very good players, and they’re both guys that can lead us to a championship.”

Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, left, throws as teammate Malik Zaire 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

Kelly has made it clear that, unless the chosen starter struggles, the back up will remain just that. No two-quarterback system. No juggling Kizer and Zaire like chainsaws, hoping to keep both in the air.

“They’re both No. 1’s. They both probably can’t play at the same time,” Kelly conceded. “One’s going to have to be the starter, and somebody is going to be unhappy. But I can’t keep them all happy.

“We’re going to have an identity as to who we are.”

And once you have an identity, all there’s left to do is…

6. Win.

“If you’re winning games, it won’t matter,” Quinn said. “If you’re getting production from the quarterback position, whether it’s a two-quarterback system or one guy’s in there and one guy’s not, it won’t matter.

“That’s the end game. All those players just want to win. They want to win all their games and win a national championship. As long as that’s happening, everything should be fine.”

No pressure, of course. All you have to do is march through Texas and USC on the road and Stanford, Miami and Virginia Tech at home. All you have to do is snap a 27-year national title drought and summit the mountain you’ve been scaling for years. All you have to do is fill in those last few words on your résumé.

All you have to do is win, or face another decision.

“Once Notre Dame makes a decision and Brian Kelly goes with it, it won’t be over,” Ward warned. “Those guys are still going to be as talented in Week Two as they were in training camp. Those temptations — whether it’s teammates, whether it’s fans — those people who think, ‘Well this guy is the better option, and now he’s sitting on the bench,’ as soon as something goes wrong, people are going to want that other guy to go in there.

“That’s not going to go away just because they make one decision. There’s always going to be that memory of what the other guy can do, what he has done, what he could do. That won’t go away.

“It’s not making one decision that’s the challenge. It’s that you may have to continue to make it every single week.”

DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire will compete for the starting quarterback job at Notre Dame this fall.

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