Analysis: Why Notre Dame's Brian Kelly reversed field on his QB philosophy

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The most intriguing part of Brian Kelly’s introduction of a quarterback cocktail Wednesday as his answer to a bottleneck of talent and experience at the position is how vehemently opposed he was to the notion just four months ago.

And precisely why 12 days of fall training camp, comprising 14 practice sessions, was enough to do a philosophical 180.

The bottom line of the split decision is that the quarterback competition between junior DeShone Kizer and senior Malik Zaire produced a depth chart tie instead of separation, and that the Notre Dame head football coach will prolong the time share through at least ninth-ranked ND’s Sept. 4 season opener at Texas.

“We'll see what happens the next week against Nevada,” Kelly said when asked how open-ended the arrangement is. “I'm focused strictly on Texas, and we are best prepared to beat Texas by playing both DeShone and Malik.”

Just how it will look — alternating series, alternating quarters, play based on specific situations, playing the hot hand — is still on the drawing board, and even then Kelly is open to game circumstances revising whatever Plan A turns out to be.

“We’ll definitely have to figure it out as it goes,” Kizer offered.

Kelly’s own past is pocked with multiple-QB arrangements, but every one of them was based on complementary skill sets, incomplete parts or both — not two accomplished, experienced, healthy, well-rounded and fairly similar candidates.

The Chris Leak-Tim Tebow combination that fueled Florida’s national title a decade ago had a dynamic that reflected Kelly’s previous two-QB experiments, not the one he’s about to dip his toe in.

And because there is no real template of historical success across college football for what Kelly is attempting and plenty of anecdotal failure, the coach knows he’s inviting second-guessing and all the potential distractions that go with that.

Even the parties involved themselves, Kizer and Zaire, had a hard time suppressing disappointment on Wednesday, the day after Kelly pulled both aside and privately delivered the twisted news.

“There’s supposed to be one quarterback on the field at one time,” Kizer said. “I committed here and decided to play college football so I could be that one guy.

“When you decide to play this position, especially at this level, you have to have the desire to be the only guy out there and to truly take credit for all the good and all the bad that happens within a team. It’s a part of being the complete quarterback. I would love for it to be just me.

“But in this situation, coach Kelly makes the calls. And he knows what's best for the team and I completely trust in his judgement.”

Said Zaire, “You never know at Notre Dame. I know anything can happen. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Ian book was in the competition. Who knows? I just do my job and treat it like a professional and roll with the punches.”

Ian Book, incidentally, is Notre Dame’s fourth-string, freshman quarterback. He’ll be entering his junior year by the time Zaire exhausts his college eligibility following the 2017 season. Sophomore Brandon Wimbush, perhaps the most high-ceilinged prospect of the group, is destined to redshirt in 2016, barring an injury to Kizer or Zaire.

Kelly has verbal commitments from Texan Avery Davis in the 2017 recruiting class and vaunted Western Pennsylvania star Phil Jurkovec in 2018, so the enviable dilemma of juggling talent and scheme fits doesn’t appear to be waning anytime soon.

Chances are the future resolutions won’t look anything like what Kelly has concocted for the 2016 opener.

“It's never easy playing two quarterbacks,” Kelly said. “It's much easier just playing one. But we're in the business of winning, and so if it's a little bit harder on us, then we can make that work if the net is we win the football game.”

What opened Kelly’s mind to precisely what he didn’t want to do coming out of spring was the high level and consistency with which each QB was showing in practice. Kelly threw out the figure of 257 reps combined this month from Zaire and Kizer with two combined interceptions.

Against a secondary Kelly is confident has improved and a pass rush that’s no longer tepid in his estimation.

“And that's with, you know, guys not in the right position and running the wrong routes,” Kelly said. “It's been remarkable. These (QBs) have played so well that I have to change course and put both of them on the field.”

Another essential element to commit to the tag-team format, even for one game, was to have a play-caller who could handle it. And associate head coach Mike Denbrock was someone Kelly trusts.

It was Denbrock who called the plays in ND’s 31-28 Music City Bowl victory over LSU and its nationally top rated pass defense when Kelly alternated an inexperienced Zaire in his first college start with a rebounding veteran Everett Golson.

Denbrock said while he’ll send in the plays against the Longhorns, it will be up to Kelly to shuttle the QBs in and out of the game.

“If there’s anybody in the country that has a great feel of how to do it and how to make it work for the best interests of the football team, he’s the guy who makes sure that gets done,” Denbrock said.

And if he doesn’t get it done, Kelly knows he’ll get lit up.

That fact he’s unafraid to do something unconventional and perhaps unpopular is who he has become at Notre Dame. So maybe this shouldn’t have been a surprise outcome.

He’s rankled traditionalists with calls for FieldTurf and JumboTrons (and got them), tinkered with game day staples, shunned satellite camps, invited Showtime cameras to take in his program — warts and all — and flirted with the NFL days after playing for a national title.

And most defiantly, since five-star quarterback prospect Gunner Kiel parachuted out — to Kelly’s former coaching stop, Cincinnati, no less — Kelly has built quality quarterback depth that it hasn’t seen in decades.

Now he’s asking for faith from his team to open their minds, as he did.

“I had some selfish thoughts,” Kizer admitted, “but after a long conversation with my parents, it was quickly understood that this is about something a lot bigger than I am and what my aspirations were for this season.

“This is about Notre Dame and winning football games, and that’s what I came here to do. If it takes two quarterbacks to win the game, I’m all for it, let’s do it.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, left, and quarterback DeShone Kizer talk during a recent Irish football practice. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)