Vorel: Examining the clues that led to Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly's QB twist

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

That was a heck of a twist.

I should know, because — and here come the spoilers — I watched Roger “Verbal” Kint’s twisted limp morph into a swaggering strut at the end of “The Usual Suspects.” I made an unapologetically audible gasp as the realization hit me like a bucket of ice water that Kevin Spacey’s supposedly dopey small-time burglar was, in fact, mythologized super criminal Keyser Söze.

I watched, too, as Bruce Willis’ shirt became suddenly drenched with blood in the captivating closing moments of “The Sixth Sense.” Turns out, Dr. Malcolm Crowe was dead all along, and I almost died, too, from the shock.

That’s sort of what it felt like on Wednesday, when Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly announced that both Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer will play quarterback against Texas on Sept. 4. Their quarterback competition’s shocking end was that there was no end. No winner. No loser. No starter.

Just the twist.

After years of intense research performed while sinking like quicksand into the cushion of movie theater seats and descending further into the lethargic slog of days-long Netflix binges, I’ve concluded that there are really only two essential elements of any worthwhile twist:

1. It must be surprising, and

2. There must be tangible clues.

So, let’s address these one at a time.

Was Kelly’s announcement surprising?

Judging by the drumline of typing keys that rose up instantly out of the silence, the answer is obvious. The phrase “Brian Kelly” was trending on Twitter in the United States before the seventh-year Irish head coach’s press conference even ended, and that doesn’t happen unless A.) you’ve started dating a Kardashian, or B.) you’ve got something fairly shocking to say.

It was surprising that Kelly announced the decision more than two weeks prior to the season opener, veering suddenly off the road miles ahead of the expected finish line. It was surprising, too, when you consider that most two-quarterback systems are comprised of two very different quarterbacks, while Kizer and Zaire are stylistically similar.

What made Kelly’s decision most surprising, though, was its greatest critic.

Brian Kelly.

Throughout spring practices, Kelly held firm that a two-quarterback system wouldn’t make sense at Notre Dame. He noted Ohio State’s quarterback fiasco with Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett in 2015, and speculated that the Buckeyes’ offense couldn’t find an identity without a permanent starter behind the wheel. If his mantra the previous fall was “Next Man In,” it was replaced last spring by, “I can’t make them both happy.”

Eventually, he was going to have to choose one of them.

But on Wednesday, he chose both.

Were there tangible clues?

A funny thing happens the second time you watch “The Sixth Sense.” Eventually, you realize, “Hey, Bruce Willis’ character has only talked to one character the entire movie, and it’s the kid who just admitted to seeing dead people.”

In retrospect, it’s obvious. You should have known, but you didn’t.

The same goes for Notre Dame’s quarterback situation (except for the part with the ghosts). On “The Jim Rome Show” prior to the beginning of fall camp, Kelly softened on the idea of playing two quarterbacks. In the season’s introductory press conference, he refused to rule anything out.

We heard these things, but we didn’t properly digest them. We didn’t see this coming.

At least, most of us didn’t.

“I think Brian Kelly does one of the more unique jobs of handling quarterbacks in a competition,” former Notre Dame quarterback and College Football Hall of Famer Joe Theismann told ND Insider in June. “Now, I don’t know which one will end up being the starter. I don’t know which one will end up having the designation as the backup. I don’t think those terms apply to Notre Dame quarterbacks under Brian Kelly, because DeShone brings a certain skill set to the table and Malik brings a certain skill set to the table.

“I am quite confident that both of these young men will play quarterback at the University of Notre Dame. The question is, which one will play more? To look at it and say it’s just a pure quarterback competition for the starting job, you don’t know Brian Kelly or (offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach) Mike Sanford very well. You don’t understand the way this offense is conceived.”

On another note, should Notre Dame necessarily avoid a two-quarterback system just because of what happened at Ohio State? Maybe, upon further inspection, the two situations aren’t that similar.

“The guys at Ohio State (in 2015) really couldn’t play quarterback. That was their problem,” Theismann said. “When you don’t have a ‘1,’ you have a couple of 2’s, you don’t know what you’re going to do with them. One becomes a quarterback, and the other you’re not sure of. I think that was Urban (Meyer)’s situation.

“You have to look at Urban’s history with quarterbacks, too. Tim Tebow was not the best thrower of the football. The guys at Ohio State were just OK. The Notre Dame guys are actually passers. If somebody from Ohio State takes offense to that, I don’t care.”

OK, so both Zaire and Kizer are proven passers. Got it. But for now, neither are stand-alone starters.

How much does that really matter?

“People say, ‘Well, he’s always looking over his shoulder.’ Well, you’re looking over your shoulder. Everybody is that has a job,” said Mack Brown, who employed multiple two-quarterback systems as the head coach at Texas and North Carolina.

“You just have to do your job. I never worried about the pressure on the guy, because he has to be able to handle that pressure.”

What about Kelly, though? Doesn’t he have to handle the pressure as well? Doesn’t it create more headaches for the coaching staff when you have to decide when and how to use each quarterback?

Brown has an answer for that, too.

“Honestly, the best thing is, if you let him go three series and you’re not making first downs — we would tell the starter this, we would tell the team this — we’re going to put the other guy in,” Brown said bluntly. “We’re going to leave the guy in that’s scoring touchdowns. It was a very simple process.

“If you’re moving the ball and scoring, you play. If you’re not, you’re going to stand by me and cheer. They all understood that process.”

To some degree, that holds true at Notre Dame. If both quarterbacks have success, both quarterbacks will keep playing.

And if the Irish don’t win, it might be time for another twist.


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame Head Football Coach Brian Kelly speaks to media at his season-opening press conference Friday, August 5, 2016 in South Bend. Tribune photo/BECKY MALEWITZ