All about the art and science behind Notre Dame's two-QB arrangement

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The still somewhat undefined quarterback tag-team arrangement Brian Kelly is set to throw at Texas next Sunday night in Austin, Texas, was the product of a multitude of motivations.

Trying to keep everyone happy wasn't one of them.

The seventh-year Notre Dame head football coach doesn't coach that way or recruit that way. Part of the screening process for Kelly, in fact, is to look for a competitive streak and a persevering spirit during the recruiting process.

In other words, someone who's not looking for a trap door the moment the depth chart gets congested at his position.

“When I sit them down and look them in the eye and talk to them about the eventuality of competition and what may or may not happen at the end of their career and what might happen at certain points of their careers,” Kelly said recently on WSBT's Weekday SportsBeat radio show, “(I'm looking for someone who's) going to fight through these challenges and they're going to come out better for it.”

History sides with Kelly. Of the 11 Notre Dame quarterbacks recruited in the post-Lou Holtz Era (1997-present) who transferred, the 10 who have exhausted their college eligibility have combined to play zero downs in the NFL.

Everett Golson is the only one still actively pursuing that avenue. The undrafted rookie signed with the CFL's Hamilton Tiger Cats in late June and is currently on the team's “six-game injured list” as they get ready to play their ninth game of the regular season, on Sunday.

The one QB transfer still active in college, Gunner Kiel, is a fifth-year senior at Cincinnati and will start the season as the Bearcats' No. 2 QB option, behind sophomore Hayden Moore.

Kelly announced Aug. 17 that senior Malik Zaire and junior DeShone Kizer would share duties against the Longhorns, a 38-3 loser at Notre Dame Stadium last September in the most lopsided verdict in the 11 football games between the two schools.

He has not shared which one will take the actual first snap next Sunday night at 7:30 EDT at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Stadium (ABC-TV). If it's Zaire, it will be career start No. 4. If it's Kizer, it'll be career start No. 12.

Kelly the trend-setter?

Of Notre Dame's 12 regular-season opponents in 2016, no fewer than two (Stanford and N.C. State) have head coaches professing to play both of their top two quarterbacks in their respective season openers, a la Kelly.

N.C. State coach Dave Doeren, per the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer, took it a step further. He'll reportedly be tag-teaming his kickers as well, when the Wolfpack open Thursday against William & Mary.

At quarterback, Boise State transfer Ryan Finley and sophomore Jalan McClendon will alternate series, according to Doeren.

Stanford's arrangement is less defined, though Cardinal coach David Shaw did indicate Ryan Burns will start Friday against Kansas State over Keller Chryst.

Texas (Tyrone Swoopes/Shane Buechele) and Army (Ahmad Bradshaw/Chris Carter) have hinted QB time shares may be in store for them as well in week one.

The Army QB situation took a strange twist about a week and a half ago. It was widely reported that Bradshaw had abruptly left school and the program, but the next day he was at practice and pushing for No. 1 status.

Nine of ND's 12 opponents spent most of the offseason uncertain about who their eventual starter might be, with Miami's Brad Kaaya, Nevada's Brad Stewart and Navy's Tago Smith succeeding Keenan Reynolds as the exceptions.

Duke incumbent Thomas Sirk had come back strong from a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in February, until reinjuring the tendon Thursday in practice, and head coach David Cutcliffe on Saturday ruled him out for the season.

Redshirt freshman Daniel Jones is now the presumptive starter.

Showtime aftermath

Kelly remembers the tears last September, and the reassuring words he delivered to a sobbing Zaire that could have been construed as a promise.

Thanks to the eavesdropping Showtime cameras, it was hardly a private conversation in the moments following ND's 34-27 escape at Virginia on Sept. 12 that included a season-ending ankle injury suffered by Zaire.

Essentially, Kelly told Zaire and his family — captured in the season-long TV series “A Season With Notre Dame Football” — that default starter Kizer and freshman backup Brandon Wimbush would be placeholders for Zaire until he was 100 percent again.

And based on how Kizer had practiced to that point and how young Wimbush was, that's how Kelly sincerely felt at that time.

“When you're in those moments, you're trying to obviously settle down a young man who is devastated,” Kelly said. “And you want him to think about what it's going to be like when he fights through this injury.

“He's got a long rehab, so some of those words at the time, they're not disingenuous by any means. I was speaking from the heart, but they're also meant to help somebody at the time. And they weren't calculated in any way, other than to get him through the moment.

“Having said that, the season went in a manner in which I don't think any of us expected DeShone to play at the level that he did. That's why we had competition at the position, or this really would have been Kizer's job, because his body of work was outstanding.”

The aha moment

That Kelly was so adamant in the spring about avoiding a two-QB system in the fall was countered by such consistent and high-level practice performances from Kizer and Zaire in August. Yet that alone still may not have prompted him to move off his original position had it not been for a summer epiphany.

And that was that perhaps naming a No. 1, especially if Kelly had to split hairs to do so, may potentially be a bigger upheaval than the unconventional approach to play two No. 1s that he eventually came to embrace.

“Look, the quarterback position at Notre Dame is scrutinized like no other quarterback position,” Kelly said, “other than maybe the New York Giants or the New England Patriots right now.

“I didn't want it to be such that it took away from maybe what we were doing on the football field as a team. Look, DeShone Kizer or Malik could throw one interception. And it starts the rumbling, 'Hey, let's get the other quarterback ready.' I almost felt like it could be a distraction in a sense.

“Now, you don't have a distraction. Both of them are playing and they're both going to contribute to the success of our offense. And so that kind of hit me one day, that I didn't want, 'Who's the starter? Who's the backup?'

“We have a young team in some instances. And I didn't want that to be a distraction. So that was a factor that came to me after spring ball.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Trying to make Malik Zaire (left) and DeShone Kizer (right) happy didn't enter into coach Brian Kelly's thinking when he settled on playing both in the Sept. 4 opener at Texas. (Tribune Photos/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

WHEN: Sept. 4 at 7:30 p.m. (EDT)

WHERE: Darrell K. Royal-Texas Stadium; Austin, Texas

TV: ABC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Notre Dame by 3