Lesar: Despite Brian Kelly's efforts, spotlight on Notre Dame QBs

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

AUSTIN, Texas – Try as he might to deflect or downplay the significance of the quarterback position, Brian Kelly isn’t going to bamboozle Notre Dame football fans.

They know better.

The Irish head coach has a master plan heading into Sunday night’s lollapalooza against Texas: Re-direct the spotlight, and maybe the pressure will go away.

Ain’t gonna work.

Way back when in journalism school they called it burying the lead. Fans are smarter than that.

They know that DeShone Kizer (eight wins in 11 starts) and Malik Zaire (2-0 as a starter before being sidelined with a broken ankle) accounted for roughly two-thirds of the Irish offensive production last season (3,312 yards passing, 623 rushing).

Those sorts of numbers can’t be minimized.

“A lot of attention,” Kelly said, “a lot of eyes, a lot of national media and local media, will be wanting to focus on (the quarterbacks), but sometimes when you focus on the quarterbacks, you forget there are a lot of other things going on out there and there's a lot of talented players on both sides that will have to step up and make plays.”

“When you have two of our best playmakers at the same position, you can downplay it because you know what you’re going to get,” Kizer said. “You’re going to get guys who can compete; you’re going to get guys who expect greatness out of themselves; you’re going to get guys who want to make plays.

“It’s more of an opportunity to show there’s not much worry to come out of us. You know what you’re going to get out of us.”

The running game and the defense will be critical, but the quarterback is the straw that stirs the drink.

Who starts? What’s the blueprint for the timeshare? Hot hand? Situational packages?

All that matters, even if Kelly tries to sell the idea of interchangeable pieces.

“The comfort level of the quarterback and his rhythm is something that is always an issue with them, and I can't help them with that,” said Kelly. “What we're mostly focusing on is what Texas wants to do and then how we counter with our two quarterbacks; how we think effectively they can run our offense. So there will probably be times where, man, that probably doesn't feel good for his flow or tempo. That probably doesn't work best for him.

“But what we're trying to counter is the game within the game, and that is how Texas is trying to defend what we're doing offensively. So that's really the biggest issue that I have moving forward. We're going to run the quarterbacks how we see the defense is playing us.”

Beware! Coaches can, sometimes, get caught up in the chess match and lose sight of the big picture.

Not publicly spilling the beans about the quarterback plan is a schematic advantage (Where have we heard that before? How’d it work out?) for Kelly. Makes sense for the opener. Hopefully he’s given Kizer and Zaire more structure and details, though neither would admit it.

“Coach Kelly has all the answers,” said Zaire. “It would be nice to have a little bit of direction. I don’t know how to get ready (in practice) to not get ready for something (in a game).”

OK, that’s a bit more “Mellow Malik,” compared to the one who, on Media Day, the day after the QB arrangement was decided, said – exactly 47 times – he was going to handle it like “a professional.”

The snarky sniping’s not as bad as it was when the wound was still fresh. Kizer and Zaire have grown to accept the situation and try to make the best out of it.

Really, they didn’t have any other alternative.

“I'm not that worried about it,” Kelly said of any emotional trauma it may have caused. “They're two veteran players. They know how to play. They don't like it. They would like to be the guy, but they want to win, and they'll do whatever is necessary to win and find a way to win the game.

“So we get to pregame, they kick the ball off. We're on the sidelines, the game starts, and they'll be fine. When all the press conferences are over and we're done talking about it, they'll be fine.

“Leading up to it, they won't be fine. It's just the nature of it. It's not an ideal situation for either one of them. It's best for our team that they both play. How long this happens? I don't know. We'll see how it plays out.”

Just don’t bury the lead.

Fans won’t fall for that.

Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire, left, passes as teammate DeShone Kizer looks on during Notre Dame spring football practice on Wednesday, March 16, 2016. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)