It's not about naming who's the No. 1 QB at Notre Dame, but how to keep No. 2 engaged

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — For the third time in three days, Brian Kelly filibustered Tuesday when pressed about whether his dual-quarterback concoction was ready to evolve into something more traditional.

It’s highly unlikely that the Notre Dame head football coach is actually still pondering what his QB situation should look like Saturday for the home opener between the 18th-ranked Irish (0-1) and Nevada (1-0) at Notre Dame Stadium. It’s more at this point about deftly handling the aftermath once a separation between 1 and 2 occurs.

And that hasn’t always been an uncomplicated process for Kelly — or other college football coaches, for that matter.

In Kelly’s seven-year run at ND, Tommy Rees’ acceptance of being Everett Golson’s backup and occasional closer in 2012 is the template best-case scenario. After the then-junior had started the last four games of 2010 and virtually all of 2011, his embracing of his reduced role was a key dynamic in the Irish reaching the BCS National Championship Game that season.

And last year, Zaire was involved well beyond Kelly’s expectations after suffering a season-ending ankle injury in week 2 against Virginia. Junior DeShone Kizer and Kelly both credit Zaire’s presence as an important thread in Kizer’s development into statistically one of the top season-long performances by a first-year starter in school history.

But in 2014, when Golson returned from academic exile to beat out Malik Zaire that August, Zaire admitted later that he mentally checked out to a certain extent. Had he stayed engaged, it’s much more likely he would have been given the chance to overtake Golson once the starter started to struggle in midseason instead of during bowl prep time.

And in 2011, after Kelly elevated Rees and demoted Dayne Crist at halftime of a season-opening loss to South Florida, Crist was never a confident, serviceable option for the remainder of that season. He played out his final season of eligibility as a grad transfer at Kansas under former Irish coach Charlie Weis.

This summer Kelly was asked if he could have a do-over on how he coached one particular player at ND, who would it be? His response was Dayne Crist.

“First of all, it's about your attitude,” Kelly said of how he’ll keep No. 2 plugged in when/if that theoretical bleeds into reality. “Your attitude has to be such that whoever the No. 2 is, whether he's the No. 2 quarterback or the No. 2 running back, you're one play away from being in there.

“So you can't let your teammates down. You can't let yourself down (by getting) in the way of yourself from preparing the way you need to, to lead your football team. That's really 99 percent attitude and accepting the role that you have.

“If you can't accept the role, then you need to move out of the way and let somebody go into that role that can accept it and prepare themselves accordingly. So when they are called upon, they're ready to play.”

History shows that’s a probability. Kent Smith in 2005 at Central Michigan is the last Kelly-coached No. 1 QB to make it through an entire season without missing an important stretch of a game — or games — because of injury or demotion.

As 1A and 1B on Sunday, Kizer and Zaire alternated series into the third quarter at Texas before Kizer finished solo. He was clearly statistically dominant in Notre Dame’s 50-47 double-overtime loss at Texas on Sunday night

His 206.5 pass-efficiency rating ranks 12th nationally after college football’s extended opening weekend. And of the top 19 QBs in that statistical category, Kizer was the only one who achieved his rating against a Power 5 opponent.

He had a hand in all six Irish touchdowns — five by passing, one on a 29-yard run. And he out-Zaire-ed Zaire, running for 77 yards on 13 carries. The latter netted zero yards on three carries and had a 78.6 pass-efficiency rating, the lowest of his career in a still admittedly small sample size.

Particularly telling was an implication by Texas coach Charlie Strong that Kizer was the more difficult to prepare for, as the Longhorns simply overloaded against the run when Zaire was in the game.

When Kelly announced in mid-August that he was committing to a QB tag team for the season opener, he also was emphatic he was open-minded as to how long it would last and where it might lead. He’s also flexible of what being a good No. 2 should look like when the time comes.

“If he wants to be on the headset, I got him on the headset,” Kelly said. “If he's signaling (in plays), he's signaling. It depends.

“Each one of the No. 2s that I've had have a different way of feeling they're engaged in the game and part of it. That would be a conversation that I would have with DeShone or Malik, depending on who the 2 is.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Texas safety Kevin Vaccaro, right, celebrates after sacking Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire, center, during the second half of the Longhorns' 50-47 double-overtime upset of the Irish Sunday night in Austin, Texas (AP Photo/ERIC GAY)

Kickoff: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. EDT

Where: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

Radio: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 28