Kelly a week late and a quarterback short

AP photoNotre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer throws a pass during a college football game against Texas on Sunday, Sept. 4, 2016, in Austin.

In many respects, an email blast sent to the media Wednesday afternoon by the Notre Dame football office ended any curiosity as to who would start at quarterback Saturday against Nevada. Junior DeShone Kizer was the only Irish signal caller named on the post-practice interview list. Senior Malik Zaire was nowhere to be found and unavailble.

After leading the Irish to six touchdowns Sunday in a 50-47 overtime loss to Texas — five by air, one by land — Kizer being named the starter for Game 2 was far from breaking news.

Kizer's performance left Irish head coach Brian Kelly with no choice but to scrap the two-quarterback strategy he used against Texas, a misguided platoon plan that may have cost Notre Dame the game.

At this time last week, Kelly indicated that in a perfect quarterback world, Kizer and Zaire could play together nicely and perform happily ever after all season.

"Nobody seems to think that this can happen," Kelly said in the days before the Texas game, "but we're going to give it a shot."

Kelly's "shot" lasted barely one half Sunday when Kizer took control of the offense and ended any doubt who deserves to be the top gun, leading a 17-point comeback with three touchdown drives that temporarily put Notre Dame up 35-31 in the fourth-quarter, a lead the Irish defense failed to protect.

Monday morning quarterbacking the Irish quarterback competition is obviously easy in hindsight after the outcome last weekend. And to Kelly's defense to playing both guys, Kizer and Zaire each performed well during fall camp, complicating the coach's choice on an opening-day starter.

But Kelly makes an estimated $4 million a year to make tough decisions  — no matter whose feelings get hurt — and there was too much at stake this season to delay this decision for the sake of protecting Zaire's psyche.

"It's never easy playing two quarterbacks," Kelly said immediately after the Texas loss, which is why he never should've tried, because Kizer earned the right to be the starter this season after the way he played last season.

Obviously, Kelly had much more data, support and knowledge than anybody when he reached a decision to play both of his quarterbacks. But given the work Kizer did in his 11 starts last season and the precision and poise he demonstrated this year through spring ball, summer workouts and fall camp, the job should have been his all along unless Zaire found a way to take it away.

Kizer finished 2015 with the seventh-best single-season passer rating in Notre Dame history (150.0) and the fourth-highest rushing total ever by an Irish quarterback (520 yards). He also orchestrated three fourth-quarter comeback wins in 2015, and nearly a fourth when he led an 88-yard touchdown drive to take the lead at Stanford with 30 seconds left in a game the Irish defense ultimately found a way to give away.

In no way is this story an indictment of Zaire, but rather a celebration of Kizer, who is quickly becoming one of the best quarterbacks in Notre Dame history.

"There's one quarterback now, but two leaders," Kizer said of Zaire and the end of any quarterback competition. "… Malik doesn't fall off the face of the Earth, now. He's a huge component to this team."

As for Zaire, his long-term future at Notre Dame becomes uncertain moving forward. Zaire can graduate after the fall semester with his degree and another year of eligibility remaining, opening the door for a graduate transfer before the spring semester — a popular relocation method that former Irish quarterback Everett Golson took to Florida State before last season. Let's hope it doesn't come to that for Zaire and he supports Kelly's decision to start Kizer.

With an 0-1 start to this season and all margin for error already exhausted for a playoff run, Kelly needs dedication, not division, between his two quarterbacks, and an all-in commitment from a disappointed Zaire, as tough as that may be to get.

"If you can't accept the role," Kelly said of his second-string quarterback, "then you need to move out of the way and let somebody go into that role that can accept it and prepare accordingly so that when they're called upon, they're ready to play."

We'll never know if naming Kizer the full-time starter during training camp and playing him all the way through the Texas game might've made the winning difference for Notre Dame. But considering the best player on the field spent three scoreless offensive series off the field against the Longhorns, it's a worthwhile debate.

Todd Burlage is a freelance columnist covering Notre Dame sports.

(1) comment


I think overall Kelly is a good coach but he suffers from terrible brain cramps from time to time and unfortunately some are fatal as we saw last week. Regarding Zaire lets hope the kid graduates ASAP and goes to a program next year where he can show his talents.

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