SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- In the minutes after Notre Dame concluded its spring, Brian Kelly talked about the weather, the crowd, the atmosphere. He breathed a sigh of relief at the injury-free Blue-Gold game, laughed about his punter winning MVP honors and applauded his players on a crisp, clean contest.
Oh, and he talked about his quarterbacks, too, albeit later on in his opening statement.
Burying the lede much? Hardly.
Notre Dame may have a quarterback competition, but that old John Madden adage -- if you have two QBs, you have none -- simply does not apply here.
The Fighting Irish have DeShone Kizer, and all he did as a redshirt freshman on a moment’s notice was go 8-3, display uncanny poise in big road environments and damn near lead a battered roster to the College Football Playoff. His Saturday, for the record, featured a 10-for-17 line, throwing for 113 yards, rushing for 21 more and leading his Blue team on a pair of scoring drives.
“I think I made some strides in some things but also threw another ball in the dirt,” Kizer said. “That's something that eats me up. That was one of my big things I did last year and absolutely destroyed me, and I thought that was gone. And all of a sudden, I get comfortable out there and I'm thinking about things that are not related to mechanics.”
The Irish also have Malik Zaire, and if anyone is familiar with how these things go it is the redshirt junior, now in his third straight spring battle, with a 3-0 game record to his name. His Saturday included a 6-for-15 line with 120 passing yards, 12 rushing yards and one scoring drive for his Gold team. The score came via Zaire’s legs, as the southpaw changed direction and saw an opening for a 13-yard touchdown that shed any notion he wasn’t fully recovered from last season’s broken right ankle.
“I think it's playing football,” Zaire said. “You don't play football with a lot of handicaps. I don't like having a red jersey on me, but I've had a red jersey on for a long time now. So it's time to move on to more game situations.”
Heck, the Irish even have Brandon Wimbush, who was a more ballyhooed recruit than Kizer and Zaire. That Kelly said afterward he hasn’t figured out how to get the former four-star prospect involved in this QB race says all you need to know about the situation.
And really, it says all you need to know about how far this position has come here in recent years.
A popular conversation among the Irish beat corps this spring has been this: Look back through Kelly’s previous six seasons at Notre Dame. Find a year in which a sophomore Wimbush wouldn’t be the Irish’s starter. Aside from being the odd man out last year, you can almost always make quite a case for him.
For now, Wimbush is stuck behind Kizer and Zaire, with the benefit (and strong possibility) of gaining back a year by redshirting this fall.
“The only time I had that kind of scenario was when I had two quarterbacks at Cincinnati that were both proven winners,” Kelly said of his tight QB race. “But they were so different. These two guys are so very similar in their skill-set.”
We saw what Kelly did at Cincinnati when playing musical chairs -- work that landed him at Notre Dame. We saw what position coach Mike Sanford did with Kizer and Zaire just last year, his first with the Irish.
Both players, who are Western Ohio natives and friends, have said all the right things and embraced their roles. There was Kizer, on his second drive Saturday, running way downfield to applaud K.J. Stepherson for his effort on a deep ball that the early enrollee couldn’t quite haul in. There was Zaire, hours after the game had ended and the stadium had completely cleared, signing every last autograph and taking every last picture for the ambitious kids who had camped outside the stadium till the very end.
To make a playoff run, Notre Dame has to replace the leadership and personality that last year’s upperclassmen brought to the table. The Irish must also upgrade a defense that wasn’t all that great last year -- and that was when the unit had the services of pros like Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day and KeiVarae Russell.
But they already have the most important ingredient, and in heavy doses. For once, there is little need to worry about Notre Dame’s quarterback situation. Regardless of how these next four months unfold, the Irish will be just fine in that department.