Notre Dame is fast establishing a reputation for yearly quarterback controversies. While detractors criticize Brian Kelly and company for causing insecurity in the minds of the players, many Irish fans see it as healthy competition for what is arguably the most important position on the field. From Crist to Rees, Rees to Golson, there has been a regular rotation of new faces.
This year promises to be no different with 5-star recruit Gunner Kiel emerging from his redshirt year to challenge the incumbent Everret Golson for the top spot. Further down the road, both contenders will have to fend off the powerful Malik Zaire, who will most likely redshirt this season. Indeed, it will be a true accomplishment for any of these men to spend their senior season on the field with all the top talent Kelly has been recruiting.
So who is most likely to win Notre Dame a national championship? Let's take a look at each candidate and weigh the pros and cons.
Golson, forgive the comparison, was like The Little Engine That Could last year. He pulled the Irish through all but one—he missed the game against BYU due to concussion—of their regular season games. However, his reputation as the perfect quarterback was tarnished by several key plays where Rees stepped in for him to finish the job, often on third downs. Indeed, it was Notre Dame's top-ranked defense that was grabbing all the headlines last season, as the offense often struggled.
It is not my intention to diminish Golson whatsoever, in fact I really like him, but there is room to improve. Improving is something he did a lot of last season, though. In his first four games with the Irish, he rushed for a total of minus-11 yards. The Irish QB stepped it up significantly against Miami, running for 51 yards.
The following week, he brought his A-game again, rushing for 41 yards against the fierce Stanford defense. In the last seven games Golson played during the regular season, he rushed for an average of 45.1 yards (via sports-reference.com), a vast improvement over the beginning of the year.
Kiel, at the time he was recruited, was supposed to be the savior of the Irish offense. That all changed when Golson took the team to a national championship, so it appears Kiel will have to distinguish himself substantially in order to oust Golson.
One thing Kiel has going for him is his huge arm. This kid can throw, and he has more confidence in the pocket than Golson. He also has a substantial height advantage, standing five inches taller than the current Irish quarterback.
The concerns I have with Kiel are not so much toward him as a player, but the way the Notre Dame offense is set up. Kiel is a passing quarterback. Yes, his highlight reel shows he can run, but he lacks the elusiveness that made Golson so effective on his feet last season.
Notre Dame's offense, thus far, has been pretty heavy on running plays. So if Kiel gets on the field, who will he throw the ball to? Sure DaVaris Daniels and T.J. Jones will be around, and they are both great players, but we are missing a real star wide receiver who could really capitalize on Kiel's passing skills.
Kiel also displayed less than stellar skills at last year's spring game, so he may be having trouble adjusting at the college level.
The inclusion of Zaire presupposes that neither Kiel or Golson will bring home the crystal football this season, and Zaire will most likely redshirt, but for argument's sake, I included him anyways.
Which quarterback be the first to win a national championship for Notre Dame?
Zaire's highlight reel shows a quarterback who not only has an incredible arm, but who is also quick on his feet and doesn't panic when plays deteriorate and the pocket is compromised. Above all, what I love about this guy is his confidence.
Like Golson, height may be an issue for Zaire, as he currently stands at an even 6'. Zaire does have a 26-pound weight advantage on Golson though, which will definitely be an asset when he has to muscle in those tough yards.
So who will bring home a national championship for the Fighting Irish?
Kiel is the most obvious contender, but he will need to overcome the issues that made him ineffective last spring. The receivers will also have to elevate their game in order for him to be truly effective. It would appear that Brian Kelly has already anticipated this issue, though.
According to Jake Brown of Rivals.com, 4-star junior wide receiver Corey Holmes is expected to take his third visit to the Notre Dame campus during the offseason.
If Kiel can't pull it off, he will have to contend with Zaire, and we all know how Brian Kelly loves to stoke a little healthy competition among his quarterbacks.
No matter who is starting, there is a very real chance that one of these men will bring the crystal football to South Bend in the near future.
*Unless otherwise noted, all statistics and star rankings are referenced from Rivals.com