Barring something unforeseen, Everett Golson will be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame next season.
It matters not what talented freshman backup Malik Zaire might think—specifically that he will take the first snap against Rice in the season opener on Aug. 30—or what head coach Brian Kelly might insinuate. These are only words. The job belongs to Golson.
This seems fair given Golson's rosy on-field history. Before being suspended for academic misconduct last season, he led the Irish to an undefeated regular season, No. 1 BCS ranking and trip to the national title game against Alabama as a redshirt freshman in 2012. Those are not the credentials of a player who loses his job.
However, that does not mean Zaire will not have a role to play. A 4-star recruit in the class of 2013 who actually had a higher rating on the 247Sports composite than Golson did in 2011, Zaire almost certainly will factor into the Irish's plans next season—even if (when) he is named the No. 2 quarterback before Week 1.
This is nearly certain for more than one reason.
Kelly has a quick hook with quarterbacks who struggle, standing unafraid to replace a starter when he's playing poorly. For relevant examples, look no further than Golson himself when he was yanked in favor of Tommy Rees against Purdue, Michigan and Pittsburgh in 2012.
Golson also struggles to protect his body, making it through his redshirt freshman season without an extended absence but playing through ticky-tack pain during much of the schedule. He missed the BYU game entirely with a concussion and was slow to get up numerous other times throughout the year.
For these reasons alone, a betting man might wager on Zaire to play some meaningful snaps behind Golson next season. When the starter is prone to bouts of ineffective play and nagging injuries, the backup QB is almost as important as any other player on the roster.
Even if Golson operates at a near-perfect level and stays healthy the entire season, though, Zaire still might have a role to play in this offense. Specifically in the red zone, his speed outside the tackles and mastery of the option offense—even compared to Golson, who is no slouch in these regards—might make Zaire a frequent offensive sub.
Writes B/R's Keith Arnold:
In a few open looks at the Irish last week, Zaire's striking athleticism was on display. Many marveled at the clear distinction between Zaire and Golson once they broke into the open field. Golson is a more than competent runner, leading the team in touchdown runs in 2012, but Zaire is electric, a far more dangerous playmaker in the open field.
One other area where Zaire would be a clear upgrade is in the option run game. If the zone read is going to anchor the Irish rushing attack this season, Zaire could be the better trigger man. After three years in a mostly running system in high school, he is a wizard in the option.
A few glimpses at the UND.com practice videos show a quarterback that could single-handedly fix the Irish's red-zone struggles with his running and ball skills. He's already showing a mastery of the fakes and deception that make the option so deadly around the goal line.
College football is slowly starting to age from the days of the platooning quarterback, but one player spelling another in the red zone is neither unheard of nor unwise. It worked well for Oklahoma in the final years of Landry Jones' tenure, when backup Blake Bell rushed for 24 touchdowns. Why shouldn't it work, even in sporadic doses, if employed next year at Notre Dame?
Those calling for Zaire to start outright in 2014 can't be blamed. His upside is considerable—higher than that of Golson—and the pluck he's shown in fighting for the job has been reassuring.
It's also a little short-sighted, however, and even hints a bit at being spoiled. Golson has never lost a regular-season game and engineered the nation's ninth most-efficient offense (per the Football Outsiders offensive F/+ ratings) as a freshman. Redshirt or no redshirt, that is pretty darn impressive. And yet still there is a faction of the fanbase eager to question his place on the field, the role he should play on next year's team. What more does the man have to do?
Zaire pushing Golson in camp should help both players improve this spring and fall, even if the competition is not as open as the quotes coming from South Bend seem to indicate. Either way, however, Zaire's performance will dictate the size of his impact in 2014—the amount of slack Golson is given each time he struggles; the number of Zaire-tailored packages included in the playbook each week.
There's a way for this spotlight to be shared.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT