SOUTH BEND, Ind. — No matter what happened Saturday, quarterbacks were going to be the story of the day.
Whether senior Everett Golson or sophomore Malik Zaire starred or sputtered, the signal-callers would be the starting point for any spring game discussion.
So what did we get Saturday?
Zaire took the first snap under center and led the Irish on a touchdown drive, after which he and Golson alternated possessions.
Zaire finished 18-of-25 for 292 yards and two touchdowns, while Golson was 13-of-24 for 154 yards and a rushing touchdown.
“I thought there was some development there in terms of where they were at times during the spring,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “There was a little bit better attention to some of the details that they have to have at that position.”
Kelly added that the Irish will have the opportunity to get some work in with their players in June, which helps in the development and evaluation processes. Kelly also mentioned that he hopes to settle on one quarterback, as opposed to a more even two-quarterback system, by the season opener.
So how did Saturday affect which quarterback will be that guy come August?
Let’s take a look.
Malik Zaire shines at the “party”
On the opening drive, Zaire connected with junior receiver C.J. Prosise for a 22-yard gain and sophomore receiver Will Fuller for a 29-yard gain to bring the Irish to the 1-yard line, where senior running back Cam McDaniel would punch in the touchdown.
Zaire led the Irish on touchdown drives in each of his next two possessions and maneuvered the offense into the red zone on the next one.
“By and large, I thought he was fairly consistent,” Kelly said. “His problem has been consistency of staying with progressions....So that has been really good today, the consistency was much better for him.”
Looking ahead to the summer, Zaire agreed that the biggest room for improvement is with his consistency.
He said the spring has been a learning experience for the Irish with all the newness to this year’s team. Zaire said because it was so new, it was harder to perform well.
That wasn't the case today.
“When we figured everything out and got it down and today was like, ‘This is your party,’” Zaire said. “That’s the same way during the season should work. Practice should be harder than the games and when it’s the game time, it comes easy to us, and it came easy to us today.”
One of Zaire’s most impressive plays was his second-quarter touchdown laser to Amir Carlisle in the back of end zone, where Zaire fit the pass into a miniscule window.
Zaire certainly impressed with his performance, but he said not much changes for him heading into the summer.
“My mindset doesn't change at all, whether I’m declared a starter or whether I’m the backup or whatever the situation is because in my mind I’m always looking just to get better every day,” Zaire said. “Whatever it takes for this team to win a lot of games, I’m willing to do that.
“So I’m always working as if nobody’s giving me a chance, and I think that’s what’s really my backing. I feel like not enough people are giving me that chance and that opportunity, that’s my personal belief. So as long as I keep believing that and working my butt off to try to be the best I can be for this team, then that’s all I can ask for.”
More people might be giving Zaire that chance now.
Golson not where he wants to be
For whatever reason, Golson looked off through the air. Even from his very first pass attempt—a quick slant delivered behind Corey Robinson, the intended receiver—the timing wasn’t completely there. On the same possession, Golson overthrew senior slot receiver Amir Carlisle out of the back of the end zone.
Kelly said he would have liked to see better ball placement, leading to more catchable balls, from Golson. The 54 percent completion rate was atypical for the man who completed 59 percent of his passes as a sophomore in 2012.
“Not as good as I wanted to,” Golson said when asked about how he thought he played. “I think I’m a hard critic on myself. I don’t think I did nearly as good as I wanted to. Couple of situational things that I could have done. Because we were installing so much this spring, we didn’t really get a chance to work situation stuff.”
The 11 incompletions were fairly uncharacteristic for Golson, who looked quite accurate in practice sessions open to the media throughout the spring. Even as recently as Thursday morning—Notre Dame’s final practice before Saturday’s spring game—Golson was firing passes with precision.
So what changed?
“I do not know, to be honest,” Golson said. “I really can’t put my hand on it. A lot of different things that factored into it. We practiced on the turf, playing on the field, I think that was an issue to be honest. Guys couldn’t just get out of their breaks like they wanted to....You saw a couple times when I fell.”
The turf problem should be taken care of moving forward, as Notre Dame announced plans to install synthetic FieldTurf to be ready for the 2014 season.
We’ve talked in the spring about Golson’s chemistry with the receivers, and after the game, the quarterback said the connections are “pretty good” and “still improving.”
“There were a couple of times where I remember throwing the ball to Will [Fuller] and I kind of threw it in the ground because I didn’t trust it off my third step,” Golson said. “Just little things like that, just becoming more comfortable knowing that they’re going to be there, knowing how to throw the ball. I think it’s still improving but we’ve got a whole offseason to really work on that.”
The offseason begins now for Golson and the Irish, who begin their regular season Aug. 30 against Rice. From now until then, Golson said the thing he most wants to develop is his pocket presence. Golson took three sacks Saturday, and Kelly said Golson’s pocket awareness was merely “OK” and noted he has “a ways to go there.”
In general, though not pleased with his performance, Golson knows what he can take away from Saturday’s outing.
“It’s some good film, as Coach Kelly always says,” Golson said. “I’ll definitely go back and watch it and correct my mistakes.”
*All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Mike Monaco is a lead Notre Dame writer for Bleacher Report. Follow @MikeMonaco_ on Twitter.