When Brian Kelly says he wants to play one quarterback, we're supposed to believe him. But should we?
Kelly's the coach that played musical chairs with his quarterbacks at Cincinnati. And looking back at the past four seasons, it hasn't been much different at Notre Dame.
Granted, it hasn't been Kelly's fault. But after inheriting Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees (he was already committed to the Irish when Kelly was hired), we saw Crist, Rees and Andrew Hendrix get shots at becoming the Irish's starting quarterback before Kelly turned the keys over to Everett Golson in 2012.
Even Golson couldn't hold onto the job, with an academic snafu and Gunner Kiel's transfer putting Rees back at the helm for 2013. But with Golson back and still capable of being a three-year starter, just about every sign points to long-awaited stability at the position.
Last week, Kelly gave a few updates on the state of his quarterback depth chart. While talking at a charity event, the Irish head coach said he's still not quite ready to call the race between Golson and redshirt freshman Malik Zaire.
"I’d rather clearly have somebody be the guy," Kelly said, according to Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune. "We’re not at that point, where there’s a clear separation between the two yet. I think that could happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.
"I think Everett has more games under his belt, but you still have to respond when the lights go on. Malik has shown the ability to play better than he practices. Everett has practiced better than he plays. And so we’ve got to continue to work through that and Everett’s got to — when it’s time to shine, he’s got to go take it over.
"We’ve got to get Everett to really grow and develop and then go from there. But nobody has really said yet, ‘Hey, this is my job.’ They’re still competing."
That competition can reboot this June, thanks to some tweaks to NCAA rules. But come August, even though just about everybody following the Irish expects Golson to be the starting quarterback, it might not be the worst idea in the world to keep opponents guessing and use Zaire in situational packages.
The most obvious reason to get Zaire playing time early is because the odds are he'll be seeing the field eventually. Even with 15 pounds of heft added to his frame, nobody is confusing Golson for an ironman. His playing style, not to mention Kelly's preferred offensive system, will have Golson taking hits as a ball-carrier and a passer.
In 2012, Golson sat out portions of multiple games because of assorted injuries. He struggled to practice for most of the season. A concussion held him out of the end of the Stanford game and forced him to miss the following week's game against BYU as well. That was in an offense that didn't utilize Golson as a ball-carrier for the season's first month.
The quarterback will be a critical part of the run game in 2014, so dictating the terms for Zaire's debut are better than having an injury to Golson do it. Wouldn't it make more sense to script a series of plays for Zaire to execute against Rice than force him into a game on a moment's notice?
There's also reason to believe that Zaire could help optimize the Irish offense. The past two seasons, Notre Dame has struggled in the red zone. While Golson led the Irish in rushing scores in 2012, the Irish were a horrible 112th in the nation in converting red-zone appearances into touchdowns.
With Rees, the Irish weren't much better, clocking in at 100th. One of the most adept option quarterbacks in his recruiting class, Zaire would immediately add a new wrinkle in the scoring area. (For reference, Navy has been in the top 25 converting red-zone touchdowns in three of the past five seasons.)
Perhaps the biggest misconception carried into this spring was Golson's readiness to come in and lead the Irish offense. Make no mistake, his freshman season was impressive. But after returning to campus and seeing the spread attack that Kelly wanted to fully install, it because clear that this was a steeper challenge than the one Golson faced as a first-year starter.
Kelly spoke with Jack Arute and Gino Torretta on SiriusXM's College Sports Nation last week, detailing the work Golson still needs to do.
"He recognizes that in his first year here at Notre Dame he had training wheels on and we played to the strength of our defense," Kelly told Arute and Torretta. "Then he took a year off, and then when he came here, he didn't know as much as he thought he did.
"So that's a real positive thing for a young man to come in and know that he's got a lot more to learn as it relates to the quarterback position ... Everett came in very humbled, knowing that he's got a lot to learn to be the quarterback he needs to be."
Playing multiple quarterbacks is a challenge for a variety of reasons, especially when it could signal a leadership void on offense. But even though he was gone last season, Golson has quickly earned back the respect of his teammates, especially as a senior on an offense filled with young talent.
Just as important, Kelly has done this before. Pulling strings and swapping quarterbacks is a skill. For a head coach like Kelly or Steve Spurrier, it's business as usual. For a lesser established coach, it might be a problem.
So while the opportunity to turn the keys to the offense over to Golson has to be tempting after four seasons of instability at quarterback, you can't help but wonder if Kelly embraces the chaos.
"Malik is a really good player, and that’s just the way it is," Kelly told the charity event. "And Everett’s just going to have to continue to grow, and that’s a good thing. I kind of like the fact that we have a guy that’s really pushing him."
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