Brian Kelly finds himself in an attractive predicament, one that will stretch well past the summer heat and into the brisk South Bend fall.
He has two quarterbacks—each vastly different in terms of style, skill and makeup—and one vacancy to fill. It is an enviable position, although that is usually not the case in the sport he coaches. As the tried and true saying has taught us—the one hanging on the basement wall of every coach’s getaway lake home—two quarterbacks typically equate to no quarterbacks.
Not here, though.
This is the exception to the rule, a luxury at a position that rarely produces luxuries in bulk. With this rarity comes depth, but there is some fine print. The Notre Dame quarterback competition won’t just be decided at some point this fall; it will likely be game to game, series to series and throw to throw. And for that reason, there’s a distinct possibility this attractive predicament could turn at anytime.
More so than the candidates—which will be addressed momentarily—is the master puppeteer. Brian Kelly has already shown the propensity to go to his bullpen at any point, regardless of record, score or situation.
He couldn’t dip into his reserves last season because (a) the depth behind Tommy Rees was nonexistent and (b) outside of a handful of glaring, Rees-esque mistakes, the senior played quite well given the circumstances.
But that’s not the case in 2014. Kelly’s itchy trigger finger could find life, and no one would be surprised given the arsenal he has to work with.
Following Notre Dame’s spring game, Kelly addressed the quarterback competition while speaking to the Chicago Sun-Times:
I would like to have one quarterback because they both can run the offense. This is not about having one offense for one quarterback and another offense for the other…I should be able to figure this thing out.
We should be able to get our players in a position where we can have a starting quarterback. I’ve been doing it long enough that I would hope I could figure it out come time to play Rice.
The two likeliest candidates are well-established. In this corner we have Everett Golson, a year and a half since his trip to the national championship game and a year removed from his departure from Notre Dame after an academic mishap. He returned to Notre Dame before spring, meaning he was able to soak up valuable spring repetitions.
It was almost assumed—despite Brian Kelly’s magnificent extinguisher work to say otherwise—that Golson would immediately jump back into his role as starter. That still might be the case, although the term "assumption" no longer applies.
In terms of tools, no quarterback on the Notre Dame roster can match what Golson provides. In fact, in when talking about overall arm strength, you’d be hard-pressed to find many quarterbacks nationally—excluding a handful of superhumans like Penn State's Christian Hackenberg—that throw the football with the pace and distance that he delivers. His connection with Chris Brown in Notre Dame's 2012 victory against Oklahoma comes to mind.
He does this despite checking in right around 6’0” and 200 pounds, although his physical gifts are undeniable.
The other contender in this conversation is no longer simply a cult favorite in Notre Dame circles. Malik Zaire, fresh off his 292-yard, two-touchdown spring game, has seemingly obliterated the once-assumed canyon-sized gap between the two players.
Like Golson, Zaire does not come from the create-a-player QB mold. He’s listed at 6'0" and 208 pounds on his Notre Dame bio, similar in stature to his competition. Despite his lack of height, Zaire was still the No. 5 ranked dual-threat quarterback in the 2013 class, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, and he likely would have ranked much higher if he were a few inches taller.
Zaire, a lefty, runs exceptionally well. He’s not necessarily as explosive as Golson, however, and his game is built more on accuracy and control. That’s not to say he doesn’t have the physical gifts to excel at this level, but it’s simply acknowledging the obvious: He’s a different player than Golson. Each comes equipped with strengths and weaknesses.
Following a strong spring—highlighted by his electric performance in the spring game—Zaire added a bit more intrigue to the competition.
Don't mistake this as one great performance in front of fans, either. He has been superb, and he also didn’t lack confidence when asked about his prospects of starting.
"Without a doubt. There will only be one guy starting on Aug. 30th against Rice at Notre Dame Stadium, there will only be one guy out on the field, and I believe that will be me," he said, courtesy of ESPN.com.
Kelly has yet to announce when he will decide on a starter, although he’ll likely use the early reps in fall camp and name a starter shortly after that. Given Golson’s experience, there’s still a hovering notion that he will be the starter for Week 1. If you had to guess who the starter would be at this moment, he'd probably be the name you lean toward.
That might be the case, although it’s anything but concrete. And even if Golson’s remarkable skill set and experience prevail, there’s no guarantee that will be the case come Week 4. Heck, there's no guarantee it will be the case for Week 2 when Michigan comes to town.
Kelly has already proven that he’s not afraid to make a switch without much warning. Golson knows this firsthand having been pulled for Tommy Rees a handful of times in the midst of Notre Dame's undefeated regular season.
Perhaps Kelly will have to make that call again. Or perhaps the quarterback chosen will take full advantage of the opportunity and never look back.
For now, Kelly can rest easy knowing he has the most impressive depth at the most important position in the country. It really is a wonderful luxury to have, one coaches likely marvel at from a distance. And then that first (or second) interception comes once the curtain goes up and a familiar cycle begins to churn.