With all apologies to Malik Zaire, the time for quarterback battles is over. Less than three weeks to the season opener against Rice, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly named senior Everett Golson his starting quarterback on Wednesday.
"Everett's the starter for Rice, and we hope he's the starter for the entire year," Kelly said after practice.
The announcement shouldn't be a surprise. Golson piloted the Irish offense in 2012, when the redshirt freshman met Alabama in the BCS title game. After returning in the spring from academic exile, Golson has taken the majority of first-team reps during camp, and the decision sounded like a formality when ESPN came to town earlier this week.
But Kelly has been adamant about the ascent of Zaire. The sophomore quarterback made waves this spring when he said that he expected to be the team's starting quarterback in 2014. He lived up to his own hype, outplaying Golson in the Blue-Gold game before entering camp in a much tighter race than anyone ever expected.
But with multiple moving pieces on the Irish offense that need settling, Kelly looked at Golson's early camp results, coupled with his body of work, and ended the competition.
"When you look at making that decision, I'm using from January through right now as the basis for that decision," Kelly explained. "Winter workouts, how he handled himself with the team, our workouts, his spring practice and then his leadership in the summer and then camp here. I think he’s put himself in a position to get that opportunity to be our starter against Rice."
At this point, it's difficult to question the sincerity of Kelly when it comes to the unexpected competition. While Irish fans have yet to see Zaire take a snap that matters, that doesn't mean the young quarterback is done pushing for playing time.
"There was competition up until I made the decision and there will continue to be competition," Kelly said. "This is a merit-based situation. We've got to win. Everett knows that."
To give Golson the best chance at doing that, Kelly needed to call the race now. Because there is still plenty of work to get done before the Irish welcome Rice to South Bend, Indiana.
First is settling on an offensive line. With depth at an unprecedented level, the past two weeks have given Kelly and offensive line coach Harry Hiestand the opportunity to see multiple players take reps at different positions.
But that's created a bit too much fluidity along the line and coupled with minor bumps and bruises that have accumulated over training camp, locking down a front five is still up for grabs.
"We've had some guys in and out of the lineup on the offensive line, so we're still kind of a work in progress there," Kelly said. "We're settling into that group, but I don't think we're ready to announce a starting five yet."
The lineup likely hinges on where to play sophomore Steve Elmer. If he's at left guard, that means Matt Hegarty slides into a reserve role. If he's at right tackle, sophomore Mike McGlinchey is the next man in at both right and left tackle.
In 2012, we saw a few communication breakdowns early in the season, courtesy of Golson struggling to get on the same page as his offensive line. With multiple players bouncing between positions, there's no reason to let indecision last any longer between the quarterback and his protectors.
Golson also needs to build a better relationship with his receivers. A groin tweak has slowed DaVaris Daniels, a senior with great expectations. Torii Hunter is lost for four to six weeks with a groin tear.
With freshmen Justin Brent and Corey Holmes being thrown into the mix and the trio of Chris Brown, Corey Holmes and Will Fuller having caught a total of one pass from Golson, there's no time to split reps. Letting the competition last any longer would make it difficult for the Irish's passing game to be in sync come August 30.
Ultimately, naming Golson the quarterback now allows the senior to take control of the offense. While a veteran like Nick Martin or Ben Koyack might end up with the 'C' on their jersey, Kelly turning the keys over to Golson now makes it clear that this is his offense.
That's a responsibility the veteran quarterback doesn't take lightly, especially after having football ripped away from him in 2013.
"With everything having transpired, with me being suspended, being able to come back, and then battling with Malik for a while there, [there] is a sense of accomplishment," Golson said Wednesday. "But I think my mind is so set on moving forward and what's next, that I'm just trying to get ready for Week 1 and prepare to the best of my abilities."
To do that, Kelly needed to pull the trigger. And while Kelly made it clear that Zaire's capable of running the entire Irish offense and has a bright future ahead of him, there is no quarterback committee on the horizon.
"We're not looking to play two quarterbacks," Kelly said. "We've got one starter."
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.