When the news of Everett Golson's academic suspension came down last weekend, you had your profanity-laced and booze-fueled texts, your rending of garments and your slow acceptance that we indeed cannot have nice things. The next step in the process was the conventional wisdom among Irish fans and national sportswriters that Tommy Rees would be the starting quarterback for the 2013 season.
It made sense. Rees had 18 career starts spanning three seasons, understood Kelly's playbook and was a known commodity. Andrew Hendrix has seen only limited action in his time on campus and freshman Malik Zaire just got to South Bend in January. It seemed reasonable to have Rees under center (well, back in shotgun) for Temple on August 31st.
The main explanation for this theory is something like the following: "Last year Notre Dame leaned on their defense and running game en route to a 12-1 season. Rees is experienced and can be the caretaker of a conservative offense, possibly replicating the modest production at quarterback from the 2012 season." There are side theories and footnotes, but mostly, that is the case.
My response would be this: If you want to run the ball a lot and be conservative anyway, why not go with the guy who can actually contribute to the running game and can let you keep a similar playbook to last season? Rees is capable at distributing the ball in the passing game, but you have to strip a lot of things out of the playbook that we saw last year. Zone reads? Gone, because defensive players know that Rees keeping the ball is not a threat. QB draws? Gone, unless it's at the goal line against Michigan (but that was really awesome). The idea of sending all of your receivers out and not leaving a checkdown because your quarterback's legs serve as their own safety valve? Also gone.
Unless Rees manages to increase his arm strength or leg speed, we're going to see the same defenses we saw towards the end of the 2011 season (versus BC, Stanford and Florida State, all pretty good squads) and against BYU and Pitt in 2012. The safeties come creeping up because it's difficult for Rees to bomb them deep, and the pass rush has a field day on passing downs because they know their target isn't going anywhere. Do you remember the Stanford game in 2011 when Hendrix came in and it seemed like they were suddenly playing a different sport? It's almost claustrophobic to watch the offense against capable defenses in that situation. I have no doubt Rees and the running game will cut through lesser opponents (just like he did in 2011), but when you're looking for small edges against the really good team on the schedule, they're tougher to find when your quarterback can't stretch the field vertically or force the defense to worry about his legs.
"But the turnovers," you might say. "You can't throw a true freshman out there, he'll make mistakes." Well, possibly, but let's take a look at the last two Irish seasons. In 2011, senior Dayne Crist and sophomore Rees gave the ball away at an alarming rate in a variety of exciting and heart-breaking ways. In 2012, a redshirt freshman managed to limit his mistakes for most of the season. If Zaire is put in a position similar to Golson, where the playbook expands over the course of the season, why couldn't he be the low-turnover, occasional big play-creating guy the Irish could use under center?
The other thing you want to do is to continue building your system and establishing consistency. When you look at who Kelly was planning on starting at quarterback (Golson), and who he has been bringing in from the recruiting trail (Gunner Kiel, Zaire and mainly dual-threat options for 2014), the idea of an immobile quarterback garnering a majority of your snaps is taking three steps back. That's not the future of the program, and if you don't have to have it be the present, you shouldn't.
"Well, he's just not ready," you might think. "Golson was a redshirt freshman, and that year makes a big difference." Absolutely. It is never ideal to be rolling a true freshman out there, but when you lose your starting quarterback to academic code violations, you're not in an ideal situation. And when you look at the landscape of college football, there are a ton of successful guys starting in their first or second years on campus (a few examples: Matt Barkley, Teddy Bridgewater, Braxton Miller, Johnny Manziel, Everett Golson, Marcus Mariota, Kevin Hogan).
You can get away with starting a freshman if they're capable, and people seem to think Zaire is very, very capable. From a Keith Arnold last May entitled, well, "Kelly may have his perfect QB recruit in Malik Zaire":
"If you look at his skill-set and where football is at this day and age, he's a great vision of what the QB position is right now," Roth said of Zaire's abilities. "Sixteen of the top 25 teams in the country run a spread offense. The game has changed and the quarterback position has changed from just being a big guy that can throw the football to a quarterback that's one of the best athletes on the field. That's Malik."
With Zaire labeled as a run-first type quarterback, I wanted to get a feeling from Roth just how good of a passer Zaire could be. With height (Zaire's listed at 6-foot-1 on his Elite 11 profile) not one of his best assets, throwing the ball accurately will be a key to any future success at the college level. And it's one area where Roth thinks Zaire will thrive.
"If you look at his skill set, he's such a dynamic thrower," Roth said. "He's a pure passer, he's so smooth that you forget how mobile he is."
After glowing about Zaire's athleticism and arm, Roth also pointed to the intangibles Irish fans are seeing as Zaire has taken a leadership role in building his recruiting class. The skills that are toughest to measure might be Roth's favorite aspect of Zaire's game.
"The biggest thing we saw was his competitiveness with his talent," Roth said, noting Zaire was learning many of the drills for the first time. "Of all the quarterbacks I've mentioned, especially the ones that I've been around, he's got the best presence. They're all talented, but he's got that natural knack. He lights up a room. From the moment he walked in with his mom to the day he said goodbye, he was fully engaged."
That sounds pretty good! But that's from spring of 2012, so a lot of things can change between then and now. So let us turn to Pete Sampson of Rivals for a little update. Pete was on the Solid Verbal podcast earlier this week and said the following (I'm paraphrasing a bit, but you can listen for yourself at around the 10:30 mark of the episode):
"You talk to Notre Dame offensive coordinator Chuck Martin and he'll tell you he's mentally advanced and picked up the offense as best a freshman quarterback as Brian Kelly has coached in twenty years."
Well, then. And when you watch the Blue Gold Game, Zaire definitely didn't seem like a lost puppy out there. He had a pick but also a touchdown, and he looked like he belonged. He's got all summer to craft his game and get a rapport down with his teammates. He also has the advantage of being eased into the role, like he's starting out in a video game with an easy first level. His first game is against a pretty bad Temple team at home. That's a nice test for Kelly and Martin (and heck, fans) to see what they have. Does Zaire look completely lost? Then you bench him going into Michigan, and Rees is your guy.
And that's the beauty of Tommy Rees. This is not an anti-Rees argument, but a pro-Zaire one. I have nothing against Rees, and will happily buy him a thousand beers if we ever run into each other at an alumni function, solely for his role in beating USC in 2010 and Michigan in 2012, two of the most joyous, cathartic victories I've attended. Having him as the ace up your sleeve is a tremendous advantage, just like it was in 2012 when Golson struggled early in the year. The ability to have a known quantity with big-game experience (never forget Rees' first five starts came at Notre Dame Stadium, Yankee Stadium, the Coliseum, the Sun Bowl and the Big House) ready to go in on zero notice is a huge advantage that lets you roll the dice with Zaire.
Let me give you a few fairly realistic scenarios, and you can choose:
Scenario A: Malik Zaire starts against Temple and plays a lot, getting a ton of college experience early on. He looks good, the offense is humming, the defense is playing well and he's not turning the ball over. Like Golson, he improves as the season goes on. When he hits rough patches or the two-minute offense needs to be employed, Tommy Rees throws the cape on and saves the day. We are happy.
Scenario B: Malik Zaire starts against Temple and looks a little overwhelmed, but the Owls are so bad he finishes the game. He starts again against Michigan and is clearly not ready for the atmosphere. Rees comes in against Michigan and finishes, then starts the rest of the season. Zaire plays a lot of snaps against lesser teams on the schedule. We are pretty happy.
Scenario C: Tommy Rees starts against Temple. Notre Dame wins, and Zaire gets a few series here and there. Rees starts against Michigan and we start seeing what we saw against BYU and Pitt last year (please remember how you felt at the start of the third quarter) and the offense is slowly choked out. Only now you haven't played Zaire in a stressful situation and your alternate is to go with Hendrix (who the staff didn't seem to trust last year, but who could definitely improve) or your true freshman who only saw limited action against the weak teams on your schedule.
Scenario A is awesome, and Scenario B is acceptable, but we have to avoid Scenario C. We cannot have Zaire, with limited real-game experience, needed to save the day off the bench against Michigan or Michigan State or Oklahoma. If you flip the roles, now you have Rees coming to save the day, and while not ideal, let's remember how well it worked in 2012.
And remember this: Tommy Rees went 4-0 as an early enrollee freshman who did not redshirt. Golson went 10-1 as an early enrollee freshman who did redshirt. Zaire is rated higher than both of them, and he continually has national recruiting analysts (and guys like Nick Saban and Urban Meyer, who both offered him) salivating. If Rees and Golson can go 14-1, doesn't it seem possible that the recruit ranked better than either of them might be able to come close to replicating that success?
Make no mistake: Zaire is not the same as Golson. Golson was one of the most prolific passers in high school history, while Zaire came from a run-first offense. But he's got the arm, he's got the leadership capabilities and if Kelly and Martin think he's ready, I think he's got to be there from the start season so he can get a maximum number of reps against lesser competition. Obviously, if he looks like a deer in the headlights in practice, you can't throw him out there, but if it's close and you have Rees ready underneath the easy-to-break emergency glass? That sounds a lot like 2012, and I really, really liked 2012.
Start Malik Zaire.