Spring football opens up for the Fighting Irish on Wednesday, March 16th. To get ready for the shells and then pads we're making our way through the roster starting with that often overlooked quarterback position.
Returning Snaps from 2015: Kizer (735), Zaire (106), Wimbush (27)
Lost Snaps: None
Early Enrollee: None
Summer Arrival: Book
Good Problem, or Problem?
PSA: Brian Kelly has not utilized a two-quarterback system for more than a game at a time. He did so for the 2014 Music City Bowl (Zaire & Golson) and 2011 Champs Sports Bowl (Rees & Hendrix) but all other uses of multiple quarterbacks in Kelly's career have revolved around injuries. Do not perpetuate the myth.
Now, we do know that people will be calling for a two-quarterback system this fall, or at least for Zaire to be used as a red zone option. There will also be people (like me) who will point out the two-quarterback systems fail miserably at an alarmingly high rate.
Moving on...we also know that we will not come close to getting an answer about the starting quarterback by the end of spring practice. It has never happened during the Kelly era--although this is his 6th straight spring without an unquestioned veteran starter in place--and to expect it to this year is folly.
We also know that Kelly has mentioned his preference for a one-quarterback system and it's tough to imagine anything other than a straight traditional competition this spring. For example, if a number one quarterback isn't named, and both Kizer and Zaire are splitting reps evenly, we're unlikely to see situations during open practices where Kizer leads the offense down field and then gets substituted near the goal line for Zaire.
Most Irish fans would agree that with Kizer and Zaire's skills the program is in good hands (hence the good problem of picking one of the signal-callers) but this spring feels like it will be more about intangibles than strictly on-field performance.
A while back our writers internally discussed roughly 10 important criteria for quarterback play, and while there was some disagreement in certain areas, we had Kizer winning this comparison fairly comfortably. One area we specifically did not have Kizer winning was with leadership and command of the locker room which have always been intense strengths for Zaire. How much of that leadership ability can overcome Zaire's real or perceived shortcomings in talent on the field?
Not to say that Kizer exhibited poor leadership for a redshirt freshman thrust into the starting job during the second game of the season but the Showtime "A Season With" series did show Brian Kelly telling Malik Zaire's parents that it was "his team" and would be so when he returns from injury. That clip and its meaning has been discussed quite a bit over the last 5 months but one thing is for sure is that it was said before Kizer threw for 2,880 yards, ran for another 520 yards, and scored 31 total touchdowns. Sometimes things can change.
"F, F, Focus on Me"
If you're Brandon Wimbush you can't be too ecstatic about your situation at the moment. Although there has been chatter that he is fully invested in the 4 for 40 PlanTM and is enjoying himself on campus from a football standpoint it'll be difficult to focus this spring and beyond.
Wimbush was forced into the backup role last fall and burned his redshirt with minimal snaps in garbage time against UMass and Pittsburgh. Now, he faces the chance of DeShone Kizer winning the job for 2016 (with eligibility from Kizer through 2018) all while Brian Kelly has already declared Wimbush will redshirt this fall, which basically does not allow him a fair shake in the quarterback competition beginning in the spring.
As the most highly touted quarterback on the roster this could eat him up. Remember in the lead up to last season how Zaire told the media how difficult it was to go through practices with minimal reps? And that was as the backup to the starter in Golson--imagine how it'll feel for Wimbush as third string? With Ian Book surely running scout team this is shaping up to be a lonely season on varsity for Wimbush.
Stock in Sanford
The first year of quarterbacks coach and co-offensive coordinator Mike Sanford went about as well as could be imagined. He passed a major test in accelerating the development of Kizer, has shown tenacity and passion on the recruiting trail, and his previous connection to South Bend and Notre Dame has endeared him to many fans.
Sanford wouldn't be the first young hot-shot assistant (he just turned 34 years old for goodness sake) to be unable to follow through with a fairy tale ending in the eyes of Notre Dame fans but the fact that many are seriously considering him as a realistic head coaching candidate for the Irish down the road speaks volumes about his popularity right now.
The real question is what does Sanford do for an encore in 2016? Once you set the bar high it can be difficult to keep it there--just ask Bob Diaco who went from favored son to controversial pariah in just a matter of months.
While it feels like hyperbole to say that he has reached the summit of his profession as a quarterbacks coach and is now near the top of Jack Swarbrick's list as potential future Irish head coach, this spring should see Sanford adding to his plate of responsibilities.
More specifically, Sanford should be gaining more control over play-calling duties and striving to become the major voice in this realm for 2016. Even though it seems like co-OC Mike Denbrock might be a lifer at Notre Dame as long as Brian Kelly is here he's also a strong candidate as anyone to obtain a head coaching position of his own this December.
Sanford putting more of his fingerprints on the offense is a necessary next step in his development as an assistant coach. If he can do that successfully, while juggling the quarterback competition, his stock will remain sky high.