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Quarterback Competition In South Bend May Be Nation’s Most Intriguing Position Battle

Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly will be forced to choose between two quarterbacks with tremendous upside (Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports).

Will DeShone Kizer remain the starting quarterback after his impressive debut season, or will Malik Zaire return from injury to lead the Irish?

Head Coach Brian Kelly will once again be evaluating two potential starting quarterbacks during spring practice this offseason. Last year, Everett Golson and Malik Zaire battled for the position, with Zaire eventually claiming the spot, leading to Golson’s transfer to Florida State. This time around, Zaire will be up against DeShone Kizer, who became the starter following Zaire’s season-ending ankle injury in the team’s second game of the 2015 season.

Zaire’s case:

Zaire took over for a turnover-prone Golson at the end of the 2014 season. In his first career start, he was named Most Valuable Player of the 2014 Franklin Mortgage Music City Bowl after leading the Fighting Irish to a 28-21 victory over LSU. In the 2015 opener against Texas, Zaire shredded the Longhorns by completing 19 of 22 pass attempts for 313 yards and three touchdowns.

In nine games (three starts) at Notre Dame, Zaire has completed 62.7 percent of his passes for 694 yards, five touchdowns, and no interceptions. He has also shown the ability to do damage with his legs, rushing for 290 yards and two touchdowns in his career.  

At 6’ and 222 pounds, Zaire has a solid frame, but is still on the smaller side. His season-ending broken ankle raises concerns about his durability as a dual-threat quarterback, although that type of injury is not necessarily related to the size of a player. 

Even so, Zaire will have a little extra rust on him once he returns to game action and may be slightly tentative while scrambling or running the ball. Nonetheless, Zaire has taken care of the football and produced big plays for the Irish, making him a strong candidate for the starting job.

Kizer’s case:

Thrusted into the starting job as a redshirt freshman, Kizer delivered in a massive way for Notre Dame. Following Zaire’s injury against Virginia in Charlottesville, Kizer entered the game and led the Irish on a game-winning drive that ended with a 39-yard touchdown pass to Will Fuller. 

Kizer showed dynamic playmaking ability and kept Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff conversation until the final week of the regular season. Overall, he completed 63 percent of his passes and scored 31 total touchdowns.

If there was one weakness in Notre Dame’s offense with Kizer at quarterback, it was its difficulty converting on red zone opportunities. The Irish ranked 77th out of 128 teams in red zone scoring. Five of Kizer’s ten interceptions were thrown in the opposing red zone, and he struggled against some of the better defenses he faced. In four games against top-20 defenses (Boston College, Clemson, Ohio State, and Temple), Kizer threw seven of his 10 interceptions and had a 58.3 completion percentage, compared to 66.7 percent against nine other opponents. 

The final verdict:

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Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Both players are glistening with positives and have shown only minor flaws in their respective playing time for the Fighting Irish. Unfortunately for Zaire, Notre Dame would benefit more from keeping Kizer in the starting lineup. It is always difficult to see a player lose their starting job after suffering an injury, but Kizer has shown that he has the potential to be a star for the Irish. 

It is difficult to argue against Zaire being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback because, quite frankly, he hasn’t done anything that warrants losing the job. Instead, it makes the most sense to look at why Kizer should be the starter rather than why Zaire should not.  

With Kizer running the show, Notre Dame finished with a 10-3 record. His eight victories as a starter are the most by any freshman in school history, and he threw more touchdowns (21) than former Irish quarterbacks Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen combined during their freshman seasons (16). 

Both Kizer and Zaire have tremendous arm strength, but at 6‘4, Kizer has an advantage throwing from the pocket. His size and field vision also make him a very effective runner. Most importantly, though, Kizer is confident and displayed a level of poise during some of Notre Dame’s closest games that is far beyond that of a typical freshman quarterback. 

In addition to beating Virginia in his season debut, Kizer tossed another game-winner against Temple and engineered a beautiful go-ahead touchdown drive against Stanford. 

As far as his struggles deep in opposing territory are concerned, Kizer will mature and become more efficient in red zone situations. After all, he was only a redshirt freshman.

Kizer made the Fighting Irish his team last season and earned the respect of his teammates, coaches, and Notre Dame fans. Now, if he performs in spring practice, he can return to the starting lineup and take the next step toward leading the Golden Domers to a National Championship.

Edited by Jazmyn Brown, Ben Moore.

Out of the quarterbacks listed below, who accounted for the most passing touchdowns during the 2015 season?
Created 1/31/16
  1. Baker Mayfield
  2. DeShaun Watson
  3. Jared Goff
  4. Chad Kelly
Which two quarterbacks shared playing time for Brian Kelly during Cincinnati's 2009 season?
Created 1/31/16
  1. Gunner Kiel and Isaiah Pead
  2. Andrew Hendrix and Tommy Rees
  3. Tony Pike and Zach Collaros
  4. Patrick Coyne and Zach Collaros

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