Kizer or Zaire? Irish coach looks ahead to Notre Dame spring ball
Malik Zaire began the season as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. DeShone Kizer will end it with that distinction for the Fighting Irish.
Beyond that, nothing seems too certain in South Bend when it comes to the most important position in football.
Mike Sanford, the team’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, confirmed he will have a big decision to make in 2016 when Zaire returns from a broken ankle, but he did his best to avoid tipping his hand during preparations for the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State.
"It will be outstanding," Sanford said of the battle coming this spring. "Honestly, the room is in such a good position as far as those guys care for each other. They have a legitimate love for one another not just Malik and DeShone, but Brandon Wimbush, Montgomery Van Gorder, Robbie Regan, Nolan Henry, adding another high school quarterback to the fold here in 2016.
"Already you can see the inner workings of guys that really care about each other, and most importantly care about this team."
Zaire and Kizer were both four-star recruits from Ohio with Zaire arriving in South Bend a year ahead of Kizer.
Zaire got his feet wet in 2014 and spent the spring competing with senior Everett Golson to be the starter, a job that unquestionably became his when Golson chose to transfer to Florida State during the summer.
The sophomore started off on fire against Texas and Virginia before suffering his injury in week two, opening the door for Kizer to start the rest of the season and throw for 2,600 yards and 19 touchdowns.
While he won’t play against the Buckeyes, Zaire has been able to return to practice with some limitations, and Sanford has liked what he has seen.
"Every day being around Malik, it’s honestly a blessing to be around him, the character he has," Sanford said. "Yesterday at practice, he clearly knows he’s not going to be playing in this bowl game, he’s out there as fired up as I’ve seen him, both when he was competing to be the starter. Getting ready to play Texas, after Texas, the most fired up I’ve ever seen him to be part of ‘Team 127’, competing against his home state Ohio State Buckeyes.
"He’s out there firing guys up, yell, running around. Picked everybody up. Everybody had just flown in from different parts of the country, we were out there practicing, getting after it. Malik’s vocal leadership has picked up the team."
Head coach Brian Kelly consistently praised Zaire’s intangibles during the previous offseason, so that did not come as a great surprise.
But now Kizer has the edge in playing time at the college level even though he is a younger player, so handicapping the race is not easy.
"It’s going to be competitive," Sanford said. "We look forward to that. It already is. That’s what we want. We want a situation where each and every day you have to acquit yourself to be the leader of this football team and this offense. That’s what we look for out of that position on a daily basis, whether there’s a quarterback competition or not."