NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Everyone loves the backup quarterback, until he’s not the backup quarterback. Notre Dame fans are not sure who they will love this week.
If the attention Malik Zaire has been garnering is any indication, the sophomore will be the the shiny, new Golden Domer that all eyes will be upon in the Music City Bowl against LSU.
Nearly all questions regarding the Irish’s ongoing quarterback competition in advance of Tuesday’s game have leaned toward how Zaire is responding to first-team reps as opposed to how Everett Golson, 17-6 as a starter the past two years, is fighting to keep his gig. Neither quarterback has been made available to the media during their time in Nashville.
Coach Brian Kelly has not named a starter yet, but both players have been splitting first-team reps, and both will play in the bowl game, he said.
“We can do a lot of things with two quarterbacks that can be pretty exciting. It opens up everything, and you’ve got everything available to you,” said Kelly, who has platooned quarterbacks numerous times in his 25 years of coaching. “You go into a game where you’re really going to see the best from both of them because they know they’re going to get an opportunity, and they’re going to have to play well.”
Turnover No. 22 of the season by Golson presented Zaire with the opportunity to see action in the regular-season finale against Southern California.
The 6-foot, 210-pound Zaire replaced the 6-foot, 200-pound Golson in the second quarter with Notre Dame trailing 35-0. The result was the same as the previous three games for the Irish — a loss — but Zaire completed his first college pass (a 49-yard gain) and got the offense moving after Golson was pulled following four straight drives ending in punts and two turnovers.
Regular season ends. Bowl preparation begins. And Zaire is in there getting looks with the first unit.
“Anytime you get in there with the first-team reps, it certainly lends itself to a different perspective of how you evaluate somebody,” Kelly said of Zaire over the last month. “I think he’s handled himself very well. Competition obviously brings that in. And quite frankly, part of it is we want to see him play. I don’t think it’s one thing in particular that his practice has been so good that he’s lapped the field. All those things factor into why he is where he is.”
Fifteen practices and 31 days will have occurred between the USC finale and the bowl game. Senior running back Cam McDaniel said it will still come down to Tuesday to know which quarterback the team really wants to hitch its wagon to.
“I don’t think there’s been anything in practice that has enabled them to show who has separated themselves because they’re just getting practice reps,” McDaniel said. “You can’t really tell until you’re in a game-time situation who’s the guy you want to go with. I think that’s what we’re planning on doing is giving them both opportunities in the game and seeing who thrives.
“Malik is a gamer and one of those guys that has intangibles to lead teams to win. He’s a guy that deserves a shot and deserves an opportunity. He can run the ball, so can Everett. It’s going to be a great opportunity for him to show what he can do in game-time situation, I know he had that opportunity with USC, but we’ll see maybe more so that he gets that opportunity against LSU.”
Whichever quarterback is the one to see the majority of the reps, or even if they were to split them, the expectation is that they will need to find ways to score often. A banged up, young, and undersized Notre Dame defense does not matchup that well with the power run game and sizable offensive front LSU offers.
“There’s a lot on our offense,” Kelly said. “The game for us is we have to do a great job of controlling the football. We have to do a great job of putting points on the board. We can’t just control it and not score points. We’ve got to put points on the board. We’ve got to be able to finish off drives.”