NASHVILLE, Tenn . — Notre Dame arrived here Friday for next week’s Music City Bowl against LSU with plenty of questions outside of how to stop a four-game losing streak.
Who will play quarterback? Is the starting right tackle’s season really over? Are there enough bodies on the defensive side to halt the Tigers?
After practice No. 1 in Nashville, Irish coach Brian Kelly had answers — kind of.
Competition at the quarterback spot was ramped up for Notre Dame when Everett Golson was pulled in the second quarter of the regular-season finale against Southern California, trailing 35-0.
After his 22nd turnover of the season, Golson was put on the shelf for redshirt freshman Malik Zaire, who finished 9-of-20 for 170 yards through the air and another 18 yards on the ground, including his first touchdown. The Irish were still on the wrong end of a 49-14 outcome, but it also put into question who would be the starter when the bowl game arrived.
Zaire has been working with the first team in preparation for Tuesday’s game, but there is still no guarantee that Golson will not be making his 24th career start. The quarterbacks will share time against the Tigers’ fourth-ranked pass defense.
“I haven’t made that decision yet. I will probably have to make it in the next 24 hours,” Kelly said of naming the starter. “They’re both going to play, and I’m going to have get a feel for it and the flow of the game and how the game goes.”
Golson has the experience and the arm; Zaire is a better running threat when the playbook goes to the zone-read.
“We’ve constructed the game plan to take advantage of what we believe and what I believe their strengths are and what they can contribute to us moving the football and scoring points,” Kelly said.
Who will help anchor the right side of the line for either quarterback is also in question. It could depend on who is quarterback, whether the Irish want to get a look at the younger right tackle, or whether the incumbent is healthy enough to take the field.
When Golson went out against USC, so too did fifth-year senior right tackle Christian Lombard in favor of sophomore Mike McGlinchey. The right tackle spot certainly garners more attention if the left-handed Zaire is the signal caller. Reports last week were that Lombard’s career was over due to a bulging disk in his back. Kelly said the injury has flared up, and while the team is “trying to quiet it down,” Lombard has been limited in practice. A back injury sidelined him for six games last season.
“Christian Lombard has been a warrior for us,” Kelly said. “He’s played through a number of different injuries. He would definitely have played if he was physically able to. That’s a major question mark for us right now.”
Both safety spots are thin for the Irish due to injuries. Strong safety Austin Collinsworth, who played in just five games due to a number of injuries suffered this season, saw shoulder surgery this month sideline him for good. Eilar Hardy, suspended a majority of the season as part of Notre Dame’s investigation in academic fraud, and Elijah Shumate are the healthy safeties. Max Redfield, who broke a rib in the finale against USC, has returned to practice. Matthias Farley has played all over the field, from cornerback to strongside linebacker, and may have to help out the last line of defense.
There’s not much depth left on the two lines ahead of the safeties thanks to a brutal November up the middle.
Middle linebacker and team MVP Joe Schmidt was lost for the season on Nov. 1 with a fractured and dislocated ankle. He was joined two weeks later by defensive tackle Sheldon Day, who sprained his MCL but is on schedule to play the bowl game. A week later, defensive tackle Jarron Jones saw his season end with a Lisfranc injury.
Since Schmidt’s injury, the Irish are 0-4 while allowing 44.5 points per game, 221 yards on the ground, 486 yards total. Lacking up the middle does not bode well going against LSU’s sizable offensive front.
“It’s going to be improved with Sheldon Day in there,” Kelly said.