Notre Dame starting quarterback Tommy Rees admitted to becoming slightly emotional as the crowd at Notre Dame Stadium began to chant his name after taking a knee to run out the clock in the Fighting Irish’s senior day victory over BYU.
“That was a special moment,” Rees told reporters after his last game in South Bend had come to a close. “That was a memory I’ll definitely hold very closely for a long time.”
It’s a memory Rees has earned after intermittently being named the starter at Notre Dame during his tumultuous four year career, accumulating a 22-7 record and climbing his way to the 4th leading passer in Notre Dame history in the process. With one regular season game and one bowl game left to go, and only 450 yards separating him from Ron Powlus, the likelihood is strong that Rees will leave Notre Dame as the 3rd all-time passer, a very special number in Notre Dame lore.
But while Rees enjoyed his special nostalgic moment with the crowd chanting his name one last time, true freshman quarterback Malik Zaire watched from the sideline, just as former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson witnessed the event on a television set from an unknown location.
The battle lines for 2014 have already been drawn.
The first salvo was fired from head coach Brian Kelly at his weekly press conference when discussing the benefits of red-shirting Zaire. Kelly told the media Zaire was able to get acclimated to the college game by sitting his first season, and that the opportunity allowed him to “really give him that sense of what it’s like in the preparation necessary to be the starting quarterback here.” But Kelly laid out the battle plans for the public when a member of the media asked whether or not Zaire should have played this season in order to gain experience in case injuries strike in 2014 as savagely as they did in 2013.
“That’s assuming Everett’s the starter,” Kelly deadpanned.
Was the comment said to instill confidence in Zaire? Was it a challenge to Golson that his spot on the team will have to be re-earned? Or was it simply truth?
Kelly’s statement isn’t completely baseless. During spring practice it was leaked that Kelly had told fellow staff that Zaire is one of the fastest learners he had encountered in his two decades of coaching. Whatever his intent, the true meaning behind Kelly’s comment will at least show itself this upcoming spring, as Kelly informed the media Zaire will receive “a ton of reps.”
Should a quarterback battle emerge in 2014, Golson will be uniquely equipped. In addition to helping lead Notre Dame to its first undefeated season in decades, Everett has spent the past few months under the tutelage of quarterback guru George Whitfield while serving out his suspension for “poor academic judgment” stemming from an incident this past May. Whitfield’s background is extensive, having worked with NFL quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and Donovan McNabb, though Whitfield is most well-known for grooming Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel the summer before he would become the first freshman to ever capture the prestigious award.
Whitfield worked extensively on fine-tuning Golson’s mechanics, most notably Everett’s unorthodox throwing-motion.
“You know how much strength you have to have to throw like that all the time?” Whitfield asked CBS Sports reporter Bruce Feldman while discussing Golson’s proclivity for throwing the football without utilizing its laces. Such idiosyncrasies are now a thing of the past due to Whitfield’s meticulous mentorship.
Golson has now inserted griping the football’s laces as part of his repertoire, and acknowledges an increase in velocity with his throws, as well as better touch.
“Throwing with the laces has made me have more dexterity in my hands and I can sense a difference for the better with more control,” Golson told Feldman.
Golson’s maturation has extended beyond muscle memory and into the realm of pure muscle as well. Everett is no longer the baby-faced, lanky teenager that arrived at Notre Dame in January of 2011. Golson has added bulk to his frame, increasing his weight from 185 pounds to a sturdy 202. The South Carolina native will literally be well-armed heading into any quarterback competition.
But Malik Zaire shouldn’t be dismissed outright. The Kettering , Ohio, native has received more praise from Brian Kelly at an earlier age than any other quarterback that has arrived in South Bend since Kelly accepted the head coaching position. And Zaire has the pedigree to match the accolades, having been listed the third best dual-threat quarterback in the nation with offers from Alabama and Ohio State. Malik was also a participant in the Elite 11, an annual event highlighting the best high school quarterbacks in the nation, nearly catching MVP honors in the process.
While it’s anybody’s guess which quarterback will ultimately win out, the true victor in such a talented quarterback contest is Notre Dame.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, as well as appeared on MSNBC as a sports contributor. In his spare time he takes his NCAA Football ’13 online dynasty way too seriously and alienates those around him by discussing football 24 hours a day. Scott can be reached at [email protected]