Who Should be Notre Dame’s Starting Quarterback in 2015? History says Malik Zaire

Photo: Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire

A debate over who should be the starting quarterback at Notre Dame seems to be becoming a spring tradition under the Brian Kelly era, and Irish fans have already begun to chime in their two cents with spring practice set to start following St. Patrick’s Day. And Irish fans should have enthusiasm heading into 2015 after Notre Dame’s upset victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl. What wasn’t to like after Kelly’s team dominated LSU with its rushing attack, running the ball 51 times for 263 yards with an average of 5.2 yards per carry? It had been a long time since Notre Dame’s game plan was cut down to simply “kick some ass”, as offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey put it when asked to describe how Notre Dame had planned to go after LSU’s defense.

There has often been a disconnect between Notre Dame fans and Brian Kelly’s offensive philosophy, with many within the fan base yearning for the days of Holtz when Notre Dame punished opponents with its ground-and-pound mentality. The Music City Bowl’s rushing outburst – Notre Dame’s 51 rushing attempts were the most in one game throughout the 2014 season – was therapeutic and long anticipated, but was it a coming out party for Notre Dame’s offensive line and running backs, or was it simply a flash in the pan? As peculiar as it may seem, the starting quarterback is inextricably linked to that question’s answer.

Brian Kelly’s tenure at Notre Dame tells an interesting story. Hailed as an offensive tour de force upon arrival, Notre Dame’s offense has only cracked the top 25 in offensive categories once in five seasons, ranking 18th nationally in passing in 2014. Kelly’s offense has never ranked higher than 38th nationally in rushing. Interestingly, Notre Dame under Kelly has only rushed the ball more than passed once, and it was in 2012 during an undefeated regular season and a BCS National Championship appearance. Notre Dame’s offense ranked 78th in passing and 38th in rushing that season, and Kelly ran the ball for one specific reason: to protect his inexperienced quarterback.

That lone statistic is reason enough for Malik Zaire to be Notre Dame’s starting quarterback when the Fighting Irish kick off the 2015 season on September 5th at Notre Dame Stadium against the Texas Longhorns. When Notre Dame runs, Notre Dame wins, and unlike in 2012 when the Fighting Irish ran into an Alabama buzz saw in the BCS National Championship game, Notre Dame has already proven it can not only beat an SEC power, it can physically dominate one with its offensive line. And with left tackle standout Ronnie Stanley announcing he will forego the NFL Draft to return another season, the Irish may very well boast one of the best offensive lines in the nation.

Notre Dame’s offensive game plan to “kick some ass” by pounding the football against LSU was put into place for two reasons. One was to keep Notre Dame’s injury-ravished defense off the field, particularly against likely 2015 Heisman candidate, LSU running back Leonard Fournette. The other reason was to protect the inexperienced Zaire by providing him safe reads with the establishment of the running game. The result worked to perfection and garnered Zaire MVP honors of the Music City Bowl.

Starting Zaire forces Kelly to commit to the run in order to continue to protect Zaire’s inexperience, and in the process forces Kelly to lean on the strength of the football team: the offensive line. And Zaire’s ability to run the football extends far beyond a faster 40-yard dash time than last year’s starting quarterback, Everett Golson. It has long been reported that Golson struggles with the zone read option, an offensive wrinkle which Zaire executed masterfully against LSU. Zaire’s proficiency with the zone read adds an entirely new dimension to Notre Dame’s offense, and with the ground game established, passing lanes should open up naturally and allow Zaire to excel in the passing game with easier reads.

The expected addition of offensive coordinator Mike Sanford will only strengthen Notre Dame’s rushing attack. In addition to being widely considered one of the best up-and-coming offensive minds, the former Boise State offensive coordinator led a balanced and prolific offensive attack for the Broncos in 2014. Boise State ranked 23rd nationally passing and 29th nationally in rushing, with starting running back Jay Ajayi rushing for over 1,800 yards as well as being the top point scorer for the Broncos’ offense.

The best season of Kelly’s career at Notre Dame came when he was forced to run the ball due to an inexperienced quarterback. Notre Dame fans should hope history repeats itself.

Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at scottjanssenhp@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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  1. Mediocre LSU team? Do you think Alabama thinks the same after beating them in OT. Give us some credit bro. It was a quality win especially after how we finished the season.

    1. Give us some credit???

      Good luck with that my friend.

      If you had asked how the Irish would fare against LSU back in December BEFORE the bowl game was played and they’d have said that LSU was an absolute SEC power, that ND didn’t stand a chance, and there was no way they could see us winning.

      So now if you throw out that LSU was Mediocre you might be able to save face?

      Even better luck with that!

  2. Keith Gilmore.
    As North Carolina’s defensive line coach, Gilmore was able to reunite with some familiar faces at Notre Dame from his playing and coaching career. Gilmore played at Wayne State with Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and director of football strength and conditioning Paul Longo. He later coached for Brian Kelly at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati.
    “It was fun to be around all the people I’ve known for years with Longo and knowing (director of football administration) Beth Rex and all the people involved with the program,” Gilmore said. “It was fun in that respect. I never would have dreamed that five months later I’d be working here.”
    Then the nightmare started. The Tar Heels allowed 519 yards and 50 points in a shootout loss to Notre Dame on Oct. 11 of last year.

    1. According to you, the 519 yards and 50 points fall on the Defensive Coordinator… not the Line Coach.


  3. No Kididding. You have to have a defense to be an elite team. Better than average special teams wouldnt hurt either. “Brindza” not withstanding. Had an excellent college career.

  4. the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

    17, 0, 14, 15, 14, 43, 31, 39, 55, 43, 31, 49, 28=379 points given up

  5. I guess I’m living in fantasy land, but I would like to see them both play and take advantage of what they both have to offer. My gut feeling tells me that if EG isn’t starting, then he’s departing.

  6. I think many of us fans are making assumptions about Golson and running the read-option. I’ve read many comments and even articles at times about how Golson does not run the read-option well. Has Kelly ever come out and actually said that? Not that I recall…

    “My” assumption is that Golson CAN run the read-option just as well as Zaire but Kelly was careful to run Golson over and over on called run plays to prevent an injury. Zaire was unproven and Kelly probably thought if Golson got hurt that our offense may have been in trouble. Now a couple things…Golson definitely struggled with holding on to the ball while he ran during the first half of the season. He did make an effort to clean that up as I saw him tuck the ball on contact throughout the second half of the season. And two, there were a couple times that I can remember where it looked like if Golson would have pulled the ball down and kept it himself that there would have been a lot of field open for him to run. But we do not know if those were “designed” read-option plays or simply a hand off. Maybe this is why many fans are assuming Golson doesn’t run it well.

    However, I do remember Golson running it a couple times against LSU and when he did pull the ball down and keep it himself, he ran like a madman through the middle of the defense and tucked the ball to prevent a fumble. Are we sure Kelly has just simply never gameplanned for Golson to run the read-option consistently? Golson is a great passer and clearly Kelly gameplanned to utilize Golson as a passer and not a runner.

    Both QBs are very capable of running this type of offense and I think the LSU game opened Kelly’s eyes to perhaps gameplan for running more of the read-option as it clearly has a multitude of benefits, especially when both QBs can pass the ball the way they do. I really hope they both stay because I’m thinking both will be needed this year. Either way, I can’t wait for this season to start!!! Go Irish!!!

    1. Malik has been running the read option for longer(high school)

      Golson is really more of a drop back QB that can scramble when he gets in trouble. If you watched during the season you could see many times when he was clearly running a read option play and returned to the sideline BK was asking him what he saw and why he made the decision he did. Anyone familar with the read option can see the big difference between the two QBs.
      A scrambler like like Golson is rough on offensive lines too. Since he doesn’t really know where he’s going when he takes off, neither do they.

      Which usually results in illegal block and holding penalties.

      1. I agree Mike, there is a definite difference between the 2 when they were running a read option. Malik ran it with much more fluid and authority because he ran that type of offense prior to Div 1 which showed. Golson is mobile but he seemed to have much more hesitancy when running the read option. Golson though at this point is the better passer, at least for now.

  7. All I can say is I just like Malik when he’s on the field. He seems more driven for the team and seems a natural leader. Golson looks confused all the time and his antics with Kelly look like he only cares about Everett. I dont dislike Golson, but Zaire has that something extra. Point in case… the block Zaire threw in the bowl game got me more excited than the TD. You could see it from the upper deck and all of us there couldnt stop talking about it. It was a heads up team move. But, with that said playing both would be very hard for opponents to prepare for

    1. Paddy,

      I definitely agree with you that based on emotions that we see on the field that Zaire does seem to be more driven and “cares” about all the little things. Of course he didn’t see the field much so you could see why he would be so excited in general. But I do think Zaire may be the better “team leader” out there than Golson. Sometimes that is what it takes to get the necessary motivation (Zaire)…and other times it is leading your team in the last minute of the game being down by 4 with near impossible situations (4th and 18) based on pure skill and talent to score a TD to win a game (Golson). You can see how it’s exciting to know that both of these QBs may be on our roster next year and why this may be a special season for ND as long as the D shows up, which I really think they will.

      1. I think the d shows up too…let’s just stay healthy this go around. I haven’t been this pumped in the preseason since going into the 2006 season. Go Irish

    2. One of the things that makes a QB is how they handle adversity.

      In Golson, I think he handled his “off field” adversity pretty well.
      The on field adversity in things like the final minutes in a close game or closing in on half time with the clock running he seems to do well.

      But adversity in terms of turnovers, missed blocking assignments, or wrong routes run by receivers, he appears to lose his composure and poise and then has trouble settling down and getting refocused.

      As far as Zaire and adversity, all I know is how he has handled being the backup QB and as a 1 game starter.

      He hasn’t had a multiple turnover game, or made a mistake that has cost his team.

      He hasn’t faced having to lead his team from behind in the second half when the opposing defense is pinning their ears back and coming after him on every down.
      He hasn’t had to play through pain.
      Or had his head coach chew his ass on national TV.

      Those are the kind of things that really test a young QB.

      When I think of great ND QB’s I think of players like Rice and Montana, and how they remained steadfast and unflappable in the face of adversity.
      It not only showed in their play, but in how the players around them responded and played as well.

      1. Your last sentence is the most important in deciding between the two. Looking at the LSU game it seemed the entire team raised it’s level of play with Zaire as QB. First game in a while the QB did not turn the ball over. Who wants to best his behind blocking for a guy who fumbles.

      2. You wrote that beautifully Shazamrock, haha. All kidding aside, your points are right on. All inexperienced qb’s become experienced by getting to play and experience that adversity.

        Go Irish

      3. Concrete points. Valid and down to basic reality. It appeared to me EG could have been over coached too. Often it looked like he was apprehensive to leave the pocket. Made damn sure he made it through all his progressions. The “O” line did have their problems also last season. I say play them both. The each are capable and talented. Its college ball and 2 qb’s have proven to be successfull many times over the years.

    3. I think mostly what Zaire has that is “extra,” at this point is that he hasn’t played much. What is the old saying, “the most popular guy on an under-performing team is the backup QB.” I don’t know if Zaire is the answer or Golson is, or neither. I like what I saw from Zaire in limited play. But expectations were high for Golson going into 2014. We’ll see. Maybe there is a role for both in 2015.

  8. I don’t think Golson’s fall-off really has been explained. He had an entire season to prepare…he was talked about for the Heisman…what really happened, really? He was turning the ball over because of bad reads and not anticipating the coverage, and getting overconfident. Maybe he spiraled downwards in a vicious circle. Who knows? What we do know is that it can’t happen again. He packed a whole season of Turnover Tommy into a half season.

  9. “Just win, baby!” Shamefully, Joe Namath went to Alabama. This quote, however, is as a successful Jets QB. I have an idea re: BK choosing the starting QB.
    BK (rightfully) prides himself and his coaching acumen on being DYNAMIC. The last thing a dynamic offense needs is a self-imposed restriction. (ie. the resolution of who the starting QB is) Malik & Everett are 2 skillful QB’s who bring slightly different expertise to their leadership roles. Depending on the week’s opponent,
    Don’t wig. Assess each week’s unique situation and evaluate the game plan/starting QB as it pertains to that week’s opponent. Don’t wig. Remain rational, accounting for the irrational.
    And GO IRISH!

  10. I tend to agree with many of the points raised in this article. Golson does have the experience and probably right now the better passer, but MZ certainly better at running and reading the option, something which can help him grow into being a better passer. When I watched the Music City bowl, Zaire reminded me of the great Tony Rice. I don’t think it’s coincidence that ND’s last NC came with a run/option skilled and decent arm throwing qb at the helm. I see a lot of similarity with MZ. Bottom line, I don’t care if it’s EG, MZ, or even DK, I want to see the qb who gives us the best chance to win be the starter.

    Go Blue and Gold

    1. he really does remind me of rice, golson had some of those comparisons when he first started, but i never saw him as a rice, but malik sure looks like him

  11. Huh? The 2012 team’s QB was Golson, with Rees in relief a couple of games.
    Since ND was able to have its best running offense with Golson that year, then we conclude that history shows
    Malik should be the QB instead of Golson this coming season ?
    Maybe. Zaire seems the better runner; but the threat of a better passer can also open up the running game.
    This goes along with an earlier post :
    “Although many people believe that Zaire has earned the right to start, and gives the Irish the best chance to win going into 2015 . . .”
    I’m not aware of any such poll, and it would be irrelevant even if it existed. How would those “many people” know? As this post says, QB controversy has been an annual rite of passage at ND nearly every season. Who NDs starting QB will be for the Texas opener next season might be less important to the team’s success next year than who’s the other guy as back-up, recalling how key injuries can quickly affect success. Few fans would diminish the advantage of having both- come the Texas opener next season. Can BK implement a system in which both would be satisfied enough to stay regardless who starts versus Texas?
    That might well turn out to be BKs biggest challenge since he arrived.
    Fans are not patient with QBs.
    How long before we recognize that a young injury-impacted and ineffective D’ since half-time of the Fla. St. game, NDs worst statistically in several decades, was every bit a consequence for NDs dismal November as was EGs TOs?
    How long before the same who scapegoat Golson would clamor for Wimbush or Kizer should Malik’s effort fall short and EG has since been long gone?
    To quote Dr. King: “How long? Not long!”

    1. Yeah. I agree with many of the points raised in the article, but the statement that “history says” Zaire is the best choice doesn’t really work.

    2. While Golson may be the better passer, I don’t believe that Zaire is that far behind in the passing department.
      One thing for sure, he reads defenses better than Golson and he is a more powerful runner.
      Whatever QB starts, I hope that this year if the turnover fiasco happens that the coaching staff doesn’t just stand around, but takes the guy out turning the ball over and hands it to the next man up. If there is one factor that costs teams games, it’s turnovers.

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