The Notre Dame Quarterback Battle: 2016 Edition

Notre Dame Quarterbacks
Photo: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

As I stood cheering on my Fighting Irish at their night opener against Texas, I had high aspirations not only for the team in 2016 but especially for our young, determined quarterback Malik Zaire. While the Texas game was just the second time Malik Zaire had started a game for the Irish, the future had looked bright as he saw a majority of the playing time over Everett Golson in the Music City Bowl where the Irish beat the LSU Tigers 31-28 with a dramatic winning field goal off the leg of Kyle Brindza.

Against Texas Zaire and the Notre Dame offense put up 38 points on a Texas defense that would hold Oklahoma to only 17 points a month later. Zaire went 19 for 22 with 313 yards passing and added 16 rushing yards. A dominant performance against the Texas Longhorns on national television.

It seemed as though the Irish were in good hands as Zaire had an unbelievable game just as many Irish quarterbacks have seemed to have in recent history during their home openers. Flashing forward to week two, Notre Dame faced its first road test as they traveled to Charlottesville, Virginia to take on the Virginia Cavaliers. Early in the game the Notre Dame offense was moving the ball fairly easy on the Virginia Cavaliers, but needed to use a fake field goal to score in the red zone.

As dominant of a performance as the Irish had in the first quarter, the Irish struggled to put points on the board and Virginia was still in the game. As the game progressed the Irish offense and Zaire struggled to convert on third down, and Zaire didn’t look quite as comfortable as he did in South Bend the previous week. Then just when things seemed to begin to turn around, every Irish fan’s worst nightmare came to reality. Zaire’s season came to a crashing halt after he broke his ankle midway through the third quarter. Just another injury in an injury filled season during which Irish fans would become accustomed to witnessing injury after injury throughout the 2015 football season.

Then in true Notre Dame fashion, a young quarterback stepped up to take his place. With the whole country watching, this young faced quarterback took the field as the new quarterback of the Fighting Irish, manning perhaps one of the most highly scrutinized positions in the country. After a few early struggles, DeShone Kizer stepped onto the field with his team down 27 to 26 and 1:40 seconds left on the clock. He went on to lead Notre Dame on an epic comeback drive, capped off by a 40 yard touchdown pass to none other than Will Fuller.

In just limited action, DeShone Kizer became an instant hero to Irish fans across the country, and saved Notre Dame’s perfect season.

Malik Zaire

Malik Zaire from Kettering Ohio was the #6 dual threat quarterback in the 2013 recruiting class (according to ESPN) and an elite 11 prospect. He enters 2016 with 2 years of his eligibility left. After three seasons though, Irish fans have seen Zaire start just 3 games – the Music City Bowl, against Texas, and at Virginia. Last spring he appeared to win the starting job over Everett Golson (although Brian Kelly never officially named a starter until Golson’s transfer) and appeared to have the potential to lead the Irish to the playoffs in 2015 until a his season ending injury.

Since Zaire was ahead of Kizer on the depth chart last fall, does that mean he will be this fall as well? That is to be determined! Malik is still recovering from his injury, and that will play a major factor this spring. Since he was hurt so early in the season, his injury is progressing really well and he was even throwing some passes before the Fiesta Bowl. Assuming he is healthy enough in the spring, the competition between him, Zaire, and Wimbush is going to be very tremendous.

Zaire is a very strong dual threat quarterback for the Irish. He excels at the read option and has tremendous speed and size that make him hard for defenses to account for when they have all the receivers covered and Zaire decides to take off. Malik has also been impressive with his arm strength, as well as the other quarterbacks on the Notre Dame roster.

Hopefully Zaire’s injury last season doesn’t slow him down or make him hesitant to run the football. His ability to run makes him similar to Deshaun Watson, and that is something that even the best defenses in the country like Alabama have trouble containing. Even when he was injured last season, Malik Zaire found a way to be a part of the team. He was always involved with practices and working with the coaches, something that will help his mental game heading in to 2016.

DeShone Kizer

DeShone Kizer did better than I could have ever imagined after taking over for the injured Zaire in the Vriginia game. DeShone almost had three game winning drives on the road last season. The first being the Virginia game. A few weeks later with the Irish down to Temple late in the game, Kizer found himself leading the Irish on a 75 yard drive to win the game. On the drive Kizer hit Fuller on a key third down play in Irish territory, and then capped it off by with a perfectly placed touchdown pass over two defenders to Will Fuller.

The third game in which he led the Irish to a late, go ahead lead was at Stanford. Unfortunately we all know how that game ended, but that final drive by Stanford was out of his control. Kizer put the Irish ahead with less than a minute in the game, just a tremendous feat with Notre Dame’s playoff chances hanging in the balance. The fact of the matter is that Kizer lead the Irish on three unbelievable drives on the road, to give the Irish a chance to win in the end.

I believe that the quarterback position will be Kizer’s to lose in 2016. I believe he had terrific year for the Irish at the quarterback position. Kizer still has three years of eligibility left as he was only considered a freshman last season, after “redshirting” his true freshman year in 2014.

Kizer brings a lot of experience to the table for the Irish in 2016. He is 9-3 as a starter and I wouldn’t blame any of our losses on him as the offensive side of the ball flourished in 2015. Kizer showed a lot of composure for the Irish throughout the season. I was actually glad that Golson decided to transfer, because who knows if Kizer would’ve ever touched the field if Golson was still on campus.

Many people believe that Malik Zaire was more of the runner and better athlete than Kizer, and that would be his advantage heading in to spring football. While this may be the case that Zaire is maybe more athletic or faster, I do not believe that he is by that much. Last season proved just how fast and versatile Kizer was. DeShone Kizer saw his fair share of running the ball. When CJ Prosise and the run struggled at times, Kizer was an extra runner that the defense had to account for. I would definitely not underestimate Kizer’s ability to run, something that we all witnessed in the Temple game where he broke off a 79 yard run.

Brandon Wimbush

Wimbush is the wildcard for the Irish heading in to the 2016 season. He probably is the most athletic quarterback that the Irish have on their roster, and perhaps one of the most athletic quarterbacks that the Irish have ever had. The potential is limitless for this kid, as he was the #4 dual threat in the 2015 recruiting class (according to ESPN). We did see him in limited, backup action in 2015, where he showed off just how strong of an arm he had and how fast of a runner he could be.

When it comes to Wimbush it honestly saddens me. I know he definitely isn’t out of the quarterback mix heading in to 2016, and I wouldn’t argue with Kelly if he decided to start him at Texas, the very first game of the year. But it seems that unless he just plays unbelievable in spring practices that he would not be able to take the job from Zaire or Kizer.

Wimbush does have three years of eligibility heading in to next season, but so does Kizer. If Kizer becomes the starter, would Wimbush really wait 3 years just to play one season (assuming he redshirts this season)? This is what always seems to stink for Irish fans. Every time we have a lot of quarterback talent they all seem to be within one year of each other. As we have seen in the past Notre Dame is always loaded at the quarterback position. In recent years Everett Golson, Gunner Kiel, and Andrew Hendrix have all transferred. I believe that Brandon Wimbush will redshirt this season, assuming Zaire and Kizer take the starting and backup roles.

If Kizer becomes the starter next season and continues down the path he is on though, I do not see him staying for the next three seasons. He would more than likely enter the draft with one year of eligibility left, having already played for three seasons with his degree in hand. This would leave Wimbush with two years as the starter at Notre Dame. Of course this is all hypothetical, assuming everyone is healthy and play to their potential.


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  1. DK certainly has more playing time than MZ. Let’s not forget DK had little playing time when he got his opportunity and performed well, though over the course of a season. If MZ beats out DK and BW for the starting job, there is no reason why MZ couldn’t achieve the same thing DK did without prior significant playing time, too. Give all the QB’s significant reps in practice and make your pick.

    As for that contract extension, I suppose there are reasons why it was done but I can’t help seeing visions of Weis taking buyout pay checks as an ex coach.

  2. Jack swarbrick head of the Irish entertainment network said today; ” I do don’t see any holes [in our program] right now.” Jack the defense is a black hole. A whole so huge it lets 690 points through it in two years.

  3. Ron how can you love a DC that gave up 690 points in two seasons. A sad joke. Swarbrick gets bk some recruits with an extension that will cost the school millions and give us six years of mediocrity. I give up. The only way they will win a nc is if he is gone. 8 loses in two season. It’s a joke.

  4. re: contract extension for BK

    A smart move just days before LOI are sent.
    Tends to diffuse rival recruiters saying to recruits BK (and maybe more importantly, the position coaches who have been recruiting them) are leaving.
    I’ll give odds it wasn”t like the Weis extension- with securing ample opportunities to buy out early if all is not well in the coming seasons. No way BK isn’t gone before this contract ends. There’s gotta be an easier way to make money and coach football at parts unknown other than at ND. Not many (any?) coaches have lasted twelve years as ND HC. If the next two seasons result in not winning more than 9 or 10, he’ll leave on his own- his plan B, with a lot less noise to deal with and a buyout when he does.

  5. We have FAR more tangibles to judge DK over MZ. I find it curios how one could rate MZ ahead of DK with such vast differences in their body of work. Not to say MZ is not gifted, or COULD be equal to the job; we DO know DK IS.

  6. @ Shaz…i heard it another way,… once you make a deposit, you lose interest.

    re: your Kiser attributes…you omitted kiser’s one negative feature that makes Zaire my favorite…Kiser focuses too long on just his intended receiver before searching for an outlet. Watch Zaire, he looks at as many as 3 people (if necessary) before delivering.

  7. @ Burgundy

    Word is also that 5 star LB recruit Caleb Kelly is a lock, because his younger sister really likes BKs son, and with Caleb at ND, if she eventually marries BKs son, she won’t have to change her name. PLan D.

  8. I like Zaire.
    He’s strong, gifted, smart, and a good leader and team player.

    But with only 75 career pass attempts, and only 47 completions, while appearing in various amounts in only 7 games, over 2 seasons, there just isn’t enough at this point to make any legitimate comparisons.

    What I do know is that Kizer can run and make all the throws.
    He shows a lot of confidence and poise.
    Can lead his team from behind.
    Will stand in the pocket, under pressure, and deliver.
    Can take a hit.
    Can handle the pressure, scrutiny, notoriety, and when the situation is presented… the ire of his head coach.

    Have to search pretty far back to find a ND QB that possessed all those attributes.

  9. I like Zaire a little bit more than Kizer. Without Fuller ND will probably shift more to a ball control game. Zaire is better at working short game and I think he is a stronger, if not faster runner. kizer had some great games but lets not forget those red zone turnovers.

  10. Deshone Kizer made some comments on the Showtime series that stuck in my head. He described how hard Malik was working to become the starter and how Malik motivated him to improve his work ethic. He said he wasn’t working nearly as hard until EG transferred. Now that DK has had success and now has more game experience than MZ the question becomes has his work ethic improved enough to hold off MZ. I personally think there wasn’t much difference between the 2 as far as throwing the ball. Malik seemed to use the middle of the field more while Kizer went outside mostly. I think MZ’s more natural fit in the zone read offense gives him the edge. I liken this to Ohio State’s qb battle last season. If the team rallies more around a particular qb then let’s not make the Urban Meyer mistake. Start that player from day 1. Another factor that most seem to be overlooking here is Brian Kelly’s loyalty to upperclassmen. We’ve all seen and questioned BK’s bullheaded insistence on playing certain players, even if they are less talented. I think if the battle is remotely close, and we all know it will be, that BK go with MZ.

  11. Word is Montgomery VanGorder can really spin it and teammates are impressed with his high football IQ. He has a real knack for reading defenses and quietly became a real leader in the QB room, so much so that Mike Sanford trusts him to run meetings at times. Could be the shocker of the spring that he wins the job.

  12. Kizer will win the starting job in 2016. I believe like a few others that Zaire transfers. Oregon seems like a good fit to me, but I hope he stays because you never know who will get injured next at ND.. Not sure what Subway see in Zaires passing ability to say he is a slightly better passer than Watson of Clemson. Watson is quite a bit better than Zaire in every facet of the game.

  13. Whoa there…the last time we saw Zaire on the field he couldn’t hit open receivers, couldn’t find a lane to run in, and generally looked terrible and uncertain of which universe he was in (56.9 QBR against Virginia, the juggernaut of the ACC basement ). He looked really good against a terrible Texas defense. Meanwhile, Kizer turned into the new Golden Boy. Why does Zaire get the ball in 2016? I don’t think he does…Kizer proved to me to be the future. Hopefully it doesn’t drag out, Zaire transfers so he can start, and Kizer is backed up by Winbush in ’16.

  14. Not sure about the Zaire love-fest. I have to see him lead us down the field in the last minute or two with his arm against a decent D. Little over-confidence here in his throwing ability.

  15. The quarterback that wins out will be the one that can check down to open receivers. Right now, that edge would go to Kizer. He’s got more game experience, and became proficient with the time he was given. ND won’t have a Fuller next year, regardless of the recruiting class, but a bevy of excellent recievers that will all need the ball when they’re open.

    Wimbush isn’t going anywhere. He wanted to redshirt his first year anyway, which speaks to his smarts. When he was in the game, he was rattled and putting the ball on the ground. He also has a tremendous amount of talent coming up to support him. So… He gets his redshirt year and lets the elders battle out the season. Then, one will leave, and he’ll be the clear starting QB.

    If there’s a battle, it may be the locker room. Word around the campfire is that the team loves Zaire. Less so Kizer. That could prove the edge if Zaire can spread the ball around; or the evacuation if open receivers are leading to sacks or playground scrambles.

  16. @ Ray…glad you agree with my suggested 3 year plan (as do many others here). Let’s hope BK sees the light. However, i stopped short of predicting a NC, because we still have a NO teach, NO prep, NO flexibility, NO next man in ‘DC’ who i will continue to call VanNO, until he (a) is gone or (b) gets some game time help. Until then, all ND fans are doomed to bear the insults from our many “friends”.

    @Shaz…I at least would be ‘happy’.

    @Ron…Plan C…who is that?

  17. It is actually a position most coaches will envy. Three top rated college QBs to choose from. It is too say the least a very difficult call. You almost can’t go wrong regardless of who wins out and that should determine who starts in September. Kizer certainly should have a leg up on Zaire and Wimbush, but one falter and look out, a potential star is waiting in the wings. The drama will unfold right before your eyes.
    Now if ND can fix the D line. The 2016-17 season should/could be something special. Only time will tell. I know I am looking forward to it. Go IRISH!!

  18. Team 127 performed well offensively with either of the three in there.
    I’ve got to agree with Shaz that keeping everyone happy won’t be likely.
    With the numerous injuries the last two seasons, having any position three deep might be more a necessity than an excess. PLaying at least two would signal to the third he’s only one injury away from the field, and keep all three more tuned in. PLaying two worked out pretty well vs. LSU in last year’s bowl, an elite D’.
    Maybe BK will develop a plan C.

  19. I tend to agree with others on here who think one of these three will leave by transfer. I hope all 3 have opportunity to get meaningful reps during spring ball. If MZ wins 1st team QB and DK 2nd team, I could see BW leaving, maybe even to a top FCS team so he could play right away. It’s unfortunate to have top heavy talent at QB because somebody is going to play far less often than the other 2. It will be interesting to see how this plays out in spring. I really like MZ but, you can’t ignore what DK did last year with his break that came on MZ ankle break. Oh, let Sanford be the true OC and call plays, Coach Kelly.

  20. I was very impressed with Kizer this year and think he has to go into spring as #1. The wild card of course is Wimbush. Bottom line there will be a transfer coming within next year or so.

  21. Good article and sums up the situation nicely.

    I’m not sure I would use ESPN ranks for recruits and they are widely regarded as the worst source among the major services, I think the 247 composite should be our standard.

    I’ve got a bad feeling we are going to lose at least one QB to transfer, I just hope the coaches hold on to Wimbush, no matter who is the starter. He is a talent we do NOT want to lose!

  22. Subway Alum has it right. Zaire by far, gives us the chance to do special things and by special things I mean win a national championship. He is the same type of factor that Watson was for Clemson except he is probably a slightly better passer, and a more physical runner. Kizer is very good but Zaire is the one who best leads us to the promise land. His escapability while running far exceeds Kizer’s and is close to Watson’s that was such a factor in Clemson’s successful season. I like the pattern of Zaire this year taking us to the national championship then Kizer and Winbush can follow and actually I think Winbush after Kizer will give us a great shot also since he again is more similar to Watson who is the type of QB that can make the difference in going all the way. Kizer did bring us back but also was forced to bring us back by his own turnovers and many were red zone turnovers. He was very lucky against Virginia because an early pass that should have been a pick six was dropped, and fumbles he made were recovered by teammates. Also Zaire was just starting to get us to take command against Virginia when he was hurt and in this game he still had zero turnovers.

  23. Not to worry folks. Because he is better in all aspects of the position, a healthy Zaire wins out over Kiser and Wimbush for 2016. He opts out for the Pros at year end. Kiser wins out over Wimbush in 2017 and then opts out at year end also. Wimbush starts in 2018.

    If Kelly follows my three year plan, everyone is happy and they all stay.

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