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 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 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.
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.