A question that plagued Notre Dame’s offseason for months, including the seconds leading up to the first snap in the opener at Texas, has risen to the surface once again. This time, the question comes much earlier than anticipated. Most Irish faithful will agree that after they saw their team relinquish a home loss to Duke in week four, the focus shifted to next year in hopes of serious improvement. Now here we are, not even through Team 128’s current endeavors and the questions are swirling. The question “Who will be next to lead under center for the Irish?” is as relevant as ever.
Of all of the issues facing Coach Kelly’s program going into the offseason, the quarterback situation should be of relatively low priority. An inexperienced defense, a mistake-ridden special teams unit, and a stagnant second half offense must be the focal points and big picture fixes going into the pending offseason. But that doesn’t stop the speculation around who will wear the title of QB1 in 2017. On this topic, there is a lot to still hash out involving NFL Draft implications, possible student transfers, and player redshirts–a familiar set of topics for the Irish. It boils down to a few possible scenarios for the quarterback stakeholders; Deshone Kizer, Malik Zaire, and Brandon Wimbush. Let’s explore what those could be and the series of events that may unfold.
Since his impressive performance in Austin, TX to start the season, NFL scouts have been very high on Kizer’s future to play at the next level. Kizer has bounced around quite a bit since then on several mock drafts and big boards, fluctuating between a first overall pick projection to second or third round expectations. Of the attributes Kizer possesses, it is his combination of size, running ability, and arm strength that appeal most to NFL GMs. While not perfect in all areas of play, what makes him an ideal choice are those intangible characteristics and the ability to grow and improve the tactical areas of his game to be an effective NFL quarterback. Another year to develop and refine the skill set would certainly benefit Kizer and could perhaps move him into a more solid first found projection for 2018.
That said, the culture and mentality of how much college football should be endured by a potential draftee has changed dramatically. Kizer has also seen firsthand the associated risks as a witness to Jaylon Smith suffering a horrific ACL tear in Notre Dame’s Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State to end last season. This injury occurred with less than one half of play remaining in Smith’s college career, ultimately costing him millions of dollars and what would have likely been a top ten pick in the Draft. Some may advise Kizer to go now while his stock is high and not to assume any risk of it being lower coming out of all the unknowns 2017 would bear. Prediction = Kizer declares for the NFL Draft.
Malik Zaire was named the starter to open the 2015 season and had sparked optimism thanks to top notch performances against LSU (Music City Bowl) and Texas (season opener), but broke his ankle in his second-ever true start against the Virginia Cavaliers. DeShone Kizer then led Notre Dame to one of their best seasons in recent history which included a BCS bowl appearance. To start 2016, Zaire was ultimately beat out by Kizer after he shined in the OT loss at Texas, originally splitting duties at QB with Zaire in the first half. In limited opportunities since then, Zaire has mentally looked removed from Coach Kelly and his plans.
It is important to note that Zaire graduates in December and has an opportunity to take advantage of the NCAA rule on graduate student transferring if he so chooses. This would allow him to transfer to another school and be omitted from the requirement of sitting out a year. Zaire will have his degree from Notre Dame, and even if Kizer is out of the picture, there is no guarantee that the starting job is appointed to him, as we know from Coach Kelly’s tendencies. In his last remaining year of eligibility, Zaire must put himself in a position where he knows he will have the opportunity to showcase his skills as a starting quarterback if he wants any shot at the NFL. He cannot take another chance of losing a QB competition. Not at all how anyone thought it would unfold, but prepare to see Malik Zaire suiting up in colors other than blue and gold next fall.
Meanwhile, sophomore Brandon Wimbush has been strategically redshirted for the 2016 season to conserve his eligibility. There is no doubt that the Irish coaching staff are looking forward to great things from the young gun. Many believe he has the potential to ultimately exceed the performances of the two men ahead of him on the depth chart, but that has yet to manifest itself on the field with the exception of some mop up duty appearances. A highly touted recruit out of New Jersey, Wimbush is a serious dual threat QB with an impressive combination of speed and arm strength. A top 50 ESPN 300 prospect out of high school, you can rest assured that he is ready to make some noise after two years of watching from the sidelines.
Look for Mike Sanford and Brian Kelly to give the nod to Brandon Wimbush in hopes he can transform the Irish offense into an effective, four-quarter squad in 2017.