Three plays on Saturday illustrated just how spoiled Notre Dame is at quarterback entering the 2016 season, in case you may have forgotten what Malik Zaire is capable of. While he may not have had his sharpest day overall thanks to a slow start, Zaire reminded everybody in South Bend of his immense talent on one drive in the second quarter of Fighting Irish's spring scrimmage.
Backed up near his own goal line, Zaire dropped back and let loose a bomb down the left sideline, hitting the outstretched hand of Torii Hunter Jr. in stride for a 50-yard gain, beating solid coverage by the defender. A few plays later, on a third-and-nine, Zaire spun away from an unblocked pass rusher, rolled right, reset with his eyes downfield and patiently waited to deliver a downfield strike to the 12-yard line, even if slightly off-balance, with two defenders collapsing on him. The next play, Zaire kept the ball on a read-option but found himself running straight toward a defender to the left. He cut back and ran around the line the other way to the right, creating something out of nothing, finding an opening and taking off for a touchdown.
Seven months after breaking his ankle and subsequently missing Notre Dame's last 10 games, Zaire is healthy … but not guaranteed to start. In fact, Notre Dame has the most high-profile quarterback battle in the country: The opening day 2015 starter is trying to reclaim his job from the younger player who replaced him when he got hurt, DeShone Kizer.
As a redshirt freshman unexpectedly forced into action -- remember, last spring's battle featured Zaire vs. Everett Golson -- Kizer completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 2,880 yards, 21 TDs and 10 INTs while rushing for 520 yards. In the spring game on Saturday, Kizer, now the incumbent, completed 10 of 17 passes for 113 yards and ran for 21 yards, while Zaire completed 6 of 15 passes for 120 yards and ran for 17 yards and a TD. None of this is even to mention touted sophomore Brandon Wimbush, who would have a chance to compete for the starting job at many schools but is lost in the shuffle behind two capable signal callers who give coach Brian Kelly two quarterbacks who have different styles but bring similar skills to the table.
Zaire is the improviser more inclined to go off script, while Kizer is a bit steadier playing within the framework of the offense. Both have strong arms, both can run and both allow Kelly to spread the field, push the tempo and incorporate designed quarterback runs.
"I've never had in my entire career two quarterbacks that you could run the same system of offense with," Kelly told reporters on Saturday. "At Cincinnati, I had two different quarterbacks. I had a 6-6 quarterback that was a pocket passer, and then I had a 5-10 quarterback who was more of a perimeter-run player. These two guys [Zaire and Kizer] can do the same kind of things and run the same offense."
Understandably, the quarterback competition has taken center stage, dominating Notre Dame-related headlines all offseason. It is the closest thing the 2016 offseason has to 2015 Ohio State and its battle between J.T. Barrett, Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller, although all three of them were more decorated than any of Notre Dame's options.
A crucial difference in the races, though, is that who started at quarterback seemed to be about the only uncertainty for the Buckeyes last offseason, when they returned most key parts of a national championship team. The Zaire-Kizer battle is part of a more uncertain offseason for the Irish, who lost four impact players early to the NFL draft -- LB Jaylon Smith, OT Ronnie Stanley, WR Will Fuller and RB C.J. Prosise -- and say goodbye to more than half their starters.
Quarterback is the biggest question at Notre Dame, and how Kelly handles a tricky situation -- one in which a talented player will inevitably be left unhappy -- will play a pivotal role in determining how the season goes in South Bend. Still, quarterback is not necessarily the most important question. The Fighting Irish are capable of winning a lot of games with either Kizer or Zaire as starting quarterback, as both are potential stars.
Whether Notre Dame can duplicate the success of last year's 10-3 Fiesta Bowl season is dependent on bolstering a new-look supporting cast, after the talent and depth elsewhere made the transition to Kizer go so smoothly last year.
1. The receiving corps. Kizer was aided by the running game last season, but that didn't go as planned either. Prosise became the starter after Tarean Folston injured his knee and Greg Bryant left the team, and he thrived. While Prosise is gone, Folston is back -- he led the team with 889 rushing yards in 2014 -- and joins sophomore Josh Adams, who averaged 7.2 yards per carry, and sophomore Dexter Williams, who appears ready for an increased role. In other words, there is no concern about the running game, so long as it remains healthy.
Where the quarterback needs help is at receiver, where five of the top six receivers could all be gone. All-American Will Fuller left for the NFL after catching 76 passes for 1,094 yards. Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle are both gone. Prosise made a big impact out of the backfield, so that production will be missed. And Corey Robinson (the son of NBA legend David Robinson) is debating his football future after suffering his third concussion in a year.
The potential top answer is Hunter, another famous son in the Irish receiving corps, and he was joined in a group of impressive spring game performers by sophomore Equanimeous St. Brown and true freshman Kevin Stepherson. Hunter caught 28 passes for 363 yards last season. Tight end Durham Smythe is also a possible breakout player after missing most of last season with injuries. There is a lot of potential here, but the presence of Fuller -- one of the nation's best playmakers -- was a huge boost to this offense a year ago. The unit will look a whole lot different in 2016.
2. The offensive line. Credit certainly goes to Kizer for stepping in and performing admirably last season. But his job was made a whole lot easier by Notre Dame's offensive line, which was one of the nation's best. Gone is left tackle Ronnie Stanley, a potential top-10 draft pick. Gone is center/guard Nick Martin, a team captain. Gone is starting guard Steve Elmer, who is forgoing his last year of eligibility to work in Washington, D.C.
Despite the injuries to starters Zaire, Folston and Smythe, Notre Dame finished sixth in the nation in yards per play, making it the best offense of the Kelly era. A lot of credit goes to a top-tier line that paved the way for an explosive offense. The left side should be strong this season with Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson, but it's an otherwise unproven unit. The explosiveness of the running game is bound to take a step back.
3. Defensive development. In two years under coordinator Brian VanGorder, the Irish finished 70th in yards per play allowed in 2014 and 64th last season. The unit has had plenty of bad luck with injuries and suspensions, and it did make progress last season, but it still needs to make more big plays and find more consistency. That may seem like a tall task with Smith, CB KeiVarae Russell, DL Sheldon Day and LB Joe Schmidt gone. But the Irish might be deeper this season, especially with tackle Jarron Jones and safety Drue Tranquill back from injuries and others like true freshman safety Devin Studstill and sophomore linebacker Asmar Bilal ascending.
While no quarterback has been chosen yet, the spring was undoubtedly a success for Notre Dame, who has dealt with some of the worst injury luck in the country over the last few seasons. Players like Zaire, Jones and Folston got back onto the field, and despite having a lot of new faces, with consistently strong recruiting there's a good chance that Notre Dame will have better depth than usual for a team that lost so many key players.
There is no doubt that the quarterback decision is at the center of everything, but last year's team benefited from a cohesive, experienced supporting cast ready to make life easier for the quarterback. Whoever wins the job this year will be tasked with taking charge of a new-look team.
It might be too much to overcome to take a step forward from last season and crash the College Football Playoff as an independent, but with either Kizer or Zaire at quarterback, it's not hard to envision Notre Dame back in the top 10 and back in a New Year's Six bowl game. With nothing but great options at quarterback, it's finding answers around either Kizer or Zaire that will determine the Irish's ceiling, no matter how much attention is devoted to the two talented players taking snaps.
More college football stories from Sports on Earth