Leader of Notre Dame's quarterback pack bound to emerge eventually

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is escorted off of the field after an NCAA college football game against Clemson Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 24-22. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)
Caption
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly is escorted off of the field after an NCAA college football game against Clemson Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, in Clemson, S.C. Clemson won 24-22. (AP Photo/Richard Shiro)

Credit: Richard Shiro

Credit: Richard Shiro

DeShone Kizer jogged 10 yards in front of the pack. Malik Zaire lagged 10 yards behind.

Turns out their separation during an end-zone-to-end-zone run, with the rest of Notre Dame's offense sandwiched between them toward the end of practice Wednesday, was anything but symbolic of their standing in the Irish quarterback pecking order.

Still, coach Brian Kelly was beside himself as he watched the unit nonchalantly approach him, about 12 hours after he informed Kizer and Zaire they both would be his No. 1 quarterback.

"Is that how you take a lap?" Kelly barked. "Who are the leaders on this team?"

Good question.

The answer, at least from a quarterback perspective, will begin to unravel Sept. 4 when the Irish face Texas on the road to who knows where. Kelly said the two would share playing time in the opener, almost four months after saying he would have to choose one.

"There's no question some people shy away from ... playing two because it's easier to just play one," Kelly said. "My job is to win, and my belief is playing both of them gives us a better chance to win."

Beyond that, the plan for exactly how this unusual and bold experiment will unfold is to be determined.

Essentially, Zaire got even. Then he got mad.

His recovery from a broken ankle even to get to even has been remarkable, considering the season Kizer had in his stead.

The redshirt sophomore with the 90-plus mph fastball, who considered abandoning football for baseball a year and a half ago, passed for 2,880 yards and 21 touchdowns and rushed for 525 yards and 10 scores in the 11-plus games Zaire missed.

Kizer's first impression, a 39-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Will Fuller with 12 seconds left against Virginia after Zaire went down in Week 2, was lasting. In offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford's mind, it also was prophetic.

"Right when that moment happened, I knew of this right here," Sanford said of the tight competition in 2016. "It's inevitable."

So, too, was the reaction from those directly involved. Kelly figured neither would be happy about his decision.

Neither is.

"That's like having two head coaches," Zaire said. "That could be a lot. It's a unique situation. I just know what I can do and I plan on doing it. My focus is treating my job like a pro."

Zaire peppered his sentences Wednesday with at least 14 references to "pro" or "professional." The cons, in his mind, were obvious.

"It's a little bit more challenging not knowing the direction we're headed," Zaire said. "For me, it's continuing to be a pro. Being a pro always got me ready for all circumstances."

But this one is most unusual, though not unprecedented. Steve Spurrier had some success with alternating quarterbacks at Florida and South Carolina. Others have too. But in most cases there was clarity in who the alpha dog was.

That still could be the case here. Injuries happen. Someone could separate himself.

"We don't really have the formula laid out," Kizer said. "Coach Kelly has put forth his word that it's best to have us both on the field. However that works is up to him."

Zaire shared time with Everett Golson in the Music City Bowl after the 2014 season. But that was different; they were different.

Zaire won the job after Golson departed for Florida State last spring. Kizer seemingly won it after Zaire lost it to injury.

Kelly said he sees a lot of similarities in Kizer and Zaire. Kizer agreed.

Zaire, well, he begged to differ.

"We're two different quarterbacks, but the guys upstairs think otherwise," Zaire said. "They call the plays and we have to run them."

Zaire tried to say the right things. And sometimes he did, talking about doing what's best for the team, etc.

His body language needed no translation, though. His tone clashed with his intentions. He laughed nervously before some responses, or in the middle of them.

"He's the head coach and he makes the head coach decisions," Zaire said. "He told us to trust him, and I don't have a choice."

Four tables away, Kizer talked of trusting his coach too. Talked, like Zaire, of being a team player.

This is Kelly's team, make no mistake.

Who will emerge as the leader at quarterback _ if anyone _ remains to be seen.