This preseason series highlights Notre Dame’s 2016 stars by personnel grouping and identifies who to watch on opposing teams. Today’s position group: the quarterbacks.
For the Irish: #9 Malik Zaire (Sr.) and #14 DeShone Kizer (Jr.)
While either Malik Zaire or DeShone Kizer will take the first snap against Texas on Sept. 4, the Irish ostensibly don’t have a fixed starter.
Coach Brian Kelly announced Aug. 17 that both would play in the opening game.
“We are best prepared to beat Texas by playing both DeShone and Malik,” said Kelly. “If I list our top five playmakers, they are in it. So my ultimate decision was I couldn’t put one of those guys on the sideline against Texas. As it relates to running the offense, the offense is seamless when one of them would come out of the game. There’s not a big change when one is in versus the other. There’s play call differences, but that doesn’t require much change at all. And then there are some situational down and distance and field position consideration that will go into that, as well. This is not a first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, fourth quarter, one guy plays the first and third and one guy plays the second and fourth.”
The shorthand on Kizer is that he is the more accurate passer (with the weaker arm), an adequate runner, a proven winner and a better known entity. Zaire has a smaller body of work, but has a stronger arm and is almost as accurate as Kizer. He’s an exceptional runner and a real headache for opposing defensive coordinator when the play breaks down and he improvises.
While I personally prefer Kizer, I’ve long said that I want the quarterback who can give the Irish the best opportunity to win as many games as possible. Kelly thinks playing both of them increases his chances of beating Texas and I trust his judgment.
For the Enemy: #15 Brad Kaaya (Jr.)
After starting under center for the Hurricanes for two years, Brad Kaaya is being showered with pre-season accolades.
The 6-foot-4, 215 pound signal caller is a preseason Heisman favorite, on the Manning Award watch list, named to All-ACC preason teams and mentioned when quarterbacks in the 2017 NFL draft are discussed.
Kaaya’s 2015 campaign was certainly impressive. He completed 61.2 percent of his passes for 3,238 yards and 16 touchdowns. He threw just five interceptions. With new coach Mark Richt, himself a former quarterback, calling the shots in Coral Gables, many expect Kaaya to improve in his junior campaign.
Here’s the book on Kaaya: He’s an experienced player who is good at reading through his progressions and making the right call. Kaaya appears perfectly comfortable in the pocket. When facing pressure last year, CFB Film Room says he took off running less than 1 percent of the time.
I watched three of his games last year – Cincinnati, Clemson and Virginia Tech – and was struck by two things. His receivers last year dropped a lot of balls. And Kaaya tends to airmail his throws when he misses. On the whole, I felt he was pretty careful with the football. I thought he showed quick decision making and wasn’t afraid to take what the defense was giving him. That limited the sacks during a season where the offensive line showed real holes. Kaaya’s accuracy suffered when he was pressured, so getting in the seasoned QB’s face is going to be a must to limit his effect on the game.
Half of Notre Dame’s opponents this year will be breaking in new quarterbacks. Kaaya is a unique exception in that he’s already started 25 games. While I don’t personally think he’s worth all the preseason hype, he is – by far – the quarterback on the Irish’s schedule who concerns me the most.