Just one quarterback can line up at a time, a harsh reality for players like Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer. The two Notre Dame quarterbacks have both demonstrated the ability to captain the Fighting Irish offense more than competently, and against high-level competition.
However, only one can guide Notre Dame in 2016.
The quarterback battle in South Bend ranks among the most intriguing QB-centric story lines of the coming summer.
MALIK ZAIRE vs. DeSHONE KIZER
College football has no quarterback competition quite as intriguing as Malik Zaire vs. DeShone Kizer. Whereas other races to start around the nation feature potential stars, Brian Kelly is overseeing one of the few with two proven commodities.
Zaire dazzled in his debut as a starter, vexing the vaunted LSU defense in the 2014 Music City Bowl. He decimated Texas to open 2015, and generated some more-than-modest Heisman buzz.
The leg injury that sidelined Zaire against Virginia opened the door for Kizer, however, who flourished for the duration of a season in which the Fighting Irish contended for the College Football Playoff.
#NotreDame Football: @JJStankevitz & I make the case for…
Malik Zaire: https://t.co/toKdUi3gOO
DeShone Kizer: https://t.co/Q6aqhY4h1i
— J.B. Long (@JB_Long) April 21, 2016
Kizer threw for 21 touchdowns and rushed for another 10 — not bad for a first-year player who a year ago at this time was third on the depth chart. The transfer of Everett Golson opened the door for Kizer once Zaire went down.
Another transfer seems likely for the runner-up in this competition — especially if it’s Zaire, given his age. He already expressed frustration with having to compete for the job, via the Associated Press.
But Kelly faces dilemma: How does one bench a starter who led a Fiesta Bowl run? Read on, because it’s a surprisingly common question.
TAYSOM HILL’S LONG ROAD
BYU’s quarterback competition shares similarities to Notre Dame’s in that both Taysom Hill and Tanner Mangum are proven commodities. And, like Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer, BYU has a veteran up against a youngster. That dynamic could dramatically alter the position’s future, depending on who wins the competition.
The competition functions mostly as background noise for all that Hill’s endured since a breakout 2013 campaign.
Adversity doesn’t beging to describe Hill’s tenure at BYU. Injuries ended the last two seasons for the talented, dual-threat quarterback. His early-season foot injury sustained last year gave way to the greatest freshman season in BYU football history, as Mangum thrived quarterbacking the Cougars to a 9-win campaign.
Despite his name bouncing around as an intriguing transfer option for teams like Oregon, Hill opted to stay at BYU — and he remained despite the departure of head coach Bronco Mendenhall.
But returning to competition this spring under Kalani Sitake’s new regime, the death of Hill’s brother forced him away for the end of the practice season.
When Max Browne didn’t transfer from USC before the 2014 season, after Cody Kessler reaffirmed his place as the Trojans’ starting quarterback, the popularly held assumption was that the former 5-star recruit Browne would seamlessly step in upon Kessler’s exit.
Browne may still take up the USC quarterback mantle, but the transition hasn’t been as seamless as one might have anticipated. That’s because dual-threat play-maker Sam Darnold continues to outperform expectations.
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Darnold did so last year upon his arrival, outplaying the more celebrated Ricky Town. Town transferred to Arkansas shortly before the start of the season. Darnold’s played even better in 2016 workouts, prompting head coach Clay Helton to extend the competition into fall camp.
Browne will have graduated by the time camp opens, making him immediately eligible should he choose to transfer at any point. However, the timing right before the season is less than ideal and thus highly unlikely were he to come in second to Darnold.
THE RETURN OF KENNY HILL
Kenny Hill needed all of one game at Texas A&M to eclipse Johnny Manziel. But as quickly as the talented quarterback’s star ascended, it faded.
Hill’s is another story of too much, too soon. Expectations on him with the emergence of the “Kenny Trill” persona mounted, and he faltered both on the field and off. His suspension for two games in November 2014 preceded Hill’s transfer to TCU.
With a year out of the spotlight as Trevone Boykin’s understudy, Hill returns as the front-runner to lead the Horned Frogs. The time off may have done the former Kenny Trill good.
“Kenny’s done an unbelievable job,” head coach Gary Patterson told the Star-Telegram in February. “As far as any of those kind of things, there’s no concer. Everything he’s done — which has been great, because he was our scout-team quarterback — is not even worth a conversation because he’s been awesome.”
Hill’s ability has been in question. His ability to maintain a high level could be the difference in TCU contending for the Big 12 championship and not.
ANU SOLOMON’S JOB SECURITY
Arizona’s surprise run to the 2014 Pac-12 Championship Game came in part due to the excellent play of then-freshman Anu Solomon. Solomon thrived in Rich Rodriguez’s wide-open offense, bringing a passing touch unlike any Rodriguez-coached quarterback previously.
The 2014 campaign looked like the prelude to bigger and better things. Arizona’s first Rose Bowl Game? A Heisman Trophy?
But the injuries that mounted on Solomon late in the 2014 season worsened in a disappointing 2015 — disappointing for both Solomon and Arizona. The Wildcats dipped to 7-6, their worst record since Rodriguez’s arrival. The offense never established a consistent rhythm with Solomon repeatedly falling out of the lineup, and the Wildcats lost several blowouts.
Per Michael Lev of The Arizona Daily Star, Rodriguez said Solomon and talented youngster Brandon Dawkins are in “competition…[t]hat may be ongoing throughout the season.”
Dawkins made his first appearance last November against Arizona State, and looked impressive for a stretch that saw the Wildcats rally from an early deficit. He’s more mobile than Solomon, a quality that typically behooves any quarterback in Rodriguez’s systems. However, his two pick-sixes sealed Arizona’s fate and suggests Solomon is considerably further ahead as a passer.