(NOTRE DAME, Ind.) – There is only one “or” on the Notre Dame football team’s depth chart. With single-digit days counting down until Sunday’s season opener at Texas, 21 of 22 starters have been determined.
The lone holdout for a true No. 1 is at quarterback, where Notre Dame’s two-deep depth chart reads “DESHONE KIZER or Malik Zaire.”
Kizer’s name appears in all capital letters, because it denotes him as one of the offense’s three returning starters from last year’s 10-3 Fiesta Bowl team. Despite Kizer’s edge in experience over Zaire (nine career starts to two), Irish head coach Brian Kelly still says (at least publicly) that he has not decided which QB will get the start Sunday night when the Irish head to Austin for their 2016 opener.
“(I) haven’t figured that out yet,” Kelly said at his press conference this week.
Kizer came off the bench in the second week of the season last fall when Zaire broke his ankle against Virginia. After a redshirt 2014 season, Kizer had zero game experience prior to guiding the Irish on an 80-yard, game-winning drive against the Cavaliers and went on to have one of the most prolific seasons in school history for a first-year starter.
He completed 63 percent of his passes for 2,884 yards and 21 touchdowns while also setting a Notre Dame record for a quarterback with 10 rushing touchdowns.
Despite that impressive body of work, Kizer battled Zaire during spring practice and throughout this month’s training camp only to see Kelly announce that both quarterbacks will gain action against the Longhorns this weekend.
The plan remains for both signal-callers to play against Texas, but Kelly is also being coy about how he will use the duo. His publicly-stated plan is to use his two quarterbacks – each of which he estimates is among his team’s top five offensive weapons – based on how the Longhorns line up to defend the Fighting Irish offense.
“That’s really the biggest issue that I have moving forward,” Kelly said. “We’re going to run the quarterbacks how we see the defense is playing us.”
Texas hasn’t named its starter either. Charlie Strong can choose between the more mobile Tyronne Swoopes or dropback quarterback Shane Buechele.
Interestingly, Notre Dame and Texas are two of five FBS teams returning two quarterbacks who beat a Power Five team in 2015 (Louisville, Miami and Auburn are the others).
While the Longhorns’ two choices have contrasting styles, that is not the case for the Irish. Both Zaire and Kizer are dual-threat QBs.
Zaire completed a Notre Dame record for opening day against Texas last year: 86.4 percent of his 22 pass attempts (the best for an Irish QB since 1984) for 313 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for 96 yards and a touchdown in the 2014 finale against LSU in the Music City Bowl.
Kizer ran for 520 yards in 2015. He also scorched the five ranked teams he faced with a 140.1 passer rating, 60.5 completion percentage, seven passing touchdowns and five rushing touchdowns.
Don’t look for Kelly to make a permanent decision on a starter soon after Sunday’s game. He says both men are likely to continue to play as long as they both play well and “feed off each other” against the Longhorns.
That “or” could be on that Irish depth chart for quite a while.