Daily Focus: Kizer, Zaire continue Notre Dame’s QB battle

Steve Palazzolo breaks down the Irish's QB competition and checks in on the rosters of Florida and Clemson.

| 10 months ago
(AP Photo/Jeff Haynes)

(AP Photo/Jeff Haynes)

Daily Focus: Kizer, Zaire continue Notre Dame’s QB battle

Editor’s note: Every day in “Daily Focus,” PFF analysts take the latest college football news and translate what it really means for each team involved.

Both Kizer and Zaire will play against Texas: One of the offseason’s biggest storylines will carry into the season as the Notre Dame quarterback situation is still unsettled. DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire have battled throughout training camp and they will both get a chance to play in the opener against Texas. Last season, Zaire started the season with a near-perfect game against Texas completing 19-of-22 passes for 313 yards with two his three incompletions being drops. He wasn’t nearly as sharp the following week against Virginia, but he was showing signs of life with a beautiful deep touchdown to Houston Texans’ first-round pick Will Fuller before going down to a season-ending injury.

Kizer took over, and despite nearly throwing a game-ending interception, he capped the Virginia game off with a deep ball strike of his own to Fuller to win the game. He was solid the rest of the season, grading as one of the nation’s better quarterbacks, but he certainly wasn’t dominant enough to warrant a locked-up starting role heading into fall camp. Kizer faced many of the first-year starter issues, forcing a few too many passes into coverage and showing questionable decision-making, particularly in the red zone.

Zaire, on the other hand, now has a smaller body of work than Kizer, but other than his sporadic game against Virginia, he’s performed well when given the opportunity. Whether it was taking over against USC late in 2014, starting in the bowl game against LSU, or the dominant outing against Texas, Zaire has been an efficient passer and quality run threat when handed the reins to the Notre Dame offense.

While Kizer is generally preferred as a higher-upside passer with better pro potential, head coach Brian Kelly has two key reasons to keep Zaire in the race:

  1. Taking care of the ball

While Zaire has yet to throw an interception in his limited time, Kizer had a “turnover-worthy play” on 4.53 percent of his dropbacks, 74th-highest in the nation. That’s 19 TWPs that resulted in 10 interceptions, so the damage could have been a lot worse. Like any coach, Kelly does not take kindly to quarterbacks being careless with the ball or forcing passes into coverage.

Kizer 1

Kizer 2

  1. Kizer took far too many sacks

Notre Dame featured one of the best offensive lines in the nation last season and we attributed only eight sacks to the starting five as a unit. Kizer was attributed with 10 sacks of his own, as we look to distinguish plays in which the quarterback holds the ball too long or improperly maneuvers the pocket into pressure. In addition, Kizer was sacked on 25.7 percent of his pressured dropbacks, third-worst in the nation.

Kizer sacks

Between interceptions, fumbles, and sacks, the negative plays may be too much for Kelly to completely trust the more talented Kizer as the starter. Regardless of how it plays out, we get to watch two quality quarterbacks battle it out in Week 1 against the Longhorns, and perhaps even beyond if the race remains tight.

Florida loses two players for the opener: More news out of Florida as star cornerback and PFF College’s No. 15 overall player Jalen Tabor and tight end C’yontai Lewis will be suspended for the opening game against UMass. Tabor is Florida’s best player and one of the nation’s top cornerbacks as his coverage grade ranks fifth among returning cornerbacks and opposing quarterbacks have an NFL passer rating of only 41.9 when targeting Tabor in his two years. Tabor’s presence makes losing first-round cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III as little easier on defense, but losing him for a game will test Florida’s depth. CB Quincy Wilson will pair with Tabor to form one of the nation’s top duos as Wilson has two years of strong grading under his belt as well (passer rating of 55.1 against, eight passes defensed on 84 targets). Beyond Wilson, an inexperienced corner will be thrust into action, whether it’s sophomore Chris Williamson who has three snaps to his name or a pair of true freshmen in Chauncey Gardner or McArthur Bennett. CB Duke Dawson is also in the mix after playing 369 snaps over the last two years.

As for Lewis, he’s slated to pair with TE DeAndre Goolsby to form one of the better mismatch-creating tight end duos in the nation, but that will be put on hold for a week. Like Goolsby, Lewis is more pass catcher than blocker, and his one-game absence will vault sophomores Camrin Knight and Moral Stephens into the No. 2 tight end role. Florida loves to run a two-tight end offense, but those plans may be put on hold for a week as Knight and Stephens have combined for only 39 snaps in their respective careers.

Clemson loses defensive end for at least three games: Clemson’s defensive end took a hit this week when sophomore Austin Bryant broke a bone in his foot that will sideline him for at least a few games. Clemson has sent a plethora of talent to the NFL the last two seasons, including two highly-productive defensive ends in Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd this year. Bryant is in line to replace some of their production after showing well as a pass rusher last year as a true freshman (two sacks, three QB hits, and 10 hurries on 128 rushes). As Shakin the Southland suggests, Clemson may have to roll with a big defensive front by moving 6-foor-4, 315-pound DT Christian Wilkins out to defensive end. Wilkins is an impressive athlete who progressed nicely last year as a redshirt freshman and despite his being a better fit on the inside, the may be the best option as Clemson has so little experience at defensive end. The good news is that of Clemson’s first four games, the most difficult games are against Auburn and Georgia Tech, both of which are run-heavy teams. Wilkins playing defensive end with 300-pound DT Carlos Watkins and 340-pound true freshman Dexter Lawrence on the interior may just be the combination needed to slow down those running attacks.


| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

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