Kelly’s Quarterbacks

Brian Kelly’s track record of developing quarterbacks at Notre Dame is certainly uneven. One strong season has not been a reliable indicator of success in the next for any Irish signal caller this decade. But for all the transfers, injuries, suspensions, and stunted growth, there have been plenty of explosive offenses, indelible leaders, and meaningful wins. The statistical case for each is varied, making any ranking of this group a difficult exercise. So let’s do that!

Tier 4

Nate Montana & Andrew Hendrix

Honestly? No comment! They combined to go 34/76 for 476 yards. Next!

Tier 3

Dayne Crist

Strengths: Crist certainly looked the part of a prototypical college quarterback; he rolled onto campus as a 6’5 five star recruit with a strong arm and solid mobility. In 318 attempted passes, he only threw 8 interceptions. Unfortunately I didn’t start to make lasting memories until I turned 18, and I don’t remember much else.

Weaknesses: Despite entering as the heir apparent to Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen, Crist’s tenure is a blip on the radar. Blame Brian Kelly for failing to develop another heralded quarterback if you’d like, but for whatever reason, Crist couldn’t put it all together for the Irish. It’s a little bit nuts that Tommy Rees had a way more remarkable career than this guy, but sports are weird.

Intangibles: You say that BK benched him at the half against USF, I say that a literal act of God was the beginning of the end of his Notre Dame career. Not good.

Moment: The harsh truth is that there are no big, positive memories that stick out (wins over Purdue, Boston College, Pitt, and Western Michigan can only earn you so much goodwill). The bit that sticks out is the disaster that was the 2011 opener against South Florida. Crist bookended Jonas Gray’s goal line fumble that turned into a USF touchdown with an end zone pick of his own, and was promptly benched as the lightning storm turned a four hour event into an eight hour day. He threw nine more passes for the Irish and transferred to play for Charlie Weis at Kansas.

Malik Zaire

Strengths: Zaire only threw 98 passes in blue and gold, but one stat that made me do a double take is the zero under interceptions — it is a bit weird to have a quarterback who saw action across three seasons log no career picks. He had a strong arm and was a relatively powerful if not explosive runner, and in some alternate timeline was a solid multi-year starter for the Irish.

Weaknesses: He wasn’t terribly accurate, completing under 60% of his passes for ND. The sample size is small, but after his shining moment to open the 2015 season, he looked mediocre at best against Virginia (7-18 with one touchdown) before going down with that brutal leg injury. In 2016 he was almost completely ineffective, with the necessary disclaimer that it would be hard for almost any college quarterback to perform well in that situation.

Intangibles: Anyone that watched the Showtime series on the 2015 Irish had a clear view into why he was so popular in the locker room — his leadership style was rooted in positivity and emotion, making that career-derailing injury even harder to stomach.

Moment: It’s unquestionably that beatdown of Texas. 19-22 for 313 yards, 3 TD’s and zero picks are video game numbers. He made the Longhorns look downright foolish and, despite not being able to close it out, set the tone for ND’s best season in three years.

Tier 2

Brandon Wimbush

Strengths: While we never really got to see Brandon at the height of his potential at ND, he did a lot of good for the program, winning at an 80% clip in games he played a significant part in. One attribute never in doubt was his game-changing athleticism — 16 touchdowns and 1,156 yards rushing speak directly to that. Having that skillset was crucial in navigating tenacious pass rushers (Michigan 2018) and mitigating subpar passing days (think Boston College in 2017, where his 71.1 passer rating barely mattered because of a four touchdown, 200+ yard rushing performance). He’s also handsome.

Weaknesses: Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy. Wimbush’s 51% completion rate is more or less the distillation of why he was replaced after three straight wins to start the 2018 campaign. He also only hit 200 yards passing in four games (two were losses, and in another he logged three interceptions to zero scores, against Ball State of all opponents). He looked like a deer in the headlights at the end of his junior year, opening the door for Ian Book to eventually take hold of the starting job.

Intangibles: Imagine being a college student and having a genuine personal struggle subject to debate across the country. Imagine having to show up for a nationally televised broadcast on a weekly basis after being benched at one of the most visible positions in college sports. And imagine reacting like this. It’s a far cry from the locker room schism that festered out of 2016’s QB controversy, and we have Brandon to thank for it. He’s a winner, and should he earn the starting job at UCF this year, he’ll keep winning.

Moment: As much as his 3rd and 18 conversion against Michigan in 2018 comes to mind, I want to talk about another time Brandon imposed his will on a bitter rival. 2017’s stomping of (eventual Pac-12 champion) Southern Cal was a largely unexpected romp, a joyous four hour showing of a team operating at something resembling peak performance. The statline is vintage Wimbush — he completed 9 passes at a sub-50% rate for only 120 yards, but that’s missing the point entirely. He threw for two scores and added a couple more on the ground, running for over 100 yards and generally having his way with the Trojan defense. He led the offense to nearly 500 total yards, zero turnovers, and a five touchdown victory over USC. Brandon, we’ll always have October 2017.

Everett Golson

Strengths: Here we have another proven winner gifted with immense natural talent who struggled intermittently and eventually pursued a graduate transfer (check out this recent deep dive into his tenure over at 18 Stripes). Everett averaged a healthy 234 yards passing per game and accounted for 55 touchdowns over two seasons. His shiftiness in the pocket and ability to throw on the run was often weaponized to great effect (the two-point conversion vs. Pitt, the winning score to Koyack in the corner vs. Stanford, etc). And his INT/Attempt rate of just 2.68% is surprisingly low (more on that in a second).

Weaknesses: There’s a reason we saw Tommy Rees in relief with such frequency. Golson was racked with inconsistency even while the team racked up long winning streaks. He threw twice as many touchdowns as interceptions, but struggled mightily holding onto the football — as that 18S piece above notes, he fumbled 12 times in his final 7 games in an Irish uniform, a regrettable coda to a promising career in South Bend. His playmaking ability, unparalleled by other quarterbacks on the roster at the time, wasn’t enough to fully hold off Rees and Zaire, negated by streakiness and sloppy ball handling.

Intangibles: Golson never shied away from a big moment, and when he was on, he was on (remember when he completed 25 passes in a row lol). Upon his return from a year-long academic suspension, he did everything in his power to put the Irish in playoff contention, winning seven out of eight to start the year, with the lone loss due to those cheating-ass refs in Pensacola. And although he rebounded nicely the next week against Navy, that horrific loss would effectively crater both the season and his career in South Bend, eventually leading to four interceptions at Arizona State and a benching in Los Angeles. He leaves a complicated legacy, but all those wins certainly mean something.

Moment: Everett’s October 27, 2012 statline is relatively pedestrian without context — 13/25, 177 yards, no picks, and one rushing score. But this game management mode is exactly what the Irish needed in a primetime road matchup against #8 Oklahoma. His thunderous 50-yard bomb downfield to a young Chris Brown seemed to announce, in a single play, that the Irish were for real, and a 17 point victory confirmed it. In just his seventh game in blue and gold, Golson helped secure maybe the biggest win of the Kelly era to date.

Tommy Rees

Strengths: Tommy gets the benefit of being the only guy on this list that stuck around long enough to throw the ball a thousand times for the Irish, leading to 7,670 yards, 61 passing touchdowns, and a bunch of wins (whether he started the game or was called in from the bullpen). His return on natural talent is certainly the highest of this group, as he outlasted more talented signal callers through injury (Crist), suspension (Golson), transfer (remember Gunner Kiel?), and general ineffectiveness (uh, all of them).

Weaknesses: Well, his arm wasn’t strong and he couldn’t run for shit*. He was relatively turnover prone, with an INT/Attempts rate of 3.5% (not great for a quarterback who’s supposed to calm the offense and manage the game). Big play potential was essentially negligible compared to what Golson brought to the table, as he only managed a tick over 12 YPC.

Intangibles: It’s easy to point out shortcomings in his game, but those imperfections were baked in from the start. He was thrust into a genuinely bad situation his freshman year and proceeded to beat Utah, Army, (mercifully) Southern Cal, and Miami to close out the season. Despite his athletic limitations and occasionally frustrating decision making, Tommy did an admirable job being yanked back and forth as Everett alternately flourished and floundered and the undefeated season hung by a thread. Anyone who can inspire comparisons to Jesus on the football field is doing something right, I guess! Long live Coach Rees.

Moment: *Jokes, he could run just fine. At least against Michigan. TOMMY DRAW, EAT IT SKUNKS.

DeShone Kizer

Strengths: DeShone’s game was perhaps the most well-rounded of any quarterback on this list. He was careful with the ball (2.73% INT/Attempt rate) but had a big arm and led the best, most explosive offense of the Kelly era (a connection with Will Fuller helped his 13.8 YPC). He was a gutsy runner as well, scoring 18 times on the ground and coming within a hair of 1,000 yards rushing for his career.

Weaknesses: His statline is really clean until you reach wins and losses: 13-11 is not good! Obviously that’s a team stat, and the Irish were more hampered by Kelly’s inability to stick with a quarterback and fire Brian VanGorder, but the sour taste remains. Other than that it’s hard to pick out a specific weakness when combing through his statistics — had 2016 not gone so poorly in every possible facet, Kizer legitimately could have secured a spot in the pantheon of great ND quarterbacks.

Intangibles: Look no further than the first score of the game against Temple in 2015 — Kizer runs into the end zone, turns to his teammates, and flaps his wings, because Philadelphia. Few ND quarterbacks have put that kind of premeditation into their not-so-subtle jabs at a hostile road crowd. You have to respect it.

Moment: I know we kind of just did a Moment but whatever. His most genuinely enduring moment is also his first one as a Notre Dame quarterback. Malik went down with what looked like a season-ruining injury after being more or less perfect a week earlier, but DeShone and Big Bill Fuller (Twitter header still intact) weren’t about to let the Cavaliers ruin their playoff aspirations. Sure, the Irish were only down one and were just a few yards outside of Justin Yoon’s range, and sure, Virginia isn’t the stingiest opponent, but this is one of the most remarkable and meaningful plays of the past decade.

Tier 1

Ian Book

Strengths: Oooh boy bet you didn’t expect anything too spicy in this post. Joke’s on you, I’m ranking our current QB who hasn’t even played a full season all alone in the top tier. His 67% completion percentage is far and away the best of this group, and reflects his ability to dominate in the short passing game. He doesn’t turn the ball over too much (2.83% INT/Attempts) and is 10-1 in games he’s started. Assuming Chase Claypool can fill Miles Boykin’s shoes, we should see a healthy dosage of pretty back-shoulder fades in 2019. He’s no slouch running the ball either, and is a marked step up in the read option game from Brandon Wimbush (exhibit A being his exquisite pull on the game-clinching touchdown at Northwestern).

Weaknesses: Comparisons to Tommy Rees were unfair but perhaps inevitable. His lack of elite arm strength and subsequent struggles with the deep ball have caused much gnashing of teeth among the Irish faithful, but there’s reason to believe that could click this year with (hopefully) some more speed and playmaking ability at receiver. There were occasional mental errors reading defenses last year, but that’s unavoidable for any new starter. The Clemson game wasn’t pretty, but he and the offense will have a chance to prove themselves against an elite defense at Georgia in late September.

Intangibles: We’re forever grateful to Mr. Wimbush for the aplomb he handled the quarterback transition with, but Ian deserves credit as well. Taking over for one of the most well-liked guys on the team, at the most visible position, is not easy, and he was able to hold the offense and team together and keep winning. He was unflinching in otherwise nervy junctures (without his second half performance against Pitt, there’s a good chance that team misses the playoffs), and gutted through late injuries to wrap up an undefeated regular season slate.

Moment: In his first 2018 start, Ian shredded a lackluster Wake Forest defense, helping to mildly assuage anxiety around the fluid quarterback situation. Doing the same a week later against Stanford, though, is what really announced him to the college football world. Book went 24-33 for 278 yards, adding 4 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. The game was close into the fourth quarter, but Book was excellent throughout. The clinching score to a wide open Alize Mack was the exclamation mark the Irish needed against a peer they’ve struggled with over the past decade. (Chip Long’s play design was the real star of the show, but nonetheless, it’s Ian’s moment). Hopefully Ian and Chip can outdo themselves in 2019.

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