Aiming for a Spring Fling

Notre Dame's trio of January enrollee triggermen

January 2012 early enrollee Gunner Kiel was withheld from action as a true freshman. The goal for his second spring session in South Bend? Follow the path of previous semester enrollees Tommy Rees and Everett Golson as the chief triggerman in the Irish offense.

As it did in each of the previous three spring semesters and four times in its history of January enrollees, the Notre Dame football team yesterday welcomed a quarterback to its family as the University's students reconvened for the spring semester.

Kettering, Ohio product Malik Zaire (Archbishop Alter High School) is one of five 2013 early enrollees for Brian Kelly's fourth Irish team. Each of Kelly's previous installments included a quarterback prospect as well, with Tommy Rees (2010), Everett Golson (2011), and Gunner Kiel (2012) all getting a head start on their collegiate learning curves.

Zaire, like the last two EE's at the position, will likely start at the bottom of the position's food chain, the result of established depth at the position. He'll be a touch removed from the legitimate quarterback competition, but part of competition that will frame his future seasons.

Should he need guidance or a mentor for his forthcoming journey there are a trio available on the current roster, each of whom knows well what Zaire might encounter and endure during winter conditioning and a formative spring session.

Foremost among the previous January enrollees, both in the minds of Irish fans and likely the team's head coach, is 2012 five-star quarterback prospect Gunner Kiel.

"Coming in last year early and learning the offense was hard," Kiel told Irisheyes.com as he sat in the front row at Sun Life Stadium in Miami last Monday. "I didn't really understand much of anything, I didn't really understand the signals. So in December (last month), where we had (practice) time and they kind of threw us back in, I finally knew and understood the plays more. It made me feel more confident."

Kiel's re-immersion into the offense was necessary after a 2012 season spent as a scout team quarterback. He received plenty of reps and enjoyed the opportunity to compete at full speed, but with the caveat that he executed the opponent's plays and formations.

"Coming in and getting used to scout team was hard because you lose track of what our offense is doing and what they're installing each week," said Kiel. "Its good and bad; good that you're throwing and competing and I was getting reps, but I was losing track of new stuff we were putting in."

Kiel tried to use game days to accelerate his development.

"Throughout the games I could watch and understand what was going on. It was good for me to watch and learn that way -- to watch defenses against our offense -- and then come in and understand it all, and get the roll of things and understand it much better."

Kiel watched his predecessor Golson grow through repetition as well. Expect Golson's reps are now a matter of record, and nearly Irish football lore as part of a magical season that saw the Irish fall one win -- albeit about 70 successful snaps -- short of a championship.

For the first time in the Kelly era, there's an experienced, clear-cut starter returning for spring ball. For the first time in the Kelly era, the competition that will doubtless ensue will include a second quarterback with preternatural skills looking to unseat the team's starter.

"Going into spring ball, I'm going to feel more confident and play more relaxed and play the way I used to play," said Kiel. "Have fun, sling it around, and enjoy myself."

In 2013, he'll have a chance to enjoy Saturdays as well.

Semester Signal Callers

Zaire is Notre Dame's fifth quarterback to join its early enrollee crop in the program's seventh season of existence. Below is a look at the first season, and career arc, of the previous four:

Jimmy Clausen (2007): Thrown into the fray as a true freshman with a start in Notre Dame's second game, a 31-10 defeat at Penn State. Clausen finished with a 3-6 record as a starter in his initial season, throwing seven touchdowns vs. just six interceptions while toiling behind the worst offensive line in Notre Dame history.

His sophomore season included 13 starts, seven victories, 25 touchdowns, 17 interceptions, and a whopping 3,172 passing yards . As a 2009 junior, Clausen ranked among the nation's best, and one of the top statistical quarterbacks in program history, throwing for 28 touchdowns against four interceptions, completing a record 68 percent of his passes for 3,772 yards en route to a disappointing 6-6 record. Clausen, who played through a turf toe injury from Week Three through the end of the season, left school for the NFL Draft where he was selected in the second round b the Carolina Panthers. He finished with a 16-18 record as an Irish starter.

Tommy Rees (2010): Easily the most successful first-year quarterback, Rees won his only four starts (though he was the main signal caller in a previous defeat) and finished with 12 touchdown passes vs. eight interceptions while completing 61 percent of his throws for 1,106 yards. his second season included 12 starts, eight more wins, and passing numbers 20-14-2,871.

Rees appeared in 12 games last fall, starting twice (technically 2-0) but was most valuable in a relief role to the starter Golson as Rees aided the Irish in wins over Purdue, Michigan, Stanford, and Oklahoma when called upon in an emergent situation.

Everett Golson (2011): Did not play as a true freshman in 2011. Golson started 11 games in 2012, winning his first 10 starts to tie a program record set by Bob Gibbons in 1950. He tossed 12 touchdowns and six interceptions while completing 58.8 percent of his passes for 2,405 yards. The program's first legitimate dual threat triggerman since the late 90s, Golson also rushed for a team-high six touchdowns.

Gunner Kiel (2012): Did not play as a true freshman.

Malik Zaire (2013): One of five scholarship quarterbacks on the roster, four of whom enrolled in January of their respective freshman years. (Senior Andrew Hendrix, a player with two years of eligibility remaining, is the exception.)

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