Okay, the boss is here.”
Brian Kelly was talking about his wife, Paqui, the family member in charge of Tuesday night’s annual Football 101 charity event on Notre Dame’s campus.
But Kelly could have likewise been referring to the newly-minted leader of his sixth-edition Irish offense – quarterback Malik Zaire, one of several Irish players on hand with the program’s coaching and support staff to instruct 600 women on the fundamentals of football.
The event was sold out for the sixth time in six years, or roughly as long as it seems Zaire has waited for his chance at the helm in South Bend.
“You can sense in the meetings there’s a confidence,” said Kelly of Zaire’s early outside-the-lines work at a pair of recent OTAs (June 5 and June 9). “They’re looking to him for the answers. He’s feeling he needs to live up to those expectations too.”
Zaire’s expectations at times last season were not met. As a result, neither were those of his head coach. Kelly expected a more engaged mental approach from his team’s backup triggerman.
“I think I noted that’s kind of natural though,” said Kelly when facetiously asked if Zaire had any trouble remaining fully vested in the proceedings at present as he did last fall. “That changed in the spring when it was more of a competitive situation. During the fall, it was pretty obvious he felt like, ‘Boy, I think I should have gotten a look.’
“I think there were a lot of other people that felt that way, too,” Kelly added. “This spring, that changed a lot, when he saw he was getting reps and getting work. So that’s behind us.”
In front of them both is a player-coach relationship that will determine the offense’s success this fall.
“I don’t know that we really changed anything,” said Kelly of his approach to OTAs with Zaire and without transfer Everett Golson in the fold to compete. “We just let him be himself, and he’s got innate leadership skills. I think it happened naturally, I don’t think we really created anything. It allowed him to go out there and be in more of a command position because he is the guy.”
“The Guy” under Kelly has survived a full football season unscathed just once over the last eight years, when Tommy Rees started all 13 games for the 2013 Irish. But Rees remained largely upright – save for a vicious sack suffered against USC in a mid-October Irish victory --- because he rarely left the friendly confines of the pocket.
That’s not a luxury Zaire will enjoy next fall. The junior signal-caller’s exposure to the bad intentions of opposing defenses will be difficult to limit if the Irish are to run their preferred method of offense.
“The game of football (makes that unavoidable),” said Kelly of the inevitable hits that await his read-option triggerman. “He’s a pretty smart kid in that he knows how to protect himself. We feel like he has to be who he is, and our offense has to be structured around what his strengths are.
“He has to be part of the running game and the running game will be as effective as him being one of the options that we have. We move forward with a similar approach (from) the spring in our OTA’s and (will) continue to do that going into the pre-season.”
With the new guy clearly out in front.