Matt Cashore / IrishIllustrated.com

Tim Prister’s Tale of the Tape -- Part I

The three most impressive aspects of Zaire’s home starting debut were: passing accuracy, continued protection of the football, and the development into a pass-first quarterback.

MALIK ZAIRE’S HOME STARTING DEBUT

In two-and-a-half games, Malik Zaire has established a norm. Zaire’s norm in playing solid-to-outstanding football every time he’s on the field in a live situation.

In six quarters as the only quarterback (second half of USC, Texas) and four while sharing it with Everett Golson (LSU), Zaire has completed 40-of-57 (.701) for 579 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. On the ground, he’s accounted for 130 net yards on 37 carries 3.51 (ypc.) and two rushing touchdowns. He’s 2-0 as a starter.

He’s started a bowl game and played very well. He’s started a home game and played very well. The next step in the evolution is playing a road game, which comes this weekend against Virginia. The step after that will be playing a home game against a real quality opponent – Georgia Tech – which takes place in two weeks. Then a road game in a violent environment where the opponent is top-notch -- four weeks from now at Clemson.

All the tests are out there to validate these first impressions. Up to this point, Zaire has answered every question affirmatively, and he took it to another level against Texas.

He completed 19-of-22 for 313 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions and rushed for 39 yards on the ground (and losing 23 in sacks/tackles for lost yardage) while leading the Irish to a 38-3 season-opening victory over Texas.

He provided the spark early, completing eight of his first nine (with an Alize’ Jones drop the lone miss) in leading the Irish to a 14-0 first-quarter lead. Then he re-started Notre Dame’s offense in the third quarter after the Irish went 17:03 between points. Zaire, in leading the Irish to three straight scoring drives – two in the third quarter and one in the fourth – completed 5-of-6 for 118 yards and two touchdowns, including a 66-yarder to Will Fuller.

But none of those accomplishments were his greatest of the night. Zaire’s greatest achievements against Texas was a) zero turnovers on 31 passes/runs, b) his overall passing accuracy and b) the look of a pass-first quarterback.

The importance of protecting the football is not lost on anyone familiar with Notre Dame football in 2014. When you do one of two things – score or punt – you increase your chances of success on the scoreboard while limiting the opposition’s opportunities to score.

“People underestimate how well he can throw the football,” said NBC analyst Doug Flutie. “He can let it rip.”

To Flutie’s credit, that’s what he said about Zaire before the game. After the Texas game, Zaire had left the impression of a quarterback who would patiently shuffle through his progressions, wait for and anticipate where his receivers would be, drop passes over linebackers and under the secondary, and also fire clothes-line shots when the situation called for a little mustard.

There’s always that moment of anticipation as the football is released by the quarterback. You wonder whether it’s going to be complete from the moment he moves forward to throw the ball until it reaches the receiver. Zaire’s rifle shot to Will Fuller for the first score of the game from 16 yards out basically erased that anticipation time.

In short, Zaire played like a complete quarterback. He led the team into the end zone five times and commandeered a field-goal drive. Of Notre Dame’s eight third-down conversions, Zaire threw for four of them and ran for another. Zaire was in control of the offense, and the end result – against a competent if not a great Longhorns defense – was a thrashing.

Zaire offered an array of ways to be productive while still showing room for improvement. He play-action faked very well, selling the deception of a play built from the previous ones. He threw five passes that required a difficult catch. Chris Brown made the first one. Corey Robinson made another. Will Fuller made a toe-tapping grab along the Texas sideline.

As he is apt to do, Brian Kelly didn’t agree on the first timeout Zaire called, seemingly telling Zaire (if my lip reading is accurate) that if he just would have run the play that was called/designed, he would have had a receiver for an easy pitch-and-catch along the Irish sideline for a first down.

Perhaps the area where Zaire needs the most work (I’ll be asking Brian Kelly about this) is adjusting the offensive line protections, which is a difficult responsibility for a young quarterback with so many other things on his plate.

The fact that a small percentage of Zaire’s positive plays were running plays is a sign of his evolution as a quarterback. He’ll have plenty of opportunities to win plays/games with his feet. He only had a handful against Texas.

There was a poor decision on a read-option that worked out because he sprinted past the linebackers for a gain of seven. He also showed why he is touted as a great running quarterback – and a running back playing quarterback – when he zigzagged his way through the Texas defense, avoiding three Longhorn defenders that all had a shot at preventing a 14-yard run on a 3rd-and-6.

There was one example that showed why Zaire has protected the football so well and why Everett Golson did not.

With the Irish leading 17-0, Texas sent a blitzer off the left edge of the defense – Zaire’s blind side -- and the Irish were out-numbered. Zaire tried to escape – just as Golson would have – but as he avoided the sack, he went from passing mode to tuck mode. Ultimately, Zaire went down and that was the end of the play.

But had he stayed on his feet, he would have gone from tuck mode back to passing mode and tried to make a play, which is a fundamentally sound way to play the game.

Golson – put in the same situation – never would have tucked it as he was going down. He would have kept the gun loaded so he could throw it if he escaped the rush. That often led to turnovers. The comparison of techniques in similar situations of duress says a lot.

Zaire ultimately proved so crafty against the Longhorns that even his right tackle – Mike McGlinchey – couldn’t corral him as he came sprinting toward the end zone to celebrate his 66-yard connection with Fuller.

Kelly will tell you that Zaire has a long way to go. He has many trials and tribulations to experience against better defenses than the one Texas puts on the field before he’s a seasoned-veteran.

But the norm for 10 quarters has been that of a very good, pass-first quarterback who can hurt you with his feet and is difficult to beat when his accuracy follows suit with the rest of his game. Few quarterbacks start their collegiate careers as well as Zaire has.


THE MANY LOOKS OF ND’S DEFENSIVE FRONT

The points were scored so easily over the last eight games of the 2014 season, it’s hard to remember the first five games when the Irish were allowing just 12 points per game.

As was the case early last year in racking up those early numbers, Texas’ offense was inferior and not a real telling test for the Irish. All the Irish could do was take advantage of a flawed offensive attack, and that’s exactly what they did. There’s nothing Notre Dame could do about Texas’ poor play…except to add to it.

Texas ran just 52 plays. The Longhorns averaged 2.1 yards per 29 carries and completed just 8-of-23 passes, which is almost hard to do in this day-and-age of pitch-and-catch football that has forced pass-completion percentages up.

Texas finished with 163 total yards, 3.1 yards per play and just eight first downs. The most astonishing statistic was the eight three-and-outs by the Longhorns’ offense in 11 possessions, which matched the number of Texas first downs.

The four-man pass rush remains a work in progress. But Brian VanGorder brought the house from many angles and created complete havoc for the inexperienced, nuance-challenged Tyrone Swoopes, who had very little time to throw the football on most of his pass attempts.

The base front is Romeo Okwara, Sheldon Day, Daniel Cage and Isaac Rochell, and it still struggles to create a pass rush of its own making. The Irish show three-man looks in passing situations with Day at right end, Rochell at the nose and Trumbetti at left end. Any combination of Jaylon Smith, Drue Tranquill, James Onwualu and sometimes KeiVarae Russell was seen in a pass rushing position on the edge. VanGorder also will send Joe Schmidt from the middle and the edge. He’s not a natural pass rusher by nature, but he did hurry Swoopes into some premature throws. Jerry Tillery is another factor in the middle with Day and Cage, although he seemed to get pin-balled around at times.

One of the more interesting alignments was on Jaylon Smith’s sack at the one-yard line on a 3rd-and-9 from the nine. Rochell was in a zero-technique with Day to the right and Smith to the left in nine-techniques. In other words, really wide, which created huge gaps for Texas’ young offensive line to account for.

Texas’ lack of execution contributed to Notre Dame’s success. Quarterback Jerrod Heard and running back Johnathan Gray almost ran into each other, which allowed a penetrating Day to defend both. Here comes Smith from the backside as Rochell wins the one-on-one battle in the middle. The three of them go in for the kill with Smith using his quickness to beat his teammates to the raw meat as Heard turned back into Smith.

Jaylon Smith’s ability to wreak havoc all over the field will greatly benefit the pass rush up front. He forces offenses to account for him every snap, which allows guys like Day to get room to roam behind the line of scrimmage. The more the offensive line has to pay attention to Smith, the more opportunities will be created for the down linemen.

Flutie is right and he’s wrong when he says the defensive linemen don’t have to hold their lanes because they know Smith will clean things up behind them. The rushers absolutely must still keep their rush lanes. That’s a recipe for disaster or, at the very least, inconsistency if you don’t.

But he’s right that they know – as they’re keeping their rush lanes – that if they don’t get to the quarterback, Spiderman is going to be lurking in the neighborhood, and he can compensate for missed tackles or elusive runners in the open field.

Notre Dame’s problem is that they don’t have a great pass-rushing defensive end. Actually, they don’t even have a consistently very good one. Okwara, Trumbetti and Rochell will make some plays on the quarterback behind the line of scrimmage. But none has shown consistent pass-rushing ability in game competition, so they’ll have to do it with multiple blitzers creating deception and confusion. Day is their best pure pass rusher, which is why he’s a good choice at end in a three-down look.

Day and Rochell will not be moved off the football. Day is among the quickest defensive tackles in the country. Rochell is making better penetration as he learns some tricks of the trade from Keith Gilmore, and he’s strong as an ox. At the very least, he’ll hold the point of attack like a wall.

If Daniel Cage can consistently hold the point of attack and not get steered out of the play, now you have the makings of a very good rush defense, which is another variable that helps your pass rush by putting the opposition into 3rd-and-longs.

Cage held the point of attack and made more penetration than we saw from him last year. Will double check on how many snaps he took, but his work volume against Texas was significant, or as significant as it could be against an offense that snapped it just 52 times. He also still gets caught up in traffic too often and he’s yet to play consistently effective with Gilmore’s “matching hands” philosophy. He has the ingredients; he still has a long way to go before he takes full advantage of them.

Jerry Tillery made a sack and is a long, agile body in there. He also took some outside rush lanes that were perplexing and ineffective. Jonathan Bonner has more natural pass rush ability than Rochell, and has some of Rochell’s Rock of Gibraltar characteristics. He can provide 6-to-10 reps a game, depending upon the game. He has long-term potential. Rochell’s ability to move inside in passing situations gives Notre Dame a third nose with Cage and Tillery. 

There’s not a lot of depth anymore after the attrition. The margin for error is tight, particularly since it remains to be seen how much Grant Blankenship and Jay Hayes will contribute. Blankenship is third at the “big end” position behind Rochell and Bonner; Hayes is third at the three-technique behind Day and Tillery, and as long as Day stays healthy, he’ll get 90+ percent of the snaps.

Speaking of Day, he is a fast, disruptive, relentless, game-changing player up front. It’s difficult to imagine too many defensive tackles nationally that play as fast and hard as Day.

“If Sheldon Day can stay healthy, the sky is the limit,” accurately summarized Dan Hicks.

There’s potential here. These are a mix of veterans who have been through the wars and young guys that show potential to play effectively if not dominantly. If they can stay healthy, it’s a front that should get better as the season progresses.


RUNNING BACKS – MOVING FORWARD

The loss of veteran running back Tarean Folston to a torn ACL is a significant blow to a corps that already was thinned following the transfer of Greg Bryant.

Making Folston’s injury more difficult to accept is the way it appeared to have occurred. It wasn’t ugly like some ACLs are. It didn’t appear that Folston’s injury occurred as a result of contact from a defensive player. It was just a right foot plant, not a hard jam into the ground.

Seeing head trainer Rob Hunt with Folston and a bleak-looking Notre Dame orthopedic surgeon Chris Balint -- who was the first to feel for the ACL injury -- you knew it was bad, and Folston’s forlorn look confirmed it. As players one-by-one consoled him, you knew his season was over.

So now it’s C.J. Prosise, Josh Adams, Dexter Williams and Josh Anderson with Kelly not mentioning converted receiver Justin Brent as a viable option at the present time. A position switch by another position player is not necessary at this time. At best, he would be No. 4 on the depth chart in the immediate future, and probably No. 5 because of Anderson’s knowledge of the offense and protections. Those four with Brent to take practice reps are enough for now.

It’s rather amazing that the Texas game was Prosise’s first at running back. We said it during the spring and again this pre-season. Despite never having played a college game at running back, Prosise already had a natural running back look to him, and he validated that notion with an impressive 18-carry, 111-yard rushing effort that slipped back to 98 with a couple of lost yardage plays that he couldn’t do much about.

Prosise was very productive. He is a big, powerful, fast, fall-forward running back. Defenders bounced off him and Prosise carried defenders (and Irish offensive lineman) when the mass of humanity piled up.

Prosise has outstanding feet. If there’s wiggle room in traffic, the combination of his vision and those quick feet will get him to where he needs to be. Again, this only comes as a surprise because it was his first game at running back. We saw these exact traits in the Blue-Gold Game.

On one early run in which Prosise shot through a hole, Flutie said, “Pure speed,” which we’re going to see frequently when the running cylinder opens up. But he’ll also get the tough yards, which is why a 1,000-yard rushing season awaits.

Clearly, freshman Josh Adams earned the right to form a tandem with Prosise this week against Virginia. But Prosise will have to be a 18-to-25 carry back if the Irish are going to remain committed to the running game, especially as they venture into venues like Virginia and particularly Clemson where veterans need to carry the day. Prosise is physically prepared to handle it, but it’s a long season when you tote it a couple hundred times plus, so the supporting cast is key.

Adams was very impressive, finishing with five carries for 49 yards and the two scores to become the first freshman running back to score two touchdowns in a game since Darius Walker had a pair against Michigan in 2004. Like Prosise, Adams is a big, galloping running back who has burst.

His first touchdown run showed his speed to the edge, and then the ability to cut back, get back into a north-south mode, lower his pads and power into the end zone. It was a well-designed, well-executed play.

Adams lined up in the slot as the only man to the left of the formation. Durham Smythe and Tyler Luatua aligned staggered on the right side. Chris Brown was a handful for cornerback Duke Thomas beyond the blocks of Smythe and Luatua. It was freshman Equanimeous St. Brown who occupied cornerback Bryson Echols at the goal line, steering him out of the way for Adams to continue up the alley, where his head of steam overpowered an angling linebacker Edwin Freeman.

(If that’s an indication of how St. Brown blocks most or all of the time, he uses his hands very, very well – beyond catching with them.)

By the time Adams burst for a 25-yard touchdown with two minutes left in the third quarter, the Longhorns were toast and Adams had made an incredibly strong first impression. He has the skill set to validate our notion when the freshman class signed in February. At the time, our film analysis led us to believe that the three-star Adams had an excellent chance to emerge ahead of four-star classmate Dexter Williams. He is the frame and a skillset similar to that of Prosise.

Notre Dame’s offensive line was blowing Texas’ front off the ball and Notre Dame’s running backs were running freely. Yet Adams did exactly the right thing on that 25-yard score. He saw the tunnel and hit it hard to easily sprint into the end zone. He also showed good vision, feet and the ability to find the running lane on a seven-yard carry.

He had a bust on a read-option play that led to a seven-yard loss by Malik Zaire. Linebacker Malik Jefferson drilled him, which was an off-the-edge run blitz in which Adams had no chance.

Kelly continues to sing the praises of Adams for his maturity and intelligence in picking up the offensive scheme, most importantly, pass protections. If he continues to protect the football and remains sound in his pass protection assignments, he’ll take some of the required carries away from Prosise, which would be a good thing over a 12-game regular season.

Dexter Williams came in and hit it, and then showed some vision on a play when the offensive line didn’t blow the ‘Horns off the ball. He had seven carries for 24 yards, but Kelly basically has said he’s the third-team running back and he’s not ready for that. Crash course or not, the staff will pick its spots wisely with Williams until he catches up. He has natural running back instincts, too, but the pass protections are a bit trickier.

Anderson won’t be a guy that touches the ball much if he’s in the game. He, too, understands the offense and pass protections. There’s a role for him, although Prosise and Adams should remain pretty consistent as pass blockers.


OF STUTTERS AND STATEMENT DRIVES

There comes a point in every blowout where the dominant team takes charge. Notre Dame’s offense established itself with a nine-play, 95-yard late in the first quarter before going into hibernation for a while.

The 95-yard drive began with Prosise rushing for 13 yards out of the shadow of the goal line and Zaire completing three passes in a four-play stretch for 51 yards. A horse-collar penalty set up Adams’ 14-yard touchdown run for a 14-0 lead.

The Irish weren’t very productive for the next 25 minutes. In fact, the Irish scored just three points during that span and went 17 minutes between points. But the five-play, 90-yard third quarter drive was the first of three scoring marches in a row, and before you knew it, the Longhorns had cashed their ticket for the return flight to Austin.

It was an important stretch of time that formed the lasting image from the Texas game. In openers against Purdue in 2010, Temple in 2013 and Rice in 2014, the Irish struggled putting away inferior opponents. Texas, too, was an inferior opponent. But the Longhorns are still the Longhorns. They’re a vulnerable crew and good teams – teams that go on to achieve great things – slam the door in the face of the opponent when it’s time.

The great thing about the dominant stretch from the 9:59 mark of the third quarter through the 11:46 mark of the fourth quarter is that it allowed the Irish to not only tap into their depth, but for key reserves to get quality live reps against Texas. Brian Kelly teams were unable to get solid backup reps in most of the previous five Septembers because potential blowouts have remained close enough that he’s stayed with his starters.

In the midst of the scoring burst was the notable defensive performance. By limiting the Longhorns to 163 yards total offense, it was the first time in 54 games – since Army in November of 2010 – that the Irish held an opponent to less than 200 yards total offense.


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