When Malik Zaire carried 22 times in Notre Dame’s 31-28 Music City Bowl victory over LSU, there didn’t appear to be the slightest concern with the number of totes the first-time Irish starter totaled against the Tigers.
It was Zaire’s first start, Notre Dame’s last game of the season, and a great opportunity to right the wrongs of November.
But with the start of the 2015 season, the lack of proven depth behind Zaire, and the overriding importance of keeping Zaire upright and healthy through the long grind of the season, the nine carries for 39 yards (minus 23 yards on sacks and lost -yardage plays) was just about the right work volume for Brian Kelly’s liking.
“We had a conversation about it as a staff,” Kelly said. “Since he’s been here, he’s been able to avoid getting hit head-on. He has good vision and a good sense of not taking hits square. We’re less concerned with him taking that big hit, but we know that in certain run situations, it’s going to be physical for him.”
In the case of Zaire and his involvement in the running game, it’s important, but too much of a good thing leads to bad things over the course of a 12-game regular season. Somewhere in the vicinity of 120-to-140 carries would be about right.
“We want him to get the first down and get out of bounds, but we want him to get a first down,” Kelly said. “There was actually one run (against Texas) that we didn’t want him to get out of bounds on.
“We feel comfortable that he’s smart enough and has good enough vision that he’ll know when to get down and when to get out of bounds to avoid the kind of hits that are really needless.”
More productivity in the running game, however, is expected.
“He should have been nine carries for 60, 70 yards, maybe more,” Kelly said.
The yards will come. Zaire’s net 16 yards might very well be his low-water mark of the season, which he offset by completing 19-of-22 passes for 313 yards, three touchdowns and zero interceptions in Notre Dame’s 38-3 victory over Texas Saturday.
“What I liked the most was his accuracy throwing the football,” Kelly said. “The thing we need to work on is some fundamentals in the running game, some communication things with protections, and obviously cadence.”
That’s a change. Zaire appears to have transformed into a pass-first quarterback, which is a far cry from what the red-shirt junior was when he arrived from Kettering, Ohio two years ago.
Against the Longhorns, Zaire – with the help of exceptional pass protection from the offensive line – calmly went through his progressions and took off running only as a last resort.
Between designed runs and ad-libs eluding the pass rush, Zaire’s nine carries was a great number in terms of limiting the hits on him, especially since the Irish were able to coast to victory.
“I don’t see us getting higher than 15 with him,” said Kelly, when asked about Zaire’s 22 carries for 96 yards against LSU. “That’s probably a comfort level. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.
“If we’ve got to come out and red-line him some games to win, we will. But I would say that if he averages nine, 12, 15 at the max, that’s probably where our comfort level is.”
More important than statistical distribution of runs and passes is Zaire’s command of Notre Dame’s offensive operation. When a pass play comes in from the sideline, so too does the protection that accompanies it. But if the opposing defense shifts during pre-snap, it’s up to Zaire to make the protection alteration.
Notre Dame was called for four illegal procedure penalties against the Longhorns – one each by center Nick Martin, left tackle Ronnie Stanley, left guard Quenton Nelson and right guard Steve Elmer. If each is making a mistake in jumping the snap, it’s likely the way in which Zaire is delivering the cadence.
That’s nitpicking considering Zaire has started just two games and played 10 meaningful quarters in his collegiate career. The start to his career has been nothing short of – if not brilliant – very successful, more successful than most first-time starting quarterbacks.
And yet if the Irish are to achieve their goals for the season, nitpicking with Zaire and his teammates is in order.
“Distribute the football, make good decisions, and take care of the football,” said Kelly, succinctly summarizing Zaire’s duties as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. “You’re surrounded by an outstanding offensive line, talented wide receivers, and a running back situation that by the time all is said and done, you’re going to like.
“So distribute it, take care of the offense, manage it and good things will happen. As I said, he doesn’t have to win the game; he just can’t be the reason we lose it.”