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The Domino Effect

Malik Zaire’s injury the latest in a list of players Notre Dame purportedly “can’t afford to lose.” Until they do.

Well, now it matters.

DeShone Kizer’s journey from Brian Kelly’s springtime clipboard caddy to starting Notre Dame quarterback took less than four halves of fall football.

The first blow to the position’s previously enviable depth occurred about three minutes following Everett Golson’s last test as a Notre Dame student. The second was dealt Saturday afternoon.

Golson decided to go south, now the frustrated Irish faithful hope their 2015 squad doesn’t follow suit, that in the wake of starter Malik Zaire’s fractured ankle inside Scott Stadium in Charlottesville.

Golson and Zaire shared the vast majority of Notre Dame’s practice reps last spring. Kizer received their scraps. Now he’s tasked with scraping together a week of practice that will help account for five to six offensive touchdowns next Saturday, because its likely a beleaguered Brian VanGorder defense will have its hands full with the machine-like precision of Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense.

But that’s a story for another day. Saturday was for Kizer, Will Fuller, and the never-say-die Irish that earned their stripes.

“Look, we've lost our starting running back and our starting quarterback,” said Kelly. “Those are difficult injuries, no question. But we've got a lot of good players around them. DeShone doesn't have to win it himself. As long as we can continue to support him – we have to play better defense, we have to play the pass better. If we can do that and support DeShone, we can be the kind of football team we want to be.”

Kelly omitted the fact that his team’s starting nose tackle, Jarron Jones, no longer suits up on Saturdays, either. Zaire and Jones ranked 1-2 on the short list of players Notre Dame could ill afford to lose this fall – scarcity of depth and the positions’ overall importance in the collegiate game the primary reasons.

Throw in Tarean Folston and the injury gods unleashed a 1-2-3 haymaker before the conclusion of Game Two.

But it wasn’t a knockout punch, at least not yet.

Not with Kizer and the indomitable Fuller riding to the rescue. Not with a defense that – wait, the defense doesn’t belong in this otherwise complimentary space, we’ll save VanGorder’s frustrating collection for another day.

To a man (and woman), Irish Illustrated staff felt Kizer threw the football better than did Zaire in August Camp. But both wore protective red shirts to signify contact wasn’t allowed. And therein lies the difference between the two, because when football contact is present, Zaire generally thrives.

Contact took him out of action Saturday and for the remainder of the season. Now it’s Kizer’s turn at the trigger – one, two, perhaps three seasons earlier than projected.

CONFIDENCE – AND OPPORTUNITY – ARE KEY

His first win, albeit in relief, will forever rank as one for the Irish annals. A heart-stopper. Victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Now Kizer is tasked to repeat what each of Kelly’s four other Irish triggermen have accomplished before him:

Win his first career start.

“Coach Kelly always talks about next man in,” said Kizer post-game. “Since Day One, which started way back in *June, I’ve been preparing as if I was going to be the guy. I competed my butt off against Malik all camp, and expected my time would come eventually throughout the season and now it’s here.”

(*The designation of “June” is telling, in that Kizer clearly wasn’t part of the competition, prior.)

Seemingly irreplaceable talent won’t take the field for the Irish over the next 10 games. Players they purportedly – if we are to be believed – couldn’t afford to lose. Kizer thus ranks as one of those stand-ins with which Notre Dame can’t turn to for a 2015 national title. His head coach announced as much to the world two weeks ago in an innocuous post-camp rundown of his backups, and was forced to reiterate it Saturday night.

“He's really good in protections and understands the things he needs to run our offense,” said Kelly. “I've commented in our pressers, he can win games for us. I want to win a championship with him. We saw today he can win games for us but we need to elevate him to that next level. Now he's going to get first team reps and we can go to work on him.”

Similar work unveiled hidden gems last season when all hope appeared lost. Remember, Will Fuller was supposed to back up DaVaris Daniels, a collegiate player that previously never approached Fuller’s proven worth since. Defensive end Isaac Rochell was behind Ishaq Williams, a laughable reality when pondered today.

No, Joe Montana isn’t the only Irish player who needed injury to befall his teammates to receive his shot to shine.

“Now I have to look at the guys, some of these seniors, and let them know that I’m the guy,” said Kizer. “It might be a little different going from a guy like Malik who’s such a bright, outspoken guy, and I’m not really that kind of guy. But obviously I’m going to have to change my ways and learn where my place is on this team.”

At the head of the table.


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