Notebook: Malik Zaire trying to find his edge as Notre Dame's No. 2 QB

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — He entered August with not only the hope, but the opportunity, to surge to the top of the quarterback depth chart at Notre Dame, a concept that in mid-September is difficult to believe ever happened.

Sophomore Malik Zaire has gotten into both of 11th-ranked Notre Dame’s games to date, but largely to kill clock rather than to do anything meaningful in the pair of 31-point victories, as his collective four rushes and zero passing attempts suggest.

Behind closed doors, Zaire’s uber-competitive nature and senior starter Everett Golson’s dramatic rise has concocted a coaching challenge for fifth-year head coach Brian Kelly.

“Quite frankly, it’s hard for a No. 2,” said Kelly, whose Irish (2-0) head to Indianapolis on Saturday for a Shamrock Series football matchup with Purdue (1-1), a four-touchdown underdog whose coach, Darrell Hazell, continues to decline just who his No. 1 or 2 are among incumbent Danny Etling and challenger Austin Appleby.

The matchup at 63,000-seat Lucas Oil Stadium, ND’s eighth-ever appearance in Indy but only second since Irish coaching icon Knute Rockne took his 1922 team down to throttle Butler, 31-3, is not yet a sell-out. The plan remains for the stadium’s retractable roof to be open for the game.

Kelly’s mind, meanwhile, isn’t open to a larger role for Zaire in games, unless score or injury dictates so.

“He’s got four seasons of competition, and he’s sitting behind Everett Golson,” Kelly said of Zaire’s mind-set. “I mean, he’s not coming into practice every day with a big smile on his face, going, ‘Boy, this is great sitting behind Everett.’

“We’re trying to teach him every day, give him opportunities to grow every single day, He’s getting 40 percent of the reps (in practice). He’s getting a lot of reps. In the NFL, he’d be getting about 15 percent of the reps.”

Zaire, who had a strong Blue-Gold Game last spring, redshirted in 2013 as ND’s No. 3 option behind starter Tommy Rees (likely soon to be launching a coaching career) and Andrew Hendrix (now staring at Miami of Ohio and facing Michigan in Ann Arbor this weekend).

Mononucleosis early last season took Zaire out of the practice rotation. And Kelly’s decision later on to keep him with the varsity rather than put him on scout team further limited his on-field practice opportunities.

But he advanced in the spring when Golson had to earn back his spot after missing the 2013 season because of academic misconduct. And Kelly is trying to recapture that edge and that energy Zaire showed when he was in the throes of a quarterback battle.

“We want to make sure we continue to develop him, because we think so much of him,” Kelly said. “But it’s not easy for him.

“And sometimes we have to jump on him a little bit, because you have a tendency to maybe lack a little bit of that sharpness and concentration. We’ve got to keep reminding him, ‘Hey, you’re one play away from leading this football team.’

“That’s a daily kind of conversation.”

Still no word

As the Notre Dame academic fraud investigation process passed into its 45th day on Thursday, the media continued to try to be creative in the way they asked Kelly about the sustained silence.

And Kelly, in turn, continues to be inventive in how he says he knows very little, if not nothing.

“You’re anxious. I’m anxious. We’re all anxious,” he said Thursday night after practice. “We all want to know, but there’s nothing that we can do.”

Three starters — cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams and wide receiver DaVaris Daniels — along with backup linebacker Kendall Moore have been held out of practices and games since Aug. 15. Reserve safety Eilar Hardy joined them in limbo on Aug. 28.

“They’re trying to move as best they can through the process,” Kelly said, “but I don’t know much.”

Nor does Kelly feel it’s his place to press the issue.

“This is separation of church and state, in a sense,” he said. “This is the deans, and they have their domain and that’s their business. And it truly is their business, and I respect that.

“They don’t give me advice about play-calling, and that’s the truth of the matter. Whether that’s a poor analogy or not, they handle academic honesty and they handle those things. I mean, I want my guys back, but I get it. That’s their job, and I really don’t have any say in it.”

Personnel matters

• This was sophomore wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr.'s first week of practice at full speed and with full contact since last spring.

But Kelly said the son of Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter won’t make his college debut against Purdue on Saturday night.

“He looked pretty good,” Kelly said. “I think he’s definitely going to be ready to go for Syracuse.”

The Irish play Syracuse on Sept. 27 in East Rutherford, N.J. after a bye week next Saturday. The schools could receive word as soon as Monday from ABC/ESPN as to when that game will kick off.

• The offensive freshman sensation of training camp was tight end Tyler Luatua, though that hasn’t translated into much playing time in the first couple of games.

“We’ve been in (fewer) two-tight end sets,” Kelly said. “I think we’ll continue to progress him in practice, and we feel confident in his inline skills. I think that it’s pretty clear that he has the physical tools that we’re looking for.

“We’re pretty high on him. It’s just we’re going to play Ben (Koyack) as much as we can, and we’ve been in more open sets. It’s more about what we choose to do with our offensive sets than the individual himself.”

• First-year graduate assistant coach Kyle McCarthy continues to inspire everyone around him as he battles cancer and continues to coach.

“He’s still going through his regimen of chemo, and he hasn’t missed a day. Incredible,” Kelly said of the former Irish safety. “It’s been awesome to be around him and get to know him even more. It doesn’t surprise me why he’s been such a favorite around here.

Squibs

• Two former Notre Dame players step back into the spotlight Friday night as the University of Cincinnati becomes the last FBS team to kick off its 2014 season when it hosts Toledo (1-1).

Gunner Kiel, who never played in a game during his 15½-month stay in South Bend, is scheduled to start at quarterback for the Bearcats, his first game action of any kind since the 2011 Indiana High School playoffs while starring for Columbus East.

Less notable, perhaps, but more intriguing is tight end Jake Golic’s presence in the offensive mix. The brother of former Irish offensive guard Mike Golic Jr., and the son of ex-ND defensive standout Mike Golic Sr. made five cameos during his four seasons at ND. His next reception, however, will be the first of his college career.

He transferred to Cincinnati to play in the 2013 season, but a chronic back condition that limited him at ND sidelined him for the season at UC and convinced him to give up football. A stem cell procedure last winter changed his mind, and the NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility.

Kiel and Golic are two of 20 transfers on the UC roster, roughly half of whom are from junior colleges.

• A familiar face returns to the NBC booth to call the game Saturday night.

Tom Hammond, the former long-time Notre Dame play-by-play voice on NBC, will fill in for Dan Hicks, who will call The Tour Championship at the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup finale in Atlanta.

• If the game in Indy does not sell out, it would not figure into Notre Dame’s home sell-out streak, which stands at 239 straight. The last non-sellout at Notre Dame Stadium occurred on Thanksgiving Day in 1973.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire makes a big run on his first career play during the Notre Dame vs. Rice football game on Aug. 30. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)