Notre Dame's Malik Zaire earns first crack at solving LSU defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The room was still buzzing Monday from Brian Kelly’s jolting admission that his trump card against the nation’s most adept pass defense Tuesday would be a player with 20 career pass attempts to his name.

Perhaps unaware of Notre Dame sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire’s very limited game exposure, a media member pressed LSU coach Les Miles over whether he was “about to watch a lot of film on Malik?”

"Yeah,” deadpanned Miles. “What, about 2½ quarters? That’s just about it.”

At which point he glanced over at his Notre Dame coaching counterpart, Kelly.

“That’s right,” Kelly said with a wide grin. “That’s all I’ve got.”

And so a little over 24 hours before the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl matchup between Kelly’s Irish (7-5) and 22nd-ranked LSU (8-4) kicks off (3 p.m. EST, ESPN), the coach looking to avoid the first five-game losing streak of his 24-year head coaching career plopped the great unknown into the equation.

Kelly maintains that deposed senior starter Everett Golson would be in tag-team mode against the favored Tigers and that no one should read implications for the 2015 season into the decision, given Golson does retain a fifth-year option.

But in the end Zaire’s limited résumé suggests something about Golson, at least in the short term — that his propensity to be combustible, via 22 turnovers, finally overtook his upside in Kelly’s mind.

As for Zaire’s upside, the sophomore admitted recently he had maturity issues to overcome once Golson separated with a fierce runner’s kick in the open competition last offseason.

He brooded over the decision, admittedly was intermittent with his focus thereafter and was never consistent enough in practice to convince Kelly he was a viable alternative until the weeks that followed the 49-14 drubbing from USC Nov. 29 in the regular-season finale.

“He still has to show the ability to do it in a game situation,” Kelly said of the 6-foot, 212-pounder, “but in practice, he showed command, he showed confidence.

“He showed the ability to run the offense in the manner that I wanted him to. And now he’s got to go do it when the lights come on.”

And Golson must stay engaged.

Kelly said the ratio of Tuesday’s quarterback time-share arrangement was flexible and not scripted, and that performance and flow of the game would dictate how much of Golson would be bystander and how much reliever.

The 6-foot, 200-pounder finished the regular season 33rd nationally in passing efficiency. His 3,355 passing yards this season are the fourth-most in school history, his 29 TD passes third-most in a single season.

With eight rushing TDs in 2014, Golson is two away from topping the ND single-season charts in that stat category, and with 226 points, he’s eight behind Brady Quinn’s school record for points responsible for in a season, set back in 2006.

Indelibly, a look of defeat in his body language in the moments leading up to Golson getting pulled in the first half of the USC blowout, perhaps suggested to Kelly he wasn’t the same QB.

“This game is not just a physical game,” Kelly said Monday. “Other things just have to come with it, especially when you’re talking about the quarterback position.

“There has to be a level of trust and confidence, and I think at times maybe he lost a little bit of that. He worked really hard at regaining his trust and confidence over the past three weeks.

“Certainly a little bit of that was part of what happened in the first two quarters there, and I think he readily admits it and looks at it, and I think he’s better because of it.”

The one skill-set advantage Zaire has always held over Golson, even before the barrage of turnovers, is a comfort level in running read option. Along with that comfort, comes proficiency.

And three of the quarterbacks who gave LSU’s eighth-rated overall defense that most headaches in 2014 were Auburn’s Nick Marshall, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott and Florida’s Jeff Driskel, all of whom had played two-dimensionally at a high level against the Tigers this season.

Largely unspoken, but heavily implied by Kelly on Monday was that Zaire, with those read-option skills, gives the ND offense a better chance to help the injury-diluted Irish defense stay off the field.

Kelly wants to play keepaway against a team that has mastered that art and ranks fourth in the nation in time of possession.

Miles, meanwhile, seemed a bit stunned by Kelly’s quarterback bombshell and characterized Golson and Zaire as having similar skill sets.

When asked what that might mean for his defense, Miles responded, “We really haven’t treated them any differently than big, tall slow guys,” he said with a laugh. “We’re putting our faster guys on the field, and we recognize the challenge there.”

Kelly recognizes the many challenges LSU presents elsewhere on the field, particularly in its running game. Led by freshman Leonard Fournette — a 6-1, 230-pounder who was a Louisiana high school 100-meter dash standout — LSU is 46-4 under Miles when it has a running back crack the 100-yard mark.

And LSU may have its own QB concoction Tuesday, though sophomore Anthony Jennings said he took all the reps with the first team during bowl practices. Still freshman Brandon Harris is considered the long-term future at the position if he can show more maturity on the mental side.

And he may be the more difficult matchup for ND to contend with if Miles were to copy-cat Kelly’s tag-team approach.

One subtle lineup change for Tuesday’s game that become amplified the more Zaire plays is injured starting right tackle Christian Lombard (back) very likely being replaced by sophomore Mike McGlinchey, who like Zaire, will be making his first collegiate start.

Because Zaire is left-handed, it will be McGlinchey — and not standout left tackle Ronnie Stanley — protecting the sophomore’s blind side.

Zaire exudes so much bravado, he probably doesn’t believe he has a blind side. But he did get a taste on humility on the eve of him being announced as the team’s new No. 1 quarterback.

He tweeted late Sunday night on his Twitter account that a fan asked to have his picture taken with Zaire, thinking he was getting a photo with 6-1, 251-pound former Irish linebacker Kendall Moore.

As for how Zaire’s teammates are absorbing the news, Kelly didn’t get a clear vibe, nor was he looking for one.

“It’s a limited democracy,” he said. “There are some things that they’re going to have to roll with the head coach. And we practiced them both quite a bit with the first group.

“I think the most important thing was just to make sure that relative to verbal cadence and operation that we were seamless. That was the most important thing.

“They just want to do their job. And the guy behind them? They have trust and confidence in my decision that I’m going to put the best guys out there.”


Notre Dame sophomore Malik Zaire will be a camp counselor at Elite 11 in July. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)