Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire takes big first step

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND  Answers came in bunches Saturday night.

Yes, Malik Zaire can throw the deep ball — the 66-yard touchdown connection with Will Fuller supplied the evidence.

Yes, Zaire understands the importance of protecting the football  no turnovers against Texas.

Yes, Zaire has the ability, and what coaches call the “football IQ,” to efficiently spread the ball around  seven different players caught passes from him.

But Notre Dame’s 38-3 conquest of the Longhorns  as close to a perfect game as a quarterback can have (19 of 22 passing, 313 yards, 3 TDs)  still left some issues unresolved for the Zaire, who made his first career regular-season start.

What’s in store for next Saturday’s game at Virginia will be interesting.

How is he going to respond to a turnover?

How will he answer the bell when the Irish fall behind?

How will adversity impact his thought process?

Over the next couple weeks, the makeup  in terms of performance and character  of the 6-foot, 222-pound junior lefty will be revealed.

“We’re never satisfied,” Zaire said. “Every game we want to play like we’re playing for the national championship. Every game we want to go out there and have compelling wins. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We can’t take anyone for granted.”

Every game Notre Dame plays is an elimination game. Any misstep along the way will be cause for a re-evaluation of goals and objectives, since there is no reprieve built into the Irish schedule. It’s 12-0 or bust, so the margin for error  even for a rookie under center  is miniscule.

“We had some miscues,” said Zaire. “We ran some plays the wrong way. There were some penalties that were on me; that I take the blame for.

“Finishing drives, with our execution, is something we have to get better at. For being a first game, it was a pretty good job.”

There were a couple fruitless first-half drives that were ripe for production.

“Our main thing was making sure we contained (Zaire), not allowing him to run,” said Texas coach Charlie Strong. Zaire was sacked once and carried nine times for 16 net yards. “(We) just gave him too much time to throw it. When you allow (Zaire) time, he can find (his receivers), which he did. He was able to make the throw.”

“There are a number of things (Zaire) saw for the first time,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “He’ll get better from what was in front of him.

“We put him in a position to succeed. The game plan was such that we wanted to run the football. We did that and gave him some throws we thought would be high percentage. It worked out very well for him.

“He clearly has the ability to throw the football as much as we would need him to throw it, and throw it accurately; vertically, down the field. He threw precision routes on ‘dig’ routes.”

Above and beyond everything else, Zaire valued possession of the football. Irish fans are still squeamish every time the quarterback gets hit, remembering what it was like last year when Everett Golson had trouble hanging onto that greased pig.

Not only did Zaire not fumble, but he didn’t force any passes into the Longhorn defense, to put them at risk of being intercepted.

“(Securing the ball) is something we work on every day in practice,” Zaire said. “(Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach) coach (Mike) Sanford does a great job of stressing the importance of (holding onto) the ball.

“Everybody’s livelihood depends on us keeping that ball.”

“We’re quite aware of where we were last year when we turned the football over,” Kelly said. “Coach Sanford has done a great job of developing that kind of identity with our quarterbacks. It’s going to be, singularly, the reason why we win.”

And another answer from Zaire.

Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire (8) looks to hand off the ball during the first half of the Notre Dame Texas game Saturday, September 5, 2015 in South Bend. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)