Notebook: Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire remains relevant after injury

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — With no noticeable limp and in full pads, Malik Zaire was the very last Notre Dame player to leave the practice field earlier this week, outlasting even Harry Hiestand’s overtime-happy offensive linemen.

It was hardly coincidental or irrelevant.

The junior quarterback from Kettering, Ohio, and one 20 players from the Buckeye State that have either signed with or verbally committed to Notre Dame in the coach Brian Kelly Era, won’t take the field Jan. 1, when No. 8 Notre Dame (10-2) squares off against seventh-ranked Ohio State (11-1) in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl at Glendale, Ariz.

But he’ll be far from a bystander. In fact, ND’s starting quarterback for the first two games this season never unplugged following a season-ending right ankle injury in a 34-27 Irish victory, Sept. 12 at Virginia.

“Most (players) that I’ve been around in 25 years, separate for a period of time during injury,” Kelly said Wednesday after an outdoor practice in 60-degree temps, ND’s final session before picking up the routine Sunday at Scottsdale Community College.

“They just naturally separate,” Kelly continued. “He hasn’t separated at any time from the club. It’s been as if he’s had an ankle sprain, not a fracture/dislocation. So quite contrary to any other player that I’ve had, he’s maintained that close association with everything that we do.”

That includes every single quarterback meeting this season, of which Kelly is also a part.

“He’s at every practice,” Kelly said. “Now he’s (in) full gear, taking 1-on-1 reps and throwing the football. He’s probably 60 percent.

“He can’t load on his ankle right now, but he’s still out there throwing the football. Pretty amazing young man.”

And still working to make redshirt freshman quarterback DeShone Kizer better.

The fellow Ohioan, who unlike Zaire was not recruited by the Buckeyes, will make career start No. 11 on Jan. 1 before heading into an offseason where they will directly compete against each other.

“For now we’re just focusing up on the next game,” Kizer said. “Malik has been there since the day he went down to help me develop and help me prepare for the next game. All we’re doing right now is focusing up on Ohio State together.

“He’s taking his abilities and his mind-set and comparing it with mine. It just gives me an opportunity to really show who we are as a quarterback room. … As of now, I’m the quarterback. We all kind of understand that, and it’s up to me to represent everything that goes into that room.”

When it does become more competitive, Kizer will bring with him a longer game résumé and one adorned with historical numbers:

Among them, his 63.4 completion percentage is the fourth-highest in a single season at ND, and the highest career percentage (minimum 150 attempts), just ahead of Jimmy Clausen’s 62.6.

Kizer's 151.7 pass-efficiency rating is the best of any quarterback who has started for Kelly in his 12 seasons as an FBS-level head coach. That rating is tied for the fifth-best single season at ND and is second among first-year Irish starters to John Huarte's 155.1 in his 1964 Heisman Trophy-winning season.

His next rushing touchdown, the 10th of the season if he can get one against Ohio State, would untie him at the top of the single-season rushing TD list with Tony Rice and Rick Mirer.

And he’s done it against seven top 45 defenses nationally, with Stanford, at 48, just missing inclusion in that group. Ohio State will be the third team ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense (10th) Kizer has faced as a starter. The Buckeyes rank sixth in pass-efficiency defense.

“Malik and I have been competing since the day I stepped on campus,” Kizer said. “We’ve done a good job of making sure our ultimate goal is to go out and win games.

“As long as we continue to have that focus, we’re going to help each other develop and help each other prepare for the games, we’re going to be fine. We’ve done a good job with it so far. As it goes forward, I don’t expect anything to change.”

Prosise back in the running

First-team running back C.J. Prosise on Tuesday practiced for the first time since suffering a high ankle sprain Nov. 21 against Boston College at Boston’s Fenway Park, and again on Wednesday.

But so far, it’s still non-contact work for the owner of the 18th 1,000-yard rushing season in school history.

“Rob (Hunt), our head trainer, feels really good that he’ll be ready to play,” Kelly said of Prosise, who also happens to be ND’s fourth-leading receiver.

“I think we’ve got to kind of push him through a threshold of feeling confident (about) cutting and things of that nature, because he’s had enough time to be where we need him to be. I think by the time we get into next week, we should have a real good feel of where he is.”

More personnel matters

The players were released to go home for Christmas, reconvening by noon on Sunday in the Phoenix area. The team will practice later that afternoon.

The coaches and a few players will fly on the team charter Saturday to Arizona. The rest will fly individually from their hometowns.

For pre-bowl practices, the Irish will be using the facilities of the Scottsdale Community College football team, home of the, yes, “Fighting Artichokes.”

By the time the Irish actually play the Fiesta Bowl, they will have 14 practice/game opportunities under their belt, the most in a postseason under Kelly at Notre Dame and one fewer than the NCAA-mandated limit of 15 in spring practice.

• Freshman receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who underwent surgery last month for a third-degree shoulder separation, hasn’t recovered as quickly as hoped and will be held out of the Fiesta Bowl, Kelly said.

“He just doesn’t have enough strength in that shoulder to be put out there to play,” he said.

Jonesing for his brother

Senior nose guard Jarron Jones’ first game in more than 13 months, following a string of injuries, will be the Jan.1 Fiesta Bowl.

His hope is that game No. 2 in that post-injury sequence — next Sept. 3 in Austin, Texas — will include his brother, Jamir, being on the field at the same time.

The younger Jones is verbally committed to ND and expected to sign a national letter-of-intent on Feb. 3.

“If he’s going to play with me, I want him to play,” said Jarron, who has a fifth-year option for 2016. “I don’t want him to just take a redshirt year. I want him to contribute, because I feel like he can contribute.

“He’s a strong kid. He’s smart. That’s one thing about him, he doesn’t give up on himself, especially when I’m there to push him. He knows not to let us down.”

But what position will he play, if he plays in 2016?

Jamir, at 6-3, 220, a year after being pressed into service as a quarterback, spent his senior season at Thomas Aquinas Institute in Rochester, N.Y., chasing quarterbacks on defense and catching passes from them on offense on an unbeaten Class AA state championship team.

Some recruiting services project Jamir to be an outside linebacker in college, while others see him evolving into a defensive end.

“That’s hard, because he can play both,” Jarron said. “That’s the one thing about him — he’s very versatile. He can play D-End, He can play Sam (strongside) linebacker. I think (defensive coordinator Brian) VanGorder said they’re going to try him at Sam. And then if that doesn’t work out, he’s going to move down to rush (end).

“He’s a great pass rusher. He can cover a lot of ground, because of how long he is. It will be interesting to see how he pans out. That’s the one thing I’m interested in seeing with him, how he pans out, especially in his freshman year.”

The last time the two brothers were teammates — in any sport, at any level — was a youth basketball team when Jarron was 10 years old.

“I remember when he scored his first shot, I was on the court with him, and I jumped on him, literally mid-game, because I was so happy for him,” Jarron said. “And now he’s going to be here, and hopefully when he makes his (first tackle), I going to do the same thing, his first sack or whatever.”

And just how good was that Jones brothers-powered basketball team?

“That team was not pretty good,” Jarron said with a laugh. “I’m not going to lie.”

Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire (8), here running the ball Sept. 12 against Virginia in what turned out to be his last game of the 2015 season, has continued to positively influence the Irish after his season-ending ankle injury. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)