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Notebook: Kelly says position switch not in the cards for Malik Zaire

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Since falling out of a time share at quarterback with DeShone Kizer back on Sept. 4, Malik Zaire has logged some kind of statistic for Notre Dame on 14 plays in pure mop-up duty, two plays as a gimmick in high-leverage situations and one going backward in a puddle.

The senior has been a bystander completely in two games, and all but one play in ND’s 10-3 loss to N.C. State played in the periphery of Hurricane Matthew, Saturday in Raleigh, N.C.

For a guy whom head coach Brian Kelly in preseason called one of his five best playmakers, Zaire now has little chance of being reinvented at another position, even though he technically made his only start of the season — Sept. 24 against Duke — as a wide receiver.

“It's very difficult, or I would have put him into the role,” Kelly said during a press conference Tuesday advancing Saturday night’s Notre Dame Stadium matchup between Notre Dame (2-4) and Stanford (3-2).

“We tried to insert him into a role — he's a quarterback. We're not going to change that. Make him a wide receiver or running back? That's not why he came here. I'm not going to insult him into moving his position. He's a quarterback and a darn good one.”

Zaire has 22 passing yards since the Sept. 4 opener at Texas, on 4-of-9 accuracy, all against Nevada on Sept. 10. Over the same time frame, his eight rushing attempts have netted minus-four yards.

“We were trying to figure out how we could get both of them on the field,” Kelly said of Zaire and Kizer, “and you saw we tried to throw it. But, you know, we were trying to fit something that just wasn't there.”

McCaffrey update

A Stanford offense that’s slipped from 40th nationally in total offense to 122nd since last season and from 19th to 100th in rushing offense may be without its most important piece Saturday night.

Stanford coach David Shaw is calling running back Christian McCaffrey’s availability “questionable” for the ND game after the 6-foot, 200-pound junior suffered an undisclosed injury in a 42-16 home loss to Washington State.

Observers have speculated a hip injury, though Shaw declined to offer any details other than a final decision on McCaffrey playing either Friday or Saturday.

When asked if his team was preparing as if McCaffrey would play, ND’s Kelly responded, “Absolutely.”

The Cardinal garnered just 235 total yards against the nation’s No. 65 defense Saturday night, a week after laboring for 215 in a 44-6 loss at new Pac-12 bully Washington.

McCaffrey set an FBS record for all-purpose yards last season, averaging 276 per game. He’s third nationally in that category in 2016, at 188.2. The 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up was third nationally in rushing last season at 144.2 yards per game, and is 23rd this season at 104.0.

Sophomore Bryce Love is Stanford’s No. 2 rusher, with 108 yards on 21 carries. McCaffrey had 35 yards on eight carries, one catch for five yards and three kickoff returns for a total of 43 yards Saturday night before leaving for good in the third quarter.

Third-down blues

The eyesore in ND’s otherwise mostly positive offensive statistics has been third-down production. Admittedly skewed by Saturday’s monsoon-like conditions, the Irish enter their game with Stanford, 111th nationally in third-down conversion percentage (.333).

Even before the N.C. State game, the Irish were a modest 69th.

“Our self-scout shows that we need to be better on first down,” Kelly explained. “There is a trickle-down effect into our third down manageability, if you will. So what we have looked at since Monday is why we were in the numbers that we were.

“It's really the negative plays, and that's got to be cleaned up for us to have a better third-down efficiency.”

Hanging with a new crowd

Since the firing of defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder on Sept. 25, Kelly has given up his longtime spot in the quarterback meeting room during the week to consort with the defensive backs, a group that counts five freshmen among the eight players in the two-deeps.

“There is a lot to like,” Kelly said. “Where do I start? Football IQ, I like. They understand the game. They play the ball well in the air. I think, more importantly, (there’s) an eagerness and willingness to be coached. They take coaching very well.

“They want to win a championship, and they want to get a degree. That's a fun place to be for me right now in that room.

“There's a lot of guys in there that are going to be here for several years, which is for me a great teaching environment, for right now and for the future. All of them are absorbing everything that we're doing on a day-to-day basis.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire (9) hasn't seen much playing time since mop-up duty against Nevada at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 10. (Tribune Photo/ BECKY MALEWITZ)