Zaire brings spark to offense, makes case for starting job
Brian Hartnett | Saturday, November 29, 2014
LOS ANGELES — Notre Dame sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire’s season began with a 56-yard run on his first collegiate play from scrimmage against Rice on Aug. 30.
It involved the Kettering, Ohio, native watching from the sidelines, even as senior quarterback Everett Golson recorded 22 turnovers.
It included a mid-November insertion into the holder position, one he had never played in his football career.
And in Saturday’s regular season finale against USC, it featured Zaire taking over in the second quarter and providing something different to a then-scoreless Notre Dame offense.
“Everything in life is about getting the opportunity,” Zaire said after Notre Dame’s 49-14 loss to USC on Saturday. “When the opportunity came, I didn’t even look at a make it or break it point. It was more of a chance for me to go out there and help the team win the football game.”
Zaire entered Saturday’s game after USC extended its lead to 35-0, taking advantage of a Golson fumble, his second turnover of the game.
Zaire said his main goal upon taking the field was to bring some energy to a Notre Dame offense that had not moved past the USC 47-yard line up to that point in the game.
“We came too far as a team to have a lack of energy,” he said. “The only thing on my mind was how to spark the team up. We had to make plays, and that’s something that was my mindset going in.”
Senior offensive lineman Nick Martin said Zaire wasn’t afraid to challenge his teammates early.
“Malik came up and goes, ‘Let’s go,’” Martin said. “We go, ‘Hey, we have faith in you, and let’s just get out there and do our job.’”
Sophomore receiver Will Fuller, who said he was “pretty surprised” at the quarterback change, added that Zaire’s presence was noticed as soon as he entered the game.
“He came in with some energy to help the team,” Fuller said.
Zaire’s first pass, his first collegiate attempt, was a 49-yard completion to junior receiver Chris Brown. On the next play, Zaire ran it in from 11 yards out for his first rushing touchdown on the season.
Zaire said the in-game situations forced him to quickly get into a competitive mindset.
“In the game, guys are actually hitting me,” he said. “In practice, it’s kind of like, you get tapped … I think the realness of being in the game definitely sparks me up because it has to, because nobody likes to get hit all the time.”
Zaire finished 9-for-20 with 170 passing yards and also gained a net total of 18 yards on six carries on the ground.
He threw for 26 yards and ran for five more on Notre Dame’s nine-play, 75-yard scoring drive that concluded with a rushing touchdown from sophomore running back Greg Bryant. Zaire also added 47 yards passing on the last drive of the first-half, which concluded with a missed 44-yard field goal by senior kicker Kyle Brindza.
“We tried to get a spark offensively, and Malik gave us that spark,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We had a couple of drops on one drive and missed a field goal [while Zaire was in the game]. … He made some mistakes, which is to be anticipated on it being his first time.”
Going forward, Zaire’s season may have one final chapter, as Kelly said he didn’t have an answer as to whether there will be a quarterback change for the team’s bowl game.
Zaire’s relationship with Golson has been collaborative and that it is unlikely to change, he said, regardless of which player earns the starting nod for the team’s final game of the season.
“It’s never a ‘me-versus-him’ type of thing … this quarterback group, we are the ‘Red Army,’ and we do what we need to do to support each other because honestly, it’s about the team, it’s about getting victories,” Zaire said.
Regardless of his role for the rest of the season, Zaire said his mindset in practice and games will remain the same.
“Every day is another day to get better,” Zaire said. “Every day is another day to get closer to these guys around me and be cohesive and get a lot of team chemistry. … Moving forward, we’re trying to win games now, that’s what’s on our mind.”