What’s the Plan with Malik Zaire as Notre Dame’s Starting Quarterback?  ‘Kick Some A**’

Photo:  Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire
Photo: Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire

Quarterback Everett Golson has done the expected and will transfer from the University of Notre Dame.  Now that Irish fans have had several days to digest this latest development, the true impact of Golson’s departure can be examined.a

The most immediate impact is the ascension of junior Malik Zaire to the starting quarterback position, but another critical advancement involves sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer or incoming freshman quarterback Brandon Wimbush becoming Zaire’s backup.  Notre Dame has suddenly transitioned from great depth at the quarterback position to none at all, with Kizer redshirting his freshman season and receiving almost no spring practice repetitions and Wimbush yet to even arrive to campus.

The natural instinct is to protect the starting quarterback.  With no experience behind Zaire the road to success is completely paved by the newly-named starting quarterback’s ability to stay healthy, which is problematic given Zaire’s greatest weapon is his legs.

The conundrum Notre Dame currently finds itself in is surprisingly similar to the problems faced against LSU in the Music City Bowl.  How could Notre Dame defeat an SEC team for the first time in nearly a decade when starting a first-time quarterback in Malik Zaire?  How could the Fighting Irish even hope to win when seemingly half the Notre Dame defense was on life support and set to face one of the best running backs in the nation in Leonard Fournette?

The solution was beautiful in its simplicity, although challenging in execution, and was described eloquently by starting right tackle Mike McGlinchey.  In what should go down as one of the greatest quotes in program history, when asked by reporters after Notre Dame’s victory over LSU what the game plan involved, the six-foot-seven-inch McGlinchey grunted, “Kick some ass.”

Notre Dame’s game plan against LSU was to ride the coattails of its most talented unit – the offensive line – and literally pound the storied SEC program into submission.  The plan worked to perfection with the Irish offense rushing the ball 51 times and piling up 263 yards on the ground, and Malik Zaire capturing Music City Bowl MVP honors.

The solution to Notre Dame’s depth concerns at quarterback for the 2015 season is also beautiful in its simplicity but challenging in execution, and once again is best described by McGlinchey: kick some ass.

The time has come for head coach Brian Kelly to completely unleash his offense in year six of his program.  Kelly has been hampered by innumerable setbacks at the quarterback position during his time in South Bend, from Jimmy Clausen declaring early for the NFL draft, to Dayne Crist’s struggles with injury and development and Everett Golson’s academic misdeeds and ultimate transfer.   Letting Zaire loose and allowing him to run with the football with no depth behind him is concerning, but Notre Dame needs to push all of its chips into the center of the table and play as though there is nothing to lose.

It has been many years since Notre Dame has possessed this much talent on its offensive depth chart.  Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has put together one of the best units in the nation to clear a path for talented running backs Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant, as well as dynamic slotback C.J. Prosise.  The Irish have a home run threat at wide receiver as good as any other in the country in Will Fuller and a towering safety outlet in possession receiver Corey Robinson.  The Notre Dame offense has the potential to be great if Zaire is allowed to aggressively maestro its performance.

In reality, Notre Dame doesn’t have much choice but to let its offense run wild.  Much like the game plan for LSU – a contest where LSU running back Leonard Fournette averaged over 13 yards per carry – Kelly had to lean on his ability to run the ball to help his porous and injury-ravaged defense.  Notre Dame finished 71st in the nation in total defense in 2014 and surrendered an average of 43-points per contest in its last five regular season games.  While injuries played a large role in the defensive downturn, questions also remain as to whether or not defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has an answer to up-tempo offenses, as witnessed by Notre Dame’s humiliating 49-14 defeat at the hands of USC during the 2014 regular season finale.  Brian Kelly has to let Zaire operate the full spectrum of the offense despite the risk of injury because he has no choice – Notre Dame will need to score often to assist its vulnerable defense.

An aggressive offensive approach offers high risk and high rewards, but it’s an approach that can help Notre Dame defeat the best teams in the country, as it did against LSU in the Music City Bowl.  In year six of the Kelly regime, it’s better for Notre Dame to lose a bar fight trying to kick some ass McGlinchey style than Mayweather it in the hopes of conservatively hugging their way through the 2015 season.

The stage is set and the talented quarterback from Kettering, OH now has the floor.

Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor.  He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him.  Scott can be reached at scottjanssenhp@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

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  1. I’m surprised Texas wasn’t in the mix of teams, that’s the one place he’d probably be assured of a starting job.

  2. I believe the first reference to the term “kick ass” was first coined by U.S. General George S. Patton.

    ” We’re going to hold onto them by the nose and we’re going to kick them in the ass.
    We’re going to kick the hell out of them all the time and we’re going to go through them like crap through a goose! ”

    Thirty years from now, when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you, “What were you doing when Notre Dame won the National Championship?” , you won’t have to say, “Well… like bj, I shoveled shit in Louisiana.”

  3. According to multiple sources ND did not block any of the schools on Golson’s list. so he either out of respect he did not put any opponents on the schedule on his list or he knew they would block it so didn’t bother. Either way, Golson has always been a stand up guy, and has handled himself with dignity while at ND, even through diversity. I would speculate that he knew that he did not win the competition. They said at the beginning of the spring that they would keep track of stats and who ever had better stats would start. If I were a gambling man I would guess that Zaire won the stat sheet and Golson and Kelly mutually separated. And I guarantee that Kelly wishes nothing but the best for him. But to get to the NFL he can’t sit on the bench and play second fiddle. That is my guess. Good luck Golson, loved you in the Gold and Blue. Represent the Irish with pride were ever you go.

  4. Does anyone know definitively where the phrase “kick ass” comes from? I got a guess. When sprinting (running as fast as possible) runner will often kick his ass while trying to expedite his leg-speed. That’s what makes sense to me. So i.e. McGlinchy’s saying everyone’s gotta sprint-not-run. Excel-not-manage. Give it 120%-not-110%. etc.

    I agree. If/When that happens, our Irish shall be scary-good.

  5. The name of the game this season for the Irish should be to score a ton of points. They potentially have three dynamic running backs and I am including Zaire as one of the three. Prosise has tons of ability and the wide receivers can be as good as any around, if they get the ball. I really do not think the Irish will miss Golson unless the two newcomers fall flat on their face and that could happen only if Zaire gets hurt.
    I love the offensive line and feel they can do the job against just about anyone. We know our running backs are more than capable. I guess when you get down to it, if we can score 17 – 32 pts. a game and play decent defense, the season will be a success. Only time will tell and you never know until they play the games. Go Irish!!!

  6. Beatha

    I understand why any other school would do that. But when you listen to some of the flowery prose about how the ND experience is different than other schools etc. it just seems petty to me. First off I don’t think Golson would have much of an advantage.
    I assume that the Irish practice much like other teams where the defense goes against the opponents simulated offense.
    Since Golson wasn’t very good at reading defenses to start with, I doubt he understands BVG’s.

    From a purely liberty related standpoint, Golson has graduated and is no longer a student at ND so why should they have any right to control any part of his life anymore?

    I contend they don’t.

  7. @David,
    Agree with you 100%. Great insight you have. Only other thing is Golson’s egotism in hoarding this Spring’s coaching and reps for his own benefit, taking them from DeShone Kizer.

  8. What Mike!

    While I enjoy your reason in most posts, that last one is just crazy…
    Why would any team allow a former player to move on to a school that’s on their coming schedule. Golson knows the intricacies of the entire team. To think he wouldn’t use that to his advantage is simply naive.

  9. never intended to come back and took away important snaps from Kizer. no way to treat your alma mater. good for ND blocking a homecoming in Tx uniform. Good luck and Go Irish!

  10. I think it’s petty of the University to block Golson from going anywhere he wants. I would expect better from ND, no way to treat a graduate.

  11. I hope Golson all the best with what ever team he ends up with. I really think he is a great QB and will make an NFL roster at least as a backup. Golson gave a lot to this university, and we should not forgot that it took tons of courage to come back after being suspended when he could have just transferred at that point. Good luck Golson, thanks for all the memories.

  12. Zaire is a much better passer than he’s given credit for, and any coach preparing for him as a Tony Rice type QB will get badly burned. Rice was a mediocre passer; his career passing percentage was 48.3%. Zaire is currently at an even 60%, although as is often mentioned there isn’t much data–he has a total of 35 attempts so far. But I think he will show everyone this year that he has what it takes to be a pro.

  13. I will wish EG all the best in his transfer. I do not forget how important he was in 2012. With that being said, I haven’t forgotten 2013, which should have been his year to really breakout, but, that debacle is also past history. So it’s now time for MZ to be the man. He has some skill set and intangibles he brings that I think will be spectacular. When I watch him, he has similarities that remind me of Tony Rice. His ability to run the read option will really add with his running ability and physical size. His throwing though not his best strength, isn’t bad and will only improve. What I like best, his attitude and not being rattled. He wants adversity and I like that. As to the defense, I think will be much better and has better depth. I think we will see a more complete team on the field. A 10-2, 9-3 season would be realistic but anything could happen (I for one never saw 12-0 back in 2012). I just hope there is a more consistent commit to the run and if games get out of hand, get the backup QB’s PLAYING TIME.

    Go ND

  14. This’ll be the first season we get to see an actual BK offense as designed, because it will be the first time he’s had a QB that is physically and mentally capable of operating its read option running attack. It’s the cornerstone of the entire system, and with it we should see a team that looks much more like that which faced LSU, with the exception that Malik will have had 9 more months of prep, and the team as a whole will be healthy. Considering the justifiably high rating of the LSU defense, especially the DB group, it’s not at all surprising that Malik struggled in the passing game. The best QB’s in the SEC struggled with them as well. But that he ran for nearly 100, and never looked physically or psychologically rattled speaks mightily of the kids prowess, poise and durability.
    With a meaningful running attack, and therefore usable play action; a tough offensive line that appreciates a reliable QB, and an arm that can hit a 4.4 reciever dead in the hands at 70 yards (he didn’t even have to adjust), this offense is likely to stun it’s first substantial opponents.
    Put that together with a defense that’s deeper and more talented than the one we saw open the season last year… ND should make a serious run this year. Nobody on our schedule fields a defense as good as ’14 LSU. The up tempo gives fits to the teams that can’t chew clock, but we’ll be able to this year; and while a few of the opponents have offensive talent, none of them have terrifying offensive attacks…including USC.
    There’s reason to fear the unknown in Kizer, but Malik looks to be a big tough kid that knows how to take a hit. And for all we know Kizer could be another great in waiting.
    As understandably difficult as it may be for so many to accept, ND looks to have at least 3 years of play off contending runs ahead of it. Kelly’s had a rough road, but he’s done some great, albeit arduous work.

  15. I also agree with Mike T. It’ll be crucial to give the back-ups some playing time whenever possible. I’m happy with Kizer and Wimbush backing up Capt. Jack Sparrow. A good running game is the QB’s best friend. With Folston, Bryant, Prosise and the O-Line, the Irish can play some smash-mouth football this season. I am far more concerned about special teams and sloppy play than about the QB position.


  16. Ripper and Jack

    I think something else that needs to be taken into account was the defense was not only learning a new more complicated system but also a completely different philosophy with more risk taking on blitzes etc. The silver lining in all those young players having to play possibly before they were ready is that now they’ve already had their baptism by fire. Even if there are some key injuries, there are guys now with a better part of a season under their belt with BVG’s defense.
    I think the defense is going to surprise a lot of opponents and wouldn’t be surprised if early in the season they are in the top ten of Div 1 defenses.
    Hopefully the coaching staff has addressed the problem of losing Schmidt last year and has worked with other linebackers on not just playing but making the calls for the defense.
    You could tell a big difference when he went out last year, it seemed the defense relied more on pure athleticism rather than strategy and everyone in the proper place after that.

  17. I don’t think you write off the defense just yet. If they can keep teams under 21 points a game they win most of their games. The defense has a second year under BVG and several LB’s that are able to handle the play calling. The safties should be better and the d-line should be better. I’m not saying 2012, but better than the last 5 games.

  18. I don’t think we can say very much about ND’s defense, given how badly it was decimated. Something like 11 starters injured, three possible starters gone before the start of the season, having to throw anyone, even non-position players into the breech, just to field a team. I can’t see how anyone can properly assess a DC given all of that. ND was a demoralized, depleted unit when they faced SC for the final game of the season. It was a given they would lose that game, a far better assessment of the potential came when they played LSU, which led the SEC in defense. They played very well in the fourth quarter, though they were gashed earlier in the game by one of the most talented running backs in the nation. That should be the starting point, and it appears they have talent to be very productive on the D side of the ball….

  19. I agree Mike T.,

    Zaire definitely brings something as a leader that can rally the troops. He definitely strikes me as someone who can bring some focus and intensity to the offense. Plus, he seems as if he has had to work his butt off to get to this point, so he will take advantage. Looking forward to seeing this read option with Zaire!

  20. I think ND is in great shape in the QB position..Most teams would kill to have a backup like a Kizer or Wimbush. All three QBs could start on other teams right now including some SEC teams. Sure they don’t have the experience of Golson but they don’t have the excess baggage either.
    I think the main difference people will see in the offense this year is an attitude of toughness that was not there with Golson at the helm. There is no comparison between Golson and Zaire when it comes to running the ball. Zaire is bigger and stronger and much harder to bring down. He doesn’t seem to be easily rattled either. I think with him Irish fans are going to see a QB that might remind them of Tim Tebow..He may not always look pretty but he’ll just always find a way to win.
    One thing I would like to see this year is if the Irish get ahead in some games, give the backups some playing time under game conditions. I think that is one mistake BK made during last season.
    Hiring Mike Sanford now seems like a brilliant move since you have three young guys that are all going to need to be on a fast learning curve.

  21. Well said David! MZ may not be as polished as EG is, but from what I seen on TV, he is a leader who will be there for his teammates and they will be there for him. His personality fits ND far better than EG’s. MZ will make some mistakes, their is no questioning that, but he is a fast learner who has already seen plenty of mistakes made by EG. If EG dragged this QB battle out through fall camp, I believe Kelly would have made him the starter and then MZ might have transferred. I would rather have MZ over EG and I think by the end of November, we will all be glad MZ is the “Captain Jack Sparrow”. Best wishes to EG though. I hope he finds what he is looking for.

  22. Everett Golson is not an elite QB. He’s a very athletic guy with a gift for throwing a football. There’s lots of those in the world.

    But he cannot and will not protect the football, he does not respond well to criticism & coaching, and he visibly gets broody more often than being a leader who rallies his teammates. (Celebrating with teammates when things go well is NOT when leadership shows itself….it’s all the other moments.)

    He may ultimately mature and improve these areas, but it obviously wasn’t going to happen this season at ND…as illustrated by his decision to leave.

    WRT to his ultimate hopes for the NFL, he is simply not resilient and tough, and that is more crucial to making it in the NFL today than a perfect spiral.

    So thanks for the memories and good luck EG, but it’s MZ time.

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