After a season-opening beat down of Texas to kick start the 2015 season, Notre Dame looked like it had its quarterback for the next few years. Malik Zaire, who at the time had three years of eligibility, lit up the hapless Longhorn defense with a near-perfect performance. That all changed the next week, and so too did the course of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame.
Does Notre Dame Beat Clemson?
Malik Zaire staying healthy and playing like the quarterback we saw against Texas would not have done a damn thing to help the Irish defense under the hapless “leadership” of Brian Vangorder throughout the entire season, but would have a more experienced quarterback have made a difference against Clemson in October?
Notre Dame’s offense was completely shut down in the first half of that game, but coming to life over the final quarter and a half. In a rain-soaked game, could the running skills and experience of Zaire have made a difference? Possibility.
Now imagine Notre Dame wins that game and heads into the season finale against Stanford undefeated with a trip to the playoffs on the line. It changes the dynamics of that game quite a bit. Enough to prevent the Irish defense from squandering another late lead as they did in Palo Alto that night? Maybe not.
This is where the Zaire injury starts to impact other seasons and other programs, though. Ultimately, Notre Dame wasn’t going to make the Playoffs or do anything once there if they did with Vangorder. He was an unmitigated disaster that nearly cost Brian Kelly his job.
But let’s say Notre Dame beats Clemson that night in October. Remember, that win by Clemson transitioned them from “Clemsoning” into elite status, and they haven’t looked back.
Does Notre Dame’s 2016 Implosion Happen?
Let’s forget about what impact the Zaire injury had on the 2015 season though, since it wouldn’t have done anything to help Notre Dame’s defense. Fast forward a year, and let’s think about how different that season could have played out if Zaire had never gotten hurt.
We all know that the 2016 season was an absolute mess. Think about where that mess started, though. It started in training camp when Brian Kelly couldn’t pick a starting quarterback. On the one hand, he had Kizer, who finished the 2015 season looking like an elite quarterback.
On the other, he had Zaire who showed glimpses of being an elite quarterback before he got hurt, who Kelly promised would get the job back when healthy (thanks to Showtime’s footage of the post UVA game).
Kelly couldn’t decide even though it was obvious what he should have done. No one wants a player to be Wally Pipped, but the job should ave been Kizer’s from the start. That entire summer, I advocated for Zaire, but once we saw Kizer in action versus Texas, it was apparent that he should’ve never come off the field that night in Austin or the rest of the season.
In some ways, Kelly did the honorable thing by letting Zaire battle for the job and continue to battle for it even when it seemed clear to everyone else that Kizer was the guy. That indecision led to a dynamic that reportedly split the locker room and was a substantial contributing factor to the toxic situation that existed in 2016.
If Zaire never gets hurt against UVA and continued playing as he did, does the 2016 disaster ever even happen? Probably not. There were enough other problems that year that the Irish wouldn’t have magically challenged for the playoffs with stability at quarterback throughout the spring and summer. Still, they certainly wouldn’t have gone 4-8.
And Then Does Kelly Ever Rebuild in Year 8?
As we get further and further down this hypothetical rabbit-hole, things get even more interesting. Let’s assume for a minute that a quarterback controversy-free Notre Dame locker room in 2016 produces an 8-4 record as opposed to 4-8. Does Brian Kelly ever pull the same introspective that led him to tear down the program he had built and build it back up?
Remember, Kelly reluctantly fired Brian Vangorder during the 2016 season. That was still the stubborn Brian Kelly that we were all to used to before his renaissance. He probably doesn’t fire BVG after an 8-4 season, and that means no Mike Elko and, more importantly, no Clark Lea.
It probably would also have meant no Matt Balis, because Kelly likely doesn’t completely overhaul the strength and conditioning program since that was all prompted by the 4-8 fueled overhaul that we saw in 2017.
Long Term Implications on the Notre Dame Quarterback Room
It’s fascinating to think about the long-term implications of Zaire’s injury on the Notre Dame quarterback room too. If Zaire stays healthy and keeps his job through at least 2016, what would have happened in 2017? Zaire probably never transfers to Florida and would have been a red-shirt senior entering his third year of being a starting quarterback at Notre Dame.
Would Deshone Kizer have transferred out at that point? What about Brandon Wimbush? Instead of being the starting quarterback week one against Temple, he could have still been the third-string quarterback.
And what about Ian Book? With such a crowded quarterback depth chart, would Book ever have emerged in 2018? He would have been the 4th stringer in 2017 in this hypothetical and may not ever have been able to work his way out of the shadows.
Instability at the quarterback position has been a hallmark of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame The Zaire injury is the pinnacle of that instability. RIght as it looked like Kelly and Notre Dame had a star, the rug was pulled out from under them, and the next three seasons continue to be marred by instability.
Ironically, a player who may not have ever battled his way up the depth chart had it not been for the Zaire injury putting a lot of other moving parts into motion, has finally brought stability to the quarterback position for Notre Dame. Ian Book enters 2020 as a near three-year starter.
The only other quarterback under Kelly to start games in three seasons at quarterback was Tommy Rees, Notre Dame’s new offensive coordinator. Rees, however, was only a full-time starter in one season (2013).
One injury to Malik Zaire in September 2015 set all of this in motion. Injuries are obviously a part of the game, but it is fascinating to sit back and look at just how much the trajectory of the program changed all because of that injury. It is not crazy to say that Notre Dame’s current run of three straight seasons with ten or more wins never happens if Zaire stayed healthy in 2015.