Lack of depth at QB won’t change game plan with Zaire

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On Monday, the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen tracked down Brian Kelly, the head coach making his first public comments since the departure of Everett Golson and the ascent of Malik Zaire into the starting lineup. So while the focus of the day was Kelly’s charity golf tournament for the Kelly Cares foundation, the spotlight—as always—was on the state of the Irish.

Since Kelly arrived in South Bend, Notre Dame has struggled to keep a competitive depth chart at quarterback. Kelly inherited a deficiency at the position, with the only scholarship quarterback on his roster Dayne Crist, who was recovering from an ACL injury. Add to that the transfer of Gunner Kiel and the suspension and eventual transfer of Everett Golson, and you find the Irish right back to where they started.

But it appears that Kelly has learned something from the experience. And while there’s absolutely no experience behind Zaire—who himself has only played in one game where the final score was still in question—don’t expect Kelly to protect Zaire from himself, just because there’s no safety net behind him.

Here’s a snippet from Hansen’s report where Kelly talks about playing to Zaire’s strengths and not worrying about what’s behind him.

“I think we have to play him to what his strengths are,” Kelly said Monday at Lost Dunes Golf Club, where his charity golf event, the Kelly Cares Invitational, was taking place.

“We’re just going to have to get a second quarterback ready. But we’re not going to play scared. We’re not going to play tentative. We have too many good pieces around our football team to take the quarterback position and wrap him in bubble wrap.”

Zaire rushed for 187 yards on 33 carries (5.7 per carry average) and two touchdowns in six quarters of meaningful downs, against USC and LSU, and a handful of mop-up cameos last season. He redshirted as a freshman in 2013.

Golson, who joins his new teammates at Florida State this month, totaled 283 yards for the 2014 season on 114 carries (2.5 per carry) and eight TDs.

But he fumbled 12 times, losing eight of those, some of which came on read option plays. Zaire has yet to commit his first college turnover of any kind.

If you’re looking for an intriguing position battle, the backup quarterback job certainly has the looks of it. Brandon Wimbush isn’t just any freshman stepping foot on campus, especially considering he ran a 10.8 100m dash this spring for the St. Peter’s Prep track team. (To put that into context, C.J. Prosise ran a 10.9 100m as a high school senior.) And while he certainly didn’t have a great Blue-Gold game, DeShone Kizer isn’t someone to give up on after one year in the program.

So while it’s safe to say that Wimbush won’t wear the redshirt that was all but assumed anymore, Kelly hopes that Zaire’s durability—we saw it on display as he pinballed his way through LSU’s defense for 22 carries—will carry the day for the offense.

“Injuries are part of the game, and we’re going to hope that he’s physically strong,” Kelly told Hansen. “He’s done a great job in weight training and putting himself in position that he can take what’s necessary to run the ball. But we’re not going to change what we think are his strengths and what he can do for our offense.

“We’ve worked too hard to this point to change now.”