Is Notre Dame a contender? With QB Malik Zaire at the helm, it would appear so

Yahoo Sports

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – It wasn’t until the torching of Texas was over that Malik Zaire finally looked frazzled.

Notre Dame’s in-house TV crew grabbed the school’s sudden star quarterback for a midfield interview, when all Zaire really wanted to do was join his teammates in the corner of the end zone to sing the alma mater to a raucous student section. He tried to leave after one question, then started fidgeting after the second question, then finally after the third he ran off.

Zaire reached the team just in time, slinging his powerful left arm over the shoulder of strength coach Paul Longo and onto the back of athletic director Jack Swarbrick. They sang and swayed, celebrating a 38-3 beatdown of Bevo that may be the most impressive result of college football’s first weekend.

Malik Zaire threw for 313 yards and three TDs in Notre Dame's season-opening win over Texas. (AP)
Malik Zaire threw for 313 yards and three TDs in Notre Dame's season-opening win over Texas. (AP)

On the way into the tunnel Zaire tossed his red “ND” hat to a guy in the stands and hit him in the chest. The surprised fan dropped it to the tunnel floor, lowering Zaire’s completion percentage on the night to 82.6.

If you don’t hold that incompletion against the sophomore from Kettering, Ohio, he was 19 of 22, an 86.2 percent accuracy rate. That’s merely the second-best in school history, at a school that has had a few quarterbacks.

For a player who came into this game as one of the few unknown quantities on a veteran Notre Dame team, Zaire answered all questions emphatically. He was brilliant in throwing for 313 yards and three touchdowns and not turning the ball over once – the anti-Everett Golson in that category.

“We knew what he was capable of,” coach Brian Kelly said. “He put it together tonight.”

Zaire’s only previous college start was in the Music City Bowl last December, where he ran for 96 yards and passed for 96 in an Irish upset victory. Then he ran off senior Golson to Florida State by winning the QB competition heading into this season.

Zaire was billed as a dual-threat guy, as likely to run as pass. That seemed to be what Texas prepared for.

But clearly, Zaire is pass-first, run-second. He can drop back and sling it with velocity, touch and precision. So don’t call him a running quarterback.

“I never surprise myself completing passes,” Zaire said, then smiled. “That’s why I play quarterback and not running back, right? ... People are going to say what they’re going to say. I hope people think that (running quarterback rep) is the truth, and I keep having big games like this.”

Kelly said in mid-August that he believed Zaire could be “an elite thrower of the football.” He looked pretty elite Saturday night, putting himself on the premature-but-popular Heisman Trophy lists that will pop up in the coming days.

That might make Kelly cringe. He was asked a general question at media day about having a Heisman candidate, and his answer came around specifically to Zaire.

“He’s a first-time starter,” Kelly said. “I’m just hoping he keeps the job.”

Consider the job secure. And consider Notre Dame a potential College Football Playoff contender.

It’s hard to know at this early stage whether the Irish are that good or Texas is god awful, but there probably is some truth in both assumptions. The Longhorns’ offensive problems of last year might even be worse this time around – the three points was their fewest in a season opener since 1950, and it was the sixth time in 14 games under Charlie Strong that they scored 10 or fewer points.

“Embarrassed” was the word Strong used afterward, twice.

But the fact is, Notre Dame is capable of embarrassing opponents. The Irish have a stellar defense, with playmakers all over the front seven and some quality in the secondary as well. The offensive line was dominant against Texas. The receiving corps is endless. And the running backs ran with authority.

Charlie Strong and the Longhorns finished with 163 yards of total offense against the Irish.
Charlie Strong and the Longhorns finished with 163 yards of total offense against the Irish.

Kelly has said often that this is his deepest and most athletic team in six years at the school. That speaks to his recruiting prowess, because there has been some notable attrition.

This is a program that lost a senior incumbent starter at quarterback, and got better at that position. It had five-star defensive lineman Eddie Vanderdoes bail on his National Letter of Intent and go to UCLA in 2014, then lost end Ishaq Williams to an academic impropriety, then lost starting DL Jarron Jones to a knee injury in August – yet the Irish remain stacked up front. Running back Greg Bryant was ruled academically ineligible in August and starting RB Tarean Folston suffered a knee injury (likely major) Saturday night – yet Notre Dame ran for 174 yards on the night, with converted slot receiver C.J. Prosise and true freshman Josh Adams combining for 138 of those.

“It’s the best depth we’ve had,” Kelly said. “I’d rather not call on it continuously.”

The Folston injury conjures bad memories of last year, when the Irish defense was decimated. Even a deep team will need to keep its stars healthy against a schedule that features three ranked opponents in the next six games – and no bye weeks until Oct. 24.

For now, though, Notre Dame looks the part of a serious contender. And Texas looks the part of a Big 12 doormat.

The fact that the 'Horns could lose by 35 while not turning the ball over at all has to be sobering for Strong and his staff. They lost badly five times last year but were a combined minus-12 turnover margin in those defeats. Here, they were simply whipped.

The offensive line was overwhelmed. Quarterback Tyrone Swoopes was harassed most of the night – and even when he wasn’t, he remains inaccurate. The running backs showed little burst, with the longest run being 11 yards. There was a 48-yard bomb to John Burt, but it was Texas’ only play longer than 20 yards all night.

The showing was bad enough that PGA Tour star and former Longhorn Jordan Spieth tweeted during the first half, “Texas' offense looking about as useful as my last 4 rounds....”

Spieth’s last four rounds: 74-73-75-73, two missed cuts.

The two-time major winner had a lot of company in hating on the 'Horns.

“We’re a better team than what we showed,” Strong vowed.

They’ll need to be to win more than four games this year.

The astonishing thing is that Texas is now on Year Six without a high-caliber quarterback, despite being the blueblood program in a state that grows quarterbacks by the dozen. It’s a critical shortcoming that likely will keep the program behind its peers for the foreseeable future.

This much is sure: the Longhorns sure wish they had a Malik Zaire of their own. Because that guy can play.

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