Saturday, April 12, 2014
Zaire's emergence a good step for ND
By Matt Fortuna
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Brian Kelly moved swiftly up to the post-game podium, joking with the assembled media members that everyone better hurry up so they could get back to watching the Masters. Kelly played the famed course at Augusta National last month as part of a foursome with Tom Brady, Josh McDaniels and Notre Dame alumnus Jimmy Dunne, who put the group together.
Saturday's Blue-Gold spring game -- otherwise known as "Natural Grass: The Finale" -- could not have been farther away from the Peach State. But it probably served a somewhat therapeutic purpose for the Fighting Irish head coach for the first time since he arrived here in 2010.
Malik Zaire showed poise and big-play ability in Saturday's spring game, showing that there's more than one capable Notre Dame quarterback.
Yes, there were questions about the quarterback play, because there always are at Notre Dame. No, Kelly said he has no plans on naming a starter sometime before camp. And while anyone but Everett Golson being named the main man would qualify among the biggest shocks of Kelly's tenure, Kelly can rest easy knowing that he likely has a capable and confident second arm to turn to in the event he needs one. And, let's face it, he has almost always needed one.
Golson looked uneven at times but is slowly easing his way back into the offense. Malik Zaire, meanwhile, backed up all of his bold spring talk and made all of the big plays in the "Blue" team's (offense) 63-58 win over the "Gold" team (defense).
The redshirt freshman completed 18 of 27 passes for 292 yards and two scores. Golson completed 13 of 23 passes for 160 yards. Both players seem more than capable of running the offense Kelly would like, which explains why he made it clear afterward that he prefers just one man atop the depth chart.
"We should be as coaches and myself, personally, I should be able to figure this thing out, and we should be able to get our players in a position where we can have a starting quarterback," Kelly said.
"So I've been doing it long enough that I would hope that I can figure it out come time to play Rice."
Kelly had said earlier in the week that he threw everything at the quarterbacks this spring -- in part to see what they could handle, in part to accelerate the growth of a young defense under a new coordinator.
The learning curve, though, will be quicker for the offense this season, with the low-scoring games of recent years likely becoming as ancient as the natural grass his stadium is leaving behind. And that's a byproduct of more dynamic play under center.
"We have to be more proficient offensively," Kelly said. "We have to put points on the board that we have not been able to consistently do against the best teams in the country. So that's certainly been the focus, and it will have to be this fall again playing the kind of schedule we do. We can't go down to Florida State and hope to win 10 to 7. We're going to have to put some points on board."
Much of that will depend on Golson's acclimation with a new supporting cast. He is 15 pounds heavier, more mature after returning from suspension and, presumably, a smarter signal caller after spending the fall with George Whitfield Jr.
Having someone with the talent and attitude of Zaire behind him should only make him better -- which, indirectly, is exactly what the lefty wants to hear.
"My mindset doesn't change at all: Whether I'm declared the starter or whether I'm the backup or whatever the situation is," Zaire said. "Because in my mind, I'm always looking just to get better every day and whatever it takes for this team to win a lot of games, I'm willing to do that. So I'm always working as if nobody's giving me a chance. I think that's what's really my backing in it.
"I feel like not enough people are giving me that chance and that opportunity, that's my personal belief. So as long as I keep believing that and working my butt off and try to be the best I can be for this team, then that's all I can ask for."
That might be all the Irish can ask for after 15 spring practices, as they are better off at the game's most important position moving forward.
"It's competition," Golson said. "There's no animosity toward him, but there's definitely competition, and I'm open to it and ready for it."