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Chronicling Malik Zaire's Passing vs. LSU in the Music City Bowl

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Short passes with good accuracy ruled the day in this bowl game.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

OFD Films II

A month and a half ago Malik Zaire started his first career game for the Fighting Irish and acquitted himself very well. While Zaire has always been known as a good runner there were questions about his passing abilities at the college level. As you'll see below this bowl against LSU wasn't a passing clinic from Zaire--he did only pass for 96 yards, the same number he rushed for in the game--and he wasn't asked to do a whole lot through the air nor make any real super difficult throws.

Yet, we can still analyze Zaire's passing skills knowing with more experience and time he'll open things up within the offense. So far, through just 35 career attempts and merely 15 tosses against LSU there are a lot of positive signs that Malik is a good passer.

To go along with those 15 passes, Zaire ran the ball an incredible 22 times against the Bayou Bengals. All but 4 of those runs were designed runs for Zaire or a zone read in which he kept the ball. At some point we may focus on those runs but for today we will look at those 19 'drop backs' on called pass plays to see how Zaire handled things.

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Drop Back #1, Screen to Chris Brown

Zaire's first pass was a fake screen to his left and a screen back to his right. A nice easy pass to settle him in and he puts it on target for 4 yards.

Drop Back #2, Sideline Pass to C.J. Prosise

Zaire's first play-action of the game is combined with a roll-out to his left and a quality sideline pass for 7 yards. The ball was a touch inaccurate but the first of many third down conversions.

Drop Back #3, Screen to Amir Carlisle

Another screen pass this time to Carlisle picks up 8 yards. Zaire has a quick enough release and strong arm to make this quick screens a big part of the gameplan.

Drop Back #4, Front Shoulder Sideline Pass to Corey Robinson

A patented Brian Kelly sideline jump-ball attempt brings Zaire's first incompletion of the game. If you recall, Zaire opened up his game against USC with a similar pass to Chris Brown--placing the ball not to the back shoulder but in towards the front shoulder in the middle of the field. I thought this was a very catchable ball.

Drop Back #5, Scramble

Here's the crucial 4th down conversion on the opening drive. The protection is phenomenal, but Zaire does a great job getting up-field quickly, making his cut before contact, and using his power to pick up the first down.

Drop Back #6, Comeback to Will Fuller

A sneaky tough throw for Zaire with a defender in his face and rolling out to his right. He still has the arm strength and accuracy to place a good ball in Fuller's direction for 3 yards.

Drop Back #7, Screen to Will Fuller

Again, nice arm strength by Zaire to fire the ball on a quick screen for the touchdown pass.

Drop Back 8 video is missing. Zaire stays patient in the pocket, remains light on his feet while going through his progressions, and pulls the ball down for an 8-yard gain.

Drop Back #9, Crossing Route to C.J. Prosise

I thought this was Zaire's best throw of the game. He perfectly executes the play-action and threads the needle in between the linebackers to hit Prosise in stride for a 21-yard gain.

Drop Back #10, Sideline Pass to Corey Robinson

Similar to drop back #4 Zaire takes a medium length shot down field along the sideline to Corey Robinson. This wasn't a poor throw--he put in a spot where only Robinson could get it--and it looked like Robinson couldn't get off the corner and elevate the way he wanted to.

Drop Back #11, Curl to Will Fuller

Fundamentally sound. Zaire takes a quick 3-step drop, hitches quickly a couple of times and fires the ball to Fuller for another key third down conversion.

Drop Back #12, Slant to Chris Brown

Here is Zaire throwing his first pass since the middle of the second quarter. After sitting in the locker room the Irish needed another big conversion very early in the third quarter. Zaire made it look pretty easy.

Drop Back videos 13 through 16 are missing. The first play saw Folston grab a quick screen after shooting to the sideline from the backfield after the snap. He was dropped for a loss of 4 yards. The second play on the next snap saw Zaire move quickly to his right and hit Carlisle on a quick out for 5 yards.

Drop backs 15 and 16 (also back-to-back snaps) saw Prosise motion across the line and take a screen from Zaire for 6 yards. The next play Zaire rolled out to his left, attempted to go through a quick scan of the field, but pulled the ball down, cut across the grain, and failed to pick up any positive yardage.

Drop Back #17, Comeback to Amir Carlisle

Play-action again and Zaire still showing that he's able to drill the ball and maintain his accuracy while throwing on the run. The pulling of the right guard and tight end to give Zaire a little extra protection is a nifty aspect to this play.

Drop Back #18, Scramble

This might be a designed run but the receivers do run routes. Either way, Zaire makes a half second read to one side of the field and then takes off. Yet another third down conversion. Also, this was the play where Zaire's helmet was knocked off forcing Golson onto the field during the game-winning drive.

Drop Back #19, Go Route to Will Fuller

Zaire's last pass of the game was a curious one. The Irish were probably looking for a big chunk play on first down with under two minutes left. Zaire was fortunate to over-throw this ball (nice arm strength) but locking in on Fuller in double coverage wasn't the best idea.

Zaire Passing

Behind the Line of Scrimmage: 5 of 5 for 26 yards

0 to 10 Yards: 5 of 5 for 32 yards

11 to 15 Yards: 2 of 2 for 38 yards

16+ Yards: 0 of 3 for 0 yards

Re-watching all of Zaire's throws simply confirms what everyone saw during the game. He was precise and accurate on everything up to 15 yards down field with only one of his deeper passes off the mark and a poor decision. It will be interesting to see how much more Zaire is allowed to throw over the middle and in more dangerous areas of the field if he gains further extended playing time because it was clear they were keeping things very safe during this bowl game.

Obviously, this game is mostly known for Zaire's running ability and he did pick up 4 out of 6 conversions on third down with one failed attempt coming up short by just one yard--plus he picked up that key fourth down conversion on the first drive, too. But remember, Zaire also went 4 for 4 converting third down passes, as well.

Now, one of the changes we might see with Zaire at quarterback (and with new offensive quarterback Mike Sanford too) is the use of a bunch of plays and formations we don't see all that much. Below is a table with all of the formations used with Zaire at quarterback and not just for the called pass plays.

Notre Dame Formations vs. LSU with Malik Zaire on the Field

No. Plays Backfield Line Movement
14 Shotgun 4 WR
11 Empty 2 H-Back, 2 WR RB Jet Sweep
7 Pistol 1 H-Back, 3 WR
5 Shotgun 1 TE, 3 WR
4 Shotgun 1 H-Back, 3 WR
3 Shotgun 1 H-Back, 1 TE, 2 WR
2 Empty 5 WR
2 Pistol 2 H-Back, 2 WR
2 Shotgun 4 WR WR Jet Sweep
2 Shotgun 1 H-Back, 3 WR WR Jet Sweep
1 Empty 2 TE, 2 WR
1 Empty 1 H-Back, 4 WR
1 Pistol 1 H-Back, 1 TE, 2 WR WR Motion to H-Back
1 Pistol 1 TE, 3 WR
1 Shotgun 4 WR WR Motion to RB
1 Shotgun 1 TE, 3 WR WR Jet Sweep

The big thing that immediately jumps out is the use of a H-back (sometimes two) and a lot of motion. Things got awfully power spread-y in the bowl game against LSU and not always confined to non-Golson snaps, although the difference definitely was mostly because of Zaire's different abilities. Here's a quick look at some of the unusual formations:

Pistol Diamond

2 H-Back Diamond

No, this isn't your typical Dana Holgorsen Diamond formation but damn it's close enough and it's my favorite formation so just go with it. The Irish actually start out with their H-Backs (Luatua & Koyack, see the next formation below) stacked together behind left tackle Ronnie Stanley before Luatua shifts over to the boundary.

This was the first play of the game and a clear signal that Notre Dame was serious about running the ball what with 9 players in the box ready to roll.

2 H-Backs Stacked with RB Motion

2 H-Back RB Motion

Here are the H-Backs stacked this time behind the right tackle but on the field side. Notre Dame really liked using this formation a lot against LSU (second most of all Zaire snaps) particularly to give the ball to Zaire as a power runner inside the tackles a la Tim Tebow.

The Irish ran this same formation twice in a row--with Zaire keeping the ball both times--on the final two plays that led to Zaire's rushing touchdown.

Pistol 1 H-Back

Pistol 1 H-Back

The Pistol formation has been occasionally by Notre Dame over the past couple years but pairing it with a H-back added a little extra oomph to running the ball against a SEC team.

ManBall™

ManBall

Here's the one play where receiver Chris Brown shifts from receiver into a H-back role on the edge of the boundary side of the field. I mean, not only is Notre Dame putting the whole offense in the box but they're relying on Chris Brown to block on a crucial third down play.

The Irish picked up the first down.

Jet Sweep TD

Jet Sweep

Here's the formation on C.J. Prosise's touchdown run. You can see him moving toward Zaire right before the snap. This was counted as a 4 wide receiver formation although Koyack is flexed out as a tight end just off the right tackle.

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New offensive coordinator Mike Sanford has a background in running some varied offensive formations so I would expect a lot of these plays from the bowl game to continue. However, there are some things to think about:

It's highly unlikely we'll ever see Notre Dame use only 2 receivers on a consistent basis so if there is a shift towards more of a power spread I would expect it to still be reliant on a lot of 3 and 4 receiver sets. There will be at least a dozen wideouts on the roster and it's simply not logical to continue running an offense that makes it hard for a third receiver--especially with Notre Dame's flexible use of tight ends--to get on the field.

Speaking of tight ends, I'm curious to see how they would evolve if this type of offense were to be used more moving forward. It seems like Luatua will be spending the next three years as a full-time H-back but that's not a role someone like Aliz'e Jones came to Notre Dame to fill. It's going to be weird for the Irish to welcome back an experienced blocking tight end but search for a top dog as a pass catcher. You have to wonder how that will affect things in spring practice especially.

As I've noted in the past, when Brian Kelly has a true dual threat quarterback he's run the ball northwards of 58% for whole seasons stretching back to his Grand Valley State days. Zaire is the type of quarterback who could bring 60% to 62% running for the Irish and that--combined with his positive passing so far--is going to keep him a very popular choice from a lot of the fan base.