Tarean Folston was the plowhorse running back Notre Dame needed in a somewhat thinned-out backfield, and the idea of a ground-first attack behind a formidable offensive line was tantalizing. It would ease the burden on a new starting quarterback and complement a deep, experienced defense. Folston’s season-ending ACL tear means this neat idea lasted less than one quarter.
Surely, Brian Kelly and his offensive staff will seek out balance. Surely, they’ll expect a fully intact offensive line to open holes for whoever carries the ball. But without the back Notre Dame trusted the most, and with game evidence of Malik Zaire surgically obliterating an opposing defense, you’d expect the offensive default settings to return to something a little chancier, a little less grounded.
This isn’t to say Notre Dame won’t reap the rewards of risks—the evidence of Zaire’s 19-of-22 passing, 313-yard, three-touchdown, zero-interception opener against Texas suggests the risks are shrinking. But the junior is still the full-time starter for the first time. He is still, presumably, more prone to mistakes that seasoned quarterbacks don’t make. Going heavy in the run game significantly mitigates the question of how many mistakes Zaire can avoid. Now it will be the driving issue behind everything offensively.
“We like the guys we've got,” Kelly said Sunday during his weekly day-after-game teleconference. “That's football. We're certainly disappointed for Tarean. He's worked so hard to get where he is. But…there's nothing you can do about it. That's why you try to develop the depth in your program. So we feel good about C.J. (Prosise) and Josh (Adams) and Dexter (Williams), and we're not complaining. We just move on, and those are the three guys we'll get ready, and we believe they'll do the job just fine for us.”
Zaire’s performance in a blowout of Texas couldn’t have come at a better time, if the idea is to maintain optimism that Notre Dame could make the playoff. His accuracy was a relief to Fighting Irish fans weary of Everett Golson’s mercurial play; Irish Illustrated crunched the box score numbers and found that Zaire completed 100 percent of the passes intended for wide receivers against the Longhorns.
That buttresses Notre Dame’s internal belief that Zaire, while hardly a finished product, was far from a raw, running quarterback. “He does have a natural throwing process,” offensive coordinator Mike Sanford said at the team’s August preseason media day. “His arm action, the ball comes out naturally. You can tweak small things for him because it’s usually lower-half based. I’ve coached guys that do not have natural throwing motions. You try to fix everything. You poke, you prod, you put rubber bands on their body, and once those rubber bands come off, it goes back to what it used to be.”
If this is all more than standard sunshine-blowing, and if Zaire’s performance against Texas is indeed closer to the norm than an exception, then Notre Dame can remain confident that its playoff outlook has not grown exceptionally hazy after Week 1. But just because the quarterback looks like he knows what he’s doing doesn’t mean everyone else does.
The worry, of course, is now reliability in the backfield in every sense. Prosise had 98 yards on 20 carries against Texas, which tripled his career carry total to 30. Adams, a true freshman, averaged 9.8 yards on five totes, scoring twice. Williams, another first-year player, got seven carries. They’re all works in progress, still building their understanding of concepts and pass-protection responsibilities. These are the sort of nuances that, when missed, can put offenses in tough spots. They’re the small things that, when done inconsistently, might create urgency in players like Zaire to compensate by doing more, which is usually a surefire way to make a bad situation worse.
None of the three available options will have mastered all that by a visit to Virginia in Week Two. How big a deal it is, and how much it limits the offense in the short and long term, is unclear. And that is simply uncertainty Notre Dame didn’t have to fret over much before Folston’s MCL gave way. “They both made terrific progress early on,” Kelly said of Adams and Williams, the freshmen tailabcks. “Dexter obviously now is going to be pressed into more duty as a freshman. We were hoping that his would be less than what we had first thought. But we'll have to accelerate his learning curve and getting him ready to pick up all facets. But we feel like Josh has really done well in pass protections and catching the ball and learning the offense. Obviously he's going to get a lot more work and now he'll have to get Dexter ready.”
Losing two of your top three tailbacks as Notre Dame has—first Greg Bryant to academic issues, now Folston—is never good. It won’t be a moot issue anytime soon, if ever.
But the quarterback play the Irish enjoyed Saturday is a reason for patience, for waiting to see how this plays out. In those coin-flip moments, without its most trusted running back available, Notre Dame’s offense probably will rely on Zaire’s arm to solve problems more than it expected. The dissection of Texas quells any qualms with that, at least until the first or second interception of the year.
“We knew what he was capable of but he's certainly developed in the different kind of balls that he can throw,” Kelly said of Zaire. “You saw last night his ability to push the ball down the field vertically. He can work touch passes across the field. He can work bubble throws, dig routes. What's most impressive is the different type of throws that he made.”
Now, Notre Dame may have to rely on Zaire to make them every Saturday. It may not be ideal. But for the moment, it also doesn’t seem like it will devastate the Irish’s aspirations this fall.