Malik Zaire's Notre Dame debut came in about the most ideal situation possible. And it went about as well as anyone could've expected.
The redshirt freshman entered Notre Dame's 48-17 win over Rice on Saturday with just under five minutes to go and the Irish leading by 24 -- a no-pressure scenario for the lefty to play his first down of college football.
Zaire received a nice ovation from the crowd at Notre Dame Stadium, and the cheering didn't stop thanks to his first play with the Irish: A 56-yard run on a read option play.
"You can't duplicate that kind of situation," coach Brian Kelly said. "… You heard the ovation he got when he got in the game. We can't duplicate that in practice. That goes a long way certainly when a kid knows that he's seen as an important part of your team."
Zaire competed with Everett Golson for Notre Dame's starting quarterback job over the last few months, but in reality, he didn't have much of a chance at winning it. It took Golson just 10 days to be named Notre Dame's starter in mid-August, a decision Kelly said Zaire wasn't happy with.
That irritated response was the reaction Kelly wanted from Zaire, who coaches still want to prepare like a starter. Quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur said prior to the season he's made it clear to Zaire his work in practice needs to strong given he's only one play away -- i.e. an injury to Golson -- from having to play significant snaps.
A year ago, Kelly admitted he and his coaching staff lost Zaire a little bit while he redshirted his freshman season. Zaire agreed he lost his focus -- "You take the lion out of the wild and put him in the zoo for a while, he forgets how to be a lion," he analogized in March -- but can't afford to do the same this year.
That's why it mattered to not only getting Zaire into Saturday's game, but get him the ovation from the crowd and the big play.
"His development is still going to have to be during the week and getting his reps (in practice)," Kelly said. "Anytime he can get some work in a game, it's just going to benefit him so if he has to go in, he's got a confidence level that he can do it.quart