After getting picked apart last year by Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Malik Zaire in last season’s 38-3 blowout, the Texas Longhorns are preparing to face Zaire and junior DeShone Kizer this season after head coach Brian Kelly announced that both will play in Austin on Sunday.
Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford noted on Wednesday that the Notre Dame’s offense will remain largely similar for both quarterbacks, but acknowledged that the two players have slightly different skill sets.
“They're going to have the same game plan,” Bedford said. “We know they're going to play two quarterbacks. They have two excellent quarterbacks. I think both of them have certain attributes that you have to worry about.”
The 6’1, 225-pound Zaire is generally regarded as the better runner after breaking off a 56-yard run in 2014 and gaining 87 yards on 10 carries against Virginia last season in the second game before he suffered a season-ending injury.
However, even if the ‘Horns don’t have to face a concentrated effort by the Irish to spark the quarterback run game, Zaire and the 230-pound Kizer are both dangerous vacating the pocket because both are excellent athletes and possess the size of linebackers.
Sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson doesn’t much like tackling Texas running back Chris Warren and bringing down Zaire and Kizer isn’t all the more pleasant.
Kizer may be the more sneaky threat in that regard, as he averaged less than four yards per carry in 2015, but managed a 79-yard touchdown run against Temple and a 48-yard run against Stanford. For the season, he recorded 10 touchdowns, more than one third of the team total on the ground.
The big key here isn’t necessarily in completely stopping whatever quarterback run game Notre Dame rolls out, but to maintain the integrity of rushing lanes against the pass and limit the scrambling opportunities for Zaire and Kizer.
To improve on third-down defense and avoid the type of game-changing scrambles that hurt Texas so much against Iowa State last season, reducing escape routes is extraordinarily important to the defensive game plan.
If the two are relatively similar as effective and dangerous runners, one major difference is in height — Zaire is listed at 6’1, while Kizer is nearly 6’5, so pushing the pocket and reducing some passing lanes is much more possible when the senior is behind center.
Overall accuracy is a little bit more difficult to determine, as Zaire has attempted only 75 passes in his entire college career, but one thing that became clear last season is that the Ohio product can be deadly accurate when given time and separation by his wide receivers — he completed 86.4 percent of his passes against the Longhorns in South Bend last season, with only three of his 22 passes hitting the turf.
By comparison, Kizer’s completion percentage also indicates a high level of accuracy after connecting on 63 percent of his 335 attempts in 2015. One reason for that is because Kizer has the arm strength to reach every part of the field with ease, though his primary issue is that he often locks on to one target and doesn’t go through his progressions.
And he can also go through periods where his ball placement isn’t quite as precise as he would like, so while Zaire was able to throw into sizable windows against the ‘Horns, if the secondary has improved enough to narrow the separation with the Fighting Irish wide receivers, it’s possible that Kizer could struggle.
The absence of playmaking targets like Will Fuller, Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle, Corey Robinson, and Alize Jones could also have an impact on Kizer since there will be such a huge drop off in proven ability in the passing game.
It’s even possible that Texas could force some game-changing turnovers since the junior threw two interceptions in a hard-fought win against Temple and three in another struggle against Boston College. As a result, his interception rate for the season approached three percent, about twice the rate for elite passers.
Against the Eagles, Kizer threw one interception in the end zone and another at the Boston College 3-yard line, mistakes that were magnified significantly by the field position.
But make no mistake — Kizer is an extremely talented player who is already drawing interest as a 2017 NFL Draft prospect.
Improvement from the linebackers could also make a difference, as Bedford pointed out when discussing the areas of improvement for sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson.
“He’s great as far as rushing the passer, but we’re going to drop him,” Bedford said. “He needs to understand where he has to drop, what he has to do, and don’t come out of coverage when the quarterback scrambles.”
The same applies to another sophomore linebacker in Anthony Wheeler, as getting the proper coverage drops was a major issue for the ‘Horns in 2015.
Here’s one play from the game last season where the linebackers don’t have their eyes right and get caught well out of position on a play-action pass:
Given the issues that the Longhorns faced last season when allowing Zaire ample time to scan the defense, the goals for Bedford’s defense are two-fold and rather obvious — find a way to put pressure on the quarterback with the front four or a game plan that utilizes cornerback or linebacker blitzes and eliminate the coverage mistakes and overall separation that hurt Texas so much last season.
With the ascent of young cornerbacks like Davante Davis and Holton Hill and departures of so many talented Notre Dame receivers, the task of playing tighter coverage should be attainable.
If that can combine with some better pressure to force the opposing quarterbacks to reset in the pocket without big scrambling lanes, the Longhorns should find much more success on Sunday in limiting the impact of the Fighting Irish quarterbacks.