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How Will the Malik Zaire Injury Affect Notre Dame?

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For Notre Dame it never seems to end. After a 2014 season riddled with injury after injury, decimating the defense beyond recognition at the end of the year, Irish fans hoped this fall would be different.

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Unfortunately, it’s been more of the same. Notre Dame lost defensive tackle Jarron Jones to a freak injury before the season even started. In the first game, running back Tarean Folston’s season ended with a torn ACL. This week the Irish suffered their biggest injury to date when quarterback Malik Zaire broke his ankle.

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DeShone Kizer came in and after a slow start rallied the Irish to victory, dropping a perfect 39-yard strike on Will Fuller for the game-winning touchdown with 12 seconds left against Virginia. Kizer finished the game 8-of-12 passing for 92 yards and two touchdowns, the other being a shovel pass to Durham Smythe on the fake field goal in the first quarter.

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Kizer was a heavily recruited prospect coming out of Central Catholic High School in Toledo, Ohio. He had offers from Alabama, LSU, Penn State, Tennessee, Nebraska, Michigan State and many others, so he has talent.

But a couple of things have happened while he’s been at Notre Dame that have stunted his development. Kizer’s girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer and had a tumor removed from her neck last spring. While Kizer remained with the team, it had to affect his focus. Also, the Everett Golson situation did not exactly help Kizer's preparation. Because Golson and Zaire were both on campus through the end of the 2015 academic year, Kizer got third-team reps all spring. The primary focus for head coach Brian Kelly and the offensive staff was to get Zaire and Golson ready for action because those were the guys that were expected to play. But when Golson transferred, Kizer was bumped up a spot and those additional reps would have been beneficial.

From a game experience standpoint, Zaire has only started three games, so the drop off in actual playing time is not drastic. But Zaire has been in the program an extra year and knows the offense better. Plus, the running dimension that Zaire brings is gone. Kizer is mobile and can make things happen with his legs, but he is not Zaire running the football. Also, with true freshman Brandon Wimbush as the only scholarship quarterback behind Kizer, Kelly will probably want to protect his new starter. That, in turn, will change the way Kelly will put together his offensive game plan.

The Zaire injury is a massive blow to Notre Dame. You could tell by the team reaction after the injury and by Kelly’s dejectedness in his postgame press conference. Every facet of the team will have to take a step forward, especially the defense.

Kizer is a smart guy with ability. The Irish can still win a lot of games with him at quarterback, assuming other players at other positions rise to the challenge. How good this team can be has less to do with Kizer than it does the rest of the team, players and coaches alike.

Expectations remain high in South Bend. But they have to be somewhat tempered after the events in Charlottesville this past Saturday.

— Written by Jon Kinne, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a college football fanatic. Kinne has been writing about recruiting for the Irish Sports Daily for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.