SOUTH BEND, Ind. — In a lot of ways, Malik Zaire is what Everett Golson wasn’t at Notre Dame.
That’s both a positive and a negative. Zaire doesn’t have the clean, precise throwing mechanics of Golson, who could drop 20-yard fades into the hands of receivers with ease. Having only played about six quarters at the college level, Zaire doesn’t have the experience Golson will bring into his first start for Florida State on Saturday.
But Zaire brings a certain intensity and toughness to the position Golson never did. The Kettering, Ohio left-hander is a read option whiz and a physical runner. But most importantly, he hasn’t shown anything that would indicate he’ll be prone to turning the ball over 22 times, as Golson did in 2014.
“Malik is as strong a quarterback as I’ve had in a long time,” strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo said. “He is one strong guy. He’s 199 (pounds) when he came in and he’s in the 221 area. He’ll probably play around there and he doesn’t have a whole lot of fat on him either. But he is a strong kid. He could probably play linebacker if he weren’t a quarterback.”
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Zaire is still somewhat of an unknown, though. Saturday’s season opener against Texas not only will be his first start at Notre Dame Stadium, but it’ll be his first game in which he won’t be looking over his shoulder to see if coach Brian Kelly is ready to put Golson in the game, as he did against LSU.
Still, Zaire — who’s a redshirt sophomore entering Year 3 on campus — doesn’t feel like a greenhorn.
“You can only really feel like a rookie in my opinion if you aren’t prepared, if you’re not confident in what you’re doing,” Zaire said. “That’s kind of, in my mind, a rookie mentality, where you’re unsure of things.”
Zaire has always been confident, but he’s a lot more sure of his knowledge of Notre Dame’s offense now than he was nine months ago as he prepared to start the Music City Bowl. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley said Zaire’s communication and actions are much more clear now, especially after having the entire month of August to prepare as Notre Dame’s unquestioned starter (Golson was still around in spring practice splitting first-team reps).
But not only does Zaire have a better idea of what he’s doing, Irish coaches have a better idea of his skillset and how they can use him against Texas and beyond.
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“It's a totally different Malik Zaire,” Kelly said. “A lot of it (against LSU) was first start, not sure what to expect from him. We knew that he was a young man that had the ability to do some things in the run game. Weren't sure what he could do in the passing game. We saw that certainly he was capable.”
Zaire completed 12 of 15 passes against LSU for 96 yards, showing he can be accurate and efficient largely working off an established run game. He finished the first drive of the Music City Bowl with a screen pass to Will Fuller, who darted 12 yards into the end zone (don’t be surprised if the same play leads to the same result sometime Saturday against Texas). Heading into Notre Dame’s primetime opener, Kelly said Zaire is much more in tune with his receivers now than he was in December, during spring practice or even when preseason camp opened last month.
For all the positive vibes around Zaire, though, he remains a work in progress. Kelly said Thursday he told Zaire he doesn’t have to be the reason why Notre Dame beats Texas, but he can be the reason why Notre Dame loses to Texas. That’s somewhat of a nod to Golson’s issues last year — especially against Arizona State — and also a nod to an offense that features loads of talent (Fuller, Tarean Folston, C.J. Prosise, Corey Robinson, Chris Brown, Torii Hunter Jr., etc.) and an offensive line anchored by Stanley and returning captain Nick Martin.
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It’s unfair to say Notre Dame wants Zaire to be a game manager — that’s about as backhanded a compliment as a quarterback can receive — but if he carries the ball 10-20 times and completes a good percentage of his passes, he can marry solid tangibles with perhaps his most important trait: An intensity that trickles down throughout the team. It showed up during scrimmage portions of Notre Dame’s practices in August, which offensive coordiantor/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford said had a positive impact.
“That’s when you really see the dynamic of a personality with the quarterback position and how they can galvanize the unit,” Sanford said. “And not just the offense, but that bleeds into the the team. That bleeds into the fabric of the team. Since I’ve been around this program, even if Malik might struggle in drill work, when you cut him loose and let him play 11-on-11 football and be around his guys and let him lead and let him go operate, that’s when you truly see the gravity of what his personality can bring.”
Zaire, his teammates and his coaches have built to this point for months. The Irish have the kind of talent and depth that could blossom into a playoff run this fall. And Zaire will welcome the spotlight with confidence as he embarks on his first full season as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.
“We’ve done a lot to get ready for this,” Zaire said. “Now it’s time to go out there and play.”