CULVER, Ind. — The Malik Zaire era is here.
When Notre Dame began preseason practice last week at Culver Academics 40 miles south of campus, it took the next step in handing the keys to its offense over to the left-handed junior quarterback. Expectations are high for the Irish this fall, with Sports Illustrated going so far as to put Jaylon Smith and Ronnie Stanley on its cover and predict Notre Dame will play in a College Football Playoff semifinal on New Year’s Eve.
If Notre Dame can reach its goal of securing a spot in the four-team tournament, it’ll need Zaire — who only has about six quarters of gameday experience — to engineer an offense that limits its turnovers and is lethal in the red zone.
“I’m not the new kid on the block any more,” Zaire said. “The expectations that are out there for me should be high because I have high expectations for myself.”
The lofty expectations for Zaire in large part due to his breakout performance against LSU in December’s Music City Bowl. Making his first career start and switching in an out with Everett Golson, Zaire carried 22 times for 96 yards with a touchdown and completed 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and a score. The Irish offense battered a strong SEC West defense for 261 yards on 51 carries, didn’t turn the ball over and won the game on Kyle Brindza’s walk-off field goal.
But Zaire’s impact went beyond his rushing and passing stats and ranged into the unquantifiable realm of leadership. For the first time since coming to campus a few weeks after Alabama blew out Notre Dame in the 2013 BCS Championship, Zaire had an opportunity to lead against LSU, and he took full advantage of it.
“He had energy, I feel like our team as a whole had energy,” wide receiver Chris Brown said. “And I feel like it trickles from the top. The quarterback trickles down to the receivers, the receivers talk to the running backs and I feel like that’s just a positive vibe that we’re feeling.”
Zaire’s ability to galvanize his teammates was a change from the reserved demeanor of Golson, who crumbled in November and would up transferring to Florida State over the summer. The quarterback competition between Zaire and Golson coach Brian Kelly may have wanted was never viable, not with Golson holding the ability to leave as a one-year graduate transfer for a powerhouse program with a clear opening at quarterback.
So Zaire won the competition by default. But even with DeShone Kizer and Brandon Wimbush not in a position to push him for the No. 1 job, there’s still plenty on which Zaire needs to improve over the coming weeks of preseason camp.
Kelly said he and offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford still need to clean up Zaire’s throwing technique — “He gets the ball lost behind him a little bit, overstrides a little bit,” Kelly said — as well as keeping him on message with his communication in the offense, both as a quarterback and a leader.
“He has a lot of thoughts going on,” Kelly said. “And sometimes a little bit too much going on. We really sometimes have to just get him focused on this simple phrase: Do it this way all the time. There is no other way to do it. Don't vary from this, and he's getting better at that.
“Not because he doesn't want to do it, he just has so much going on sometimes we just have to get him focused on just want you to do it this way, no other way, every single time. He has a little bit of some things that we work on technically and then just staying on track, and he's making that progress.”
The goal is to get Zaire as polished as possible by the time he takes the field in primetime Sept. 5 against Texas. With so many weapons on offense — like running back Tarean Folston and wide receiver Will Fuller — and an experienced, skilled offensive line, Notre Dame believes it can be successful even if its quarterback is still a little rough around the edges.
"We like where he is," Kelly said. "He's developing and he's on track to do the things necessary to be the kind of leader that you need to be at Notre Dame at the quarterback position."