Notre Dame's Kelly guarantees Zaire will get serious look

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Hold your horses Everett Golson fans.

After a semester in exile from the Notre Dame football team, no guarantees have been given that he would saunter back on campus with his job as starting quarterback waiting for him.

Malik Zaire, who redshirted as a freshman last year, may have something to say about that.

Whether it was just coach-speak, ego-soothing, or message-sending, Irish coach Brian Kelly went out of his way Friday to remind anyone who would listen that an honest competition will be waged between Golson and Zaire come spring.

In fact, while introducing Mike Denbrock as offensive coordinator and Matt LaFleur as the new Irish quarterbacks coach, Kelly darted to that competition tangent without even being asked.

“I know we’re always in this rush to move to Everett, but I just want to caution everybody that we have, I think, a very good quarterback in Malik Zaire as well,” Kelly said. “I’m not ready to hand everything over to Everett. I love Everett. He played in the national championship game (after the 2012 season).

“I’m like everybody here, but I’m also someone that wants to make sure the quarterback position is such, especially with (LaFleur) now with us, that we give Everett an opportunity to compete for the position. Malik is going to get that chance as well.”

Kelly went on to clarify his stance to anyone who might not be so sure; or, maybe a little skeptical.

“I want to caution everybody, including anybody that’s around the program, and our players in particular,” the coach said. “I’ll use this opportunity to do that. This is a pretty good quarterback that we didn’t play this year. Malik Zaire is going to get a chance, too.”

The “other guy,” the backup quarterback, is usually the most popular player to the legion of fans. But after a year of Tommy Rees — and a brief, but very scary, glimpse of Andrew Hendrix — neither Golson nor Zaire will face much criticism, at least for a while.

The honeymoon period may last a bit longer. Mistakes might be tolerated by ND Nation.

They’ve seen the alternative, and it’s not pretty.

Kelly said Golson has bulked up from the 6-foot, 185-pound frame he had when he left Notre Dame, but the coach didn’t get specific. Zaire, a lefty, checks in at 6-0, 208. Both have the ability to make something happen beyond the pocket, a weapon not possessed by Rees.

According to Kelly, that sort of instruction is right in LaFleur’s wheelhouse. Anyone who can coach Robert Griffin III with the Washington Redskins can give some pointers to Golson and Zaire.

“Both these guys are coming in with a blank slate, as far as I’m concerned,” LaFleur said.

Coaching Zaire can be a bit unique. Kelly learned lessons about the youngster’s penchant for performing in live situations much better than he does in practice.

“When Zaire gets into game situations, he makes plays,” Kelly said. “Practice, sometimes, he tends to be a little mechanical and make some mistakes. When the lights go on, he makes plays.”

That can be good. Or, it can be bad. Trust comes a bit slower when a quarterback doesn’t practice with the same intensity he shows in games. But, then again …

“What I have to do is change the way I coach him a little bit,” Kelly said. “Sometimes it’s a matter of how you teach somebody. What we have to do is really have to find out what clicked for Malik. That made all the difference in the world.”

Kelly admitted that a season in which there was no hope of playing; one that started with Zaire missing a couple weeks with an illness; wasn’t necessarily always a positive experience.

“When (Zaire) sees himself as No. 3½ (on the depth chart), not getting in and not getting reps, you lose a kid’s concentration a little bit,” Kelly said. “We lost him there for about four or five games. Once we got his attention back, it was clear he had a pretty good knowledge base of what we wanted to do.’’

No doubt Zaire’s focus is going to be sharp when spring practice starts March 3. There’s a battle to be won.

An uphill battle? You bet. Going toe-to-toe with a quarterback one year removed from a national championship game won’t be easy. But, don’t sell Zaire short.

Kelly isn’t. At least for now.


Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire (8) goes through drills on Aug. 22, at Notre Dame. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)