Zaire's fire helps brighten Notre Dame's quarterback picture

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Malik Zaire isn’t shy about letting the college football world know he has a chapter in his own quarterbacking history with George Whitfield Jr., too.

“Well, now he’s a lot bigger than what he was then,” the Notre Dame sophomore-to-be said with a smile of their limited encounters in 2012, when Zaire was still wearing a Kettering (Ohio) Alter High uniform.

Whitfield is the face of private quarterback tutoring — private anything tutoring, for that mat-ter — these days. And, senior-to-be Everett Golson, the man who is directly above Zaire on the depth chart, no matter how much Irish coach Brian Kelly tries to blur the line with his words, is Whitfield’s next high-profile test case.

The elevation of the quarterback position as a whole is Kelly’s end game. And the twist in where all this is headed is that Zaire views the coaching staff shuffling that put Kelly into a more hands-on posi-tion with the offense and brought a dedicated quarterback coach in the person of Matt LaFleur to ND as the most significant pieces in both his and Golson’s journeys.

Not Whitfield.

“I think he helps and everything,” Zaire said.

But what LaFleur is doing, at least where the 6-foot, 208-pound ultra-competitive, ultra-confident underdog is concerned is transformative. And that’s something Zaire had a hard time envisioning when former offensive coor-dinator/QBs coach Chuck Martin took a significant pay cut in December to become the head coach at Miami of Ohio.

“He knows the next-level stuff that we need to know,” Zaire said of LaFleur, whose résumé is heavy on NFL expe-rience. “And that’s an advantage in my opinion. We all, well especially me, want to be able to get to that next level. And a lot of guys don’t have that direct guidance that he (provides). And that’s an emphasis, being great at your technique and at your craft. He knows how to get there and do that.

“Coach Martin had a lot more on his plate in terms of handling the entire offense. Whereas coach LaFleur is an individual, where if you need something, it’s ‘Let’s get it done.’ (He’s) more accessible for me at really being able to go in there and key on the little things I need to get better.”

That there is such a push from Zaire’s spot on the depth chart is one of the elements that gives Kelly reason to be-lieve that in 2014, his fifth season in South Bend, he’ll have his first offense while at ND that ranks in the top 45 na-tionally in passing efficiency, scoring and/or red-zone offense after consistently hitting those benchmarks in his pre-ND days.

At worst, Kelly will have a much more serviceable No. 2 QB than last season, when a regressing Andrew Hendrix almost coaxed Kelly to end his redshirting of Zaire when starter Tommy Rees was ailing physically. Hendrix, inci-dentally, is trying to kick-start his career with Martin at Miami, which kicks off its own spring practice season on March 31.

At best, Kelly figures, Zaire’s pluck will push both players through the curves of timing with new receivers, play-ing at a new, faster tempo, and having to learn scads of new pages in the rewritten offensive playbook.

“Sometimes I have to settle him down a little bit,” Kelly said of Zaire’s drive, “but that’s a good thing. I’d rather have that than someone who doesn’t think he can do it. So the dynamic is very positive.

“They (Golson and Zaire) are very good with each other. They help each other, but it’s not one where they’re go-ing to share notes and sit down and say ‘How can I help you beat me out?’ It’s not happening.”

Said Zaire, “We have our up and down days, like competitors. We’re not going to have the most peachy days or whatever, but I respect him as a player, respect him as a person. We don’t have any issues from that standpoint.

“It’s kind of hard only, being just two guys (the only scholarship QBs this spring), to just be civil at all times. But at the same time, we both understand that there are bigger goals for the team and what it’s going to take to win these games. And pushing each other is always something that helps in practice. It is what it is.”

How Zaire processes those competitive setbacks and challenges is the big difference now.

He struggled with his role last season as the No. 3 quarterback, which produced more frustration than actual progress.

“I wasn’t expecting to just be the guy coming in from day one in terms of taking all the reps,” said Zaire, an early enrollee. “(Nor was I expecting to be) in a position I was, where I really didn’t know until like late into the season whether I was going to redshirt or not.

“I wasn’t able to understand how I should be going through practices each and every day, when I’m sitting here not doing scout team.”

Kelly’s thinking was that Zaire could learn more by watching the first- and second-team QBs taking reps than he could by imitating opponents’ offenses on the scout team in practices against the No. 1 Irish defense.

“There’s not enough reps at the end of the day, so I was kind of stuck in like the middle and not really under-standing how I should go about it,” Zaire said. “But through that experience I learned a lot.”

At the moment, with practice six of 15 set for Wednesday, Zaire is decidedly the better runner, at least when it comes to doing so within the structure of the offense. Golson has more zip on his passes, a better command of the passing schemes and seems to be less of a risk to turn the ball over when improvising.

And Golson’s cerebral leaps, Kelly will readily admit, had their roots in his extended time with Whitfield while exiled from ND last fall over an academic misconduct issue. LaFleur, too, has helped refine those lessons to ND’s specific offensive mission.

But another of Zaire’s strengths is he does not have a blind spot when it comes to his own flaws and is not afraid to attack them

“As soon as I get out of class, I’m here,” Zaire said as he sat in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. “As soon as we get out of practice, I’m looking at the film after practice and talking to (the coaches) about what I can do today that I can get better on?”

Zaire actually had the better pedigree of the two coming out of high school, though both quarterbacks were coveted in terms of offers. Golson was deemed by Rivals.com as the 16th-best dual-threat QB nationally in 2011, Za-ire, who turned down Ohio State and Alabama among others, was No. 3 in that category in the 2013 class.

Both ended up finalists in the prestigious Elite 11 quarterback competition while in high school. Four Heisman Trophy winners (Matt Leinart, Troy Smith, Tim Tebow and Jameis Winston) and former South Bend Silver Hawks pitcher Archie Bradley also made it to the final 11 in their respective years from the handful of regional competi-tions.

Zach Frazer, Dayne Crist and Matt LoVecchio are ND’s other past Elite 11 finalists, a competition which started in 1999. It was in that setting where Zaire first crossed paths with Whitfield and in that setting where he let his competi-tive fires burn freely.

“Elite 11 was a quarterback competition,” he said. “That’s yourself and whatever you brought with you against those other guys. (Here), I think it’s important looking at it that you’re not there to fight your one-on-one personal battles. You’re there to be on the team and make that team have a lot of good things and just be a positive leader. It’s hard to be a leader when you’re stuck on the fact that I’m trying to beat the guy across from me.

“Not focusing on beating one guy allows me to get better each and every day at a faster rate, because I’m not looking over my shoulder wondering what that guy’s doing, how he’s looking every day, how he’s throwing passes and running the offense. It’s more, ‘What am I going to learn from him?’ and that rep I’m going to take to get myself to get to that elite level, because I think that’s what we both want at the end of the day.”

EHansen@SBTinfo.com

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Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire (red jersey) believes the presence of new quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur and head coach Brian Kelly's increased involvement with the offense have greatly impacted his performance. (SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)