Malik Zaire embraces role in Notre Dame QB circus
SOUTH BEND — Malik Zaire now realizes the person most responsible for him not getting a chance to climb the Notre Dame quarterback depth chart earlier this season wasn’t coach Brian Kelly.
It was Zaire himself.
“There was a little bit of frustration in terms of learning how to get better when you’re not in that singular role of being the guy,” said the sophomore, who has suddenly spent December in an open competition for the starting QB spot with senior incumbent Everett Golson.
“I think it was a lot of maturity I had to go through to understand how to continue to get better by taking mental reps and always being engaged in practice, particularly physically.”
He’s engaged now, after admittedly showing only sporadic flashes of the potential to overtake Golson, even as the latter struggled with an avalanche of turnovers that reached 22 this season by the time Kelly finally took his first extended look at Zaire in a game situation.
Since that 49-14 affront from USC Nov. 29 in Los Angeles, Kelly has mulled what the quarterback picture should look like for the Dec. 30 Music City Bowl matchup in Nashville, Tenn., between Notre Dame (7-5) and 22nd-ranked LSU (8-4), the nation’s toughest team against the pass.
For now, he’s sticking with the vague “they’ll both play” narrative, without designating a starter and with a history of getting into a game and sometimes changing his mind on the fly about a promised position time-share.
“Both of them have made very good progress in what we’re installing,” said Kelly, who will stage full practices Sunday and Monday before releasing the players to go home for Christmas Monday after practice. They’ll reconvene in Nashville on Friday.
“But more importantly I think their techniques have improved to the level you’d want over these practices. These were very important ones, and we’re better at that position because of it.”
Golson has made 23 collegiate starts, and has thrown for 5,760 yards with 41 TDs and 20 interceptions. But on his 207 career rushing attempts, which include sacks, he’s fumbled once for every 10.35 carries — with 20 total fumbles, losing 12.
Zaire has attempted just 20 passes in his career, all against USC on Nov. 29. He has 11 rushing attempts and no turnovers in his limited exposure to college competition.
But ball security has been an emphasis for both of them in practice, with Kelly taking off the red jerseys and making them live, open to contact, in practices.
“There’s been times in the past where they’ve tried to simulate actual games, and for us just having a red jersey on, you can’t get close to actual game experience,” Golson said Saturday. “So definitely making us live and things like that help us out for sure.”
Golson’s life experiences, including being tossed out of Notre Dame in the fall semester of 2013 for academic misconduct, and his faith have helped him navigate the unfamiliar territory of demotion, or at least potential demotion.
“I’m definitely built for this,” said Golson, who has by far the best passing-efficiency rating (144.1 in 2014) in the Kelly Era at ND and has led the Irish to their best passing, total yardage and scoring numbers of his five seasons in South Bend.
“I would have benched me after the USC game, so I’m not mad about it,” Golson continued. “It is what it is. I’ve just got to fight my way back.”
There’s no fighting between the two QBs, but it’s not exactly warm and fuzzy either.
“I don’t know if we’re buddy-buddy,” Golson said. “I think I look at Malik as my little brother, seeing what he has been through is a very similar situation to what I went through when I first came in. It’s pretty good relationship.”
Said Zaire, “I guess that natural side of me came out when I was able to get those chances to be a part and play a bigger role in practices. I was able to just continue to think about the bigger picture of things — that it’s not about me, it’s about the team.”
Still he resents being pigeon-holed into the read-option label, even though it’s a strength. Consistency is the elusive quality he’s chasing, with his biggest improvement of recent days being handling third-downs, especially blitzing.
“People should expect higher things when it comes to us,” said Zaire, speaking of him and Golson.
His most significant learning has come from watching Golson handle success as well as adversity.
“It’s definitely a tough position, ’cause they’ll love you one day and want to replace you the next day,” he said. “I think his mental toughness and fighting through adversity at times has definitely helped him grow as a quarterback and help his development.”
A more natural part of Zaire’s own development is the leadership piece, which felt forced and awkward to him back in August.
“At the time, I wasn’t the guy that was like ‘Ok guys, let’s go.’ It was more like, ‘I’m going to get my reps in and be quiet.’ You can’t have too many chiefs and not enough Indians. You’ve got to follow your role.”
Which is what he is emphasizing to freshman QB DeShone Kizer, who’s redshirting and out of the depth-chart fray for now.
“It’s hard as a freshman, and it was hard on me as a freshman,” Zaire said. “I’m helping him with my experiences in terms of telling him, ‘You can’t let this position thing of you not playing hinder your development, because you never know.’
“That’s something I needed to learn and I wish I knew earlier. It’s something I continue to work on him with. I just think he’s going to be great whenever he gets the opportunity.”