Amid Golson transfer frenzy, Zaire plots his own happy ending at ND

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Perhaps the most intriguing postscript in the Everett Golson-to-Florida State media feeding frenzy Tuesday was that the quarterback left standing at the top of the Notre Dame depth chart wasn’t particularly surprised it all ended this way.

With an intense, open quarterback audition truncated by a transfer.

At least that’s what junior Malik Zaire shared with his high school coach, Kettering Archbishop Alter’s Ed Domsitz, when the two visited multiple times over the past week during Zaire’s return home to the Dayton, Ohio, suburb.

Zaire also shared, when pressed by his former coach, that he never considered a transfer of his own, even though Zaire did admit to stewing over having to sit until late November while Golson struggled last season.

“I asked him about it all the time: ‘Are you happy with the situation at Notre Dame? How are your classes? How are you doing academically?’ ” Domsitz said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “And he never wavered on that in any conversation we ever had, always answering, ‘I’m in the right place.’

“Now in the recesses of his mind, when he was alone in his room or whatever, I don’t know. But I even brought up to him last week, that if he had chosen Ohio State out of high school, he likely would have been in the middle of that mix last year at quarterback.

“But he had no misgivings. Notre Dame is where he wants to be, and he’s very aware of the opportunity that’s now ahead of him.”

Collegiate start No. 2 and career pass attempt No. 36 for Zaire is a little more than 100 days away, when Texas visits for the prime-time season opener (7:30 EDT) Sept. 5 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Roughly 900 miles to the south and a half an hour later, Golson and the Seminoles will take the field against Texas State, a game currently slated to be televised on ESPNews.

Assuming Golson wins the Seminoles’ job over the five other scholarship QBs on the FSU roster, as coach Jimbo Fisher insists he will be required to do to get the keys to the offense, the inevitable comparisons will likely be at their oversaturated best when the teams play four common opponents: Boston College, Georgia Tech, Wake Forest and Clemson.

A coach familiar with both quarterbacks, but who asked to remain anonymous, said Golson was the more advanced, more skilled passer, but that what Zaire is able to do with his legs “will open up things in the passing game Golson was unable to in Brian Kelly’s offense.”

That script played out in 2009, when Zach Collaros was pressed into action for Kelly at Cincinnati after starter Tony Pike suffered an injury to his non-throwing arm during the Bearcats’ unbeaten regular season.

Collaros made four starts, then tag-teamed with Pike when he returned from the injury. Pike, the superior passer, finished 12th nationally in pass efficiency that season (149.8). Collaros, who didn’t have enough pass attempts to qualify for the national rankings, ended up with a 195.5 rating.

That’s more than 30 points higher than 2009 pass-efficiency champ Tim Tebow (164.2), who edged out Boise State’s Kellen Moore and Notre Dame’s three-and-out QB, Jimmy Clausen.

But Zaire will have to evolve. Collaros, the next two seasons — albeit for a different coaching staff, with Kelly moving on to Notre Dame — wasn’t able to get above the 138.0 mark either season.

Domsitz sees a quarterback capable of doing that in Zaire, even though he played in a hybrid offense that married large doses of wishbone with some passing out of the shotgun.

“It’s not like he just had one target to look at, and if he wasn’t open, it was time to run,” Domsitz said. “Malik had a number of different check-downs. In other words, if No. 1 wasn’t open, he knew where No. 2 was, he knew where No. 3 was.”

Accuracy was consistent and arm strength underrated, the coach added.

“I think we all saw that in the Blue-Gold Game,” Domsitz said referring to a TD bomb from Zaire to Will Fuller.

‘When Malik has been in the situation where he knows that he’s the No. 1 guy, his focus peaks at that point. I think in the coming weeks you’ll see someone who’s going to study the game. He’s going to paying attention to detail.

“And he brings confidence. Lots of confidence. And it serves him well.”

Zaire has long been a big dreamer, but also has a history of backing it up. He first impressed Domsitz with his brash style between his fifth and sixth grade seasons attending Alter’s summer camp.

A little over two years later, Domsitz’s Alter team was getting set to kick off against city rival Fairmont High, with 7,000 fans in attendance. Zaire was one of them, but the eighth-grader had finagled his way onto the Alter sideline.

“I looked to my left, and there was Malik,” Domsitz said. ‘He said to me, ‘Someday I’m going to be in this game. I’m going to be playing for Alter and I’m going to be your quarterback.’

When he did become Domsitz’s quarterback, as a junior, he did so without the coach making his offense left-handed, by flipping his tackles or mirroring plays in the playbook, to accommodate the lefty thrower.

“He ran right and pitched right just as well as he ran left and pitched left,” Domsitz said. “The only thing we did that was a little bit of a change was sometimes moving a split end to the left side for a more natural throw.

“One thing you never want to sell short with Malik is his competitiveness or his toughness.”

The sleeping irony is that after the 2016 season, Zaire too will be eligible for a grad school-style, no-waiting transfer as Golson was this spring. And if he plays that fifth season in an Irish uniform, he will be just the second of six QBs since the grad school exemption was instituted in 2005 that faced that decision and returned.

That was Evan Sharpley in 2009. Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and now Golson all transferred. Tyrone Willingham Era recruit Darrin Bragg simply moved on to the working world after getting the first and only playing time of his career in the final 72 seconds of his last home game, playing for Charlie Weis.

Luke Massa, a QB-turned-wide receiver/holder, did the same when a surgically repaired knee didn’t cooperate, though he did explore playing college basketball elsewhere for his fifth season before the surgery.

“This opportunity is what Malik has been waiting for, though not always patiently,’ Domsitz said. “Before the 2014 season, I said, ‘Look if I’m coach Kelly, I’m starting Golson.’

“I explained to Malik that if Kelly started Malik last season and things go sour in that first ballgame, you’d run the risk of your team saying, ‘Why the heck didn’t you start the kid who took us to the national championship?’

“On the other hand, if Golson didn’t do well, then Malik can come in, and it’s not quite the same kind of expectation. But he didn’t want to hear that. He believed that he was the best option to be out on the field.

‘Sometimes his competitiveness manifests itself in, let’s say, different ways. But it was never about wanting to be somewhere else with him. It was about getting his chance. And now that it’s here, I can’t see any way he’ll let it slip through his hands.”

ehansen@sbtinfo.com

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Junior Malik Zaire (8) told his high school coach. Ed Domsitz, that he never considered a transfer out of Notre Dame of his own.(SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ)