Mag Excerpt: Malik Zaire perseveres through rocky beginning at ND

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from a story on Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire’s ascension to the starting job that appears in the 2015 ND Insider Football Preview.

Settings shifted, but Malik Zaire’s expectations never did.

When he entered his first season in South Bend in 2013, the true freshman quarterback was slotted on the depth chart behind more experienced seniors Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix.

Zaire expected to play.

“I got my reps here and there. I wish I could have gotten more, but whatever,” Zaire says, occasionally stopping to take a sip of water over lunch. “Summer came, and I didn’t know what my position (on the depth chart) was. I wasn’t ready, but I thought I’d get a chance to play.”

His freshman season came and went, and Zaire never saw the field. The following spring, Everett Golson — who had led the Irish to the national championship game in 2012 before being academically suspended the following season — returned, and Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly told his quarterbacks that there would be an open competition for the starting job.

Zaire expected to play.

“I thought I would have a chance to start, and it wasn’t like that at all,” Zaire says. “It was like an unwritten thing, ‘He’s going to be the guy.’ You can’t say there’s going to be a quarterback competition and then decide three days into camp that he (Golson) won the position.

“I didn’t have an opportunity then, because I didn’t even run first-team reps. He was running everything with the first team, and then coach Kelly said, ‘All right, he won the starting job.’ That isn’t a competition. He was meant to win from the beginning.”

Each week, Golson took the lion’s share of the reps as Notre Dame prepared for its next opponent.

But on Saturday, Zaire expected to play.

“Sitting behind someone and feeling like you have something to contribute and not being able to do that was very frustrating at times for him,” Zaire’s mother, Stacy Carter, says. “He just wanted to get a chance. His thing was always, ‘Let me show you what I can do, because I know I can do it.’ “

And yet, after more than two years in the program, results still didn’t match the expectation. Zaire found himself lost in football purgatory, stuck in the lonely chasm between the scout team and a starting job.

“I couldn’t do scout team, because they really didn’t know if I was going to play or not,” Zaire says. “So I was at practice for a whole year just standing there — just standing there, just standing there, just standing there. I’d go in and get like two reps, and then just stand there the whole practice. Some practices I wouldn’t even get reps. I would just get some 1-on-1 reps sometimes.

“So that was challenging for me, because it was like, ‘I know I’m better than what they’re giving me.’ I didn’t come here to be a bum. It was just really frustrating. Every time I get in, the coaches are cussing at me, telling me I’m bad. I’m doing something wrong. Get out.

For Zaire, out could have meant out — out of the university, out of the circus, and on to a starting job somewhere else. After all, he wouldn’t have been the first Notre Dame quarterback in the Kelly Era to assess the situation and opt for a second home.

Gunner Kiel transferred.

Andrew Hendrix transferred.

Eventually, Golson transferred, too.

Even in the most hopeless moments, though, Zaire never wavered.

Zaire expected to play.

“You have opportunities (to transfer), but it didn’t really matter to me at the end of the day,” Zaire says. “I wanted to beat everybody on the roster.

“Now, I don’t think of it as 1-versus-everybody. You have to be the best player you can be on a daily basis, and everything else controls itself. You can’t control who coaches like better. They’re not perfect.

“They’re not going to get everything right, so you can’t worry about who they’re choosing. You just have to say, ‘I know my chance is coming. I know he isn’t going to be here forever.’

“I never thought about leaving. It was kind of like, ‘I’m going to make them play me.’ Because if I quit here, I’ll quit at other places. I’m not a quitter. I’ve never been a quitter, and I’m not going to be a quitter. That’s just not me.”

To read the entire story and for more info on the ND Insider 2015 Notre Dame Football Preview, visit ndinsider.com/buythemag.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire persevered through early challenges to claim the starting job (SBT photo illustration/CJ MAJOR).
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The 2015 ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview sets up head coach Brian Kelly’s highly anticipated sixth season with the Irish football team.

The season preview and keepsake from the staff of the South Bend Tribune provides the context, analysis and behind-the-scenes dynamics of a team with high expectations in 100 high-quality, all-color pages.

Get to know quarterback Malik Zaire, who will lead the Irish into a season as the starting quarterback for the first time with plenty of talent around him and sky-high confidence.

Prepare for cornerback KeiVarae Russell’s return to Notre Dame following a season of academic exile. The fast-talking senior is back stronger and hungrier than ever.

Take a closer look at how Notre Dame’s defense can find an answer to its biggest question: How can it rush the passer with greater success?

Follow closely Will Fuller’s description of his climb into the Notre Dame record books. The soft-spoken wide receiver is looking to make more noise in 2015.

Look back at the maligned and lauded careers of former five-star recruits to put on the gold helmets and hear from the experts on hot topics in the current recruiting landscape.

The magazine is available in print, for iPads and iPhones, and for Google/Android tablets and phones. For information on where to purchase, go to NDInsider.com/buythemag.