Following workout, former ND QB Brady Quinn assesses Malik Zaire

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Few people have summited the mountain Malik Zaire is preparing to climb.

As July dwindles and his first season as the Notre Dame football team’s starting quarterback looms on the horizon, the 6-foot, 222-pound quarterback finds himself in an enviable position, with the keys to a Cadillac resting snugly in his pocket.

But with opportunity comes expectations.

Brady Quinn knows that better than most.

Last Saturday, Quinn — Notre Dame’s starting quarterback from 2003-06 — returned to South Bend and worked out with Zaire on the team’s practice fields, two Ohio natives and Golden Domers running through drills in the shadow of Notre Dame Stadium.

Quinn, who passed for nearly 12,000 yards and 95 touchdowns in a memorable Notre Dame career, left with a strong impression.

“He loves the game of football,” Quinn wrote in an email to The Tribune. “He is hungry to learn and continue to grow as a player. He has a fantastic foundation of football IQ from growing up and playing in Ohio, and he has continued to learn from QB coach Matt LaFluer last season, coach (Mike) Sanford this year and obviously (head) coach (Brian) Kelly throughout the course of his career.

“He’s a student of the game. He watches film and studies different NFL QBs and past ND QBs.”

Saturday, Zaire was able to study Quinn up close — and vice versa. The great unknown with Zaire has been, and continues to be, his ability as a passer. The strong-armed left-hander operated in a run-heavy system at Archbishop Alter High School and has attempted just 35 passes in his first two seasons at Notre Dame.

On Saturday, at least for Quinn, many of those doubts were extinguished.

“From working with him, he has a solid foundation of mechanics. There’s really no flaw in his throwing motion,” Quinn wrote. “He will need to continue to work on his footwork and fluidity in dropping back and moving in the pocket as a passer. He is an accurate passer doing drill work and working on the move.

“If I was to see any film of him missing a throw, I would conclude it’s more due to him not knowing where to go with the football being the cause of any breakdown in mechanics. Once he gains more experience seeing the field and playing, he should be an extremely effective passer.”

But Zaire has already amassed a wealth of experience, albeit from the sideline. When Quinn stepped under center as a true freshman in 2003, he struggled, throwing for just nine touchdowns with 15 interceptions. Zaire, on the other hand, has spent the vast majority of two seasons waiting, watching and learning from Tommy Rees and Everett Golson.

He had to wait his turn, but he may be better for it.

“Malik has had an opportunity to sit and watch Everett for quite some time,” Quinn wrote. “This will be his third year at Notre Dame, so it’s a bit of a different circumstance in the sense that he has seen the good and the bad. He’s seen how to handle it… and how not to handle it.

“I think he is wise for learning so much by watching Everett while he was there. Good or bad, he learned a lot from him. That will be huge this upcoming season. Emotionally, it’s a matter of staying focused and tuning out all the noise.”

Even with the season still more than a month away, that noise can be deafening, the inevitable byproduct of life at the quarterback position — especially at Notre Dame, and especially in 2015.

Heading into the fall, the Irish return nearly all of their starters on both sides of the ball. The roster is littered with potential first-round NFL draft picks, featuring the likes of linebacker Jaylon Smith, offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, cornerback KeiVarae Russell, wide receivers Will Fuller and Corey Robinson and defensive tackle Sheldon Day.

It’s a team, after years of waiting, that looks primed to climb the mountain. But will its quarterback pull his weight along the way?

“I’m not one to predict,” Quinn wrote, when asked to speculate on how Zaire will fare in 2015. “So many factors go into QB play. I believe Malik and the Irish will do well. I have high hopes for them, as they have all the pieces to have a special season.

“It’s just a matter of staying healthy at QB and having some luck as well. I believe Malik will continue to improve moving forward. He just needs to focus on doing all the little things right and the big things will take care of themselves.”

Very blessed to learn and work with the a ND legend. #BQ#RedArmy#NotreDameQBs

— Malik Zaire (@LuckyLefty8) July 25, 2015//

Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire in front of Notre Dame Stadium on Friday, June 5, 2015, at Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn throws a pass against Army during the fourth quarter of a college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 18, 2006. Quinn worked out with current Irish QB Malik Zaire last weekend. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)