Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire welcomes big stage, expectations

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Editor’s Note: The following is a feature story on Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire's road to the starting job, which appears in the 2015 ND Insider Football Preview. For more info on the magazine or to order, visit ndinsider.com/buythemag.

Malik Zaire has something to say.

It’s a few minutes after 1 p.m., on a Friday in June, and the new face of Notre Dame football leans forward in his booth, looming over an untouched gaggle of hot wings waiting on the table. The 6-foot, 222-pound quarterback’s black hair is cut short and neat, and a faint goatee twists around the mouth that has rarely rested since the day it arrived in South Bend in January of 2013.

Zaire’s persona may be gaudy, but his attire is inconspicuous. The junior from Kettering, Ohio, wears a gold, long-sleeved shirt with the words “Notre Dame” printed in blue across the chest, gray shorts and the often scoffed-at combination of white socks and sandals.

His most defining feature, however, is an attitude, not an article.

“When I walk on the field, I honestly believe I’m the best guy out there,” Zaire says flatly. “There is no better player than me on the field. I know I can get it done. That’s what keeps me focused, knowing that these guys are looking at me to run the show. You have to perform when you’re asked to perform, and that comes down to confidence. If you’re not confident, why are you out there?”

It’s a rhetorical question, but Notre Dame’s starting quarterback still manages a pause.

“I knew that I had to believe in myself when all of this stuff was going on and I wasn’t getting reps. I was getting cussed out and embarrassed and belittled every day by the coaches and looked down upon by the players, because they didn’t know. They just assumed because I didn’t have a good rep, that I wasn’t good. It’s just that constant belief in myself that I knew I was better than people were making me seem that kept me going.

I know I’m not the best to do it yet,” Zaire says, summarizing his case. “I know I’m not there yet. But I knew I wasn’t a terrible player. I knew I should be here.”

And so, here he is, in the presence of legends. Literally, Zaire sits in a restaurant dubbed “Legends of Notre Dame,” located in the shadows of Notre Dame Stadium, where a timeline of memorable Irish athletes line the walls, silently sizing him up.

And Zaire, for one, isn’t concerned. Not with expectations. Not with pressure. Not with the unlucky defenses standing in his way.

“We’re going to Clemson this year. So?” Zaire says, treating the final word like an exclamation point. “We could play you on the moon, and it wouldn’t matter. Your team is just not better than my team. I have faith in myself, and I have faith in my guys.”

This is perhaps Zaire’s greatest strength, that unshakable self-assurance that inspires followers and breeds success. There is no stage too large for No. 8, no challenge deemed insurmountable. That’s why, when Zaire was asked in spring 2013 if he expected to start ahead of returning conqueror Everett Golson, the underdog didn’t bat an eye.

“I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to start,’” Zaire says, as if it’s the most obvious thing on Earth. “Why would I ever say someone should start in front of me? Why would I be here?

“What kind of confidence is that? You should always feel that you can do that job.”

***

Zaire knew how to make a first impression.

In Aug. 2011, prior to the quarterback’s junior season at Archbishop Alter High School in Dayton, Ohio, Lourdes Lambert was named the school’s interim principal. Shortly after starting her new job, Lambert was asked to introduce herself to the football team during their lunch hour between two-a-day practices.

“It’s a room full of sweaty boys,” Lambert recalls with a laugh. “I’m like, ‘This is not going to go well, no matter what I say.’”

And so, she made a short speech, zipping through her résumé, how she landed at Alter and what she would expect from her students in the upcoming school year. And before wrapping things up, Lambert asked if the players had any questions of their own.

Zaire’s hand shot into the air.

“So … you’re not white, are you?”

“That’s how Malik and I met,” Lambert says. “I just had to bust out laughing, because it was the most hilarious thing I had ever heard in my life. I actually told that story at Mass when he graduated early to go to Notre Dame, and that got quite a laugh at Mass, too.”

In the years that followed, Lambert, who is Cuban-American, and Zaire bonded over their common threads — Lambert being the first minority principal in the school’s history, Zaire thriving as its African American quarterback. She watched as he immersed himself in the school, forging relationships with the faculty and student body alike.

“He was one of our student ambassadors. He was a peer minister,” Lambert says. “He’s someone that our president was completely convinced, and still is, that he’s going to be a preacher someday, because he would give the most amazing talks at Mass to the other kids.”

Even after graduating from Alter in Dec. 2012, Zaire never really left. Every time the school holds an auction to raise money, its former quarterback offers his participation in a flag football game to the highest bidder. Last winter, after he led Notre Dame to a 31-28 Music City Bowl victory over LSU, Zaire showed up at an Alter basketball game unannounced, ready and willing to please.

“There were little kids running up to him asking for autographs,” Lambert says. “He was hugging the current students, sitting right next to the student section, hanging out with them. Never once did he flinch when somebody said, ‘Malik, will you take a picture with me? Malik, will you sit here with us?’

“Honestly, I only have daughters, but I consider him like a son. I really do.”

And though Zaire is no longer her student, Lambert still keeps in touch with her surrogate son. They text back and forth before each of his games — Zaire unloading his anxieties, Lambert soothing his doubt.

I’m nervous,” Zaire texted before the bowl game against LSU.

I’m nervous for you!” Lambert responded. “But God has given you talent. God has given you gifts. All you have to do now is execute.

“And I’ll tell you,” Lambert says, “when he cried at the end of that game, I was crying right there with him.”

For Zaire, someone who has given so much to Alter, Lambert returned the favor. When Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly arrived at the school to visit with verbally committed recruit Nick Coleman last year, in the midst of Zaire’s quarterback competition with Golson, Lambert asked for a few minutes of the coach’s time.

“Everybody hid, because they knew what was coming.” Lambert jokes. “I said, ‘I just don’t even know what you’re debating. Malik is awesome!’”

***

Zaire’s entire life has been a series of competitions.

Growing up, Zaire and his father, Imani Zaire, played countless hours of video games, and Imani never let him win. Zaire and his mother, Stacy Carter, routinely raced bikes up and down their street. In high school, Malik competed just for the sake of competition.

“My best friend at home, Greg, we would have competitions to see who could draw the straightest line,” Zaire says. “If you think about it logically, we’ve been drawing lines all our lives. What would make you better than me? Why can’t I be the best ever?”

Zaire demonstrates, frantically drawing a straight line on the table with an imaginary pen.

“We used to make his mom judge. We would draw a straight line and look at it and argue over it for hours.”

His competitiveness showed up between the lines as well. On the junior varsity basketball team at Alter, Zaire — an undersized shooting guard — rode the bench.

For a while.

“When you get tired of not playing for so long, something has to change — whether it’s staying longer or getting there earlier. Make them want to play you,” says Zaire, who eventually earned a starting spot.

“That was the motto. You’ll either make it happen, or you’ll keep being mad.”

In football, too, nothing was handed to the athletic lefty. He had to compete to win the starting quarterback job in sixth grade, and didn’t start at Alter until he was a junior, eventually leading his team to 18 wins in his final two seasons.

Why should anything change at Notre Dame?

***

Settings shifted, but 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. “Summer came, and I didn’t know what my position was (on the depth chart). 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, Golson — who had led the Irish to the national championship game in 2012 before being academically suspended in 2013 — returned, and 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 meaningful 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,” his mother 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.

Dayne Crist transferred.

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.”

***

And then, USC happened.

More specifically, Cody Kessler happened. Again, and again, and again, and again, and again.

The Trojans scored the first 35 points at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 29, 2014, exploiting a wounded Irish defense to the tune of five Kessler touchdown passes in the first half alone. On the other side, Golson — who had been steadily nose-diving ever since the team’s heartbreaking loss to Florida State on Oct. 18 — all but disintegrated, completing just 7 of 18 passes for 75 yards while also throwing an interception, losing a fumble and being sacked three times.

With five minutes and nine seconds remaining in the second quarter and his team trailing 35-0, Zaire finally got the nod.

“The offense was doing nothing. It was terrible,” Zaire says. “And at the worst possible time, they just throw me in. No warm-up. No nothing. They just told me, ‘Get in there.’

“I felt like that was coach Kelly’s way of telling me, ‘Here’s your chance. You can take advantage of it, or we’re looking for the next guy next year.’ I felt like this was my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If I don’t make a good impression, there’s no way I’m going to play next year. Ev’s going to stay, and it’s going to be a frustrating year again. I went in and it was like, ‘OK, I need to make something happen.’ Our backs were against the wall.”

In front of a boisterous 79,586 fans, Zaire needed just three plays to reach the end zone. Following a four-yard run by Greg Bryant, he lofted a deep pass down the sideline that Chris Brown leaped to haul in, before cutting up field and finally being dragged down 49 yards later. On the next play, Zaire faked a handoff and took off, tip-toeing along the sideline and diving into the end zone for an 11-yard score.

The sophomore passed for 170 yards and added 18 rushing yards and a touchdown in more than two quarters of mop-up duty, leading the Irish on two touchdown drives as well as another trip that ended in a missed field goal.

In the aftermath of a 49-14 drubbing, Zaire was an outlier — a lone ray of sunshine peeking out of the clouds.

“I was playing and smiling and having a good time like we were winning. Everybody was upset, and I couldn’t have been happier,” he says, flashing the same grin he unleashed on the Coliseum sideline. “I was upset that we lost, but I was happier at the fact that, ‘All right, at least you can give me some respect. At least you can say I’m not a bad player, like you make me out to be every day at practice.’”

A month later, in his first collegiate start, Zaire completed 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown and ran for 96 more yards and another score, taking home MVP honors in Notre Dame’s Music City Bowl victory over defensively gifted LSU. He proved his worth on a national stage, simultaneously nudging Golson a few steps closer to the door.

His greatest triumph, though, came in the wake of crushing defeat.

“As soon as I walked off the field after SC, everything changed from that moment,” Zaire says. “Coaches started giving me respect and not cussing at me, totally different from the same week when they were going to toss me to the scraps. I keep that in mind now, how things have changed with the fans and coaches, and even some of the players that treat me a lot different.

“Nobody really knew who I was. Nobody gave me any love. I always knew that I could do it if I got my chance.”

***

Zaire wants to say something about Everett Golson.

But actually, it’s not about Golson. It never was.

“I was never looking at Ev and thinking, ‘He threw a nice pass, and now I have to do that,’” Zaire says. “I was thinking bigger picture. I wanted to be the best in the whole country. Even if I were chosen to play over Ev, that wasn’t big enough for me.

“He isn’t the best in the country. I’m talking about best, best. Peyton Manning best. That was who I was looking to. I’m trying to catch up with those guys. The quarterback competition was small fish.”

Zaire has never been, and never will be, a “small fish” kind of guy. As a child, he never dreamed of winning a national championship or a Heisman Trophy. Instead, he saw Super Bowls and Hall of Fame inductions.

Even at Notre Dame, the goal was never to be better than Golson — or Hendrix, or Rees, for that matter.

When someone sits in this booth a few years from now, Zaire wants to stare back at them — another in a long line of legends etched into the walls.

“I really want to be somebody to remember,” Zaire says. “I want to leave a legacy for the school that has given so much to me and done so much for me. I want to have an undefeated team and win a national championship.

“I want to win games. I like winning. I’m a winner. I win games. The only way to leave your mark on anything is to be a winner. Nobody remembers a loser for any good reason. My only objective is to win championships and games for this football team.”

***

Starting on Sept. 5, against Texas, Zaire and his brothers plan to leave their mark.

“This is the year we win the national championship, 100 percent in my mind,” the rising junior says with conviction. “There’s no excuse. This is the year we’re doing it. Too many guys are on the same page that really believe it.

“I think it’s good to talk about it. A lot of times coaches and players say, ‘Think about the first step.’ I think that’s important, but I also think you should continue to talk about it.

“It’s OK to circulate that around the locker room, that we’re winning the national championship. It’s OK to look down the road. Why stop talking about it? You speak things into existence, and the more we keep telling ourselves that and work towards it and believe it, it’ll all fall into place.”

Good things don’t just happen, though, and Zaire understands that. Success requires dedication, hard work — more than a strong left arm and a heaping helping of confidence. Since Golson departed for Florida State last spring, Zaire hasn’t hesitated to assume command of the offense.

“I believe he’s one of the hardest workers on the team,” says wide receiver Will Fuller. “He’s always pulling someone aside and trying to get better. We have wide receiver-quarterback meetings, and he’s always the first one there. He’s down to help in any way he can.”

To that, Kelly adds: “I don’t know that we really changed anything (with Zaire). I think we just let him be himself. He’s got innate leadership skills.”

Zaire is beginning to understand, too, what becoming the first left-handed starting quarterback in Notre Dame history truly entails. The golden helmet comes with a searing spotlight, with uncommon expectations, with the weight of notoriety and speculation that latches onto you like a tick.

Away from the field as much as on it, Zaire represents not only himself, but a university and a proud tradition.

“His life has changed, because it’s kind of not his own anymore,” Carter says. “Anywhere he goes, it seems like somebody knows who he is and they’re looking for an autograph or picture. He understands the responsibility that he carries, and so his life is different now in that he always has to be aware of what he’s doing, where he is, his behavior and if people are listening. He has matured a lot.”

That maturity is on display on this day in early June, as Zaire maneuvers out of the busy restaurant — his box of hot wings in hand. Before he reaches the door, a fan stops him, asking Zaire to take a photo with his young son.

The boy, whose head tops out around the quarterback’s waist, is wearing an Everett Golson jersey.

Zaire happily obliges, smiling for the photo and then proceeding out the door.

Soon, they’ll be wearing Zaire’s jersey. He’s confident of that.

“From UMass to USC, they are all of the same importance. We can’t lose a game,” Zaire says. “This is the team that we’re winning the national championship with. This is the team to do it. I think people really need to believe it, because we believe it.”

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Notre Dame’s Malik Zaire (8) throws his sweatband to a fan following the 31-28 victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl on Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014, at LP Field in Nashville, Tenn. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Monday that Everett Golson's transfer won't alter his plans to use Malik Zaire (8) prominently in the Irish running game. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)3/18/2015: 3/18/2015: no caption, story head: TACKLING QB DELEMMA Notre DameÕs Malik Zaire (8) tries to break away from LSUÕs JamalÊAdams (33) on a run during the Music City Bowl on Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN via FTP
Notre Dame's Malik Zaire earned MVP honors in leading the Irish to a Music City Bowl victory over LSU. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)
Notre Dame’s Amir Carlisle, left, and Malik Zaire walk off the field following the the 49-14 loss to USC on Saturday, Nov. 29, 2014, at the L.A. Coliseum in Los Angeles, Calif. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN
Notre Dame’s Malik Zaire high fives fans following the 48-17 victory over Rice on Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

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.