Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire tweaks approach to focus on team

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Malik Zaire knows the spotlight is on him, but as the Notre Dame football team began its preseason camp, he tried to keep the focus on the team.

A reporter asked how he felt about taking the practice field as the starting quarterback. The junior side-stepped immediately.

“We came out with a team focus today which was important,” Zaire said. “We came collectively as a group and really came together and tried to continue to do the things we were coached in and practiced in all through spring, all through summer, and being out here for the first time working on our full development getting ready for our first game.”

Then he answered a question about his expectations with plenty of “we.”

“We know our expectations heading into the season,” Zaire said. “The expectations we give ourselves are more important than expectations that are given through outside sources. We know the importance and areas of improvement we need to work on.”

Alright, but what does Notre Dame’s new QB-1 need to improve on before the season opener in less than a month?

“Well, we got secrets,” Zaire said with a smile.

Further proof that the 6-foot, 222-pound quarterback can be as elusive when surrounded by reporters as when he’s scrambling from the pocket. In the past, Zaire has been refreshingly honest in interviews. But with the pressure and attention of being front-and-center in coach Brian Kelly’s offense, his strategy may change.

Zaire alluded to the fact that he can’t get too comfortable as the starting quarterback.

“Being a Notre Dame quarterback, there’s never a clear-cut anything,” Zaire said. “Coach Kelly does a great job of keeping it competitive and keeping up us on our toes knowing that anything can change any moment.”

Even the official Notre Dame football Twitter account, @NDFootball, momentarily presented Tuesday the idea of a competition between Zaire and sophomore backup DeShone Kizer. Accompanying a photo of Kizer in action, the tweet read, “DeShone Kizer has had a strong camp thus far and will push Zaire for the starting job.”

Moments later the tweet was deleted and turned into a joke. Any indication of Kizer nipping at Zaire’s heels seems more motivational than practical. Zaire is the captain of the ship and is trying to make sure everyone is on board.

His leadership has been lauded by many of his teammates. Wide receiver Will Fuller called him the best leader on the team last week. Yet Kelly wants to make sure Zaire has the team headed in the right direction.

“He’s so driven and loves to play the game so much that we, at times, have to pull him back a little bit,” Kelly said. “As a leader, he has some natural innate ability to stand in front of the group. What we're working on is clarity in message.”

“He has a tendency to get a little emotional in the way he talks, and ... you guys have interviewed him... he goes off on tangents a little bit. We have to reel him in a little bit. He'll do that a little bit in front of the group, and that's fine because he's comfortable in front of our group.”

Don’t expect Zaire to change his personality drastically. That adjustment could be harder than any physical preparation he needs to get ready for the season. In the moments that matter, Zaire will likely say what he thinks and say it with enthusiasm.

“I wake up with a lot of energy,” Zaire said. “I just love being out here. I love being at practice. I love being around these guys and doing the things necessary. Coach Kelly will tell me if I’m doing a little bit too much; too much energy, and I need to calm it down a little bit. But I love being out here. I love coming out here and having intensity with these guys because that’s something that people look toward. If I keep my intensity level up, we’re going to have better practices day in and day out.”

Zaire can deflect or share the attention as much as he wants, but the spotlight won’t shift. He’s been around long enough to know that the quarterback can influence a team’s success more than any single position in today’s game. A journey to the College Football Playoff will be impacted by his ability to keep the team on course.

“I’m not the new kid on the block anymore, so the expectations that are out there for me should be high because I have high expectations for myself,” Zaire said. “I come out here and just try to do my job and do whatever I can to uplift the team and push us and continue us forward.”

tjames@ndinsider.com

574-235-6214

Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Quarterback Malik Zaire (8) runs a drill with Chris Brown (2) Grant Hammann (35) and Austin Webster (26) during practice at Culver Academies. (SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)