Who is the new face of Notre Dame football, Malik Zaire, becoming?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The new filter wedged between what’s going on in Malik Zaire’s head and what the Notre Dame junior quarterback concedes to the world outside his cocoon these days creates a measured, calculating, polished veneer.

Not even Irish sixth-year head football coach Brian Kelly, the man whose tough love, then faith in Zaire helped fast-track his climb to becoming the fresh face and the new and reformed voice of the program, knows exactly what’s gurgling inside.

Or what it all may evolve into Saturday night — when the 127th season of Notre Dame football opens with a prime-time home game (7:30 EDT; NBC-TV) with a rekindling Texas team — and where it’s all headed beyond Saturday night’s bright lights.

“And as much as we’d like to say Malik’s a veteran, he’s still not,” Kelly said in the hours leading up to ND’s debut as the nation’s 11th-ranked team and an almost double-digit favorite over the mascot-less, offensively challenged Longhorns.

“He (started) really in one game for us last year, and he didn’t play the whole game. So Malik’s going to have his moments where he’s going to have to settle into the game. Emotion versus enthusiasm is big for him.

“He can be emotional at times, and we have to transfer that into just being enthusiastic. And as I told him, ‘You don’t have to be the reason why we won. You just can’t be the reason why we lost.’ ”

The brash, sometimes brooding, younger version of Zaire, who initially unwittingly delayed his own charge at unseating incumbent starter Everett Golson, wouldn’t have even heard those words. His passion often overrode whatever reality looked like.

The younger version of Zaire could always see his own flaws. He just, at times, got more caught up in everyone else’s. But that’s not to say he didn’t address them or even get proactive in heading off new ones.

For instance, as a college freshman, the Kettering, Ohio, product, reached out to Tom Mendoza, the man whose name is attached to ND’s nationally top-rated business school. The non-business major wasn’t interested in macroeconomics or entrepreneurship.

He wanted to know how to lead — older people.

“My input was make sure no one outworks you and look for ways to contribute to the success of others, and you can lead anyone,” remembered Mendoza, who admitted to current freshman QB Brandon Wimbush initiating a very similar conversation with him.

More recently — in the last month, in fact — Zaire tapped Brady Quinn, the Willingham/Weis Era ND quarterback whose name still headlines most of the school’s career passing records, including resoundingly passing yards and TD passes.

“He handled his situation at Notre Dame very well — and he double-majored — so he’s doing a lot of special things,” Zaire said of the fellow Ohioan, who shares the common bond of snubbing the in-state national powerhouse during the recruiting process. “But what I mostly got from him is just being able to continue to be consistent and continue to work hard.

“The quarterback position — not just at Notre Dame, but just in general — you’ve got to be able to be different, and you’ve got to be able to separate yourself and be very disciplined in your approach to the game and your approach on and off the field.”

That off-the-field approach includes reframing some of the moments in the past when Zaire felt frustration. That was particularly the case when the Irish coaches tried to show the QB the way to reach the high standard that he professed to be chasing. He, in turn, got caught up in the sting that was embedded in that process.

“The good thing about coach Kelly is he’s a perfectionist, and so am I,” Zaire has since recalibrated.

Yet the candor doesn’t always seep through unimpeded. When asked Thursday night what’s changed about his life in the past four months since Golson took the escape hatch to start over at Florida State, Zaire tried to sell his world has consisted of “just football and school.”

Not at Notre Dame, it doesn’t. Not at a school where only three of the 24 scholarship quarterbacks the school has signed since iconic coach Lou Holtz walked away following the 1996 season exhausted their college eligibility at Notre Dame and as a QB.

Quinn, Evan Sharpley and Tommy Rees could have been joined by Golson in that select group. The three remaining recruited QBs on the Irish roster — Zaire, redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer and Wimbush — are still in play.

The others, beginning with Zak Kustok's signing in 1997 under Bob Davie, either transferred, switched positions or both — or, in the case of Jimmy Clausen, left for the NFL with a year of eligibility on the table.

Zaire’s on-the-field evolution feels less scripted, less robotic, but is far from advanced.

The early stages were promising, perhaps even beyond Kelly’s hopes. Zaire’s only college start came last Dec. 30 against what was then the nation’s top pass-efficiency defense, LSU.

The then-sophomore’s 155.76 pass-efficiency rating in the 31-28 Irish upset victory would stand as the third-best in Notre Dame history, just ahead of 1964 Heisman Trophy winner John Huarte’s, if projected over an entire season.

But Kelly and Zaire both know Texas will be the first game he truly is central to an opposing defensive coordinator’s game plan. It may also be the first of a string of rite-of-passages tests most quarterbacks must traverse.

Eight men in the box. Nine men in the box. Drop eight, rush three. Relentless blitzing.

“I think as coaches, we certainly present all of those challenges to him in practice,” Kelly said. “But those are just quizzes. The test is when it happens in real time. I don't know that you really know for sure until you get the test.

“We think we have given him many opportunities to react, and he's reacted very well to all of those kinds of scenarios that you mentioned. We know that he's going to go in there and be poised and has seen all the looks that he could get.

“But there's going to be a time or two where he's going to see something that he's not sure of, and we hope that he defaults back to the foundation that we've given him. And if he does that and defaults back to the foundation, he'll get through those moments.”

In the large but scattered media windows into practice over the past month, Zaire has been particularly adept in the red zone and certainly in the zone-read stuff that was never in Golson’s comfort zone.

Zaire’s short and intermediate passing routes were consistently sharp, and progressively so with each passing day. But the inconsistencies in his deep passing game were the most pronounced, perceived shortfall when stacked against Golson’s résumé.

“In terms of mechanics and things he needed to work on, (they) were all correctible,” Kelly insists.

But the coach also knows the corrections might not come without pain. He knows Zaire is on his third offensive coordinator in three years and his third quarterbacks coach in the same time frame.

Kelly knows Zaire has 35 pass attempts to his name and 33 rushes. With zero turnovers, so far.

He knows there are so many voices, solicited and otherwise, than can cloud the big picture.

In the moments in between, Zaire smiles and says “we” a lot now. He won’t dare candidly share how he might feel the first time he hits an ugly stretch in a game and how he might respond. But the truth is he may not really know.

Nor might Kelly. Or anyone else in Notre Dame Stadium Saturday night hoping the magic he conjured against an SEC defense eights months and some change ago was the beginning of the next quarterback renaissance at ND and not some fickle mirage.

“You can only feel like a rookie if you aren’t prepared,” he said.

That, Zaire decidedly is.

Prepared for a next step, but one shrouded in uncertainty of where it will take him.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI