Still the one? Steve Young's advice part of Malik Zaire's plan

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In between short bursts of political correctness, Malik Zaire made it clear that not only does he believe Notre Dame’s three-man, open quarterback competition this spring is unnecessary, but that he’ll play along until it’s just as obvious to everyone else.

“You just really wonder what it’s going to take to finally convince people enough that I’m able to do the job,” the senior-to-be said Friday in his first public comments since a fractured right ankle six months-and-some-change ago eventually led to the unpalatable déjà vu of depth-chart ambiguity.

“But I don’t make decisions, so I’ve just got to keep ballin’ and do what I’ve got to do.”

Part of the process of trying to reassert himself as ND’s No. 1 option at quarterback, ahead of now-incumbent DeShone Kizer and uber-gifted challenger Brandon Wimbush, started with connecting with Steve Young.

“The greatest lefty quarterback,” beamed Zaire, himself the only lefty quarterback to start a game for Notre Dame in its 127-season history.

Ironically, Young — both a college and pro football Hall-of-Famer — spent some of his prime years as an understudy, to former Notre Dame star Joe Montana when both were on the San Francisco 49ers’ roster.

“Being able to see from his perspective and get a chance to have a better relationship with him is inspiring me to take that next step and do things,” said Zaire, who said the two met through “friends,” and acknowledged they remain in regular communication.

Zaire’s winter of renewal also meant lingering in Arizona after Notre Dame’s 44-28 Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State on Jan. 1, to work with Dennis Gile, a less-grandstanding version of private quarterback tutor George Whitfield Jr., who in turn took on Kizer and Wimbush as clients earlier this month over ND’s spring break.

Also on the offseason agenda for the Kettering, Ohio, product was studying film of current NFL greats Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, among others.

“I notice there’s a lot of smoothness to their games,” he said. “If you make the game look smooth, you make it look easy and you can win a lot of games. You look like you know what you’re doing.”

Zaire’s numbers, in admittedly a very small sample size, make him look just that. The owner of three career starts — eight fewer than Kizer now has — has a 5.6 yards-per-carry rushing average in 52 career attempts. That’s roughly a half yard better per touch than the career gold standard at ND, Tony Rice (5.0).

And his 162.4 pass-efficiency rating in 75 career attempts would stand as the best career mark at Notre Dame if Zaire could maintain or even improve upon that.

“I always see myself as the No. 1, so whatever,” Zaire said with a laugh. “Coach decides what he decides, and I stay focused believing I can get better and grow with my teammates.”

He’s grinding on an ankle that’s not yet 100 percent, he admits. There’s still rehab to be done, still mobility and range to recoup. Still pain amidst the gains.

Though the sheer ache in the crumpled ankle, even as it happened in a comeback victory Sept. 12 over Virginia that launched Kizer’s ascension, was easier to deal with than the one in his heart.

“I know I’m the most hardest-working quarterback, I think, in the country,” Zaire said. “So for me to be traveling all these places I did to get ready for the (2015) season and for me to put so much effort and blood sweat and tears into this team and not be able to get the prize at the end of the day, it was kind of hard for me to deal with in the moment.

“The ankle’s the ankle. Everybody has injuries, so it was more so the work that I put in that I didn’t get to see pay off in that moment. Everything happens for a reason, so you’ve just got to keep rolling with it.”

Zaire is convinced, even with the layoff, that he’s better than the quarterback he was in September, particularly in the mental side of the game.

Not having a timetable for a decision about his status, he insists, won’t change that. He’s made friends with uncertainly, perhaps reluctantly, but certainly convincingly.

Zaire has had to fight for his spot on the depth chart every spring that he’s been on campus except the first, when he was an early-enrollee — and an afterthought in most everyone’s mind but his own.

He’s had to deal with having three different quarterback coaches and three different offensive coordinators in three years before finally getting some continuity from Mike Sanford this offseason.

“You may love the game of football, but it doesn’t always love you the same way in that moment,” Zaire said. “But I know that in the bigger picture, things are going to come together how they come together.

“I know that my work ethic and my belief in the guys around me and my belief in what I want to do and what I want to accomplish will all fall into place.”

Without drama, without thoughts of transferring, without having to settle for a time share.

“There can be,” he said, “only one.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire, left, takes a snap as teammates Brandon Wimbush, center, and DeShone Kizer look on during Notre Dame spring football practice earlier this week. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)