QB Malik Zaire grateful for Notre Dame experience, eager to find new home

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Malik Zaire wouldn’t change a thing.

That truth might be hard to digest when one considers the entirety of his Notre Dame experience. Zaire enrolled early in South Bend, just to spend the vast majority of his first two seasons gathering dust on the Irish sideline. He was awarded the starting quarterback job in 2015, only to fracture his right ankle in the second game and watch DeShone Kizer enjoy the spoils of a 10-win season. Zaire fought his way back from a devastating injury, just to watch Kizer overtake him for the starting role.

In four seasons, the 6-foot, 225-pound quarterback started a grand total of three games.

And yet, in the immediate wake of his final meeting with head coach Brian Kelly and his official release from Notre Dame, Zaire — who will seek a graduate transfer this winter — wasn’t bitter.

He was thankful.

“I think everything happens for a reason,” Zaire told The Tribune on Wednesday afternoon. “These lessons I’ve learned here weren’t just football. For me, taking everything I’ve learned here and mixing that with the type of person that I am, I really do believe that it’s made me the championship quarterback I know I can be for another program, as well as the man I’ve become after going through all that stuff.

“It was kind of hard,” he said with a knowing chuckle, “but I’m nothing but grateful. I wouldn’t change anything. I think the impression I left on Notre Dame is something I’m most proud of. I’m glad that things didn’t end on a sour note as far as my love for Notre Dame and the people at Notre Dame and the program. I’m glad things ended in a positive way.”

But why, then, did Zaire's relationship with Notre Dame have to end at all?

“On the football side of things, I wish I could’ve given Notre Dame more of what I feel like I offered," said Zaire. "Obviously things didn’t fall my way all the time. But I know deep down in my heart that I gave everything I had to the program and the Notre Dame community with being committed and wanting to be someone that left a legacy, just like everybody else that comes to Notre Dame.

“At this point, I have things that I want to do and accomplish myself. I don’t think coach Kelly sees it the same way in terms of (Notre Dame) being a part of that. Coach has a lot of decisions to make, so there’s never any animosity. He has a lot on his plate. I think the team’s going to be really successful.

“It’s good for everybody that I did everything I could to help this university and leave it in a better way than when I came in, and I feel like I’ve accomplished that. It’s time for me to go and do the things that I want to do on my end, football-wise. But there’s a lot of love for Notre Dame.”

He loves it, but now he'll leave it. Ultimately, Zaire didn't believe he'd be afforded the opportunity to lead the Irish offense in 2017. And while the decision to transfer wasn't easy, he's excited about what comes next.

“It wasn’t a struggle," Zaire said of the process of being granted his release from Notre Dame. "Everybody was pretty excited for me to see that opportunities are coming my way. It was pretty smooth.

“(Kelly) just told me that I did everything that they asked me (to) and the things I did for Notre Dame left an impact and thanks for being here,” Zaire said. “Just seeing that positive outcome, you just smile and learn and hope to better yourself in the future.”

But where will Zaire look to better himself in 2017? The senior, who will graduate with a film, television and theater degree in December, has one season of eligibility remaining and a growing list of suitors — most notably Florida, Wisconsin, Pittsburgh and Michigan State.

But while visits have yet to be scheduled, Zaire and his father, Imani Zaire, understand what qualities his next program must possess.

“I just want, of course, to do what I wanted to do at Notre Dame, and that’s win a national championship,” Zaire said. “For me, it’s finding the best fit where I can help bring the team something that I can add and help bring a national championship. I felt like I could do that at Notre Dame, and I still feel the same way.

“I feel like I’m the best quarterback in the country. This opportunity is good for me. I’ve got one shot to do it, and you only need one shot to do it. That’s what I’m looking for.”

Added Imani Zaire: “Football-wise, it’s evident. He now understands that he needs to be in a system that would allow him to showcase his talents. He can do more than just run the ball, and he’s ultimately looking for a program that can ready him for the next level. He wants to and he believes that he can play at the next level.

“He just needs to have the opportunity and some fine-tuning to get there. The coach has to believe in his ability and have the kind of offense that allows him to do that. That’s all he needs is the opportunity.”

Opportunities weren’t always readily available at Notre Dame — particularly in 2016, when Zaire completed just 11 of 23 passes with one touchdown, which came on the final play of his Irish career.

It wasn’t the ending Zaire hoped for or imagined, but the Kettering, Ohio, native grew nevertheless.

“Getting through that kind of thing is a day-by-day process,” Zaire explained. “There’s no one to really talk to about how to get through it, because it was kind of an awkward thing to talk about. There was a lot going on there.

“But my focus on continuing to get better as a player and continuing to find ways to be a better teammate and leader and finding out different things about the game from a different perspective has helped me tremendously. This perspective has helped me to handle stuff in the future that may go on.”

Now, the future is Zaire’s primary focus. He hopes to enroll at his next school for the spring semester.

He has one season to find a new home, win a championship and pave the way for a professional future.

“The boy can play,” Imani Zaire said. “You guys will see next year when he’s wherever he is and he plays. They’re going to say, ‘What happened?’ That’s an issue Kelly’s going to have to address.”

In 17 career games, Zaire passed for 816 yards and six touchdowns without an interception and ran for 324 yards and two more scores.

He’ll leave South Bend with a lot of lessons, and few regrets.

“I’ve spent my four years at Notre Dame to the fullest,” Zaire said. “I even came to school early to get a head start on things at the university. These four years I’ve been here, I’ve had an opportunity to experience so much more outside of football. The people that I’ve met and the things I’ve been a part of and the ways I’ve been able to help and give to the university has been nothing but a blessing."

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Malik Zaire (9) passes during the Notre Dame-Southern Cal NCAA college football game on Saturday, Nov. 26, 2016, inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, Calif. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN