Former Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire not giving up on NFL dream

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame has changed.

Malik Zaire hasn’t.

The 6-foot, 226-pound quarterback — who graduated from ND in Dec. 2016 and played his final collegiate season at Florida — returned to South Bend on Monday, allowing for a few extra days of training prior to Thursday’s Irish pro day. He found a few faces that he recognized.

The rest was unfamiliar.

“It’s surreal, man. Coming back and seeing all these new features, you would think it was a new school,” Zaire said on Thursday. “But I got a chance to go around and see all the new buildings and just be around the new guys. There’s a lot of fresh faces in here.

“(Notre Dame head coach Brian) Kelly is looking good, so I know he’s ready to get the team going for this next year. Just being at Notre Dame, it feels like home. Being an alumni, I don’t feel as old as I am. But being able to be around the guys is something that brings me back home to the place where I started. So it's good to be here.”

If you were there on Thursday, you couldn’t miss him. In a jarringly subdued Loftus Center, Zaire’s voice cut through the silence.

“That was it, though. That was it!” he yelled with a grin after narrowly missing wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown on a deep route.

“Here we go! You good, baby!” he shouted after tight end Durham Smythe mishandled a perfect pass dropped over his shoulder.

“I feel like I’m the best in the draft at my position,” he said with total sincerity after an impressive passing performance, in front of a handful of local media.

Yep, same old Malik.

Though he isn’t likely to be selected in April’s NFL Draft, the relentlessly confident Zaire — who threw for 349 yards with zero touchdowns and one interception in four games at Florida last season — remains steadfast in the belief that he possesses professional talent. Four largely frustrating seasons at Notre Dame couldn’t extinguish that belief, nor could a graduate transfer that yielded just two total starts in the SEC.

Zaire believes he’s an NFL quarterback.

He just needs someone else to believe it, too.

“Handling adversity is something I feel like I’m an expert at now,” Zaire said on Thursday. “I’m just continuing to get better.”

There was certainly no shortage of adversity for Zaire in South Bend, where the former four-star recruit passed for 816 yards and six touchdowns and ran for 324 yards and two more scores in 17 career games. He started just three of those games, however, often buried as Kelly’s back-up behind quarterbacks Everett Golson and DeShone Kizer.

Still, any lingering grudges remained far out of sight on Thursday. The former Irish quarterback was in command, impressing with both accuracy and arm strength while throwing to St. Brown, Smythe and running back Josh Adams.

In between drills, Zaire threw his arm around Adams — his former teammate — laughing like they were Andy Dufresne and Ellis Boyd Redding reunited on an empty beach at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

“That's one of the best people you're going to meet,” Adams said after the glorified NFL job interview was over. “He's genuinely happy and genuinely glad to play football. There's not many like him."

“No regrets. No regrets,” Zaire added, after being asked to comment on his careening college football journey. “I feel like I’ve learned so much going through the things I’ve gone through, and that’s made me the person I am today. It’s made me a lot stronger as a competitor and somebody that hasn’t quit yet. So I’ve got a lot of football left in the tank.”

This offseason, most of that football was played in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Zaire trained with quarterbacks coach Mike Giovando. More of it will be played next week, when the graduate student participates in Florida’s pro day.

Then, who knows? He’ll keep showing up and competing, waiting for a call that’s far from guaranteed.

“I’ve had an edge the whole time going through my college career up to this point,” Zaire said. “I think that edge is going to take me to the next level, and that ability to win games.

“I still feel I can win games at the highest level. I practice and invest a lot in it, so it means a lot to me. I’m giving my all to every team that gives me an opportunity, so that’s what I’m looking forward to.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Malik Zaire throws a pass during the Notre Dame Pro Day workouts Thursday, March 22, 2018 at Guglielmino Athletics Complex and Loftus Sports Center. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA