May 14, 2012, 2:16 PM EDT
If having two quarterbacks really means you have none, Irish fans must be wondering what having four quarterbacks does to a team. With the offseason headlines dominated by a four-headed quarterback race featuring Tommy Rees, Andrew Hendrix, Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel, the search for the Irish’s offensive leader overshadowed the commitment of Ohio quarterback Malik Zaire to the Notre Dame 2013 recruiting class. While Zaire has flown under the radar for Irish fans already trying to make sense of the current depth chart, he might be the perfect quarterback recruit for Brian Kelly’s offense, and one of the nation’s most exciting prospects.
Zaire’s invitation last week to the Elite 11 quarterback camp finals in Redondo Beach, California gives you an idea of what the ceiling is for a quarterback that’s just starting to understand how good he can be. With offers from schools like Alabama and Ohio State, Zaire’s upside seems to be truly elite, and the 6-foot-1, 190-pound junior will spend a week this summer working working alongside the top quarterbacks in the country at the Elite 11 camp, competing for a mythical crown that usually means the future is bright.
To get a better grasp on Zaire’s abilities, I spent some time with Yogi Roth, who hosts ESPN’s Elite 11 showcase and knows quite a bit about quarterback play himself. Roth has seen a lot of Notre Dame football. While he’s most widely associated with Pete Carroll’s USC program, where he worked his way up to quarterback coach of guys like John David Booty and Mark Sanchez, he’s followed Irish quarterbacks all the way back to when he was competing with Matt LoVecchio, Carlyle Holiday, and Jared Clark as a wide receiver at Pitt. (Before you accuse Roth of bias, he grew up an Irish fan, with an autographed poster of Ron Powlus adorning his bedroom wall.)
Roth recruited Dayne Crist for USC when he was a top Southern California prospect, coached against Jimmy Clausen and Brady Quinn. He hosted Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel at Elite 11 camps over the past two summers. To say he’s had a close look at Irish quarterbacks is an understatement. Ask Roth who he’d want of that group quarterbacking his team, and he might shock you when he doesn’t hesitate to pick the least hyped prospect of them all: Malik Zaire.
“If you look at his skill-set and where football is at this day and age, he’s a great vision of what the QB position is right now,” Roth said of Zaire’s abilities. “Sixteen of the top 25 teams in the country run a spread offense. The game has changed and the quarterback position has changed from just being a big guy that can throw the football to a quarterback that’s one of the best athletes on the field. That’s Malik.”
With Zaire labeled as a run-first type quarterback, I wanted to get a feeling from Roth just how good of a passer Zaire could be. With height (Zaire’s listed at 6-foot-1 on his Elite 11 profile) not one of his best assets, throwing the ball accurately will be a key to any future success at the college level. And it’s one area where Roth thinks Zaire will thrive.
“If you look at his skill set, he’s such a dynamic thrower,” Roth said. “He’s a pure passer, he’s so smooth that you forget how mobile he is.”
After glowing about Zaire’s athleticism and arm, Roth also pointed to the intangibles Irish fans are seeing as Zaire has taken a leadership role in building his recruiting class. The skills that are toughest to measure might be Roth’s favorite aspect of Zaire’s game.
“The biggest thing we saw was his competitiveness with his talent,” Roth said, noting Zaire was learning many of the drills for the first time. “Of all the quarterbacks I’ve mentioned, especially the ones that I’ve been around, he’s got the best presence. They’re all talented, but he’s got that natural knack. He lights up a room. From the moment he walked in with his mom to the day he said goodbye, he was fully engaged.”
Zaire’s invitation to Redondo Beach for the Elite 11 finals is likely only the beginning of an offseason that’ll see Zaire blossom into an elite player as a senior. And while we’re two full seasons away from seeing Zaire done the blue-and-gold for Notre Dame, Roth thinks the future is bright for the Irish will Zaire behind center.
“He might not walk in and save the day, but he’ll be an elite performer for the Fighting Irish.”
You can catch Yogi as the host of ESPN’s The Elite 11 Quarterback Competition. He’s also an actor and a New York Times best-selling writer. His most recent book From PA to LA is available now.
UPDATE: Now with tape from the Elite 11 camp in Columbus.