Freshman Focus: Malik Zaire

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Arriving on campus, it was tough to call Malik Zaire the quarterback of tomorrow. It was more like the day after tomorrow. But with a depth chart that saw the departure of Everett Golson and Gunner Kiel, and will say goodbye to Tommy Rees and potentially Andrew Hendrix after this season, Zaire’s arrival feels almost imminent.

Quickly ascending to the third string without taking a snap, Zaire still did plenty of things impressively during his 15 spring practices, leaving the coaching staff confident that their hand-picked recruit would be a great fit for the Irish offense in due time. But Zaire might have to be more than that, with no margin for error available behind Rees.

Once a guy that looked like he had all the time in the world to develop, Zaire enters camp hoping to fight for the backup job with Hendrix, quite a different place than most expected just a few months ago.

Let’s take a closer look at Malik Zaire.

RECRUITING PEDIGREE

Zaire was an Elite 11 quarterback, nearly winning the MVP of the competition the summer before his senior season. While his junior numbers weren’t overly impressive, Zaire put on a show his final season, as runner-up for Mr. Football in Ohio and the D-III Southwest District Offensive Player of the Year.

Zaire was a consensus four-star prospect and Rivals listed him as the No. 3 dual-threat quarterback in the country, as well as a top 150 player.

With offers from Alabama, Arizona, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Wisconsin, Zaire, while undersized, has the offer list of an elite prospect. He’ll immediately upgrade the athleticism at the position.

EARLY PLAYING TIME OPPORTUNITIES

When Zaire enrolled, it looked like he wouldn’t be ready to see action until at least 2016, when Everett Golson played out his four seasons as a starter. But with Golson’s academic exile, and Kiel’s transfer, Zaire might not even wear what looked like the surest redshirt in the class.

If all goes to this staff’s wishes, Zaire stays off the field this season and retains a year of eligibility. But that all goes out the window if Tommy Rees goes down, as it’s far from certain that Andrew Hendrix can take over this offense and be productive if needed.

With a team expected to have a fierce defense and an offense with skill players capable of surprising, turning over the reins of the offense to an untested freshman isn’t ideal. (In fact, it looks a lot like what happened in 2010, when Rees became the starting QB down the stretch by default.)

But after one crazy offseason, that’s Zaire’s new reality, and he’ll prepare as if he’s going to see the field in September.

PROJECTING THE FUTURE

It’s hard to see what happens with Zaire without knowing what will happen to Golson. There are just too many scenarios. Does a good season by Zaire make Hendrix walk after this season, even with a fifth year? Will it be an open competition when Golson comes back? What if Golson doesn’t come back?

All the different permutations aside, this coaching staff believes in Zaire’s ability, regardless of the players in front of him. Zaire’s jump start in the program gave Brian Kelly the belief that he had a quarterback that was capable of leading this program.

“I think what I loved about Malik is when he came up here last spring, he sat in our quarterback meeting room, and in that meeting room you’ve got some really good quarterbacks.  When he left that meeting, he made it clear to me that this was the place he wanted to be,” Kelly recalled on Signing Day.

“He loved the environment, he loved the coaching, he loved the opportunity to come in and run the offense, and that’s looking at great competition and saying, I don’t care about that, I’m going to come to Notre Dame because it’s the right place for me academically, and it’s the right place for me because I’m going to be the starter here at Notre Dame, and we love those kind of guys that have that attitude.”

It’s too hard to predict what will happen as the quarterback depth chart reshuffles itself. But it’s a fair bet to think that by the time his career at Notre Dame is over, Zaire will have made an impact.