10,000 miles later, Zaire eyes top spot

Notre Dame's purported starting quarterback returned to the University in January. What awaited Everett Golson was a fierce competitor that never left.

Ah the life of a backup quarterback.

Fans love you. Coaches espouse your virtues and rarely offer public critique. Media wonders aloud whether you, not the starter, are the right man for the job.

Malik Zaire doesn't wonder. He might not be right, but doubt has not yet entered his mind regarding Notre Dame's starting quarterback for 2014.

"There will be one guy starting on August 30 against Rice at Notre Dame Stadium," said Zaire. "There will only be one guy on the field and I believe that will be me."

Most believe it will be former starter Everett Golson, suspended last season for academic transgressions just months after aiding the Irish on a run to the BCS Championship game.

Competition is fierce, and according to Zaire, it's not between the two.

"The competition with me and Everett, it's not so much me competing with that guy, it's me competing with myself to get better every day," said Zaire. "To be the best -- that's definitely the quote we use in the quarterback room, that's what we look for -- to be the best quarterback in the country, that's what I look for.

"It's not a one-on-one battle. It's not me vs. the other guy. It's me and getting better every day with this offense to win games. It's the same for him. I don't expect him to look over his shoulder and wonder, 'What is he doing?' or 'What is he looking like today?"

"It's more, what are we going to do collectively as a unit and as quarterbacks to win 12 games to make it to the playoffs and win the championship? That's it."

Zaire's early enrollment in 2013 has aided his cause

Yet to play his first game, Zaire is in the midst of his second spring session. An early enrollee in January 2013, the lefty triggerman never found his comfort zone as a player on the fringe of the varsity, but likewise removed from scout team competition, last fall.

"There was some gray area as to, where is this guy going to have to play?" said offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock of Zaire's status last season. "Is he completely a redshirt? Is he somewhere between the two? Then he got sick (mono) and none of those were options. Then, do you put him down (with the scout team)?

"It was a weird dynamic, but what he did with that situation was use it to as much of an advantage as he could. He was in the meetings with the quarterbacks (Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix). He wasn't learning the opposing teams' plays so he could run them for our defense, he was actually the guy sitting in the meeting room with the quarterbacks as they were getting the game plan. There was some benefit there as well."

Kudos to the (former) teacher

Three quarterbacks have started games during the four-year Brian Kelly era to date: Golson, Dayne Crist, and Tommy Rees.

Zaire appreciates time spent last year with the latter.

"I would always want to play," Zaire admitted of his freshman season on the sidelines. "Everyone wants to come in and play, so I definitely wanted to come in and play. But I needed a year to learn and grow and be under a guy like Tommy, who I think is terrific. He definitely showed me a lot being behind him and learning a lot from him. Now it's my turn to do what I need to do to win."

So much so that Zaire takes his turn even when it's Golson's.

"It's something that Malik has actually done since he got here," said Denbrock of Zaire's "mental reps" when another quarterback takes a physical practice snap. "To stand behind the offensive play and go through his footwork and go through, if you would, a read progression if it's a passing play.

"If you break down practice, the number of reps that he's getting, I wish we could quadruple them for his experience," Denbrock admitted. "But I think he's 10,000 miles farther down the road than he was at this time last year. Last year he was a guy who was athletic, working his butt off to play quarterback. Now he has some knowledge to go with it and the ability to get us in a good play if he needs to, or do the athletic thing that we all know he can do if he needs to, and he's got a chance to be a quarterback as well as just that great athlete."

And despite the assumptions of most, a chance to start.

"It's always about finding that consistency at that position," said Kelly of the quarterback competition. "It's just going to take some time. I don't have a timetable on it. I'll know when it's running the right way and it's smooth. It's not there yet. It will be."

Golson and Zaire will determine that together -- both on the field and in the film room.

"They're good together, they like each other," Kelly said. "Everett's not going to sit down and teach him the playbook, though. But they like each other, they get along very well, but it's not a Tommy Rees (situation), where Tommy Rees would sit down and teach Everett the offense; we don't have that kind of situation. These are two competitive kids. Malik wants to beat out Everett. But it's a very positive kind of atmosphere.

"So the dynamic is very positive. They're very good with each other. They help each other. But it's not one where they're going to share notes and sit down and, 'Hey, how can I help you beat me out?' That's not happening."

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