ND A-to-Z: Malik Zaire

For the first time since Brian Kelly’s initial season in South Bend, Notre Dame’s most important player is an inexperienced starter under center.

Change was the order of the day for Irish football fans on May 7, 2015. Shortly after finishing his last final exam as a Notre Dame student, former starting quarterback Everett Golson announced his intentions to seek employment elsewhere for the upcoming football season.

But for junior Malik Zaire, it was business as usual, because regardless of Golson’s decision, the junior from Kettering, Ohio expected to control the reigns of the Irish offense all along.

“At the end of the day, Peyton Manning doesn't share time with a lot of people. I think Peyton Manning's greatness and his efficiency in his offense and what he does and his perfectionist mentality is what makes him Peyton Manning, and what makes him not share time with other people,” said Zaire following his only meeting with the media midway through spring practice.

“Coach Kelly said it best. He looks for people with production. It's not about the name anymore it's not about what you say in an interview with media, it's about production. And that's what I'm focusing on: producing, making plays, and doing what it takes to win championships.”

Irish Illustrated concludes its ND A-to-Z series with a profile of Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, Malik Zaire.

BEST-CASE SCENARIO

Zaire guides the Irish to 11 or 12 regular season victories thus securing the program’s spot in the second annual college football playoffs.

(What, you want statistics and analysis, too?)

Zaire’s ability to move the chains with his legs and to hit big plays downfield with his left arm are a given. It’s also likely he’ll produce a few handfuls of long runs after tucking a read-option fake and keeping it off-tackle.

The unknown and the work-in-progress for Notre Dame’s fourth starting triggerman of the Kelly era is Zaire’s consistency as a passer: slants, field-side outs, dig routes, and ball placement to his targets on roll-outs to either his left or right are crucial to Notre Dame’s overall attack.

Should Zaire prove efficient (or even timely) in this realm, Notre Dame’s offense will rank among the nation’s most effective in 2015.

WORST-CASE SCENARIO

Zaire experiences ill-timed struggles in the passing game in his initial season as a starter, and the offense’s ability to move the chains on third down develops into a clear weakness.

Notre Dame’s projected run-first offense doesn’t reach its potential because Zaire is unable to keep quality defenses off balance and the team’s bevy of pass-catching options aren’t used to their fullest capabilities.

It’s an unlikely scenario over the long haul, but if it comes to fruition twice over the season’s first seven games, six of which can be considered tough spots for the Irish, the team won’t attain its ultimate goal.

CAREER COMPARISON

Notre Dame’s most recent first-time, full-season starters as juniors are Dayne Crist (2010) and Jarious Jackson (1998), and the latter’s frame (six-feet-one, 235 pounds) and skill set aren’t disparate from Zaire’s (six-feet, 220-plus).

Jackson’s first two seasons in South Bend (he did not redshirt as a freshman) included 18 completions in 32 attempts for 327 yards and four touchdowns (no interceptions), coupled with 19 carries for 52 yards and three scores – all accrued in a backup role to Ron Powlus

(Of note, Jackson also returned an onside kick attempt 40 yards for a touchdown.)

Zaire’s stat line entering his junior year academically (he redshirted as a 2013 freshman) shows 21 of 35 for 266 yards and one score through the air, with 187 yards gained on the ground on 33 carries and two touchdowns.

As a first-year starting junior, Jackson hit 104 of 188 pass attempts for 1,740 yards and 13 scores (6 interceptions) in a run-first Irish offense, one coincidentally led by senior running back Autry Denson, now the program’s running backs coach. Jackson added 113 carries for 441 net yards and three scores on the ground.

Offensive expectations in the modern era include more snaps per game, yardage accrued and touchdowns scored. Relative to Jackson’s 1998 numbers, Zaire’s goals could be similar as a passer, that is: touchdown numbers in the high teens with single-digit interceptions.

But quarterbacks are expected to hit better than 55 percent of their passes today as did Jackson the junior. Conversely, his 16.7 yards per completion and 9.25 yards per attempt would be welcomed with open arms by all.

In short, if Zaire conducts the Irish offense similarly to Jackson – who, not coincidentally, operated behind a standout offensive line as a junior first-year starter in 1998 – Notre Dame can reach the college football playoffs.

DEVELOPMENT VS. RECRUITING RANKING

A four-star prospect and the No. 14 ranked quarterback nationally per Scout.com, Zaire’s career path is on pace with that of a QB prospect at a successful college program: a back-up for two seasons with a smattering of playing time in competitive contests intermixed, and leading to a starting assignment entering Season Three.

Best Game

Not a tough call. Zaire’s only career start marked his best and most important outing to date, Game MVP honors in a 31-28 victory over LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, a win that broke the program’s dispiriting four-game losing skid

Zaire rushed for a team-high 96 yards on 22 carries with a touchdown while also completing 12 of 15 passes for 104 yards and a 12-yard strike to touchdown machine Will Fuller for the game’s opening score.

Zaire likewise paved the way for a Tarean Folston touchdown run with a goal line block on the sophomore’s score from six yards out.

He converted each of his five 3rd- and 4th-down pass attempts into Irish first downs or touchdowns while moving the chains successfully on three of five such rushes. Notre Dame converted 11 of 17 on third down and was 1 for 2 on fourth down for the contest.

QUOTE TO NOTE

“I always feel like that whenever my number's called, I'll do what I need to do to help my team win the game. (But) they don't pay me enough to make decisions about this football team.” – Zaire in the midst of his quarterback battle with since-departed fifth-year senior, Everett Golson last spring.

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