BEAVERTON, Ore. – Elite 11 head coach Trent Dilfer first worked with Malik Zaire in 2012 when he was a finalist for this event. Now Zaire has returned to Nike headquarters as a camp counselor and Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.
Dilfer, the Elite 11 head coach and ESPN analyst, talked to Irish Illustrated about Zaire’s development as a player and person since their work three summers ago. Dilfer is plenty familiar with Notre Dame even without working out its starting quarterback. His daughter Maddie Dilfer will be a sophomore on Notre Dame’s volleyball team this fall.
But the impression made by Zaire on Monday didn’t stop with Dilfer. The Irish junior also connected with Elite 11 assistant coach Quincy Avery as well as campers K.J. Costello and Messiah deWeaver. All three also talked about their connections with Notre Dame’s starter.
Dilfer dishes on Zaire
Hickey: From Elite 11 participant to counselor, what aspects of Zaire have experienced the biggest change?
Dilfer: He’s so much more advanced as a passer. Not that he wasn’t before, but I remember getting him from high school, and everybody was saying he’s just a runner who can throw a little bit. And anyone who’s still saying that, I think it’s crazy. He is going toe-to-toe with (Penn State quarterback) Christian Hackenberg, (USC quarterback) Cody Kessler, with all of these supposed passers, and he’s ripping it around as good as anybody. I think Malik has the curse like a lot of college quarterbacks these days that they’re so dynamic as runners that they get devalued as passers. But I think Malik is an exceptional passer.
Hickey: In specific terms, what needs the most improvement?
Dilfer: He needs reps. He needs passing reps. He needs to be forced into taking progressions. Where that translates into Brian Kelly and coach (Mike) Sanford’s offense is third down and red zone. I think where you really need to watch his growth this year, simply because he doesn’t enough of it, is third down, third and medium plus, goal to go situations because they are going to take him away as a runner, and he’s going to have take one, two, three and he’s going to have to work through progressions. I have all the confidence in the world he can do it, but I’m sure there will be a learning curve associated with it.
Hickey: Malik took more reps today than any other counselor. Does that surprise you?
Dilfer: I had to shut him down in high school. That’s just what he does. He’s a machine. He’ll go until he dies. I’ve talked to coach Sanford about that. You have to monitor him in the classroom and on the field. You really do because he’s as big of a football junkie as you’ll find, and he’ll drive you crazy, in a good way. He’s relentless with asking questions, needing to know more, wanting more reps. At some points he just needs to relax, but I would rather have what he is than the alternative.”
Elite 11 assistant: It’s fundamentals
Elite 11 assistant Quincy Avery, a former UCLA offensive assistant under Rick Neuheisel and Norm Chow, worked closely with Zaire during Monday’s practice at Nike headquarters.
“As I get to know him a little bit more, you understand his competitive temperament,” Avery said. “He’s like a football junkie. Every time he gets done with a rep, he’s searching for information. I think (Notre Dame) got to see that translated to the field a little bit last year.”
Avery believes for Zaire to take the next step he must improve the fundamentals that happen before the ball leaves his hands.
“I think he can continue to improve with his base,” Avery said. “Movement things, as he moves in the pocket, resets, finds his platform, so he’s always back in the same spot. He needs to be aware of, is my base good, are my feet lined up correctly with my shoulders? As he can start to do that, he’ll continue to improve with his consistency. He throws a bunch of really, really good balls when everything is good. But when things start to break down, he’s got to think how do I get back in my platform to do the things I need to do?”
Zaire mentors two top recruits
Elite 11 participants K.J. Costello and Messiah deWeaver have each formed unique connections with Zaire.
Costello, a Stanford commitment, was interested in Notre Dame but the Irish never offered. Thus far during Elite 11 practices, Zaire has been a mentor to Costello.
“I’ve probably gotten to be the closest with him out of all the counselors,” Costello said. “Our personalities are very similar. I love his attitude. I love his personality. I’d heard about him, but I’d never talked to him or seen him play. He doesn’t act too good for the group because he’s older. He’s right there next to us, and that’s really cool.”
deWeaver, a Michigan State commitment, hails from the same part of Ohio as Zaire. The two worked out together this summer and have known each other since Zaire’s days at Kettering Archbishop Alter.
“After school got out, he came back home and we threw together a bunch,” deWeaver said. “A lot of people think he’s a running quarterback, but he passes better than he runs. People like to follow him because he knows how to get the best out of everybody.”