Building a better quarterback

Brian Kelly is a stickler for details. So is Malik Zaire. Once Kelly and Mike Sanford got him to focus on what mattered, a better, more refined quarterback began to emerge.

Malik Zaire is wired to conquer the world in a day. He’d like to read a 700-page book in an hour, fly around the world in a hot-air balloon in five days, not 80, and skip to the chase as quickly as possible.

He runs fast, can talk pretty fast when he gets rolling, and as for the process of becoming the starting quarterback at Notre Dame, he’s had his foot poised above the accelerator since his arrival from Kettering, Ohio in the summer of 2013.

“He has such a thirst for the game and wants to know so much that we actually have to slow him down a little bit,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly prior to the start of pre-season camp. “He’s somebody that loves the game and wants to be around the game all the time.

“It motivates him to be the best quarterback he can be. He’s so driven and loves to play the game so much that we have to pull him back a little bit at times.”

With the Texas Longhorns looming in the season-opener Saturday night in Notre Dame Stadium, Kelly is just about ready to unleash the bundle of energy and talent that is Zaire. It’s been a step-by-step process, particularly since preparation for the Music City Bowl against LSU when Zaire emerged as the starter.

He would go on to share spring reps with Everett Golson, but once Golson made the decision to use his fifth year of eligibility elsewhere, the focus has been on preparing Zaire for the long haul, which could be a three-year run at the helm of the offense.

“I’m more comfortable with what we’re doing and the things that we’re trying to accomplish,” Zaire said. “For me, it’s being able to go out there and execute. That’s something I feel more comfortable doing now that we’ve spent so long trying to get ready for this game and this season.”

The flow of minutia has been non-stop, beginning with footwork, which Kelly harps on with every quarterback. It’s a malady faced by virtually every quarterback making the jump from high school to major college football.

“We work out of a three-step drop, rocker step, and then hitches,” Kelly said. “Your feet take you through your progressions. So if you’re late or slow with your footwork…

“The simplest way to put it is within the system that we have, you have to be on time because the window opens and closes so quickly. If you’re late with your footwork, you can’t get through your progressions.”

Kelly is a stickler for what he calls “a movement-key, progression-read offense,” which Golson never could quite master. For Golson, reading keys and calmly yet quickly working through progressions was too detailed. It was more about rock-and-fire.

Enter Mike Sanford – himself a stickler for the details of the movement-key, progression-read offense – who works with the quarterbacks to recognize how the defense is reacting to the offense’s routes.

“If you’re throwing the ball to the flat, it starts with identifying who that flat defender is,” Kelly explained. “Your routes generally put that flat defender in a bind. That starts your progression off the movement key.

“If the movement key doesn’t sink out of the flat, you float the ball over the top of the corner. You can’t start your progression until you find out who your movement key is.”

The details aren’t lost on Zaire now that he’s learned to “conquer the world” as the obstacles come as opposed to all at once.

“The good thing about Coach Kelly is that he’s a perfectionist and so am I,” Zaire said. “Cleaning up the things we want to work on in terms of progressions is something that is an every-day process for us.”

It’s that receptive nature to learning and gaining knowledge that makes this an exciting time for Kelly. The Irish head coach is staring at three years of steady work with Zaire, who’s a human sponge when it comes to gathering information and translating it into tangible production on the field.

“He’s extremely coachable,” Kelly said. “He’s focusing on some of the detail areas so important at quarterback: red-zone functionality, management of the offense in its smallest details…The real important elements that don’t get talked about or really even seen at 5,000 feet but are seen up close.”

In short, Zaire is developing in the nuances of quarterback play, has eliminated the noise, found the keys to zero in on, and fine-tuned his vision of what really matters and leads to success.

“He’s really beginning to focus on (the fact) that everything is not important,” Kelly said. “There are only a few things you need to focus on. He wanted to focus on everything. We wanted to get his eye on really important details.

“He was thinking way too much. It was too much information. Once I said, ‘If you could just keep it simple and focus on these things,’ we’ve really seen him trend upward.”

And then there are the intangible qualities that separate quarterback talent from quarterback productivity.

“As a leader, he has some natural, innate ability to stand in front of the group,” Kelly said. “He’s on track to do the things necessary to be the kind of leader that you need to be at the quarterback position at Notre Dame.”

Zaire is much further along than he was in Nashville with the benefits of spring drills, a summer of work with his teammates, and a concentrated pre-season camp. Zaire never was one to allow pressure or the big moment to rattle him.

Starting jitters? That’s for those with the wrong frame of mind and lacking knowledge.

“You could only feel like a rookie, in my opinion, if you’re not prepared, if you aren’t confident in what you’re doing,” Zaire said. “A rookie mentality is where you’re unsure of things.

“Adversity is going to come throughout the season, but I feel like it’s something we’ll deal with when it comes.”

It’s time to wind up Malik Zaire and let him go.


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