Brian Kelly grabbed hold of Malik Zaire to deliver a simple message.
Notre Dame’s head coach didn’t want his potential starting quarterback to leave the locker room after the Fiesta Bowl without a directive that was part vote of confidence and part motivational jolt. Kelly told Zaire to “be ready” and threw out the first reference to Team 128 in the final moments of “A Season With Notre Dame Football” on Showtime.
“I’m always ready,” Zaire replied.
Zaire probably will be after returning to throwing during bowl practices, including those in Arizona open to the media. While there was never a chance he’d play in the Fiesta Bowl, it appears the rising senior will be fit for some competition with DeShone Kizer during spring practice, which kicks off in mid-March.
The Blue-Gold Game is scheduled for April 16.
Zaire suffered a broken ankle against Virginia on Sept. 12.
For advice on his comeback Zaire has already sounded out Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett, including last week at the Fiesta Bowl. Barrett and Zaire met at the Elite 11 before their senior years in high school and have remained in contact. Zaire even road tripped to Columbus, not far from his hometown of Dayton, during a Notre Dame fall break to hang out with Barrett.
Barrett, who broke his ankle in Ohio State’s regular season finale a year ago, sat out the following spring and needed at least the first month of last season to play his way back into shape. He’s advised Zaire to accept a timetable for returning, even if the Irish quarterback doesn’t want to do it.
“The main thing I told him is you don’t need to rush anything,” Barrett said. “If you don’t feel you’re ready to go, there’s no need to push it, you still have time. It’s not like you’re pressed for time, anything like that. I told him, make sure you go through rehab, take your time, don’t rush and try and get back, do anything crazy.”
Barrett, who labored through a quarterback competition of his own during training camp with Cardale Jones, believes Zaire is equipped to handle that aspect of the process.
It’s an area where Zaire has experience. He lost the quarterback competition before Everett Golson’s senior year and seemed to play him to a draw last spring before Golson transferred to Florida State.
“I think (Zaire) handled that well,” Barrett said. “People may have forgotten about that, that he did handle that well. I think he’s gonna do a great job if there happens to be a competition there.”
Zaire played just seven quarters this fall before at Virginia player collapsed his right ankle from behind.
For the year, he completed 26-of-40 passes for 428 yards, four touchdowns (three were to Will Fuller) and zero interceptions. Zaire also rushed 19 times for 103 yards.
Kizer said he expects Zaire to come at him for the job, although the two Ohio products are close and Notre Dame’s current starter expects that dynamic to stay that way even as the former starter makes a challenge.
“We’ve been friendly since the day we stepped foot on campus,” Kizer said. “I don’t think anything is gonna change.
“He’s doing really well. His excitement and his energy is something that our practice has been missing. I’m excited to take this development that he has, this new mindset and this energy, to compete during the off-season.”