From the first time Dennis Gile got his hands on Malik Zaire, the private quarterbacks coach and Elite 11 instructor knew he wanted to work with the Notre Dame quarterback again.
That introduction came at the Elite 11 Finals last summer on the Nike campus when Zaire was a counselor and poised to become Notre Dame’s next starting quarterback.
“Certain kids you have that connection with, Malik was one of them,” Gile said. “His game speaks for itself. He’s going to sling on Sundays eventually, that’s what I see. His ceiling is out of this world. He can throw, move, run, understands the game at a high level, is super competitive. And obviously he’s the kind of kid that I like to work with too.”
Before Zaire returned to Indiana from Oregon, Gile floated the idea of quarterback and quarterback coach working together again. Geography helped make it happen in January after Notre Dame’s season-ending loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.
Gile is based in the Scottsdale area, not far from where Zaire’s father, Imani, lives.
Zaire plans to return to Arizona for more work during Notre Dame’s spring break, which runs from March 5-13.
Spring practice kicks off March. 16.
During the spring session Zaire will likely be joined by Deondre Francois (Florida State), Brandon Harris (LSU) and Manny Wilkins (Arizona State). When Zaire threw in January, he did it with Kyle Allen (Houston), Darrell Garretson (Oregon State) and Connor Brewer (Virginia) while training with receivers Christian Kirk (Texas A&M), Speedy Noil (Texas A&M) and Emmanuel Butler (Northern Arizona).
For Zaire, the winter session ran a week-plus with sessions going about six hours.
Days started with throwing sessions, followed by lifting or speed work. Coach and quarterback drilled mechanics, repeating the throwing motion with Zaire’s upper body while making sure he got proper drive with his lower body. They also worked on mobility within the pocket, making sure Zaire didn’t close his stance or lose balance while moving laterally.
“You want to make it as close as you can to Tom Brady because he’s the best in the world,” Gile said. “Good footwork works in every offensive scheme. I just try to make their feet as good as possible.”
After breaking for lunch, Zaire locked into an Axon virtual reality simulator.
“We could see everything from the quarterback’s viewpoint, what the defense is doing, blitzes, coverage adjustments pre-snap, post-snap, all on a 70-inch screen,” Gile said. “Then we’d go over film and talk about the game from a graduate level standpoint.”
Gile believed Zaire was 75-to-80 percent healthy during the winter workouts.
“He was spinning the ball really, really good,” he said. “He would go full speed but then feel like he got a little stiff.”
After losing one quarterback competition to Everett Golson and winning another, Zaire is determined not to back track even after his broken ankle suffered against Virginia. Brian Kelly is on record that he could play Zaire and DeShone Kizer next season, with past precedent suggesting he will.
Just once in the last decade has a starting quarterback under Kelly gone wire-to-wire in a season (Tommy Rees in 2013), making the possibility of Zaire and Kizer splitting time more like a certainty.
For Gile, who also trained one-time Notre Dame verbal commitment Blake Barnett (Alabama), there’s already a favorite in the next Irish quarterback competition.
“DeShone did a great job last year, so take nothing away from him,” Gile said. “I just really believe that this is going to be Malik’s team and after that DeShone can get his job back once Malik is gone. You can see how bad Malik wants this.”
Gile knows Kizer from the Elite 11 too.
However, he said Zaire didn’t spend much time talking about going against his friend for playing time.
“I don’t think he really worried about that,” Gile said. “In his mind I don’t think there’s a quarterback battle, it’s about how he’s going to lead the team. That’s just my opinion. I don’t want to put words into his mouth.
“I think it’s about how he can do his job and prepare this team to compete for a national championship, then put himself in position to hear his name called a year from now. I think that goal in attainable. That goal is in sight. That’s what he’s striving for.”