Zaire’s road back unfinished

For a third straight spring Malik Zaire is locked in a quarterback competition. Yet the senior knows there’s little he can do to win it right now, even after opening last season as Notre Dame’s starter.

There’s no more scooter for Malik Zaire. There are no more crutches either.

To watch Notre Dame’s opening night starter walk around the Gug these days is to see a quarterback who looks fully recovered from that broken ankle suffered last September at Virginia. But to watch Zaire on the field is to see something different. Because for all the work the senior has logged since Charlottesville, Zaire isn’t all the way back.

And Notre Dame’s quarterback competition isn’t going to wait for him.

“You may love the game of football, but football doesn’t always love you the same way in that moment,” Zaire said.

“You just really wonder what it’s gonna take to finally convince people enough that I’m able to do the job, but like I said, I don’t make the decisions, so I just gotta keep balling and do what I gotta do.”

Zaire already convinced Brian Kelly once that he’s good enough to start, taking the first snaps against Texas last season and throwing as many incompletions (three) as touchdowns in routing the Longhorns. Then Zaire’s season ended a week later when a Virginia player fell on his right ankle.

“It’s just rough knowing that you could have impact in a greater way than what was the end result,” Zaire said. “You never expect to have things end so soon.”

There’s no guarantee Zaire will retake the job because he held it before DeShone Kizer led the Irish to nine wins, two fourth quarter comebacks and the Fiesta Bowl. Now the position is open to Zaire, Kizer and sophomore Brandon Wimbush. And Kelly is on record there’s a good chance more than one plays this season.

Regardless, Zaire won’t get drawn into handicapping his chances. After working under three quarterback coaches in four years, he’s given up predicting how decisions get made inside Notre Dame’s football offices.

“Coach Kelly makes the decision and he gets paid to do that,” Zaire said. “I always see myself as a No. 1, so whatever. Coach decides what he decides.”

Zaire offered no opinion about a timeline on Kelly’s decision. He said the competition won’t change how he tries to lead the locker room. Basically, Zaire kept cool about one of Notre Dame’s most breathless spring storylines, maybe because he’s only partially in control of it.

In terms of rehab, Zaire said he continues to strengthen the tendons around his right ankle. His private quarterbacks coach Dennis Gile said Zaire would get stiff after their workouts in Arizona during winter break. Zaire returned to Gile during spring break, lifting, training and working in a quarterback video simulator.

Zaire watched film of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, trying to imitate their throwing motion. As much as Zaire said he’s improved mentally in reading defenses, he knows he can improve by not thinking so much about his mechanics.
 
“I’m just trying to be a smooth quarterback,” Zaire said. “When you make the game look smooth, you make it look easy. You win a lot of games and you look like you know what you’re doing. As long as I look like I know what I’m going, I’m on a good track.”

There’s no question Zaire looks like he knows what he’s doing. And there’s no question he’s looked like Notre Dame’s starting quarterback before. What that all means when the Irish head to Austin in September, nobody knows.

“I just operate on I just want to get better every day because I want to be the best in the country at my position,” Zaire said. “It is what it is. I don’t make the coaching decisions on the team, I just play the game.”


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