ND A-to-Z: Malik Zaire

One of the squad’s unquestioned leaders and top offensive weapons, the senior quarterback enters August Camp as a slight underdog to 2015 season-saver DeShone Kizer for the starting role.

He watched as Notre Dame’s once-promising 2014 season was fumbled away. He watched the bulk of Notre Dame’s sterling 2015 season from the sidelines following a debilitating injury – and his supposed stand-in morphed into a potential star as the Irish offense evolved without him.

Zaire has doubtless watched, rather than played, for far too long, but barring a 2016 training camp effort that clearly bests that of the incumbent Kizer’s, it’s likely that Zaire will begin his senior season in a supporting role.

Irish Illustrated’s A-to-Z preview of Notre Dame’s roster continues with Zaire, who for the second time in the last three summers finds himself embroiled in a high-profile quarterback competition.

Zaire wins the starting job with a dominant camp performance and parlays that effort into a season that concludes with a playoff berth.

To that end, a personal performance that ranks among the best by an Irish quarterback in modern program history would likely be necessary as Notre Dame’s offense will be counted upon to produce points aplenty throughout 2016.

Regardless of his individual efforts, anything less than a return trip to one of New Year’s Major Six bowls is the minimum expectation for Notre Dame’s starting quarterback next fall.

Zaire fails to overtake Kizer for the starting gig and his frustrations boil over in a way that impacts his weekly preparation. Notre Dame’s No. 2 quarterback will be needed at some point, likely to win a game in 2016, and that player must be prepared as such.

A less likely “worst-case” involves Zaire (for the sake of this column) losing the training camp battle with head coach Brian Kelly’s decision thereafter causing a locker room rift.

Zaire is a popular player on the roster, one that certainly will have ample support in his quest to start and lead the offense. How he (or Kizer) externally handles the No. 2 role will be a crucial backstory for 2016…and perhaps beyond.

-- A definitive but realistic worst-case scenario: Zaire loses out to Kizer; Notre Dame fails to qualify for the playoffs in 2016; Zaire transfers thereafter and plays his fifth season of eligibility elsewhere – and he beats Notre Dame in a 2017 playoff game.

Is your glass half-full? That is, do you believe Zaire’s 2016 season story will be that of a starter, one whose delayed gratification was worth the wait?

If so, late-1990s Irish dual threat Jarious Jackson is an apt comparison. Jackson waited behind four-year starter Ron Powlus for two seasons, then took the 1998 Irish to the brink of a BCS berth in the now-defunct system’s inaugural season. Jackson was a one-man show as a senior in 1999 for an up-and-down Irish squad that finished 5-7 despite its quarterback’s sterling stat line: 24 combined touchdowns, 14 picks, more than 3,000 yards from scrimmage.

Conversely, should Zaire not win the starting job? Other career arcs that come to mind:

-- 1987 senior Terry Andrysiak, who won the starting job after sitting behind Steve Beuerlein, then lost it in Game 4 of the ’87 season due to a broken collarbone, giving way to a sophomore named Tony Rice.

-- 2000 junior Arnaz Battle, who, like Zaire, won his first career start at Notre Dame Stadium against a team from Texas (in Battle’s case, A&M), but then was lost for the season due to injury. In his stead stepped Gary Godsey (1-1) and Matt Lovecchio (7-1) with the latter driving the Irish to a BCS bowl.

Battle never started another game at quarterback but became Notre Dame’s top offensive weapon as a wide receiver in the oft-referenced 2002 season and later parlayed that position switch to a nine year NFL career.

A four-star prospect ranked as the 171st best prospect nationally and the No. 14 quarterback recruit in the 2013 class per Scout.com, Zaire enters his senior season with just three starts to his name.

His body of work is nowhere near what was projected by the staff or recruiting services, though that is directly correlated to injury, and, in part, to the curious decision not to turn to him when Everett Golson continually faltered and fumbled en route to a four-game losing skid in November 2014.

Zaire’s story remains unwritten – check back in four months for a relevant update.

Zaire torched Texas to the tune of 313 yards, three touchdowns and a nearly flawless 19 of 22 passing effort to open the 2015 season. A dozen of Zaire’s 19 throws that evening resulted in gains of between 10 and 20 yards, with two others going for 66 (a touchdown) and 30 yards.

Zaire was arguably college football’s top performer for the season’s opening week last September, but it’s likewise true that most quarterbacks with a pulse would have been able to defeat the inept Longhorns that evening.

For that reason, it might be Zaire’s first career start, a game played nine months prior with his team and frankly, the program, on the ropes that ranks as his best moment to date. Zaire’s command of a run-heavy offense while working in congress with “designated passer” Everett Golson keyed a 31-28 Music City Bowl win over LSU.

The outing serves as a blueprint for two-quarterback systems in the future…one however that is not expected to be used by Kelly in South Bend this fall.

“What can Malik do that could separate him from DeShone? Malik is a guy that is an off-schedule playmaker. He can see the field very well…he’s going to have to run the offense a little bit different than DeShone.

“Malik is going to have to be that off-schedule playmaker. That does a little bit more, maybe out of the pocket, hitting somebody down the field. Seeing somebody running (free) up the sideline.

“That would be what has to happen.” – Kelly as told to Irish Illustrated when asked what it will take for Zaire to beat out Kizer in August.

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