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Zaire looks to start

| Tuesday, March 25, 2014

It’s Friday afternoon, and Malik Zaire walks into the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.

The Irish had practice that morning, and the sophomore quarterback is back at the Gug for interviews with the media.

He walks in clutching an iPad with a black protective case on it, the same iPad with which Zaire is sometimes seen walking around campus. He sits down about halfway up the auditorium, tucking the iPad underneath his chair.

He holds court with reporters for nearly 20 minutes. The super-confident signal-caller, entering his second spring at Notre Dame, says he expects to be the starting quarterback when the Irish open the season Aug. 30 against Rice. Irish head coach Brian Kelly, after all, stressed at the end of January that Zaire would have an opportunity to compete for the job.

Sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire throws a pass during a Notre Dame spring practice April 13, 2013.Kevin Song
Sophomore quarterback Malik Zaire throws a pass during a Notre Dame spring practice April 13, 2013.
When he’s through answering questions, he scoops up the iPad and heads out.

Zaire calls the iPad his “football bible,” and it’s an entryway into analyzing the path the Kettering, Ohio, native has taken from the No. 6 dual-threat quarterback in his high-school class (according to ESPN) to hopeful Notre Dame starter.

“It definitely helped me,” Zaire said of his iPad, which Irish players received late last season. “I can go to my room and dive deep in it before I go to practice the next day. So I have a knowledge of what’s going on. … It’s really useful, and I definitely got a lot better from it.”

With his iPad, Zaire can zip through mental reps, something he learned the importance of during his redshirt year as a freshman. But it took time for Zaire to understand the significance of these mental reps after enrolling early for the spring semester in 2013, turning in a strong performance in the spring game yet still not seeing the field when the season rolled around.

“It was definitely a difficult experience in terms of maturity,” Zaire said of his redshirt year. “I wasn’t expecting to just come in and just be the guy from Day One in terms of taking all the reps and everything. And being in a position I was where I didn’t really know until late into the season how it was going to play out — whether I was going to redshirt or not.

“I wasn’t able to understand how I should go through practices each and every day when I’m sitting here not doing scout team because they want me on the first team but not practicing with the first team because I’m not the one or two guys, because there’s not enough reps at the end of the day.”

Kelly admitted at the end of January that they “lost” Zaire’s concentration for about four or five games last season. Once they got it back, Kelly said, it was obvious he still had a strong knowledge base.

The physical practice reps weren’t plentiful, but Zaire said he soon realized the benefit to watching from the side.

“You always talk about the mental reps are important —, well, I didn’t really get it because I was kind of frustrated because I didn’t know where my place was on the team,” Zaire said. “I had to get better through just strictly just watching in a sense. It definitely brought me to a whole other level of maturity and understanding.”

Fast-forward to this spring, and Kelly says, in the big picture, Zaire is doing well.

“One of the things with Malik, he gives you a 10-second answer for a two-second question,” Kelly said. “He’s getting better at that. He’s much more concise in everything that he does. His whole demeanor has to be that way. And I like that. And we’re shaping that to the level that we need to because that’s what you have to be to be the starter here at Notre Dame.”

And that’s Zaire’s intent — to be the starting quarterback. He admitted it’s a long race and said he’s focusing on the technique and consistency necessary to get the starting nod.

“I think that’s important moving forward because you can’t think of the finish without going through the process,” Zaire said.

He’s been working on his stride, noting he was over-striding slightly, getting too long with his motion and not following through as much. New quarterbacks coach Matt LaFleur has made a few other adjustments, too, but Zaire smiled slyly and declined to disclose the “good secrets.”

Zaire explained that former offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, who was also in charge of the quarterbacks and is now the head coach at Miami (Ohio), “had a lot more on his plate” when it came to orchestrating the entire offense.

“[I could] ask [Martin] a couple questions, but he’s working on 100 different things, while Coach LaFleur is there for us,” Zaire said. “So I think that’s more accessible for me to be able to go in there and really key in on the little things that I need to get better on.”

Zaire says he’s focused on the little things, not the bigger things, like, say, beating out the quarterback who, as a redshirt freshman, led Notre Dame to the BCS National Championship Game.

“I’m not looking at it as [No.] 5 and [No.] 8,” Zaire said. “I’m looking at it as 8 against whoever else is trying to be the best quarterback.”

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About Mike Monaco

Senior Sports Writer Mike Monaco is a senior majoring in Film, Television and Theatre with a minor in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy as well as Business Economics. The O’Neill Hall native hails from the Boston area and is an aspiring play-by-play broadcaster.

Contact Mike