In the spotlight
Greg Hadley | Friday, September 4, 2015
There’s a massive spotlight on Malik Zaire, and he couldn’t be more comfortable.
Media scrums don’t faze him. Pregame hype doesn’t bother him. Texas and its strong, fast, 3-3-5 defense doesn’t intimidate him.
Instead, he talks. Answering questions, greeting teammates, joking around with trainers, the junior quarterback is constantly conversing with everyone around him. For those closest to him, the constant chatter can sometimes be overwhelming.
“He’ll go on rants and laugh,” said junior linebacker James Onwualu, who roomed with Zaire through their first two years at Notre Dame. “He has the most ridiculous laugh. He’s always talking. There are some nights where I gotta tell him, ‘Be quiet!’ because I’m trying to go to bed and he’s trying to tell me stories.”
That tendency extends to the classroom, where Zaire, a film, television and theater (FTT) major, will regularly contribute to discussion and ask questions.
“He’s a talker,” said senior receiver Chris Brown, who took an introductory course with Zaire. “I’m the quiet one. I like to make sure I have the answer right in class before I raise my hand, but if something comes to Malik’s mind, he’ll say it.”
Zaire knows he has a reputation as the guy who’s always asking questions, but the way he sees it, it’s something he needs to do.
“I’m just trying to get good grades,” Zaire said. “Being able to ask questions is something that I’ve always been pretty solid at. Not being afraid to ask questions makes me ask questions.”
On the football field, Zaire has always talked with his teammates. But as of late, he has become better at communicating with them, according to senior offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley.
“He’s more clear [than he was in spring practices],” Stanley said. “He understands what everyone’s doing more. By doing that, he’s able to give direction and be more clear in what he’s saying and what he wants everyone to do.”
Zaire’s interest in film, football and talking combined this summer when he and sophomore receiver Corey Holmes posted a video, the end product of a film production class, to YouTube. In the video, Zaire convinces Holmes to work out with him early in the morning.
But Zaire’s leadership is not confined to just videos. Both his teammates and Kelly have noted that Zaire has matured dramatically since the end of last season and the team’s bowl win over LSU.
“It’s a totally different Malik Zaire,” Kelly said. “A lot of it was first start, not sure what to expect from him. We knew that he was a young man that had the ability to do some things in the run game. Weren’t sure what he could do in the passing game. We saw that certainly he was capable.
“But his development has been so much more since that game through the spring, through the summer and now in pregame, he’s much more developed in all phases of the game, a lot more confident and certainly a lot more in tune with all of the receivers and the offensive line and just much more comfortable.”
Not that Zaire ever lacked confidence. From the day he arrived on campus as an early enrollee in the winter of 2013, he adopted the mindset of a starting quarterback, Onwualu said.
He spent his first season riding the bench behind seniors Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix. Kelly considered him for the starting job under center in the spring of 2014 but eventually went with then-senior Everett Golson.
It was during those spring practices 18 months ago that Notre Dame fans got their first real taste of how sure of himself Zaire is.
“I’m looking at it as 8 [his jersey number] against whoever else is trying to be the best quarterback,” Zaire said at the time.
This past spring, he once again had to battle with Golson. Throughout spring, Kelly refused to say who had the edge, but Zaire once again made it clear he expected to come out on top.
Only this time, Golson ended up transferring to Florida State, making Zaire the undisputed starter heading into Notre Dame’s week one matchup with Texas.
Since then, he hasn’t second guessed himself one bit.
“The moment I start doubting myself is the moment other people win,” he said Aug. 18 at the team’s media day.
All the same, Zaire is not completely oblivious. He knows much is expected from him, now that he is both the starting quarterback and face of the program. And all the self-confidence in the world has not reduced the feeling of obligation he has for his teammates.
“I think the standard [of a Notre Dame quarterback] is really set by the team that you’re on,” Zaire said Wednesday. “So the standard has been raised exponentially since I’ve been here and since I’ve been able to be in a position where I’m starting. This team has great expectations and high standards.”
So do the fans and experts, some of whom project Notre Dame as a possible playoff team this season. Combine that with his first ever start at Notre Dame Stadium coming against one of college football’s most storied programs in a night game, and Zaire will be entering a crucible of pressure Saturday. The spotlight will be at its brightest.
Are his teammates worried?
“No. Malik is a baller,” Brown said.
“Malik’s just going to do his thing,” junior cornerback Cole Luke said.
“He’s always been the same guy. He’s always worked hard,” Onwualu said. “He’s always believed he’s the best quarterback, which I love in a quarterback. … I have extreme confidence in his ability.”
Onwualu said Zaire had his goals pinned up on the wall when they were roommates. Now, he has them written out next to his locker. On Saturday, he can cross one of them off. And the spotlight will only grow in intensity from there. Not that Zaire would notice.
“What is the spotlight, really?” he said Wednesday.
“I think the position is fun. I think getting to be with your guys in a leadership position is fun. I don’t think of it as a spotlight. I think of it as a responsibility to the guys around me. Leave the place better than you found it. That’s always something that stands out to me.”