Notre Dame Football: In Defense of Malik Zaire Saying He Will Start the Opener

Keith Arnold@@KeithArnoldNotre Dame Lead WriterMarch 30, 2014

USA Today

If Malik Zaire is looking for quarterbacking idols, Joe Namath isn't the worst guy to emulate. Last week, Zaire took a page out of Broadway Joe's book, making a bold statement as he fights an uphill battle for the Notre Dame starting quarterback job.

"There will only be one guy starting on August 30th against Rice at Notre Dame Stadium, there will only be one guy out on the field, and I believe that will be me," Zaire said to a group of reporters.

Zaire's proclamation isn't quite Namath calling his shot before the Super Bowl, but it isn't too far off. If Zaire wins the starting job, he'll have beaten out senior Everett Golson, a player Matt Brown of Sports on Earth is calling the most important in college football.

Joe Raymond

Both of Notre Dame's scholarship quarterbacks on campus sat out last season—Golson because of an academic impropriety. Zaire wore a redshirt, drinking out of the proverbial fire hose as he learned a level of offense far more complex than the option system he ran at Archbishop Alter High School in Kettering, Ohio.

Thousands of words have been dedicated to Golson's odyssey. But Zaire's first season of college football was no cake walk either. It included a bout with mononucleosis, the loss of his position coach and a redshirt he wasn't even certain he was wearing.

But after struggling with the frustrations of a trying rookie season, Zaire acknowledged last week that the year off has him better prepared heading into 2014.

"I would always want to play. I know I'm prepared more now than I was before," Zaire said. "But at the same time, to say I wanted to come in and be redshirted, everybody wants to come in and play. I definitely wanted to come in and play, but I needed a year to learn...but now it's my turn to do what I need to do to win."

To think that anyone could dethrone Golson after he led the Irish to the BCS title game in his first season is a leap of faith. But if you're looking for a guy who could do it, Zaire has a lot of the attributes that make him a perfect fit for the Irish offense.

In a few open looks at the Irish last week, Zaire's striking athleticism was on display. Many marveled at the clear distinction between Zaire and Golson once they broke into the open field. Golson is a more than competent runner, leading the team in touchdown runs in 2012, but Zaire is electric, a far more dangerous playmaker in the open field.

One other area where Zaire would be a clear upgrade is in the option run game. If the zone read is going to anchor the Irish rushing attack this season, Zaire could be the better trigger man. After three years in a mostly running system in high school, he is a wizard in the option.

A few glimpses at the practice videos show a quarterback that could single-handedly fix the Irish's red-zone struggles with his running and ball skills. He's already showing a mastery of the fakes and deception that make the option so deadly around the goal line.

Apr 20, 2013; Notre Dame, IN, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Malik Zaire (8) slides in the third quarter of the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Zaire has been mostly anonymous to Irish fans since signing in the 2013 recruiting class. But he shouldn't have been. He was a more highly sought-after recruit than Golson and performed better on the summer circuit as well.

Yogi Roth, formerly a quarterbacks coach at USC and now an instructor at the Elite 11 camp, had nothing but good things to say about Zaire.

Having seen and worked with the last four quarterbacks the Irish have signed (Golson, Gunner Kiel, Zaire and incoming freshman DeShone Kizer), Roth pegged Zaire as the quarterback with the highest ceiling.

"The biggest thing we saw was his competitiveness," Roth said. "Of all the quarterbacks, especially the ones that I've been around, he’s got the best presence. They're all talented, but he's got that natural knack. He lights up a room. From the moment he walked in with his mom to the day he said goodbye, he was fully engaged."

That confidence clearly hasn't left Zaire. And it wasn't the only thing that caught Roth's eye.

"If you look at his skill set, he's such a dynamic thrower," Roth said. "He's a pure passer, he's so smooth that you forget how mobile he is."

Barring an injury, Golson is going to be the Irish's starting quarterback. But Zaire is only a snap away, making him the second-most important player on the Irish offense.

2012 might be too far in the rearview mirror for some, but it's worth remembering the beating Golson took during his freshman season. And 15 additional pounds of muscle won't protect him from all of it.

Golson started 11 games in 2012. He sat out the BYU game after suffering a concussion. He missed significant portions of the Purdue, Michigan, Stanford and Pitt games too.

Come August 30, Zaire's bold prediction will likely prove itself wrong. But the confidence, skill and leadership Zaire brings to the Irish make it clear that it's not a matter of if he'll see the field, but rather a matter of when.


* Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand. Follow @KeithArnold on Twitter.