NCAA Football News

Welcome to the Malik Zaire Era at Notre Dame

The statement within the statement said it all.

When news hit that Everett Golson was departing South Bend for a program to be named later, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly wished him well. He applauded his efforts to leave the school with a degree, which is significant given Golson’s turbulent academic history with the program.

But right beneath all of that—right around the point Kelly could have stopped short of saying anything more—he ventured onward. He didn’t have to, but he did.

“We, of course, have approached our preparations for the upcoming season with this possibility in mind,” Kelly said in a statement relayed by Michael Bertsch, the Director of Football Media Relations at Notre Dame. “The emergence of Malik Zaire, based on his performance in the Music City Bowl win over LSU, and throughout spring practice, has given our staff supreme confidence that he can lead our team to great success in 2015.”

Supreme confidence.

There was no need to include Malik Zaire in this update, although by doing so, Kelly provided a peek into both the present and future of the quarterback position at Notre Dame. It is, without question, remarkably bright.

Zaire has a chance to be special.

The question on the minds of curious SEC fans who are perusing their team’s uncertain quarterback depth chart is obvious.

What is Zaire's ceiling?

Kelly is tipping his hand for this one. And given some of the fascinating pieces already in place, there’s no reason to believe Zaire can’t become a star.

As a sophomore last season, he provided glimpses when called upon. Although Golson started the season in tremendous fashion, turnovers ultimately prompted Kelly to turn to the sophomore backup against USC in the team’s regular-season finale. It wasn't perfect, but there was plenty to like.

Kelly then handed Zaire the keys to the car against LSU in the Music City Bowl, and he led the team to a 31-28 victory while scoring two touchdowns. It was about this time that rumblings over Golson’s future with the program began.

This momentum for Zaire carried over into the spring—and more specifically, Notre Dame’s spring game. Although drawing overwhelming conclusions from scrimmage numbers is dangerous, it’s a bit more meaningful when a quarterback race is taking place.

Golson didn’t perform poorly, although Zaire's 292 passing yards and two touchdowns were the talk of the day. His long touchdown pass to William Fuller was football art.

Although Kelly billed this as a battle that would wage into the fall, Golson’s decision to leave said what many believed would be the case since the offseason began. The writing was on the wall. Zaire was the guy.

Coming out of high school, Zaire’s recruiting profile was mixed. Although he was the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback on 247Sports, the buzz surrounding his development wasn’t overpowering.

Much of this was due to his height; he's listed at 6’0” on his official Notre Dame bio. I spoke with multiple recruiting analysts at the time who felt he could have been one of the top players in the class if he were simply two or three inches taller. 

“Since arriving at Notre Dame, Zaire has oozed confidence, even as he hovered in Golson's shadows throughout the 2014 regular season,” Mike Monaco, Bleacher Report's Notre Dame Lead Writer, said. “After flashing as the dynamic run-pass option in the Music City Bowl against LSU, Zaire gave more credibility to the horde of Irish fans who clamored for his promotion.”

Those who did will get what they craved: a quarterback who, while undersized, plays far larger than any measurable. You won't mistake his arm for Cardale Jones', but he's capable of heaving the ball a long way. And while Zaire isn’t the fastest player on the team, he’s a deadly threat on the ground. His 96 yards against LSU led the Irish in their bowl game.

There’s no reason to believe these small glimpses can’t translate into something far more meaningful, especially given the talent around him.

This is where Kelly’s words start to resonate and gain steam. The offensive line—headlined by Ronnie Staley, perhaps the nation’s best returning lineman—should anchor one of the best (and deepest) units in the country.

At wideout, Zaire will get back Fuller, who had more receiving touchdowns (15) than all but two players nationally last year. Like the offensive line, there are players to be excited about in the receiving corps: Corey Robinson and Chris Brown had their moments, and other talented players are waiting for their chance.

And at running back, both Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant should increase their production. Each averaged more than five yards per carry last year and should benefit greatly from new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. He helped architect Boise State’s outstanding rushing attack last year, and he'll have a full arsenal of weapons to work with.

All of the pieces are in place. Now, the quarterback is set in stone.

Although losing Golson isn’t necessarily a positive, change was necessary. The formula simply wasn't working. In losing a player who was a staple of the program for so long, a path has been cleared. Zaire will have a chance to flourish now.

And if the confidence of his head coach is any indication, flourish he will.  

 

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. 

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