The final storyline as we approach the 2014 football season...
A couple of weeks ago Keith Arnold from NBC's Inside the Irish finished up his annual tradition of ranking the 25 best Notre Dame football players heading into the season. He solicited help from Pete Sampson (Irish Illustrated), Tyler James (South Bend Tribune), Chris Hine (Chicago Tribune), Ryan Ritter (Her Loyal Sons), J.J. Stankevitz (CSN Chicago), John Walters (Medium Happy), and John Vannie (NDNation), while several of our One Foot Down writers came together to put a list out there.
On that final Top 25 countdown as voted by all these Notre Dame experts there was only one player (coming in at No. 21 no less) who made the list without stepping onto the field yet.
In a way such optimism isn't all that surprising. There's the typical romance with the backup quarterback to begin with plus Zaire really seemed to make a big jump during the spring as he created some sort of quarterback competition with the returning-from-suspension Everett Golson. Just how much of a real competition that was we may never know but Zaire was getting some work with the 1st team at times which is something to be proud of for a young quarterback.
Back in late March our own Larz broke down some film from practice that showed Zaire's throwing mechanics still behind the more polished Golson but quite improved from when he was a prep star. The Ohio native then followed that up by stealing the spotlight during the Blue Gold Game by going 18 for 27 with 292 yards and 2 touchdown passes. Heading into summer as head coach Brian Kelly refused to name a starter at quarterback it was believed that Malik Zaire would have every opportunity to compete with Golson during fall camp.
As fall camp progressed it had become clear that Zaire was not seriously challenging Golson as the starting quarterback. He wasn't taking any snaps with the full 1st-team offense during media viewing practices which is a strong indicator that he still has a lot of work to do. Some of the issues that were present and nagging in the past, and which seemed to dissipate during the spring, have possibly come back again. Zaire's decision making ability wasn't as sharp and his accuracy was consistently spotty, so said many reports.
On August 13th the decision finally came from the coaching staff. Everett Golson would be the team's starting quarterback. For his part, Zaire has handled the situation very well and in line with his fiery competitiveness.
"I told Malik first and let him know what his situation was," said Kelly, who told the staff Tuesday night and the players Wednesday before practice.
"And I got the right answer from Malik. He wasn't happy. If he gave me a hug, I'd be very disappointed. So he went out and practiced well. He wants to be the starter here, and he's going to keep working to be the starter."
Also, as part of that decision from Brian Kelly came the news that there would be no 2 quarterback system. Both quarterbacks can run the playbook but it will be Golson's offense and Zaire will not be used in any change of pace, red zone threat, or other such role.
It doesn't really need to be said that all of this could change in less than a week. Kelly could be playing coy and Zaire may be featured prominently in the offense (but seriously, it's probably not happening) or Golson could be hurt on the first play of the game on Saturday. There are a lot worse places to be than the backup quarterback at Notre Dame.
Still, Zaire is staring at the likelihood of Golson keeping this job for the next 2 years. For someone who really put himself out there in the spring as someone who was determined to win the starting spot it will be interesting to see how he handles this test of patience. Sitting out a redshirt year with mono is one thing, standing on the sidelines as your eligibility starts ticking and you're hyper competitive is another.
The good news is that Zaire appears ready to be groomed as Golson's successor and has shown no desire to transfer. Not that the vast majority of quarterbacks who end up transferring show any desire to beforehand, but still. Zaire has been commended for his leadership and ability to talk up the Notre Dame Experience™ to prospective recruits. These are tremendous signs for his future.
We'll see Zaire at some point this season. It might be in garbage time but he's likely going to play a little bit. He might not be the starter, and his time as The Guy could be a long way away, still his determination and patience in the future will go a long way to developing himself as a star quarterback at Notre Dame.