Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) from the South Bend Tribune was kind enough to send us a copy of their 2015 ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview magazine.
The highlight of the magazine--as I'm sure many of you have noticed with the SBT teaser tweets in recent days--is a very colorful interview with new starting quarterback Malik Zaire.
Not until recently has Zaire stepped into the spotlight. As a QB he's shown some flashes of great play throughout a limited set of snaps. While Irish fans continue to daydream about a quarterback becoming a potent runner while also deftly guiding throws into receivers' hands, this spotlight has really magnified Zaire's personality.
Comparisons to the introverted and bashful Everett Golson have immediately given rise to favorable reviews for Zaire and his comfort level in his own skin around the media, and as a leader of the team. In prior meetings with the media Zaire's exuberance kept growing as his on-field demeanor exhibited an in-your-face type of passion.
Now, this interview with the Tribune makes it obviously clear that Zaire is unlike your typical Notre Dame quarterback. His personality is intense in a way that hasn't been seen under center for the Irish in a long time. Here are some excerpts from the article "Hurricane Zaire: ND's Quarterback Takes Ownership of Team--And His Big Expectations" by Mike Vorel:
On Self-Confidence Early in His Career
"When I walk on the field, I honestly believe I'm the best guy out there...I knew that I had to believe in myself when all this stuff was going on and I wasn't getting reps. I was getting cussed out and embarrassed and belittled every day by the coaches and looked down upon by the players, because they didn't know. They just assumed because I didn't have a good rep, that I wasn't good. It's just that constant belief in myself that I knew I was better than people were making me seem that kept me going."
One of the things that seems to be the case with many athletes who show a lot of outward confidence and bravado is that there's an underlying underdog mentality that feeds their appetite. This interview makes it abundantly clear that Zaire feels that way, to the point where he's coloring perceived slights in a very negative way.
Most of the language used by Zaire is difficult to take at face value (cussed out, belittled, embarrassed, etc.) if only to point out that his experience wasn't likely all that different than a multitude of other young backups who face the same challenges. It's just from Zaire's eyes, everyone just didn't know. They didn't know how good he really was, and to him, it's a very dramatic lack of respect.
The "looked down upon by the players" quote is interesting to me. If there's one player who has been noted by dozens of people around the program to have high leadership abilities and respect from teammates it's Malik Zaire. That line is a good example of Zaire painting a picture that wasn't all that truthful, probably just to find extra motivation.
On Expecting to Play as a True Freshman
"I got my reps here and there. I wish I could have gotten more, but whatever. Summer came and I didn't know what my position was (on the depth chart). I wasn't ready, but I thought I'd get a chance to play."
The theme continues with this next quote, too. Remember, Zaire enrolled early and the Golson suspension in the early 2013 summer likely felt like a major breakthrough was possible for him. Even though Zaire admits he wasn't ready you can understand how a driven and confident quarterback might have thought some playing time was coming that fall.
On Expecting to Play as a Redshirt Freshman
"I thought I would have the chance to start, and it wasn't like that at all. It was like an unwritten thing. 'He's (Golson) going to be the guy.' You can't say there's going to be a quarterback competition and then decide three days into camp that he won the position.
I didn't have the opportunity then, because I didn't even run first-team reps. He was running everything with the first team, and then coach Kelly said, "All right he won the starting job.' That isn't a competition. He was meant to win from the beginning."
Hindsight allows us to sympathize with Zaire on this. Should he have received more first-team reps? Should there have been a legit and full blown competition in August 2014 like there was in the spring of 2015? We know where the player stands on the issue who believes he's the best guy on the field, that's not a surprise.
However, very few people were calling for an outright head-to-head competition then, especially once it became clear to the media that Golson was looking great in camp and Zaire was still struggling with consistency and accuracy. Looking back, some more first-team reps could have helped ignite Zaire but the way things shook out doesn't feel like an injustice, all the more since Zaire didn't go out and grab the starting position from Golson this spring.
On Lack of Practice Reps
"I couldn't do scout team, because they really didn't know if I was going to play or not. So I was at practice for a whole year just standing there--just standing there, just standing there. I'd go in and get like two reps, and then just stand there the whole practice. Some practices I wouldn't even get reps. I would just get some 1-on-1 reps sometimes."
This quote made the rounds in the preview of the ND Insider and many have pointed the finger at the coaching staff, although I'm not sure that was Zaire's intent at all.
To put it bluntly, Zaire was a true freshman battling two seniors for playing time and then he came down with mono in late August right before the season opener. By the time he was healthy enough to think about seeing the field nearly half the season was gone and Brian Kelly stated (correctly, does anyone wish Zaire only had 2 years left now?) that Zaire wouldn't burn his redshirt unless there were injuries.
It was clearly frustrating for Zaire, but the third quarterback does a lot of standing around in practice at every school. And since there were only three quarterbacks on scholarship the coaches weren't going to risk an injury to Zaire by putting him on scout team.
Included in our #NotreDame '15 preview: EXCLUSIVE features w/ Malik Zaire, KeiVarae Russell. https://t.co/00K895370O pic.twitter.com/GOIZhYqF5O— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) June 20, 2015
On the Aftermath of the USC Game
I was playing and smiling and having a good time like we were winning. Everybody was upset, and I couldn't have been happier. I was upset that we lost, but I was happier at the fact that, 'All right at least you can give me some respect. At least you can say I'm not a bad player, like you make me out to be every day at practice."
Did anyone else wince a little bit after reading that? I get what Zaire was trying to say but it could have been phrased better. And again, you see that insecurity creep up a little bit. There's a healthy way to harness that chip on your shoulder--and Zaire appears to be doing that with the team now--but I do think letting that laundry dry in the media isn't ideal.
On His Big, Big Goals
"I was never looking at Ev and thinking 'He threw a nice pass and now I have to do that.' I was thinking bigger picture. I wanted to be the best in the whole country. Even if I were chosen to play over Ev that wasn't big enough for me. He isn't the best in the country. I'm talking about best, best. Peyton Manning best. That was who I was looking to. I'm trying to catch up with those guys. The quarterback competition was small fish."
This is the type of confidence that you love to see. And honestly, when you set your goals this high it becomes even clearer why Zaire has been pacing like a chained up dog waiting to get his chance to prove himself.
On 2015 Being the Year
"This is the year we win the national championship, 100 percent in my mind. There's no excuse. This is the year we're doing it. Too many guys are on the same page that really believe it. I think it's good to talk about it. A lot of time coaches and players say, 'Think about the first step.' I think that's important, but I also think you should continue to talk about it.
It's OK to circulate that around the locker room, that we're winning the national championship. It's OK to look down the road. Why stop talking about it? You speak things into existence, and the more we keep telling ourselves that and work towards it and believe it, it'll all fall into place.
From UMass to USC, they are all of the same importance. We can't lose a game. This is the team that we're winning the national championship with. This is the team to do it. I think people need to believe it, because we believe it."
Well, game on.
Talk like this is awesome...as long as you can back it up. Does this need to be said in public? Probably not, but at the same time if there's going to be a quarterback who ultimately takes the Irish to a title it'll likely be someone with this type of raw confidence.
I've mentioned it before but the true test for Zaire is going to come when he faces some real adversity. He's overcome some to ascend to the starting quarterback position at Notre Dame. But when you talk this talk you have to walk the walk. And typically Notre Dame as a program has always struggled overcoming that first loss when expectations are as high as they'll be in 2015.
I'm fascinated to see Zaire's leadership more on the field and how he deals with the struggles. Check out the full article on Zaire in the South Bend Tribune ND Insider and read about his relationship with his former high school principal, his meaning to Archbishop Alter High School, why he never thought about transferring, and what Will Fuller and Brian Kelly have to say about their new quarterback.
Read our feature on rising #NotreDame WR @Will_Fuller7 in the 2015 ND Insider Preview Mag: https://t.co/00K894Lw9g pic.twitter.com/qFh7ALBV6F— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) June 30, 2015
Also Featured in the ND Insider 2015 Notre Dame Preview:
- 2015 ND Record Predictions- 4 SBT writers forecast Notre Dame's season. 3 of them predict the same record, can you guess what that mark is?
- Bowl Predictions- From the CFB Playoffs to the Fiesta Bowl and Belk Bowl, where each record could land the Irish in the post-season.
- Rewrite- Eric Hansen goes in-depth with KeiVarae Russell on his return to Notre Dame. It's definitely worth your time.
- In a Rush- A breakdown of Notre Dame's defense as they look to forget a poor second half in 2014 and improve on their weaknesses.
- Philly's Finest- A profile on Irish receiver Will Fuller, including a picture of his pretty awesome arm sleeve tattoo.
- Positional Analysis- Lots and lots of content here for everyone to soak in.
- Coaching Closeup- SBT profiles the new Notre Dame assistants.
- Star Struck- A really interesting piece on the expectations of the high profile athletes who come to Notre Dame.
- Shamrock Soldiers 15- A great insightful section full of pages of little bio nuggets on the incoming Irish freshmen. If you're into recruiting this is worth the buy.
- Asking the Experts- Tom Lemming from CBS Sports, Steve Wiltfong from 247 Sports, and Mike Farrell from Rivals answer a bunch of questions on Notre Dame football.
- 2015 Opponent Previews- Get yourself ready for the fall!