Malik Zaire could be a difference-maker as a graduate transfer

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USA TODAY

Malik Zaire could be a difference-maker as a graduate transfer

Malik Zaire always deserved to start at Notre Dame but was the victim of circumstance over the last two years.

The Kettering, Ohio, left-hander torched Texas’ secondary in Notre Dame’s season opener in 2015, throwing as many incompletions as touchdowns (three) for 313 yards in that game. His 86-percent completion rate was — and still is — the second-highest in program history. He made every throw asked of him, and while he wasn’t effective on the ground, his strong showing in the Music City Bowl a year earlier against LSU (96 yards and a touchdown) was proof that aspect of his game would come around, too.

“He clearly has the ability to throw the football as much as we would need him to throw it and throw it accurately, which he did tonight,” coach Brian Kelly said after that 2015 game against Texas. “Vertically, down the field, I thought he pushed the ball down the field accurately. He threw precision routes on dig routes. So we knew what he was capable of. I think he put it together tonight, and he's got room to grow.”

Kelly said Zaire’s running ability made him a ruthlessly effective play-action quarterback, likening those plays to “stealing at times.” By all accounts, Zaire look primed to be the next great quarterback in Notre Dame history.

Then he fractured and dislocated his ankle against Virginia, ending the season for which he’d been waiting two and a half years after just seven quarters. DeShone Kizer quickly went from an unknown backup to a transcendent talent who could be among the first players picked in the 2017 NFL Draft.

And so Zaire never started at quarterback again (he technically started against Duke as a wide receiver). Kelly’s gamble to have Kizer and Zaire split time to begin the 2016 season backfired, and Zaire was outwardly upset about the arrangement.

“I handle my job like a pro, I practice like a pro,” Zaire said in August shortly after Kelly announced his two-quarterback plan. “You get cards dealt to you that have not always been in your favor. The most important thing is continue to do the thing that you work on and be a pro in that aspect.”

After being benched early in the third quarter against Texas, Zaire’s remaining action was limited: Two bad snaps as a wide receiver against Duke, a few unsuccessful snaps in relief of Kizer against Stanford and garbage time here and there. Zaire threw his first touchdown of the 2016 season on Notre Dame’s last drive of the year, finding Equanimeous St. Brown for a 15-yard touchdown against USC.

When Zaire did enter games, he often appeared unprepared or disengaged. Against Virginia Tech, when he had to sub in for a banged-up Kizer for the final 15 or so seconds, he let the clock run down far too long before snapping, then didn’t throw a Hail Mary toward the end zone as time expired (to be fair, Kelly took the blame for that, saying he and his coaches didn’t adequately prepare Zaire for the situation).

But Zaire offered this quote in the spring of 2014 about how he struggled with redshirting during his freshman season: ”I always say, you take the lion out of the wild and put him in the zoo for a while, he forgets how to be a lion.”

It’s hard to blame Zaire if he felt wrong or had his focus on where to go after graduating in December and becoming a de facto college free agent. He probably should’ve played earlier in 2014 as Everett Golson’s tenure in South Bend came to an end with a rash of turnovers, and he likely would’ve been Notre Dame’s starting quarterback any year of Kelly’s seven-year tenure outside of 2015 and 2016. That’s how good Kizer is.

Zaire, as expected and as first reported by Irish Illustrated, is on his way out and will meet with Kelly on Wednesday to be granted his release to leave Notre Dame as a graduate transfer (Zaire, who enrolled early, is on track to graduate in December). Even with Kizer potentially bolting for the NFL, there was little chance Zaire was going to stick around — especially given he wouldn’t even have been guaranteed to get his old job back thanks to the presence of Brandon Wimbush.

But whatever program gets Zaire will likely get an intensely motivated explosive playmaker, the kind of guy who could step in to a program as a one-year solution at quarterback and lead a push for a New Year’s Six bowl bid or even a spot in the College Football Playoff. After all he’s been through, he doesn’t deserve to compete for another job, so expect him to land somewhere that has an obvious opening at quarterback.

While Zaire’s time at Notre Dame didn’t end the way he wanted it to, he’ll have a chance elsewhere to leave the college level on his own terms.

“It’s just a call of greatness,” Zaire said in August, his last time meeting with the media. “Anybody that can finish their story on a positive note is on some climb toward greatness. I think my love for the game is beyond Notre Dame, my vested interest in getting better as a quarterback is what’s really important for me, my vested interest in becoming a championship quarterback is what’s really important to me. So this is not the first time or the last time that you’re going to deal with situations that aren’t in your favor. So continuing for me to treat things like a professional and handle things as they come, I think that makes me a stronger persona and it plays out how it plays out.”

Notre Dame announces new WR, strength coaches

Notre Dame announces new WR, strength coaches

Notre Dame on Thursday announced the formal hiring of two new assistant coaches, one of which featured a somewhat surprising postscript. 

The program's new wide receivers coach will be DelVaughn Alexander, who joins the Irish from Arizona State. Alexander coached tight ends for the Sun Devils in 2016 and spent 2012-2015 as ASU's wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator.

Prior to his stint in Tempe, Washington was Wisconsin's receivers coach from 2007-2011 and also spent time at UNLV, Oregon State and San Diego State. 

"I’m excited to officially get on board, hit the road recruiting, and to find and develop the best student-athletes in the country,” Alexander said. “Notre Dame is a special place, and I’ve been able to the see the power of its brand on the recruiting trails across the country for the last 15-20 years. I’m honored and humbled to serve this University, this program and these remarkable young men.”

“I was looking for an experienced teacher, mentor, recruiter and developer of student-athletes,” coach Brian Kelly said “Del not only met the criteria, but he exceeded it. He also understands, respects and values the type of young men we want to bring to this University and football program.”

In addition to Washington, Notre Dame announced the hiring of Matt Balis as strength and conditioning coach, with Balis replacing longtime Brian Kelly lieutenant Paul Longo in that position. Longo has "taken a leave of absence" from the Irish, according to the program's press release. 

Balis has served in strength coach roles at Houston (2001-2002), Utah (2004), (Florida 2005-2006), Virginia (2007-2008), Mississippi State (2009-2013) and UConn (2014-2016). At UConn, Balis worked under former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco; while at Utah and Florida, Balis worked with current Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. 

Whatever changes Balis brings to Notre Dame strength and conditioning will be necessary, as the Irish frequently ran out of gas late in games in 2016. By S&P+, Notre Dame had the second-best first quarter offense in college football last year, but ranked 90th in the fourth quarter. Similarly, Notre Dame's defense had its lowest ranking (61st) in the fourth quarter. 

Granted, some of those struggles were due to poor playcalling and gameplanning, but far too often did Notre Dame's players hit a metaphorical brick wall in the final 15 minutes. Perhaps an infusion of new energy into the weight room will help reverse that trend. 

"It's an honor and dream come true to be part of the Notre Dame football program," Balis said. "I'm humbled by this opportunity and I'll work hard everyday to give our players and program my absolute best."

"Matt comes to Notre Dame with impeccable credentials and incredibly high praise from the likes of Urban Meyer, Mickey Marotti, Dan Mullen, Bob Diaco and Al Groh," Kelly said. "He's already instituted a strength program built with a foundation that focuses on hard work, discipline and top-notch competition. Matt will demand the best from our players, not only in the weight room, but in many other areas within our program. I couldn't be more excited to have him in place moving forward."

Notre Dame officially hires Clark Lea as linebackers coach

Notre Dame officially hires Clark Lea as linebackers coach

Mike Elko's first coaching staff as Notre Dame defensive coordinator is beginning to take shape, with the Irish announcing Thursday the hiring of Clark Lea as linebackers coach. 

Lea spent 2016 as Wake Forest's linebackers coach -- under Elko -- and previously held positions on coaching staffs at Bowling Green, Syracuse and UCLA. 

"Clark is a wonderful addition to our staff,” coach Brian Kelly said. “Obviously, he brings a substantial amount of knowledge about coach Elko’s defensive system -- having worked with Mike at both Bowling Green and Wake Forest. Clark has demonstrated throughout his career an ability to not only identify unique talent in the recruiting process, but also develop that talent into high-production linebackers. As a former student-athlete, he will relate exceptionally well with our kids and provide tremendous mentorship throughout their careers at Notre Dame.”

In 2016, Lea coached Demon Deacons linebacker Marquel Lee, who was the only FBS player with 100 or more tackles, 20 or more tackles for a loss and 7 1/2 or more sacks last fall. Nationally, Lee ranked 62nd in tackles (105), 10th in tackles for a loss (20) and 53rd in sacks (7 1/2).

Lea also worked with former All-American linebacker Akeem Ayers at UCLA. 

The Nashville native and Vanderbilt alum (he earned both Bachelors and Masters degrees in political science) was also nominated by FootballScoop for its linebackers coach of the year award in 2012 while working with Elko at Bowling Green. 

“I’m humbled to be a part of the Notre Dame football program,” Lea said. “It’s an honor to represent such a prestigious academic institution, and to be a part of this program’s rich tradition of athletic excellence. I’d like to thank Jack Swarbrick and coach Kelly for this tremendous opportunity. I’m excited to get to work building relationships with our players, and do my part in helping coach Kelly execute his vision for the program.”