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.”