Brian Kelly has cautioned a few times this year that Everett Golson isn't guaranteed to start for Notre Dame this coming fall, and that Malik Zaire very well could push him for the No. 1 quarterback job.
But Zaire, who came to Notre Dame a year ago rated as a four-star recruit, knows there are factors out of his control when it comes to how much he'll play this fall. Specifically, he's not blind to the fact Golson led Notre Dame to the BCS title game two years ago.
Zaire isn't conceding anything, he just doesn't think he should approach spring practice and the coming months with the mindset of trying to beat Golson out for a starting job.
"I don't see it as a competition at all," Zaire said. "I see it, I'm competing with myself to get better every day and competing with myself to be the best quarterback in the country, because I hope that's why a lot of guys come to college football, especially Notre Dame. I'm not here to make this a one-on-one match with the next guy (as much as) me being the most prepared to lead this team to 12 victories and a national championship.
"This competition is more me getting better and finding whatever it takes to do and whatever it takes to get to that next level, so they don't have a choice but to play me."
That's a good attitude for a backup quarterback to have, especially one as talented as Zaire. The dual-threat lefty has the explosive playmaking ability Notre Dame's offense lacked from the quarterback position last fall, and after a bumpy season riding the bench Zaire seems to have his mind right.
Kelly admitted he and his coaching staff lost Zaire a little bit last fall, as the redshirting quarterback didn't see many reps behind Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix. The plan all along was to redshirt Zaire, but little involvement in the offense led to his attention drifting during the season.
Once bowl practice rolled around, though, Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock were able to bring Zaire back. Getting him some decent reps in the early part of December certainly helped.
"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," Zaire said. "In December, I was able to come right back and do what I've been doing since Day 1, and that's playing and being involved and being the quarterback that I am."
Kelly said once Zaire got his focus back, it was apparent Notre Dame hadn't completely lost him — his knowledge of the offense was good, and he didn't lose any of his playmaking ability. Now, what Notre Dame coaches have worked on with Zaire is continuing to narrow that focus.
"One of the things with Malik, he gives you a 10-second answer for a two-second question. He's getting better at that," Kelly said. "He's much more concise in everything he does. His whole demeanor has to be that way.
"We're shaping that to the level we need to, because that's what you need to be to be the starter at Notre Dame. I like the track he's on. He's getting better."
Zaire sees the benefits in being more concise — he doesn't have 10 seconds after the snap to run through his progression — and his teammates have noticed a better decisiveness from him, too.
"I can definitely see it happening when you're running your routes," wide receiver Corey Robinson said. "He's making better decisions on where he wants the ball to be."
Consistency, too, is an area of emphasis for the rising sophomore quarterback: Consistency with technique, footwork, decision-making, etc. It's all part of his outlook on things — he didn't come to Notre Dame to be anything but the best.
And that'll stay true no matter who starts for the Irish this coming fall.
"If you can't be consistent in making your decisions and you can't be a perfectionist with your techniques, you'll always be lacking ability, you'll be lacking certain things within being a quarterback that'll hurt you down the road," Zaire said. "It won't advance you at all to elite status when you can't be consistent on the little things."