Malik Zaire doesn’t need to choose between compliments.
The early enrollee can take both in stride as the quarterback wraps up his first spring practice in South Bend.
Zaire wasn’t made available to reporters this spring, but it’s clear head coach Brian Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin like what they see and hear. The former four-star prospect figures to be Notre Dame’s scout team quarterback this season, then move into a back-up capacity as a sophomore.
Kelly has told his coaching staff that Zaire rates among the fastest learners he’s coached in two-plus decades. Martin accidentally referred to the freshman as “Everett” in describing his ascension up the college learning curve.
When the staff mistakes a should-be high school senior for a junior who led Notre Dame to the BCS National Championship Game, that’s a good sign.
“I keep telling (Malik), if Brian Kelly is impressed with how quickly you’re adapting and picking up things, then you’ve got to take some solace in that,” Martin said. “I know you want to build Rome in a day and that’s not how it is. We love that about kids that are competitive that really want it to happen to today.
“That’s how they get there pretty quickly.”
Zaire’s opportunities have been limited during spring practice, although physically he looks the part of a college athlete at 6-foot, 208 pounds. During last weekend’s scrimmage he didn’t get a snap, a change from Gunner Kiel getting leftover reps a spring prior.
Zaire should play a prominent role in tomorrow’s Blue-Gold Game, at least in the second half when the staff turns the scrimmage over to the reserves.
The lack of pressure on Zaire to compete for a starting job has freed Martin to take his time with the left-handed quarterback, who was an Elite 11 prospect out of high school.
“There’s been no pressure from our standpoint of a four-way battle,” Martin said. “There’s been more let’s let him get in there, get some reps, muck it around, let’s teach him. He’s got a really, really good handle on understanding football. He’s like sponge.”
Martin said he’s never coached a left-handed quarterback before, which has led to some minor practice awkwardness when the Irish drill bootlegs or play action. While Golson, Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix roll right to transition to pass, Zaire rolls left. While the vets open to their right on play action drops, Zaire opens left.
In an ideal world Martin would almost have Zaire rep on an opposite side of the field if it wouldn’t take away from instruction. Martin said a left-handed quarterback doesn’t affect play calling.
“Even if you’re just doing individual drills and we’re going to work our right side, we really want to work our left side because that’s how we’d ask (Zaire) to throw that play action,” Martin said. “It hasn’t really been much of a factor with anything else.”