If all had gone as planned, Malik Zaire would be in South Bend, Indiana, preparing for his fifth year as a Notre Dame quarterback. Things don't always go as planned, though, and Zaire has found himself training in Arizona, preparing for the next chapter in his college football career.
After announcing he was leaving Notre Dame to pursue a graduate transfer, Zaire had been stuck in somewhat of a college football purgatory, trying to figure out his next landing spot. It is expected that Florida will be his new home for the next season, but he was in flux for nearly six months without a school to attend.
The former Fighting Irish starter is one of more than 50 quarterbacks who signed with FBS programs in the 2013 recruiting class only to finish their careers with a new team. Zaire joins others -- including Max Browne, who transferred from USC to Pittsburgh; Cooper Bateman from Alabama to Utah; Shane Morris from Michigan to Central Michigan; Anthony Jennings from LSU to Louisiana-Lafayette; and Connor Mitch from South Carolina -- who are no longer on the team with which they started.
"It was about patience, just hoping everything works out and stay positive," Zaire said. "Staying focused on the task of getting better, because I still wanted to improve my game on and off the field. I wanted to prepare as diligently as I could for wherever my next destination would be, and for me, it kept me busy."
The move punctuated an end to Zaire's up-and-down career at Notre Dame. He had a breakout game in 2015 against Texas, completing 86.4 percent of his passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-3 win, but he fractured his ankle in the second game of that season against Virginia. After his injury, DeShone Kizer took over and Zaire never regained the starting spot. Zaire played in eight games for the Irish last season.
Now he finds himself in a new city, on a new campus, searching for what he thought he found the first time around.
While quarterbacks transferring is nothing new, for Zaire, it meant finding ways to get better and take over as a team's starter.
Zaire's father lives in Arizona and quarterback trainer Dennis Gile works out of Scottsdale, Arizona, so that felt like a natural fit for Zaire to train and begin to be recruited anew. He started working with Gile after his departure from Notre Dame to improve and be a team's unquestioned starter.
Wisconsin and Texas, both with young quarterbacks on the roster, were rumored landing spots. But when asked if he would be comfortable transferring in to be more of a mentor to younger players, Zaire definitively said he had no plans of being an understudy. That's part of why his process has taken longer than most.
The former four-star quarterback didn't really know where he would end up when he was leaving Notre Dame. All he knew was that he needed a fresh start and desperately wanted to step away from Notre Dame.
Initially, the Irish put a few stipulations on his transfer, blocking him from transferring to any of the Notre Dame opponents in the 2017 season. That was later reversed and Zaire was free to transfer to any school of his choice.
"The biggest thing that stood out to me, especially going from my experience last year, going into this kind of second born-again recruiting process, is being able to have that trust with the coaching staff," he said. "Notre Dame is a big place and a lot of change happened during my time, having three different coaches my whole time. Going through different situations, it's taught me having that relationship that you can genuinely trust is the biggest thing."
So in this second chance, he tried to focus on having open communication with coaches and trying to build trust. Initially Wisconsin, Michigan State, Florida and Pittsburgh were the big players in his new recruitment. In December, Wisconsin was gaining traction as a real possibility for his transfer, as Zaire knew head coach Paul Chryst from his first time through the recruiting process in high school.
It got as far as Zaire thinking a decision could come in December, but he backed off and decided to wait.
Zaire was keeping an eye on North Carolina, where Tar Heels quarterback Mitchell Trubisky was about to decide if he should return to school or head to the NFL. Trubisky eventually declared for the draft, but the Tar Heels picked up LSU transfer Brandon Harris.
Chryst was really the only head coach he knew, so it was a clean slate all around. Zaire did in-depth research on each school and coach and spent time finding out about each staff.
Zaire felt as though the opportunity to win at a high level, how he fit within the offense and his relationship with the coaches at Florida were enough to lead to a successful final season of his career.
Transfer quarterbacks are nothing new for Florida, which has seen six of its own quarterbacks transfer since 2010 and had signal-callers Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby transfer in to the program. So far, the players coming in haven't done much more than the players going out, and Zaire is hoping that all changes with him.
But as Zaire knows, things don't always go as planned. As he exits college football's no man's land, Zaire calls it a risk and a shot at meeting his goals.
"Obviously, it's just me hopefully being able to take that moment I've wanted for a long time and make the most out of it," Zaire said. "It's obviously high risk, high reward, but I'm comfortable and confident in what I can do and bring to a team. The higher the stakes, the better, and I'm looking to do it as big as I can and get ready for the next level."