COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Even amidst a sea of congratulations, four-star quarterback Malik Zaire (Kettering, Ohio/Archbishop Alter) knew he was missing something. He tried to hide the disappointment from his face, but the moment the fans disappeared, so did his smile.
He let out a heavy sigh and put his hands on his hips. His gold necklace hung around his limp neck as he moved his head back and forth trying to find the words.
"I was close," he said. "I was really close. But I guess I wasn't the best."
He had come out to Columbus' Elite 11 competition and performed well, but he left disappointed because he didn't earn a trip to the Elite 11 finals.
"I've got a little bit of a bitter taste in my mouth from not winning," Zaire said. "But I can come back tomorrow [to the NFTC] and finish the job."
The Notre Dame commit was neck-and-neck with Michigan commit and Elite 11 championship invitee Shane Morris (Warren, Mich./De La Salle) through the day. Both were chosen to participate in the "Pressure Cooker," the event's finale, which features the six top performers from the day.
Zaire was the second to run through the drill and was perfect until he overthrew the final pass. He knew then that his misthrow could be what separated him and Morris. And when Morris got to the final throw, he nailed it.
"I handled the pressure pretty well, but I wish I had another shot at it," Zaire said. "I wish I would've completed that touchdown, gotten that score in. It was a little long. I misjudged it. I thought I had a little more depth there in the end zone."
Coming into the day, Zaire felt confident. He spent recent practices focusing on footwork, and throughout the day several coaches praised him on his feet.
A year ago at the Columbus NFTC, he was in the same position. Then, he was uncommitted and wide-eyed. His footwork wasn't as strong and neither was his arm.
But on Friday, he showed his growth over just a year; showed why he'll be able to compete with Gunner Kiel for the starting job at Notre Dame; showed why it was a photo finish for the Elite 11 invite.
"The game has slowed down for me," Zaire said. "I think I've got a better understanding off the field, the mental aspect, and it's all slowed down now. I can be more relaxed when I make my throws."
And it wasn't just the coaches who noticed Zaire's talent. Wide receiver Jack Wangler (Royal Oak, Mich./De La Salle) was on the receiving end of several of Zaire's passes and was impressed with the southpaw.
"I've never met him, didn't even know who he was until today," Wangler said. "But I liked the way he threw the ball. I didn't even know him and I felt like I could've played with him all day. I think every receiver felt that way."
Still, there are 24 invites that go out for the Elite 11 finals, and Zaire knows he still has a chance. A strong showing in the Columbus NFTC on Saturday could be all he needs to garner the coveted invite.
"I learned that I have a lot to learn and a lot more development to make, but comparing myself to the other guys in my class who are highly talented and really good, I think I'm there," Zaire said. "It's good to know I'm in that area with those guys."