GAINESVILLE, Fla. — His last name begins with the final letter in the alphabet, but he’s at the top of the SEC in sacks by a freshman.
Jabari Zuniga (pronounced zoo-knee-ga) also leads the Gators with 5 sacks. Fellow defensive end CeCe Jefferson predicted these results prior to the season.
“I like that guy to break out this year,” Jefferson said of Zuniga. “Jabari, he’s the silent assassin. He’s not going to say too much. He ain’t saying nothing at all.
“He’s a quiet killer. But once he gets on that field, it’s over.”
Florida’s season opener was Zuniga’s first career game, and he made quite an impression with 2 sacks. By Oct. 1, the redshirt freshman had already reached his personal goal for the year.
“I set it at 5 sacks,” Zuniga said. “I kind of knew I was going to bring some pressure off the edge, because I knew I can pass rush. But I didn’t really think it was going to happen so fast.”
It’s only appropriate that Zuniga has rushed onto the scene as a college player after a long, slow recruiting process in high school. Going into his junior year, Zuniga was 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds.
“When I was at Arkansas, everybody on the staff remembered Jabari,” Florida linebackers coach Randy Shannon said. “His senior year, he sprouted up. It was like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. Who’s this guy?’ Some people didn’t go back through the school because he was 5-11 at the time (in 2013).”
Zuniga surprisingly shot up to 6-foot-3 as a senior, but he expected that growth because of his family genes.
“My dad’s like 6-8,” Zuniga said, “so I knew I was going to grow.”
His father actually played college basketball, and hoops was Zuniga’s first love. His literature teacher convinced him to try out for the high school football team.
“At first I didn’t like it,” Zuniga said. “Then I hit somebody and fell in love.”
The assassin was born.
When his eye-opening senior highlights came out, Zuniga’s recruitment took off. He committed to N.C. State in November, but then officially visited Arkansas and Florida in January.
Gators head coach Jim McElwain, defensive coordinator Geoff Collins and Shannon flipped Zuniga from the Wolfpack a week before signing day.
“He’s one of those guys that I think got caught up a little bit in some of the early recruiting,” McElwain said of Zuniga. “Some guys get out there and then all of the sudden guys blossom as they become seniors.
“I think in his case, he’s a guy that truly blossomed. And yet, he still doesn’t know how big he’s going to be and how good he’s going to be.”
Coming into college, Zuniga didn’t know what position he’d play. At 270 pounds, it was either bulk up and play tackle or slim down and play end. Zuniga did the latter.
“I started eating right,” he said. “I lost like 30 pounds. I just had to shed all that baby fat and put on muscle.”
Now a chiseled 250 pounds, Florida defensive line coach Chris Rumph made a special rule that Zuniga could not be shirtless in front of his wife.
“This guy is yoked up,” Rumph said in September. “My wife’s around, his shirt is on. I don’t need any pressure.”
On Wednesday, Rumph was happy to report that Zuniga is doing a lot of good things — including obeying his rule.
“He tried to pull it off the other day,” Rumph said smiling. “I said, ‘Nah big dog. Put that thing on.’ But this guy, you don’t even know he’s in the room, first of all. He’s so quiet. And I think with all, even some of the success he’s having, it’s still not going to his head.
“I think he’s eager to learn. Not only does he listen to what I’m saying, but he listens when I’m talking to other players and he also listens to players. He’s not intimidated or he doesn’t have any insecurities about asking a question.”
Despite his fast start, Zuniga isn’t on cruise control yet. He knows he hasn’t even scratched the surface of his ceiling.
“I’m just a freshman. I haven’t really played that much,” he said. “I’m just going to keep working and see where it can get me.”
If defensive end Bryan Cox Jr. (hand) can’t play against Georgia, Rumph said Zuniga will make his first career start Saturday. After seeing his pass rush every day in practice, Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio is glad he doesn’t have to face Zuniga in live action.
“He’s an animal,” Del Rio said. “First of all, he’s a freak in the weight room. … Works tremendously hard, kind of quiet guy.
“But we knew whenever it clicked (for him), it was going be bad for opposing offenses. And it’s starting to click.”