GAINESVILLE, Fla. — There are the standard rules within a college program that coaches set for their players, and then there’s the special rule that Florida assistant coach Chris Rumph has put in place for redshirt-freshman Jabari Zuniga.
It’s best to let him explain it.
“If you’ve ever seen this guy with his shirt off,” Rumph said. “I have a rule: he can not take his shirt off in front of my wife. I mean this guy is yoked up. So if my wife’s around, his shirt is on. I don’t need any pressure.”
All joking aside, Zuniga made quite an impression even with his full pads and jersey on Saturday night.
The rookie defensive end had quite a collegiate debut, notching two sacks in the fourth quarter of Florida’s 24-7 season-opening win over Massachusetts.
A 3-star recruit out of Marietta, Ga., Zuniga is the Gators’ sack leader, for the time being at least, while setting the bar quite high for his encore.
“I’m proud of this guy,” Rumph said. “He showed some flashes in the spring, (and I) wanted to see him show some flashes in camp. I wanted to see if he can consistently be that guy and see if it was just a flash. One of the things going into the season, you look at the roster and we really don’t have an elite rusher off the edge like we had last year with Alex (McCalister) in the games that he was in.
“So I’m a little worried, how are we going to get the edge pressure? We had some inside guys that can push (the) pocket and do a good job of rushing the passer from the inside, but where was the juice coming from off the edge? So we’re going to need that from him all this year, and some other guys are going to have to step up as well.”
It was still a 13-7 game early in the fourth quarter Saturday night when Zuniga pulled down UMass quarterback Ross Comis for a 5-yard loss on first down. That set up a timely three-and-out from deep in the Minutemen’s own territory, and Florida capitalized on good field position after the punt to launch a touchdown drive.
On UMass’ next drive, Zuniga got to Comis again for a sack on third down to force another punt.
“Jabari, you know, he’s a high-motor guy,” Gators senior defensive tackle Joey Ivie IV said. “He’s still young, still got some things he needs to work on, but I think he’s got a lot of potential. And I think if he just keeps taking the right steps, he’s going to be a great player for us.”
As for the physical development that has Rumph so impressed, he said Zuniga was determined in the weight room during his redshirt year to develop himself so that he could maximize his abilities.
That involved losing a good amount of weight before building himself back up to his current 6-foot-3, 245-pound frame, as he’s listed on the roster.
“You know, I think this guy was really mature for a freshman. He went back, he’s up to 250 pounds, but if you go back to the spring, he got all the way down to 230 pounds,” Rumph said. “I actually said ‘Man, you’re losing weight. You’ve got to get this weight on.’ He told me, he said, ‘Coach, I want to take the fat off me and I want to build my body up.'”
And it sounds like he did a good job of that.