GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida defensive end Jabari Zuniga is one of the top returning players on a defense that lost eight starters from last season.
Zuniga made his mark early in 2016, but saw his production fall as the year progressed. Still, he performed well enough to earn a spot on the SEC all-freshman team and high praise from UF defensive coach Chris Rumph.
That recognition, however, didn’t wash away the frustrations for Zuniga.
“By the end of the season, I wasn’t really happy with that,” Zuniga said. “I didn’t finish strong. It left a horrible taste in my mouth.”
Zuniga led the Gators with a team-high five sacks, but all those came by Oct. 1. The 6-foot-3, 246-pound pass rusher recorded 15 total tackles in the first seven games.
He closed out the year with 10 tackles in six games, with his last sack coming at Vanderbilt. Zuniga didn’t attribute his late-season stats to lack of playing time.
“To be honest with you, not being prepared — physically and mentally,” Zuniga said. “I had a few nicks. So this offseason, I’ve really been in the weight room changing my body and doing a lot more stretching, and I feel better.
“I feel like I’m way more prepared mentally than I’ve ever been. Everything Coach Rumph has taught me, I think I’m finally putting it together. I’m just going out there and not really thinking as much and just reacting.”
Rumph playfully joked about Zuniga to the media last season, but apparently the Florida assistant ragged on the freshman more than once during 2016.
Zuniga admits that Rumph rubbed him the wrong way at first.
“When I first got here he used to yell at me a lot,” Rumph said. “Everything he does is out of comedy and being funny. I didn’t really understand, so I took all that to heart.”
Zuniga recalls one time when Rumph yelled at him “real bad” in front of the whole team.
“Then he pulled me to the side and started joking with me,” Zuniga said. “I was like, ‘You just yelled at me.’ And he was like, ‘Man, look. I gotta do what I gotta do sometimes. I’m still going to coach you. I’m still going to teach you.’ ”
Now mature enough to handle Rumph’s coaching tactics, Zuniga is eager to get to work this month and take on a bigger role defensively. He made the preseason All-SEC third team in July.
“I just gotta work harder than I did last year,” Zuniga said. “Now that I’m on everybody’s radar, I gotta do a good job of staying there and exceeding expectations.”