HOOVER, Ala. — Florida coach Jim McElwain had his first chance to discuss his high-profile offseason quarterback addition while making the rounds at SEC Media Days on Tuesday.
While he didn’t share any particularly noteworthy thoughts or insights into how the addition of Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire impacts the Gators, McElwain acknowledged this is the strongest the program’s quarterback situation has been since he arrived.
Zaire enrolled at Florida last month and will compete with redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks this summer as part of a crowded quarterback group that also includes 2016 starter Luke Del Rio, redshirt freshman Kyle Trask, true freshman Jake Allen and early enrollee freshman Kadarius Toney.
“I think here’s the beauty, I think for the first time our room is really good. We’ve got talent. We’ve got guys that are going to be able to compete against each other, learn from each other and I’m looking forward to it,” McElwain said.
“Obviously, not being able to watch them go do what they’re doing, other than get some reports, a lot of guys have been doing some good things. Obviously, with Z coming in that changed the room a little bit. Feleipe’s been having a fantastic offseason leading up to that as well. And Luke is back to throwing as well. That’s a good thing. I think it’s a great problem to have.”
Zaire was the story of the offseason for Florida, as the Gators waited for the SEC to eventually amend a rule that was previously prohibiting the program from taking any graduate transfers in this cycle. Once the door was officially opened, Zaire quickly announced his intentions to head to Gainesville and enrolled in the university last month.
While Zaire doesn’t have extensive game experience, it’s more than that of Franks, who has yet to take a snap in a college game. And it was mostly encouraging.
Zaire had his breakout game in the 2014 Music City Bowl against LSU, earning game MVP honors despite splitting reps. He completed 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 96 yards and a score in the win.
He opened the 2015 season as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback and built more momentum in the opener against Texas, completing 19 of 22 passes for 313 yards and 3 touchdowns. The next week against Virginia he struggled (7-of-18 passing for 115 yards and a touchdown with 87 rushing yards) before sustaining a season-ending broken right ankle.
After being relegated to backup duties behind DeShone Kizer last season, Zaire was ready for a change and received his release from the Fighting Irish.
His father Imani Zaire has said the quarterback wasn’t guaranteed anything at Florida, but he is coming in expecting to win the starting job.
“I would hope no one comes to hold a clipboard. I would hope no one comes to the University of Florida wanting to be a backup or a squad member,” McElwain said Tuesday. “You know, there’s a certain expectation that you’ve got to have and a drive to be successful. He definitely has that.”
Franks came out of spring practice atop Florida’s quarterback depth chart after competing with Trask. Now the competition starts anew with a more veteran and formidable challenger.
McElwain said the message to Franks is to just focus on what he can control and not worry about who else is on the roster. He said “time will tell” how Zaire’s arrival affects the other quarterbacks.
“If you’re afraid of competition, you turn and run the other way. I don’t see any of those guys doing that. And if they do, that’s OK, too. It probably tells us something,” McElwain said.
“You know, we’ve talked to the whole team about different guys coming in throughout the years and different guys that are out there. Look, worry about what you do. I think sometimes in life, too many of us worry about the things around there that have nothing to do with how we control what we do. That’s really what it’s all about, you know? Be confident in who you are, go out and do your best.”
Analysts debate Malik Zaire on SEC Network
Greg McElroy: “Malik Zaire does have experience, but can he stay healthy? That’s a big question mark. … Malik Zaire, however, is a terrific, absolutely terrific, leader, very well respected in the Notre Dame locker room. [He] was not nearly as talented as DeShone Kizer and yet it was still a difficult decision for Brian Kelly and Notre Dame last year to go with Kizer because of how much the teammates in South Bend respected Zaire and the way he went about his business. But we say it all the time, you can’t play quarterback by yourself. The receivers, by far the best they’ve had in Gainesville since McElwain’s been there.”
Booger McFarland in response to McElroy: “I don’t believe as much as you do in Zaire, but I do believe in [offensive coordinator Doug] Nussmeier and McElwain. They’ll figure out a way to move the football because he’s an offensive guy.”
Jordan Rodgers in response to both about QB: “Does it matter? I do agree that they’re my favorite to win the East, but does it matter? Is whoever (is) going to play quarterback in Feleipe Franks or Malik Zaire enough to change or move that needle to compete with whoever’s coming out of the West?”
McElwain said he didn’t have to make an aggressive pitch to Zaire, who was also considering Texas and Harvard in the end after also receiving earlier interest from North Carolina, Wisconsin and others.
“It wasn’t a huge pitch. He’s a guy that I think some people mentioned to him it’s a place that maybe he should look at, it’s a place that might have an opportunity,” McElwain said of Florida. “I’m really excited about the parts around that position in general. I’m fired up about our O-line, guys. For the first time, we’re not feeling like we’re reaching and trying to go get somebody to plug in there or whatever.”
Meanwhile, Zaire has already made an impression on his teammates, a few of which spoke about the quarterback Tuesday at SEC Media Days.
“He’s just happy to be at Florida, and he always has a smile on his face,” left tackle Martez Ivey said. “If somebody was ever down I bet you could just look at him and get excited, just be happy out of nowhere because his smile and what he brings to the table. He always talks about opportunities. He just comes in, he works, he always works. I always catch him about 2 o’clock or so working with wide receivers. … He’s just a great guy.”
Added cornerback Duke Dawson: “He hits me up about watching film. Even though I’m a defensive player, he wants to pick my brain. So me and Malik [have] got a close relationship early, since the first day he came in.”
Safety Marcell Harris said that Zaire has the advantage of experience in notable games that most of Florida’s other quarterbacks don’t have. But, Harris added, Zaire is also new to the SEC and new to this team.
And he understands that he still has to go out and win the job.
“He’s a leader. He’s a fifth-year guy coming out of Notre Dame. You can tell that he’s a leader,” Harris said. “He just has to come in, get the trust of his guys, get his timing down with his wide receivers. The things that quarterbacks do.”