GAINESVILLE, Fla. — As redshirt freshman Kyle Trask took his designated seat at one of the long tables set up for Florida’s football media day, a horde of television cameras and reporters crammed nearby.
Trask, part of the Gators’ spotlight quarterback competition in the spring, knew where the questions were pointed this time, though. “Here he is,” he said as new quarterback addition Malik Zaire settled in next to him a few moments later.
Indeed, Zaire was the story of the day Wednesday inside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium’s Touchdown Terrace, meeting with local reporters for the first time since arriving in Gainesville in June as a graduate transfer from Notre Dame.
Zaire held court for nearly an hour on the eve of the Gators’ first preseason practice, still smiling wide by the end of the non-stop session and reiterating time and again that he’s here to be a good teammate first and foremost.
“I just really focus on just getting the respect of my teammates. I’m technically like a freshman here in a sense, so earning the respect of those guys around me is really the most important thing to me because I can’t do it without the guys around me,” Zaire said.
“Everything else is everything else. I’ve been in quarterback competitions since I’ve been in school, so it’s nothing new for me. If anything, I’m just focusing on myself and whatever I can do to help the team win. That’s what’s really important to me.”
What’s really important for the Gators is finding a quarterback who can elevate the offense to a long-awaited breakout season, a leader and playmaker who can be the missing link to a unit full of talent at the other skill positions.
Whether that guy be Zaire, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks (the winner of that spring QB battle) or 2016 starter Luke Del Rio, who the coaches continue to emphasize remains in the mix.
Florida coach Jim McElwain wasn’t going to handicap the quarterback competition or offer any timeline for a decision Wednesday, but he acknowledged that his big offseason acquisition came to Gainesville with visions of being more than just a great teammate.
“He’s obviously on a mission, and he’s here to help us win a game and win a bunch of games,” McElwain said.
“Of course I want to be out there for the first play and be out there for the season, but who doesn’t?” Zaire said when pressed on his expectation for the Sept. 2 opener. “I don’t think any quarterback on this roster doesn’t believe [in himself that way]. But it all comes down to the work that we put in.”
Zaire’s first order of business upon joining the Gators this summer was to build relationships. Spend any time around the quarterback and it’s easy to see how his magnetic personality and that ever-present smile have endeared him to his new teammates.
Back at SEC Media Days last month, Florida left tackle Martez Ivey said Zaire had made such a strong first impression that “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.”
Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier echoed those sentiments Wednesday while talking about Zaire’s addition for the first time.
“I think that’s the biggest thing that stands out to you when you meet him. It’s instant energy. He’s a guy that can command a room. He has presence,” he said. “I think the team has gravitated towards that and getting to know him.”
Zaire recalled that on his first day in Gainesville after the transfer, he was out throwing passes to receivers Brandon Powell and Josh Hammond and it grew from there. He likes having 24/7 access to the Gators’ indoor practice facility, but he wouldn’t reveal what kind of late hours he’s kept there.
“We can’t give away too many of our secrets,” he joked.
Zaire downplayed any significance to the learning curve he faces in digesting the Gators’ offense, saying “concepts are concepts, football is football” and that it’s mostly a matter of terminology. McElwain and Nussmeier also both dismissed the notion that Zaire’s short time in the program would be a hindrance to his readiness to potentially lead the offense this fall.
“He loves football. You know, through the recruiting process, the phone would ring, ‘Hey, I’m watching the replay of this game and what’s that play?’ and those type of things,” Nussmeier said.
As for the challenges that lay ahead in getting ready between now and the opener against Michigan, Zaire went metaphorical.
“I feel like, OK, if you [were] in a river, right, and water’s going down, it’s crazy, you’re in the middle of it, you can see at the end of it there’s a waterfall and at the end of the waterfall you know that’s death. That’s the end of it. You’re going at a fast pace, but at the end of the day you see there’s a rock that you can grab onto,” he said. “You know, so I just focus on grabbing the rock. I don’t focus at the end of the waterfall. … For me it’s just one day at a time.”
So by all accounts, Zaire has developed quick rapport with his new teammates and put in the work to familiarize himself with Florida’s offense.
But he still has to prove himself on the field during camp. There is still a competition to be won.
While Franks has yet to play in a collegiate game and Del Rio seems like a long shot in the competition, Zaire only started three games at Notre Dame.
He opened the 2015 season as the Fighting Irish’s starting quarterback before breaking his right ankle in the second game of the season and ceding the job to DeShone Kizer for the rest that fall and all of 2016.
There is a limited sample size on which to evaluate Zaire, but two of those three starts were highly encouraging. He completed 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and a touchdown and rushed for 96 yards and a score while splitting snaps in the 2014 Music City Bowl against LSU, and he opened that 2015 season by completing 19 of 22 passes for 313 yards and 3 touchdowns against Texas before the injury the following week.
“Things happen to you, but that’s the game of football,” Zaire said Wednesday. “I know I haven’t been able to show as much as I wanted to, but I know there’s still opportunity. I know there’s still a lot of a time left. (It’s about) just making those opportunities count and being the best person I can be for the team.”
The Florida coaches, meanwhile, have the month of August to decide who the best quarterback is for the team.
“I like having options. It’s when you don’t have options that sometimes you beat your head against the wall. I think in this case it’s a real positive,” McElwain said. “I haven’t put a deadline on it. We’ll see where it goes. You guys will know.”