GAINESVILLE, Fla. — While Florida’s three quarterback contenders are competing for the same job, the stakes are a little nuanced for each.
For redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, it’s about showing he’s ready for the responsibility of the position, ready to seize the spotlight and cash in on his 4-star potential.
For veteran Luke Del Rio, it’s about another chance. An opportunity to show that now healthy, he’s a different quarterback than the one fans saw in 2016.
Meanwhile, for graduated transfer Malik Zaire, this is perhaps his final chance to realize the immense potential he brought with him to Notre Dame four years ago. A final chance to audition for NFL scouts and set up the next stage of his football career.
“This is everything to me,” Zaire said Friday. “This is like, I have everything to prove, everything to lose. That’s how I take every day, each and every day.”
Zaire made three starts at Notre Dame at the end of the 2014 and beginning of the 2015 seasons. It seemed like the start of a productive career with the Fighting Irish until he broke his ankle two games into that 2015 season and lost his job to future second-round NFL Draft pick DeShone Kizer.
Now he’s here in Gainesville for what could be his final year of eligibility if he doesn’t petition for and receive a medical redshirt and extra season from the NCAA.
Florida coach Jim McElwain has not tipped his hand at all as to who might be leading this three-man quarterback competition — not to reporters or even his players, it sounds like — so Zaire knows that every day is another evaluation in determining whether he gets the opportunity for which he came here.
“This job means everything to me,” Zaire reiterated. “Getting the opportunity to play for the Florida Gators at the quarterback position is everything, so I take it each and every day as like a make-it-or-break-it-day for me in terms of how I go out and focus and my mental preparation. I don’t want to let the team down. I don’t want to let the university down and the people that have supported me for so long. So this obviously means everything to me. I treat it like that. I take this job very seriously, and whatever it takes to help win games for this football I’m going to try to do.”
The Gators have continued to rotate all three quarterbacks through the first-team offense in practice and in their first scrimmage a week ago.
Reports trickled out that Franks had a particularly good showing in that scrimmage and days later teammates were commenting how they see “a whole different” version of the young quarterback now.
Del Rio is said to be steady and consistent, leaning on his experience in the offense and proving he’s over the shoulder and knee injuries that hobbled him a year ago.
They’re keeping the pressure on Zaire, who was the story of the offseason for the Gators as he picked Florida over other suitors including Texas.
“I keep it towards myself,” Zaire said of internalizing the competition. “I keep challenging myself every day to continue to get better. Every day’s a new challenge.”
McElwain praised the newcomer for that approach while discussing the competition Friday.
“I like the way Malik prepares. In other words, looking at it as he’s really competing against himself, and he truly understands what that means,” he said. “I wish every player got that, because you’re never competing against anybody — you’re actually competing against yourself. Your ability to go out and perform. From a mindset standpoint, that to me is what it’s all about. You’ve got to throw all the exterior stuff away in whatever it is you’re doing and focus on what you do because that’s the one thing each one of us can control, what we do.”
Zaire admits there have been some adjustments in picking up the Gators’ offense, but he expects the playbook will be more streamlined once game prep begins rather than facing a new install every day during camp.
While Franks caused a buzz with his performance in the first scrimmage, Zaire revealed that he accounted for two touchdowns during the team’s red zone work in that session. He rushed in for one and connected on a touchdown pass to Josh Hammond for the other.
He feels he’s shown his ability to make things happen when plays break down, using his rushing ability as another dynamic to the offense.
“I thought the first scrimmage went well. Being in The Swamp for the first time is a great feeling. Being able to score in The Swamp for the first couple times I did definitely felt like home,” he said. “I’m glad to be able to get those opportunities, and I’m going to just keep making plays.”
Now in his fifth year of college football, Zaire says the quarterback competition is nothing new for him. He knows how it goes, but yeah, he’d like to see a decision made sooner than later.
“Obviously if you have a bunch of quarterbacks, you have none. So obviously we want that distinct person to be known, but at the end of the day you’ve just got to focus on what it’s going to take for you to be the best you can be,” he said. “You let the decisions handle how they handle. You’ve just got to be able to adapt and be ready to play whenever the opportunity comes.”
The next opportunity comes Friday in the Gators’ second scrimmage. Zaire says he’ll be treating it like a game.
For that matter, the stakes are significant every time he steps on the field at this point— especially given everything he has riding on this season.
His mindset hasn’t changed since he decided to join the Gators.
“This is just another step in the road for me. I’ve been through these whole dramatic decisions and all that stuff,” he said. “For me, I’m ready for that first game and if my number gets called I want to be in there and make something happen and help this team win games so we can win that championship. That’s what I came here to do.”