GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Quarterback Malik Zaire has decided not to petition the NCAA for an extra year of eligibility, ending his time at Florida after one season, according to his father.
Zaire, who broke his ankle two games into his 2015 season at Notre Dame, could have pursued a medical hardship waiver for a sixth year of eligibility to potentially return to the Gators. Despite a frustrating experience this fall, there was reason to think he might consider it with new coach Dan Mullen installing a spread offense better suited to his strengths, and incoming freshman Emory Jones the only other dual-threat quarterback in the mix.
But Zaire will instead move on and try to earn a chance to prove himself at the next level.
“He’s done,” his father, Imani Zaire, said Thursday night. “I think [Malik and Mullen] briefly spoke, but nothing in-depth. … And I don’t think Malik would have stayed unless he was just going to be guaranteed [to start], but I think he was just done with the college experiences. The last few cases have been really ugly.”
Zaire opened 2015 as the starter at Notre Dame and had a strong season debut against Texas, completing 19 of 22 passes for 313 yards, 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. But the next week at Virginia he broke his ankle, missing the rest of that season and remaining stuck behind starter DeShone Kizer the next fall.
Even though Kizer moved on to the NFL after the 2016 season, Zaire felt he wasn’t given a true opportunity at Notre Dame and opted to leave. He eventually joined Florida with much fanfare, waiting out a rule change from the SEC in late spring that cleared the way for the Gators to bring him on as a graduate transfer.
He was also considering Texas and had earlier interest from Wisconsin and North Carolina. When he chose the Gators after plenty of buildup to his decision, many presumed he would be the favorite to win the starting job.
Instead, Florida went with redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, switched to veteran Luke Del Rio for one game before he sustained a season-ending collarbone injury, and then went back to Franks until coach Jim McElwain was dismissed with four games remaining.
McElwain had shown significant patience with Franks despite the rookie’s weekly struggles. Meanwhile, he gave Zaire only one shot (mop-up duty in the lopsided opening loss to Michigan) through the first six games before letting him finish the Gators’ blowout loss to Georgia.
Once Randy Shannon took over as interim coach, he made the switch and Zaire started the next two weeks. But he was pulled late in a lopsided loss to Missouri and a knee injury sustained the next week at South Carolina effectively ended his season, with Franks returning to the starting role for the final two contests.
The message Zaire received from the coaches through the first part of the fall was that he hadn’t picked up the offense quickly enough to earn a bigger role. His father feels he was hindered in that effort with Florida splitting reps three ways in practice during the preseason between Franks, Del Rio and Zaire. Further frustration stemmed from offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier recruiting a dual-threat quarterback with a certain skill set but not adjusting the offense to play to Zaire’s strengths.
“I think the biggest travesty of all of this was splitting those reps. That was the worst thing that Florida did by bringing Malik in. If they weren’t sure about him being the guy, they shouldn’t have brought him in, period,” Imani Zaire said. “If you thought that this Franks kid [was ready to start] and Del Rio was going to [be a factor] for the year, then why bring him in?
“I felt that it was an insurance policy, and even then it was a bad policy because you weren’t going to introduce all of the pieces of the insurance. … At the end of the day, when it all comes down, he just felt he was sold a bill of goods.”
Zaire finished with 349 passing yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception and 39 net rushing yards.
Indeed, Nussmeier never seemed to find a way to maximize Zaire’s dual-threat abilities until the very end. Ironically, with fans wondering why the Gators weren’t calling more designed runs for Zaire, he finally broke off a 23-yard gain to the South Carolina 14 while injuring his knee on the play.
After missing one play, Zaire came back in and tried another rushing play before collapsing to the ground as the knee gave out. That would be his last snap with the Gators.
The frustration this fall was perhaps further magnified for Zaire when looking at his other potential landing spots. Wisconsin ran through the regular season undefeated before losing to Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship Game despite inconsistency from quarterback Alex Hornibrook (21 touchdowns, 15 interceptions). And Texas used two quarterbacks this fall with limited success.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, turned to junior Brandon Wimbush, its third-string quarterback the year before. He completed less than 50 percent of his passes for 1,818 yards, 16 touchdowns and 6 interceptions while excelling as a rusher (765 yards, 14 TDs).
“We laugh about that [and] say, ‘See, you could have went over there and been undefeated. Could have went over there and been in this bowl game. Could have stayed at Notre Dame and been the guy and played in this bowl game.’ So, we laugh about it, but he’s not hurt about it,” Imani Zaire said. “He knew he had to put on his big-boy pants once he decided to leave. It is what it is. He [doesn’t] have regrets. When he picked Florida, that’s what he wanted to do. Just, unfortunately, they didn’t use him right.
“He likes Florida, he liked the situation of coming there and even being there and he loves the school. It’s just the ugliness that transpired of not being placed in a position to start and then be successful. And I think being behind the 8-ball coming in in the summer, it was the failure of the coaches — i.e. OC and head coach — [not] to say we’re committed to bring this guy in, we’re going to have to modify our offense.”
With Del Rio and Zaire both passing on options to potentially play another year, Florida is left with only one quarterback with any collegiate experience in Franks, who passed for 1,438 yards, 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions during a rough debut season.
Kyle Trask, who will be a redshirt sophomore, and Jake Allen, who will be a redshirt freshman, have yet to play at Florida, and many fans will look to Jones, the highly touted early enrollee, as a real contender to start as a freshman.
Zaire, meanwhile, is expected to return to Arizona to live with his father and train for the next level, hoping to get a spot in one of the showcase postseason games for seniors to audition for NFL scouts.
“He’s just going to continue to work, get better [on] footwork, release, all of that kind of stuff that this quarterback person is going to help him with and then position himself through interviews and all those other things to convince these guys,” Imani Zaire said. “I think a few teams definitely know who he is. A lot of folks know who he is, but the rap at this point is he hasn’t played a full season and that kind of hurts. …
“Malik just needs an opportunity. He’s healthy again, so we don’t have to worry about that part. Now it’s just getting his foot in the door.”