Barring a last-minute academic issue, former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire will join the Florida Gators later this month as a graduate transfer. Zaire is visiting Florida on Wednesday, and according to a source, he’ll be looking to find a graduate program that will accept him so he can finalize the process.
And with that, a team that has been snakebitten at quarterback since Tim Tebow owned the Swamp way back in 2009 would have a bunch of depth and some real big-game experience to work with at quarterback.
The position is saved!
Well, pump the brakes. Zaire still has a couple of procedural steps to take before he can officially join the Gators, and once he does, the jury will still be out on if he will be the first real answer at quarterback for Florida in nearly a decade.
For argument’s sake, let’s say Zaire is cleared and enrolls at Florida in late June (when Summer A session begins). Florida would then enter the season with Zaire, who played in 15 career games with the Irish; Luke Del Rio, who started six games during an injury-plagued 2016 season; redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks, who left spring as Florida’s No. 1, and Kyle Trask; and true freshman Jake Allen all vying for the starting job.
On the surface, that’s pretty good depth for Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier to work with. You have two veterans and three young guys with zero experience. Del Rio missed the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, paving the way for Franks to take the No. 1 spot heading into the offseason.
Zaire, who threw for 816 yards with six touchdowns and zero interceptions during his time at Notre Dame, will become the overwhelming favorite to start this fall. But that’s all speculation to this point. Yes, Zaire has had some big performances. Just look at the 313-yard, three-touchdown performance he had in that win over Texas to open the 2015 season. He also was named the MVP of the 2014 Music City Bowl win over LSU with 96 passing yards and 96 rushing yards.
But a 2015 season-ending injury in Week 2 paved the way for DeShone Kizer, who never relinquished the starting spot. So while fans should be excited about the prospect of Zaire leading Florida, he immediately provides needed depth before anything else.
More than anyone, McElwain knows how important quarterback depth is. In 2015, he lost starter Will Grier, who had that star power feel under center for the Gators, after six games because he took a banned substance. Last year, Del Rio got hurt in Week 2 and was never the same after he returned a few weeks later. Graduate transfer Austin Appleby was serviceable in his place, but nothing special.
From a numbers standpoint, this move makes perfect sense. And it makes sense because you don’t know what you’re getting out of Franks, who made strides this spring but still had turnover issues in practice, or Trask, who took some steps back this spring. Del Rio knows the offense better than anyone, but he’s limited as a passer. He doesn’t have the arm of Franks or Zaire, and he’s not very mobile. Allen is new to everything and would likely benefit from an immediate redshirt.
On the field, Zaire would bring the Gators a true running threat at quarterback and another big arm. When you put those two things together, it can put a lot of pressure on a defense. He didn’t turn the ball over at Notre Dame, but he had limited playing time. Still, he does have more in-game experience than anyone else on the roster.
It’s hard to say what Zaire would do for the Gators with new personnel and a new playbook in only a couple of months, but he’ll get plenty of help. Florida has one of the SEC’s best returning receiving corps, four returning starters along the offensive line and a talented group of running backs. Adding mobility and good arm strength could really make this offense go.
McElwain has won the SEC East two straight times with subpar quarterback play, so the pressure will ramp up to win a third straight time with his most dynamic quarterback in Gainesville. You certainly risk Franks’ development if Zaire is the starter this fall, but this is about winning in 2017.
McElwain is always going to go with the guy who gives him the best chance to win, and he’ll worry about the future of the position when he absolutely has to. For the present, Zaire makes things that much more intriguing for a Florida offense with a lot of potential.