GAINESVILLE, Fla. — This isn’t the role quarterback Malik Zaire envisioned when he joined Florida as a high-profile and highly-sought-after graduate transfer this June.
He joined the Gators to play, which he has not done since being thrust into the second half of the team’s dismal season-opening loss to Michigan.
With Luke Del Rio’s stint as Florida’s starting quarterback over after two quarters Saturday due to a season-ending collarbone injury, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks regains the reins and will make his fourth start Saturday against LSU.
That presumably leaves Zaire as the next in line at what has been an ever-volatile position for the Gators, who have yet to make it through a game this fall without making a quarterback change.
The former Notre Dame QB once viewed by many as the favorite to win the job in the preseason has not been made available for interviews since the middle of camp, but reports have been positive on his commitment and development in practice. He’s been spotted multiple times as one of the last, if not the last, player leaving the practice facility after staying for extra work, which Gators left guard Brett Heggie confirmed Monday.
“Every practice, he’s (there) after practice. I think he’s the last one,” Heggie said.
To that end, Zaire’s teammates spoke positively about his readiness should his opportunity come at any point.
“Malik prepares just as well as anybody on our team. He works extremely hard and I think if he gets put in the situation where he has to go in and play the game I’m completely comfortable with him going in and playing,” Heggie said. “He’s a great athlete, he prepares, he works hard and I think he’ll be fine too.”
Said wide receiver Josh Hammond: “Malik has been that way since he got here. Hard working guy, just always trying to get better. He’s just waiting for his opportunity and when he gets it, he’ll definitely take advantage of it. He’s ready to play. He reps the same way he always has. He’ll be ready to go.”
Florida coach Jim McElwain said Zaire will “be a big piece moving forward with what we’re doing.” He also added that first-year freshman Jake Allen will get more reps in practice and that the Gators will continue to expand fellow freshman Kadarius Toney’s packages at quarterback, where he took a few wildcat snaps Saturday against Vanderbilt and threw incomplete on a screen pass.
Redshirt freshman Kyle Trask, who competed with Franks in the spring, had a procedure on his foot prior to the first game and remains out due to the injury.
“He’s still a ways away,” McElwain said.
So that’s the quarterback picture behind Franks: A freshman who has been no higher than fourth-string to this point, another freshman who was moved to receiver after the spring and has become a significant slot weapon and Zaire, a fifth-year senior who made three starts at Notre Dame while putting up impressive numbers in two of them before a broken foot changed the course of his time in South Bend, Ind.
“He’s doing a great job. He’ll continue to do that,” McElwain said of Zaire. “… His staying involved and (doing) what you need to do from a film study standpoint, what you need to do from a verbiage standpoint as far as understanding the system. And each week, he gets a little bit better at it.”
Veteran Florida cornerback Duke Dawson lives with Zaire and claims they haven’t talked about any frustration the quarterback may have with how his time at Florida has played out so far.
Zaire was also aggressively pursued by Texas, which has already used two quarterbacks this season. He also had interest from Wisconsin and North Carolina, which he could have joined in time for spring practice rather than waiting on the SEC to change a rule that eventually cleared his path to Gainesville.
Dawson said Zaire has kept his focus despite the setbacks.
“We never had talked about that. Just got to keep moving forward,” he said.
“I mean, he’s very competitive. He’s a smart guy. I mean, he’s passionate for the game,” Dawson said in response to a different question. “He knows a lot about the offense. He knows a lot about defenses. So if you see something like that in a quarterback, I mean, it’s always something that you love to see.”
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