Florida Gators hoping former Notre Dame QB Malik Zaire pumps up sagging offense

By Anthony Gimino, The Sports Xchange   |   July 11, 2017 at 10:57 PM
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The Florida Gators have finished in the national top 15 in total defense in each of the past nine seasons. The problem in many of those years, especially lately, has been offense.

More specifically, quarterback.

The Gators have been searching for excellence and consistency at the position since Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow completed his eligibility after the 2009 season.

Perhaps Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire is the answer.

"He didn't come here to hold a clipboard," Florida coach Jim McElwain said Tuesday at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. "If you're afraid of competition, you can just run away."

Zaire's potential impact is one of the big questions in the SEC as Florida tries to win its third SEC East title in three years under McElwain. He is 19-8 at Florida -- inheriting a team that had gone 11-13 in the previous two seasons -- but there's also this:

Florida has scored more than 20 points in only half of its 22 games against major conference teams in the past two seasons.

McElwain has mostly tasked his offense to just not mess things up, but he needs a more dynamic attack moving forward to truly make the Gators a playoff contender.

"What I am excited about is I truly believe the strength of our football team is the offensive line," McElwain told the SEC Network. "We're at the point right now where, you know what, it's time to go. We've got some real parts."

Much of Zaire's buzz comes from a big performance against LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl, but an injury cut short his 2015 season after two games and he mostly backed up DeShone Kizer last season.

Before his post-spring transfer to Florida, the favorite to win the job was redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks. He was a bit erratic in the spring, but he's talented with a bigger arm and more potential than Luke Del Rio, who started six games last season and is coming off shoulder surgery. He is more of a caretaker than a playmaker.

Redshirt freshman Kyle Trask is another option.

Florida has arguably the top receiving corps in the SEC, led by Antonio Callaway. Jordan Scarlett heads a deep group at running back. The offensive line that McElwain loves returns a collective 64 starts.

The only real question for this offense -- which was 107th in scoring (23.9 points per game) and 116th in total offense (344.0 yards per game) last season -- is quarterback.

Zaire isn't a sure-fire solution, but his mix of athleticism and experience might be better than Florida's other options. McElwain welcomes the competition at quarterback but offered only a dead-pan answer when asked who will be behind center for the opener against Michigan.

"I know we will start at quarterback," he said.

NOTES

--Georgia running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both surprisingly decided to return for their senior seasons, forming one of the top tandems in the country. "In my mindset, it's not so important to be the featured guy at this point," Michel said. "Our mindset is trying to win football games. ... We want to get to Atlanta (for the SEC title game). By not wanting to be the featured guy, I think that could possibly get us there."

--Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason, who is 13-24 in three seasons with the Commodores, was asked about the "ceiling" for his program. "For me, what it comes back to is this: There are only two types of people in this world, limited and limitless. ... We work extremely hard every day to make our mark and figure out exactly where we're going."

Vanderbilt returns 18 starters, including standout senior running back Ralph Webb, from a 6-7 team.

"The future is bright," Mason said, "but the future is now."

--Mississippi State's Nick Fitzgerald is one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, rushing for 1,375 yards last season. One area of improvement is his passing accuracy, which was 54.3 percent last season.

"If you want to improve your completion percentage, which Nick has to do for us, make non-spectacular plays," said Bulldogs coach Dan Mullen. "You know, don't be afraid to take a check down. Hey, I'm just going to take an underneath throw over and over and over to get you up before I take a shot down the field."

--Florida WR Antonio Callaway, rated the 44th-best draft prospect by NFLDraftScout.com, was cited for marijuana possession in May. Coach Jim McElwain was non-committal about Callaway's status for the season opener against Michigan in Arlington, Texas. "He's a talented young man and he's really a good person," McElwain said.

--Media Days continues Wednesday with coaches and players from Alabama, Kentucky, Missouri and Texas A&M.

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