Florida quarterback battle resets: Is Malik Zaire the favorite over Feleipe Franks?

By Adam Silverstein
August 6, 2017
Florida quarterback battle resets: Is Malik Zaire the favorite over Feleipe Franks?
Football

Image Credit: Courtney Culbreath/UAA

Just when you thought you knew who would start at quarterback for the Florida Gators, the battle got turned upside down when the program added graduate transfer Malik Zaire from Notre Dame prior to the start of summer workouts.

And now, despite redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks seemingly winning the job in the spring, the position is more open than it would have otherwise been entering fall practice.

Joining Zaire (-110) and Franks (+240) as contenders are longer shots in redshirt junior Luke Del Rio and redshirt freshman Kyle Trask (+1300). Odds for the quarterback battle — and other American football live bets — were released a week ago and lean in the direction most expect it to go, just don’t tell head coach Jim McElwain.

Despite a seemingly incorrect report at SEC Media Days that claimed McElwain called Zaire the leader in the competition (he had not even stepped on a practice field for Florida at that time), the coach has made it clear that Franks and Del Rio are serious contenders for the job.

“If you’re a true competitor … well, what do you do — turn and run, or do you accept the challenge?” asked McElwain regarding Franks’ mindset entering fall practice. “I think he’s a guy in his makeup that this is another challenge that is going to help him elevate his play. Also from another guy who’s been in the arena that can help him. I don’t think he looks at it as that. I would hope he doesn’t because I don’t think Feleipe has that in his body. I think he’s a guy that’s ready to go do this.”

He also points out that Del Rio, who is “definitely in the plans,” was 5-1 as a starting quarterback last season, though truly 5-0 in his opinion because McElwain admits he never should have started him against Arkansas while Del Rio was nursing an injured shoulder. Offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier conceded that quitting football was an option for Del Rio, who had multiple offseason surgeries, but ultimately he could not step away from the game.

“I think when you play you’ve got to be at peace with yourself, and that’s a personal decision. The discussions we had at first were take some time and really think about the body of work, where you’ve been, what you’ve done throughout your playing experience, and there’s a lot more to just that moment in time,” Nussmeier explained. “A lot of times you get caught up in the moment, and to think about all the hours, the sweat, all the things you’ve put into your whole career, you only get one opportunity to play the game, and it’s a great game. So take some time, think about it, and obviously Luke is a smart guy. He was going to make the best decision for him and his family.”

Del Rio completed better than 60 percent of his passes for 762 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions over three games before suffering a knee injury against North Texas. He missed two games and returned three weeks later but never looked the same. While Florida did beat Missouri and Georgia consecutively, Del Rio’s completion percentage was down and he threw just two touchdowns to four interceptions. The following week against Arkansas, he tossed a pair of picks and no scores as UF got walloped 31-10.

What would have happened if he never injured his knee and did not subsequently hurt his shoulder? That certainly remains to be seen. But with Franks having practiced all spring and Zaire being in his fifth year of football, it’s fair to say Del Rio has a lot of ground to make up.

Where all four players are contributing equally right now is in the quarterback room, where Nussmeier says he has great respect for what each brings to the table on a daily basis.

“You talk about the quality of people in the room, and when you look at that position, you talk about guys that are leaders in everything they do in life and the way they approach their day-to-day lives, how they live their lives,” he explained. “They’re great competitors, but they’re great kids. That’s what excites me the most about them. It’s exciting to go in the room every day because they’re great kids.”

Zaire, of course, is the newest member of that group, and ingratiating himself with his new teammates is not always an easy task. McElwain said that all indications are that Zaire is a great teammate, and he’s “bringing a certain energy” to the team because “he’s obviously on a mission, and he’s here to help us … win a bunch of games.” Nussmeier shared that same sentiment and American football advice for tonight, adding that Zaire “can command a room” and “has presence” that “the team has gravitated towards.”

“We talked as a whole group, and any time you add a player that obviously is going to be a high-profile player, the talk is any time we have the ability at any position to enhance our roster, make our roster better, we’re going to do it, and competition only makes all of us better,” said Nussmeier, explaining how the concept of Zaire’s transfer was introduced to the other quarterbacks. “I think that’s the great thing about that room is they all realize they’re here to compete, but at the same point in time, they’re going to compete the right way.”

Zaire brings one other interesting element to the table for Nussmeier. Both the quarterback and offensive coordinator are lefties, and while Nussmeier has obviously coached dozens of right-handed quarterbacks over the course of his career, it’s nevertheless a unique opportunity to coach up a player the same way he would see the field if he was still playing.

“Golly, it’s interesting. Being left-handed, playing left-handed, then you reverse everything to teach it right-handed, and now you get a lefty? I think it’s almost more difficult now because now I’ve got to train myself to go backwards,” he joked. “But it keeps you on your toes because every time you’re talking and you’re talking feet and eye placement and those kind of things, you’ve always got to flip it for both groups. Having Malik now as a lefty, it’ll be interesting.”

Choosing Zaire as a starter instead of Franks or Del Rio could affect where some of Florida’s star offensive players line up, but that’s another issue for another time. For now, the quarterback competition is in full gear with less than three weeks until the start of the regular season.

One Comment

  1. Jim Hinson says:

    I am against bring in quarterbacks for 1 year it’s not fair to the ones you recruited. I hope the NCAA stops this.

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