With Florida clutching to a six-point lead in the fourth quarter of its season opener, defensive lineman Jabari Zuniga had his welcoming moment.
As Massachusetts quarterback Ross Comis took the first-down snap from the shotgun, the redshirt freshman Zuniga bulldozed his way through the offensive line. As he pushed the lineman in front of him deeper into the backfield and saw Comis out of the corner of his eye, Zuniga reached left, got a hand on the quarterback and slammed him to the ground for a 5-yard sack — the first of his young UF career. Teammates Joey Ivie and Bryan Cox Jr. embraced him afterward in a brief celebration.
“Jabari, he’s the silent assassin,” sophomore defensive lineman CeCe Jefferson said before the season. “He’s that guy, he’s not going to say too much … but once he gets on that field, it’s over.”
One possession later, Zuniga doubled his sack total when he brought Comis down on a third-down passing play during the 24-7 win.
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It was a performance the Gators were hoping to see — maybe not necessarily from Zuniga, but from somebody — as they opened the season yearning for a balanced pass rush following the departures of tackle Jon Bullard and edge rusher Alex McCalister to the NFL.
“We had some inside guys that can push the pocket and do a good job of rushing the passer from the inside,” defensive line coach Chris Rumph said, “but where was the juice coming from off the edge? … We’re going to need that from him all this year.”
That will especially hold true on Saturday during Zuniga’s SEC debut against Kentucky, a team ready to make a statement after being upset by Southern Miss of Conference USA in its season opener.
The Wildcats boast a valiant one-two punch at running back in Stanley “Boom” Williams and JoJo Kemp as well as a 6-3, 225-pound quarterback in redshirt sophomore Drew Barker.
“We have to really control the pocket and push the pocket, move to spot,” Rumph said. “When we get a chance, we’ve got to get the guy on the ground.”
And although two big plays on two possessions is a small sample size, Zuniga’s work and dedication throughout the offseason paint a bigger picture of his capabilities and his potential heading into conference play.
After he sat out his freshman season to increase his conditioning, Zuniga dazzled during spring camp.
He shed down to about 230 pounds — dropping off as much body fat as possible — and then proceeded to bulk back up to 245 pounds, this time adding muscle to his 6-3 frame, while also fine-tuning his technique as an edge rusher.
His improved physique has gotten to the point where Rumph had to instill a special rule just for Zuniga.
“He can not take his shirt off in front of my wife,” Rumph said. “I mean this guy is yoked up. My wife’s around, his shirt is on.”
Rumph won’t have to worry about that rule being broken come Saturday. Zuniga will be on the field in pads with his hand on the line, ready to wreak havoc in Kentucky’s backfield.
“He’s a high-motor guy,” Ivie said. “He’s still young, still got some things he needs to work on, but I think he’s got a lot of potential. And I think if he keeps taking the right steps, he’s gonna be a great player for us.”