University of Florida

Florida Gators emphasizing competition entering preseason camp

Miami Herald Writer

Quarterback Malik Zair talks with the media during at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. Wed., Aug. 2, 2017.
Quarterback Malik Zair talks with the media during at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla. Wed., Aug. 2, 2017. AP

Malik Zaire embraces being different.

It shows in his No. 8 jersey, which has sleeves hanging down to his elbows rather than cut off at the shoulders — like every single one of his teammates.

It shows in the fact that he’s the first left-handed quarterback at the University of Florida since Tim Tebow left in 2009. And it shows in his willingness to come to Florida, which hasn’t produced a memorable starting quarterback since Tebow.

Zaire chose to transfer to Florida from Notre Dame in the offseason because — despite that last point — he believes in the program’s history. In the Tebows and Wuerffels and Spurriers, and in his chances of being the next great one.

“We’ve got a lot of huge expectations,” the graduate transfer said. “But that’s why you come. You come to do it big or not do it at all.”

But while Zaire is viewed as the favorite for the starting job when preseason practice starts Thursday, coach Jim McElwain, who spoke at Wednesday’s preseason media day, emphasized the competition at quarterback — and every other position — is ongoing.

“He’s obviously on a mission,” McElwain added of Zaire, “and he’s here to help us win … a bunch of games. I think the one really good thing it brings is it brings great competition to the position.”

The Gators ranked 116th in total offense and 79th in passing a season ago, so competition is welcome. And the team’s returning quarterbacks know it.

Luke Del Rio, who transferred to Florida from Oregon State ahead of last season, said he’s fine with having to prove himself. After starting six games for the Gators in 2016, he sustained a season-ending shoulder injury that required surgery in the offseason. Now, he said he’s completely recovered and ready to win the starting job back.

That’s despite considerable heckling on social media during the offseason, which Del Rio said he had to shut down entirely.

“Let’s be honest: Everybody lies and says, ‘I don’t read it. I don’t read it,’ ” he said. “Everybody sees it. But it happens everywhere. The fans are frustrated. They just wanna win, and I get it. I do, too. But I kinda had to separate myself and literally block it out.”

So he did, and he said he’s had a more positive mind-set since then. He added that one of the reasons he chose to come to Florida was because he appreciated McElwain’s competition-based system, so he’s excited to show off his recovery.

“I respect Coach Mac and the decisions he makes,” Del Rio said. “So I’ll leave it in his hands.”

Redshirt freshman quarterback Feleipe Franks, who started Florida’s spring game, agreed. When pressed about whether he was annoyed with Zaire’s decision to enroll at Florida and — presumably — consume his playing time, Franks even said he was kind of happy about it.

“It brings out the best in me,” he said. “It brings out a competition level that hasn’t been in that room in a long time.

“You want it more. Not that I haven’t wanted it already, but bringing in that extra competition just makes you want it more.”

While quarterback is the position under the most scrutiny, McElwain was clear that there is competition at every position, and his players and assistant coaches have noticed.

Linebacker Cristian Garcia said defensive coordinator and former Miami head coach Randy Shannon has told the group past experiences and accomplishments are irrelevant once practice starts. McElwain said the offensive line has embraced the free-for-all and that’s made it one of the team’s strongest units. And Zaire said that at every position, there are enough pieces to thrive within that kind of system. So while he’s partial to standing out, he’s also excited to be able to blend in to that supporting cast if he does secure the job.

“The talent here is so deep,” Zaire said. “So my job doesn’t have to be to do everything.”