University of Florida

Want to know why Florida’s season sank? Let us count the ways

Quarterback Malik Zaire isn’t the reason Florida’s football season was a flop. But the flopping did begin with Zaire’s transfer and end with his injury.
Quarterback Malik Zaire isn’t the reason Florida’s football season was a flop. But the flopping did begin with Zaire’s transfer and end with his injury. AP

It might be funny to think about it now.

To recall how confident quarterback Malik Zaire was when he arrived at Florida, standing out from other players with his sleeved jersey and blind faith.

The graduate transfer was fresh from Notre Dame, and his goal was to start for the Gators. The team’s goal, meanwhile, was nothing less than a national championship.

So why was he the one to make that happen?

“I don’t think there’s a lot of stuff I haven’t seen,” he told reporters in August.

It is not funny to hear that now — nine suspensions, multiple season-ending injuries and one fired head coach later. But it is true that Zaire, both at Notre Dame and prior, had seen and endured a lot.

He had known disappointment. What unfolded this season at Florida, though, was a new level of low. And to understand why the Gators imploded, Zaire is the perfect metaphor.

That isn’t to say it’s his fault the season went from goals of a national title to goals of bowl eligibility to playing for pride. It’s to say that Zaire’s tenure in Gainesville serves as an example for what caused this season to become a footnote of Florida football history.

It started June 4, when longstanding rumors about Zaire transferring to UF were confirmed. He was supposed to solidify an offense that had all the pieces to be successful — a deep running back group, experienced wideouts and an improved offensive line — aside from a decent quarterback. He talked like it early.

“I always feel like I continue to write my story each and every day and try to make an impression and leave a legacy,” he said in August. “There’s a lot of things I wanna leave here in my short time.”

Half-hearted comparisons to Tim Tebow were even made because of Zaire’s left handedness. And again, Zaire talked like he was the answer.

“He definitely was confident,” said Chuck Martin, Zaire’s first offensive coordinator at Notre Dame and current coach of Miami Ohio, “and he came to Notre Dame to win the starting job. I know that.”

He did eventually win the starting job for the Fighting Irish, but in his third-career start, he broke his ankle and was lost for the season.

“To have that happen, I mean, that would turn many people sour,” Notre Dame president the Rev. John Jenkins said. “That was never Malik.”

But despite his positivity, he never regained the starting job, and his father, Imani Zaire, believes he was never given a fair chance. It was a theme he believes followed his son to Florida.

The first significant crack in Florida’s season appeared just over two weeks before the team’s season opener against Michigan, when seven players were suspended for undisclosed reasons. Among them was starting wideout and Miami Booker T. Washington alum Antonio Callaway.

Starting running back Jordan Scarlett was asked about the suspensions on the Tuesday before the game and said he was encouraging his teammates to make better choices. He was suspended the next day for what turned out to be widespread accusations of credit card fraud. Nine players were caught in the scheme, and it cost all of them — and their team — the season.

Largely as a result of the suspension news, then-coach Jim McElwain decided to announce his starting quarterback for the opener the Wednesday before the game.

His choice was Feleipe Franks, the redshirt freshman who was a top recruit but who brought no game experience, over veterans Luke Del Rio and Zaire. McElwain was brought to UF to fix its offense, and he hadn’t delivered in his first two seasons. The Gators had finished 107th in scoring and 116th in yards in 2016, and he believed Franks offered the best chance of fixing that.

Malik’s father doesn’t believe his son was given a fair chance, even though that’s what he was promised. With reps being split three ways until the week before the game, he said that because Zaire was new, he was behind, which gave Franks and Del Rio an advantage.

“That right there was disappointing I think for all the boys,” he said, “but definitely for Malik.”

Zaire did play in the opener, but he came in with the game already out of reach. It didn’t go well.

The season got a little better from there, with wins against Tennessee, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Through it all, Zaire kept working to earn his chance and stayed positive. He was consistently the last person to leave practice. But he didn’t see the field again.

Then the losses started to mount.

First was a one-point squeaker to LSU, ending any fringe hopes of a national title. Next was a two-point tumble against Texas A&M. A week after the latter, McElwain made accusations of threats, including death threats, against him, his players and his family. No evidence for such threats was ever produced, and rumors started to spin about McElwain’s job security.

Georgia beat the Gators the following weekend, 42-7, with Zaire getting into the game already down big — again — in the fourth quarter. McElwain and UF “parted ways” the next day.

Interim coach Randy Shannon turned to Zaire as his starter.

“He was excited,” his dad said. “Excited and a little miffed it didn’t happen sooner.”

But the results continued. Zaire went from longing to lead his team to a national title to hoping for any bowl game at all.

“Obviously the season hasn’t been going like I’ve planned,” he said following a 45-16 embarrassment against Missouri. “[But] I trusted the guys around me that this team stayed unified in these next games so we can make our push for a bowl game.”

But with another loss to South Carolina the following weekend, a bowl game became unlikely. And Zaire will have little say anyway because he suffered a PCL bruise against the Gamecocks that forced him to miss last weekend’s UAB game and could limit him this Saturday against Florida State.

He joined a list of injured starters that spanned every position group, including season-ending injuries to Del Rio, running back Malik Davis, receiver James Robinson, guard Brett Heggie, defensive end Jordan Sherit and safety Marcell Harris.

All those downs have culminated in this weekend’s game against FSU. With a win, the Gators could still be in the running for a bowl. With a loss, they would finish with fewer than five wins for the second time in 37 years. But it hardly matters with a search for Jim McElwain’s successor dominating the news cycle, the actual season already being forgotten.

But if, for some reason, someone wanted to remember this year, they needn’t look further than Zaire.

A man who arrived with great promise. A man who didn’t perform as anticipated. A man who was confident in his ability to turn the offense around. And a man who will depart wondering what could’ve been without the suspensions, injuries and, in his case, with him at quarterback. A perfect metaphor for this year’s Gators.

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