Malik Zaire Is Ready to Revive Florida's Offense—but He Needs to Win a Job First

1:57 | College Football
College Football Preview: Can Anyone in SEC Compete With Alabama?
Monday August 7th, 2017

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Fred Johnson heard an unfamiliar voice and immediately took notice.

Huddle up!

Johnson, Florida’s right guard, had become accustomed to the voices of quarterbacks Feleipe Franks, Luke Del Rio and Kyle Trask from practicing with them. But the most recent addition to the Gators had just arrived for an informal session earlier this summer, and he sounded as if he’d done this sort of thing before.

“Oooh,” Johnson remembers thinking. “Here comes the new guy.”

The new guy knows he’s expected to come in and win the starting job. After all, Malik Zaire graduated and left Notre Dame—where Brandon Wimbush will take over as the starting quarterback—to seek a place where he could start. But no program Zaire considered was prepared to hand him the starting job, and despite rumors to the contrary, Florida’s coaches aren’t, either. Zaire will have to compete against redshirt freshman Franks and a now-healthy Del Rio. Whoever wins will be expected to transform an offense that Florida won the SEC East in spite of the past two seasons. For the first time since coach Jim McElwain arrived at Florida following the 2014 season, the Gators have a quality supporting cast around the quarterback. It will be up to whichever quarterback McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier choose to drag the Gators out of the triple digits in the national rankings. If that can happen and the defense doesn’t drop off too much after losing a lot of talent to the NFL, Florida might be ready to make a leap.

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That’s the pressure on Zaire, and he seems to enjoy the expectations. He came enrolled at Florida in June, after the SEC changed its graduate transfer rule. The tweak allowed the Gators—who had been banned from taking a grad transfer because two such transfers in 2015 didn’t meet academic requirements while in Gainesville—to throw Zaire into a quarterback competition that would have been all but ceded to Franks. Now, Zaire has a chance to finish what he started at Notre Dame. But he’ll have to win the job these next few weeks.

If his arm matches his talents as a hype man, the Gators may have found their quarterback. “We’re bringing something new this year,” Zaire says. “​We’re bringing something that a lot of people don’t think we have in us. I think we have the potential to be the best offense in the country. I know we have the talent and potential to be the best show on TV. That’s how great our offense can be.”

That’s quite a tout considering Florida ranked 105th in the nation and 13th in the SEC in yards per play last season. Even with an improved offensive line, a better receiving corps led by Antonio Callaway and Tyrie Cleveland and some potential X-factor playmakers (Dre Massey and Kadarius Toney), the Gators will need much better quarterback play than they got last year, when a banged-up Del Rio led them for much of the season before succumbing to a shoulder injury and giving way to Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby.

Zaire, Florida’s first left-handed quarterback since Tim Tebow, hopes he can be Florida’s best quarterback since Tebow. Despite his late entry into the race, Zaire believes he understands the offense well enough to run it efficiently. During the recruiting process, he’d watch replays of Florida games and call Nussmeier to quiz him about play calls and formations. During those informal workouts after Zaire arrived in Gainesville, teammates marveled that he seemed to have such command of the playbook. Zaire doesn’t have a photographic memory or any sort of rare skill that allows him to consume and retain data. What he does have is four seasons in a fairly complex college offense at Notre Dame. “What I did at Notre Dame is very similar to here,” Zaire says. “It’s just terminology. In terms of putting guys in the right place, I know where routes should be and where alignments should be because the concepts don’t change. If you’ve got a drive or an over-the-top or a triangle read, it’s all about spacing.”

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But while Zaire has extensive experience in the meeting rooms and on the practice field, he doesn’t have a wealth of game experience. Thirteen days after Florida fired coach Will Muschamp, the Fighting Irish were getting blasted at USC. The slide at the end of the 2014 season had been steep for Notre Dame, and even before halftime, it was obvious the Irish would lose for the fifth time in six games. So coach Brian Kelly yanked starter Everett Golson—whose turnovers had been a constant source of frustration—and replaced him with Zaire, who played well enough to earn his first career start a month later in the Music City Bowl against LSU. Zaire ran for 96 yards and threw for 96 yards, teaming with Golson to help lead Notre Dame to a 31–28 win. After the game, Kelly said he’d get the quarterback situation figured out in the off-season.

Zaire won the job, and Golson went to Florida State as a graduate transfer. After Zaire opened the 2015 season by completing 19 of 22 passes for 313 yards and three touchdowns in a 38–3 win against Texas, it appeared the Irish had found their quarterback for the next two seasons. That feeling lasted three and a half more quarters. Zaire broke his ankle in the fourth quarter against Virginia the following week, and DeShone Kizer came in and threw a 40-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds remaining to lift the Irish to a 34–27 win. With Zaire out for the remainder of the season, Kizer solidified his hold on the starting job. The quarterbacks split time with the first team during the 2016 off-season, but when Zaire split time with Kizer during the season opener at Texas, Kizer seemed miles better. Kelly quickly named Kizer the full-time starter, and it became clear Zaire wasn’t going to get another chance at Notre Dame.

That’s how Florida wound up with a quarterback who has a wealth of experience yet only three starts on his résumé. “I don’t think there’s a lot of things I haven’t seen at this level,” Zaire says. “But seeing all that stuff had made me stronger as a person and a lot stronger as a player. There was no guideline or rulebook for being able to handle some of the stuff that’s happened.” Had Zaire started a full season at Notre Dame, some team might have been willing to bring him in as the presumed starter. He found no takers for that, so he chose the place where he had the best chance to win the competition.

Now Zaire has to win that competition, and Franks and Del Rio do not intend to make that easy. Franks, the 6' 6", 216-pounder with no game experience, looks the part. Del Rio, the 6' 1", 215-pounder who doesn’t have the measurables but does have six starts under his belt, is coming off shoulder surgery and hasn’t had a chance to show what he can do while healthy since the Gators faced North Texas in week three last season.

Franks beat out fellow redshirt freshman Kyle Trask in a spring competition, and he plans to approach this derby the same way. “I think the competition is the same. It’s only going to bring out the best,” Franks says. “For me, it’s going to bring out the best quarterback. It’s going to bring out the best person. It’s going to bring that fire and get me out of my comfort zone.” Del Rio, whose father Jack coaches the Oakland Raiders, has seen his share of quarterback competitions up close. He knows the best outcome for the team is one signal-caller making the decision easy for the coaches. “I hope it’s clear to the team and to the coaching staff—that one of us asserts ourselves,” Del Rio says. “You can see that the ball just tends to move [down the field]. It usually works itself out. You can usually tell pretty quickly.”

Zaire hopes he’s the one who makes it easy on the coaches. If he is, it likely will be obvious within the next few weeks. “I know I haven’t been able to show as much as I wanted to, but I know there’s still opportunity and there’s still a lot of time left,” Zaire says. “It’s just making those opportunities count.”

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A Random Ranking

Given the recent events on a certain HBO show that I will not reference specifically in case said show is still sitting unwatched on your DVR, it’s time to rank the 10 best dragons.

1. The Ukrainian Ironbelly that guards the Gringott’s vaults: The Harry Potter series
2. Smaug, The Hobbit
3. Drogon, Game of Thrones
4. The Dragon, Beowulf
5. Falcor the Luck Dragon, The Neverending Story
6. Elliott, Pete’s Dragon
7. Dragon, Shrek
8. Toothless, How To Train Your Dragon
9. Mushu, Mulan
10. Puff the Magic Dragon, Puff the Magic Dragon

Three and Out

1. ESPN’s Mark Schlabach reports that former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt will settle his lawsuit against the school for an apology and a $500,000 donation to create a Mississippi commission on sports ethics.

Nutt’s lawsuit already has led to the ouster of coach Hugh Freeze and likely will produce more embarrassing details if it goes forward. The school could get off the hook for a bargain here. The real question is who would run the Mississippi sports ethics commission. Perhaps Nutt’s attorney Thomas Mars is angling to find a job for his client when all this is over. But since Mississippi is home to an intense rivalry between its two SEC schools, it seems logical that this commission should have co-directors. Clearly, those co-directors should be Nutt and Jackie Sherrill.

2. Sad movies don’t usually make me choke up, but videos of walk-ons getting scholarships usually do. Here’s Utah coach Kyle Whittingham awarding a scholarship to offensive lineman Paul Toala.

3. You can read more about Baylor’s new robotic tackling dummy in my story on the new art and science of tackling in this week’s issue of the magazine. You also can watch the dummy in action right now.

What’s Eating Andy?

The first coaches poll of the 2017 season was released last week. This led to some predictable questions about the rankings. Please allow me to answer all of these questions at once. The sports information directors and operations guys who fill out the coaches’ ballots voted the way they did because they hate your school. When the Associated Press poll comes out later this month, the reporters will have voted the way they did because they hate your school. That is all.

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What’s Andy Eating?

I spent a long time reading Yelp reviews Friday while trying to figure out where my family should eat dinner while visiting Universal Studios in Orlando. Having read a few theme park restaurant reviews in my life, these all looked fairly familiar. Typically, theme park restaurant reviews fall into two categories…

The True Believer

THE HONEY CHICKEN AT THE YAK AND YETI IS THE BEST HONEY CHICKEN I’VE EVER EATEN BECAUSE EVERYTHING AT WALT DISNEY WORLD IS SOOOOOO AMAZING. WE’RE ANNUAL PASSHOLDERS AND WE’VE COVERED OUR CAR IN ANNUAL PASSHOLDER STICKERS BECAUSE WE LOVE ALL THE PARKS SOOOOO MUCH. WE WAITED IN LINE THREE HOURS IN 95-DEGREE HEAT TO SEE ALL THE NEW AVATAR STUFF AT ANIMAL KINGDOM, AND WE WORKED UP QUITE AN APPETITE. THAT HONEY CHICKEN HIT THE SPOT. THEY EVEN INCLUDED RICE ON THE SIDE. RICE? WITH HONEY CHICKEN? ONLY PEOPLE AS AMAZING AS DISNEY’S IMAGINEERS WOULD THINK OF THAT. I’D GIVE THIS NINE STARS IF YELP WOULD LET ME.

The Skeptic

They wanted $18.99 for the same honey chicken I can get at the place next to my local grocery store for $6.99. Is it covered in some kind of special fairy farts or something? All I’ve done since I’ve been here is wait in line, sweat and light money on fire. We’re packing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches next time. One star.

Though I don’t broadcast my feelings on Yelp—that’s why I have this column—I typically share the sentiments of the second group. But I have resigned myself to the fact that theme parks make the wife and kids happy, and that makes my life easier. So I go expecting to get ripped off every time we eat. I’ve tried to stop getting mad about it because it does me no good, but I sometimes still seethe. That’s why I was so pleasantly surprised Friday when after reading all those reviews, we stumbled onto the place that might offer the best culinary deal of any theme park restaurant in America.

Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen is a rather cumbersome name, but this steampunk-themed edifice between the entrances to Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure has a lot going on. As the first part of the name suggests, desserts are the main attraction. But the place does serve food, and the bartenders pour some enticing cocktails. Still, you’ll need to avoid the second part and stick to the first if you want to get the deal.

The reviews warned of long waits, and we girded ourselves for an extended delay. But we got lucky. There were plenty of available tables at 6 p.m. on a Friday. We ate dinner, and my wife and I ordered cocktails. This allowed us to get the full lighting-money-on-fire experience, but it didn’t make me that angry. If you do want dinner or lunch, stick to the appetizers. You’ll need to save room for dessert—where you get the real bang for your buck. The coffee and chocolate stout glazed wings ($14.95) were tasty, and so were the bacon-wrapped Harissa spiced pork kabobs ($11.95). The High Fashion (Old Forester 86, brandied cherry, chocolate bitters for $11) was poured strong and didn’t cost much more than it would at a cocktail bar in any medium-sized city.

But you’re here for the desserts. Specifically, you’re here for the sundaes. The milkshakes get most of the attention at Toothsome, but they are extravagant productions that don’t necessarily deliver. My key lime pie milkshake (sour cream ice cream, sweet condensed milk, lime juice, lime garnish and a sliver of actual key lime pie on top) was an O.K. dessert for one. The sour cream ice cream was a nice touch, but the best part might have been the actual pie slice. But I wouldn’t pay $12 for it again.

The key lime pie milkshake at Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen.
Andy Staples

What I should have done was split a chocolate brownie bark sundae with my daughter. For $9.50, she was delivered a massive bowl containing chocolate ice cream, chocolate brownies, chocolate whipped cream, chocolate sauce, chocolate brownie bark and chocolate sprinkles. The brownies were soft and decadent, and the ice cream was hard enough to keep from melting right away into a sloppy mess. Three adults could have split this monstrosity and walked away happy. I haven’t been to every major theme park in America, but I feel comfortable saying that there are scant few food items at any of them that can satisfy for $3.17 a person.

The chocolate brownie bark sundae at Toothsome.
Andy Staples

I also could have split a May Contain Peanuts with my son. That’s a bowl approximately the size of manhole cover filled with peanut butter ice cream, peanut brittle, Reese’s peanut butter cups, a slice of chocolate peanut butter pie, whipped cream, peanut butter sauce and Reese’s pieces. It costs $10.50 and could easily satisfy three adults, so the cost per person jumps to a whopping $3.50.

May Contain Peanuts in Orlando, Fla.
Andy Staples

I wound up eating about half my daughter’s sundae and about half my son’s sundae because I was there for research purposes. I do these things for you, the reader, because I love you. But if you’d like to traverse the park without a wheelbarrow, find a like-minded friend or two and split some sundaes. Your stomach and your wallet will thank you.

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