FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla - When Jabari Zuniga decided to return to the University of Florida for his redshirt senior season, expectations for the defensive end were through the roof.
Given what he had shown on tape over the previous three seasons, and the production that he posted along the way, Zuniga was viewed as the leader of No. 9 Florida's defensive line, and arguably it's defense.
But things didn't pan out how he, or Florida, had hoped.
The 6-4, 246 lb. lineman appeared in only five games, seeing the field on a mere 140 snaps. A nagging ankle sprain limited Zuniga's on-field ability and kept him on the sidelines for seven of the Gators' 12 games. Other than the Miami game, where he took the field on 62 plays, Zuniga never saw more than 26 snaps in a game for Florida in 2019.
Now, with nearly two full months separating the last time Zuniga took the field for the Gators and the 2019 Capital One Orange Bowl, in which the Gators will face the No. 24 Virginia Cavaliers on Monday, everyone is excited to see Zuniga have himself a big game in his send-off.
A curtain call, per se, with the potential for a standing ovation.
And if he is to do that, it will only propel him upwards in his journey to the NFL.
"Any time you can get a chance to make some plays in a big bowl game like this or anything like this at the highest level, it always helps," said BUCK rush end Jonathan Greenard of Zuniga's draft implications on Saturday.
"But they know he's been hurt, so it hurt him, but it didn't hurt him at the same time. But it would be good for his mental, just overall for him to understand he's still got it, just getting back out there with the boys again, he'll feel good to be out there with his brothers."
Greenard and Zuniga were considered a deadly tandem off the edge for Florida during the entirety of the 2019 season - however, that opinion was almost hypothetical.
The two only got to play together in five games, and the LSU game saw both on the field for only 29 snaps as both dealt with injured ankles. But when the two did play together, they were abundantly productive - combining for 5.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 28 quarterback pressures (per Pro Football Focus).
"I miss him out there," Greenard continued. "He misses being out there, so hopefully we can get out there and get back to doing our thing."
Despite his nagging injury, Zuniga has a path to the NFL ahead of him. He has accepted an invitation to the 2020 Senior Bowl in January, where he will showcase his talents in front of NFL personnel and interview with teams.
Head coach Dan Mullen believes a big final performance for Zuniga can provide momentum for his draft stock as well.
"It’s a huge game for him to go out there and perform," said Mullen." He started the season really well. He missed the majority of the whole season with an ankle sprain, but now he has the opportunity to go out on a big stage against a great opponent and make a statement."
"It could help his future a lot."
In Zuniga's return to the field, he will be tested in helping contain Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins. Not only will Florida have to be on its A-game as a pass rush, but Perkins finished the 2019 regular season as the Cavaliers' leading rusher in most categories.
Florida cornerback Marco Wilson views Zuniga's return as an advantage in slowing Perkins down.
"That helps a lot," Wilson said. "Jabari, he's a vet and he knows what he's doing out there, so he'll help us on that."
Zuniga has long been highly regarded by the Florida football program. This past summer, he was one of three teammates selected by Mullen to represent the Gators at SEC Media Day. A productive final performance for Zuniga in orange and blue would be fitting.