Malik Zaire is what the Gators want, but what they need is for Feleipe Franks to win the starting QB job

Barring a last-minute snag with the university’s academic guidelines, Malik Zaire will begin taking practice snaps with Florida this summer.

He’s got one season of eligibility left as a graduate transfer from Notre Dame, which means that Jim McElwain has about six months to ride this train before the Gators resume their mysterious game of “Pick a quarterback, any quarterback.”

In this Sept. 5, 2015, file photo, former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire looks to a pass against Texas, in South Bend, Ind. The Southeastern Conference tweaked its graduate transfer policy Friday, June 2, 2017, making changes that would allow former Notre Dame quarterback Zaire to land at Florida. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh, File)

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this picture, of course, unless you are Feleipe Franks, the top 2016 recruit who has yet to play a game at Florida.

The Gators, who have been stuck in the primordial ooze offensively, gain a dual-threat passer who was the MVP of a bowl win over LSU in 2014. Zaire earned that Music City Bowl start by taking the job from Everett Golson, another eventual grad-student transfer from Notre Dame who chose Florida State among many options for his final year of eligibility and immediately earned Jimbo Fisher’s trust as the Seminoles’ starter in 2015.

McElwain clearly is in win-now mode this year, just like every year. He’ll go with Zaire if he appears to be better than Franks or Luke Del Rio, who was barely adequate as a starter last year and is coming off surgery on his throwing shoulder.

To imagine, however, that Zaire will transform the Gators from two-time SEC East champions to national title contenders is fairly silly. That kind of transformation takes time, and time is what you don’t get with graduate transfers.

Far better, whenever possible, to develop a quarterback within the system with two or three years of good production in sight, the way McElwain did with Garrett Grayson in his first head coaching stop at Colorado State.

On top of that, Florida is just three months removed from the 2017 season opener against Michigan. If Zaire is the starter, McElwain will be banking on immediate spotlight production from a quarterback who couldn’t win the starting job on Notre Dame’s 4-8 team last year and because of injuries, academics and spotty play threw just six touchdown passes in three seasons with the Irish.

If that really does turn out to be the best option, then Franks isn’t much of an option at all, whether it’s this year or any other. There is more than quarterback depth in question here. The position is all about dynamics, too, and a plan for showing future recruits that they won’t be drawn in just to be pushed to the back of the treadmill.

Here is what Bobby Bowden said when Jimbo was working on bringing Golson to FSU, and remember that Golson got Notre Dame all the way to the BCS national championship game earlier in his career.

“If you’re bringing him in, you’re showing no confidence in your other quarterbacks,” said Bobby, who in fairness often toggled back and forth between a couple of passers during his great FSU coaching career.

It’s a tough call, and not one that McElwain has to make right away, but there isn’t much room for rumination. Michigan is coming off a 10-win season that included a double-overtime loss to Ohio State, one of last year’s College Football Playoff teams.

Golson’s season-opening start at FSU came against Texas State of the Sun Belt Conference.

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The best scenario here is for Zaire to push Franks hard, eliciting greater focus and stronger leadership from the kid, but for Franks to win the starting job outright and keep it.

Nobody owes anybody anything in a case like this, but it sure would be nice to see McElwain partner up with a quarterback for a serious stretch and see how far they can go together. It’s the only area where the coach has failed to make consistent progress at Florida, and it’s the missing link for any SEC boss who wants to challenge Alabama for the league championship.

 

 

Confident Jim McElwain is remaking the Gators again

The Florida Gators barely beat FAU last year. In overtime.

They edged Vanderbilt 9-7, struggling mightily to outscore a team that completed three passes for 30 yards.

Florida coach Jim McElwain speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days, Monday, July 11, 2016, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
HOOVER, Ala. – Florida coach Jim McElwain speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference football media days, Monday, July 11, 2016 (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Against Florida State, the Gators would have been shut out at home if not for a safety that the Seminoles gifted them in the fourth quarter.

Finally, in a bowl game that only Jim Harbaugh could love, Florida got rolled 41-7 by Michigan.

Is it any wonder that the Gators are flying under the radar at this week’s SEC Media Days in Alabama? Based on the results listed above, and the fact that coach Jim McElwain’s best quarterback from last season has transferred to West Virginia under the cloud of NCAA suspension, Florida’s ability to win a second consecutive SEC East title deserves to be doubted in every way.

Except one.

The Gators offense has to be better this year for the simple fact that it can’t possibly get worse.

McElwain has four quarterbacks from which to choose, with everyone figuring that Luke Del Rio will be the one, but really, it all comes down to this assessment from the 2015 SEC Coach of the Year.

“We’ve really got good arm talent,” McElwain said, “and I’m looking forward to stretching the field vertically.”

Good arm talent is the beginning point for any quarterback. It’s the opposite of what Treon Harris displayed last year. It’s the reason every play felt like fourth-and-long in the season’s final month.

A little foot power comes in handy, too. That’s why McElwain put so much energy into flipping powerful place-kicker Eddy Pineiro’s commitment from Alabama to Florida in February. Austin Hardin, the Gators’ previous best, made five field goals last season and missed three extra points. That’s middle-school stuff.

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So we’ll talk more in the weeks to come about specific players at specific positions and what kind of magic potion it’s going to take to beat Tennessee again.

For now it figures that the defense will be good and Antonio Callaway will find his way back in the lineup and McElwain will go into his second Gainesville season quite happy that nothing spectacular is expected of the Gators.

One game, that 38-10 rout of Ole Miss, is all it took last year to get people believing in Florida again.

One game, maybe that trip to Knoxville Sept. 24, could do it again.