Due to a recent rule change in the SEC, former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire is now on his way to Florida.
A graduate transfer, Zaire is immediately eligible and will be wearing orange and blue for the 2017 campaign. Considering the fact that they have been weak at QB for years, this seems like good news for the Gators.
Outside of a six-game stretch from Will Grier in 2015 — before he got popped by the NCAA for using performance-enhancing drugs and subsequently transferred to West Virginia — UF has endured a lot of poor play at the game’s most important position during coach Jim McElwain’s regime. Perhaps Zaire can turn the tide under center.
That being said, what concrete evidence do we have that Zaire is actually a better option than redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks?
In three seasons for the Fighting Irish, Zaire was 58-of-98 passing for 816 yards with 6 touchdowns and zero interceptions. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder also sprinkled in 74 attempts for 324 yards and 2 TDs as a ball carrier.
While his numbers appear to be solid across the board — especially when compared to Treon Harris, Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby at Florida — Zaire was never able to hold on to the job in South Bend. An ankle injury ended his 2015 prematurely, and then in 2016 he was benched in favor of DeShone Kizer.
Kizer was Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s most talented signal caller to date and recently a second-round selection of the Cleveland Browns.
Nevertheless, Zaire (below) was given every opportunity to be the guy last year. The two split series in the season opener at Texas. Although the Irish came out on the losing end of a 50-47 shootout, Kizer was sensational with 6 total scores.
Zaire, meanwhile, was only 2-of-5 for 23 yards in Austin. A week later hosting Nevada, he was just 4-of-9 for 49 yards in a 39-10 victory. Kizer was a razor-sharp 15-of-18 against the Wolf Pack and put an end to the two-man system — Kelly was criticized for giving Zaire way too many chances vs. UT — once and for all.
Zaire didn’t see the field in a Week 3 loss to Michigan State and only threw 9 passes the rest of the way.
Keep in mind that Notre Dame was 4-8 last season. Kizer may have put together a sparkling TD-to-INT ratio of 26-to-9, but he wasn’t winning games and saw his NFL Draft stock take a tumble due to some character concerns.
Still, Zaire was coveted — even the much-maligned Brandon Harris, previously of LSU, was welcomed with open arms by North Carolina — and could’ve continued his career at several Power 5 programs. He delayed his decision with hopes that the SEC would relax its graduate-transfer regulations. Once it did, he chose Gainesville.
Nobody questions Zaire’s move. Florida has been to back-to-back conference title games without much of a passing attack.
Presumably, if the Gators ever get things figured out at quarterback, they could go from winners of a watered-down East to serious threats for a conference championship. Del Rio, the incumbent, doesn’t generate much excitement.
With Del Rio sidelined for all of spring ball after shoulder surgery — a blessing in disguise for most UF fans — Franks competed with fellow redshirt freshman Kyle Trask for weeks. Franks clearly outplayed Trask in the annual Orange and Blue Debut and looked to have solidified himself atop the depth chart prior to Zaire’s arrival.
At least Zaire has experience beyond high school. Franks is yet to throw a pass at the collegiate level that counts.
The situation is reminiscent of another one-time Irish QB who sought greener pastures with his final year of eligibility. Everett Golson, who was much more productive for Kelly than Zaire ever was, left for Florida State in 2015.
The Seminoles needed a replacement for Jameis Winston — to be fair, the Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 draft pick was irreplaceable — and didn’t have a viable candidate beyond the marginally talented Sean Maguire. Golson (above) took the reigns from Maguire in fall camp and directed FSU to a 6-0 record out of the gate.
However, Golson was ineffective in a Week 8 loss at Georgia Tech and got the hook in favor of Maguire for the rest of the schedule.
Golson didn’t even accompany the ‘Noles to their Peach Bowl loss to Houston in order to prepare for the pros. Undrafted and unable to catch on in the NFL, he’s currently a member of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the CFL.
Make no mistake about it, though: Golson was an excellent field general at Notre Dame and a fringe Heisman contender in 2014 before the luck of the Irish finally ran out — a four-game losing skid in November dropped them from No. 8 in the country to unranked. Golson was picked off 7 times in those four contests.
Even if he stopped throwing the ball to the other team, Golson’s tenure at Florida State was brief and forgettable.
In the end, Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher may have been better off sticking with Maguire since he had three full years in the scheme under his belt and patiently waited his turn behind Winston. He was a fan favorite, too.
It may not be an apples-and-oranges comparison, but Zaire comes to Florida with a résumé not nearly as impressive as Golson’s was once upon a time. There’s no reason to believe Zaire is a savior, plus he’s only there for one year no matter what. Franks represents McElwain’s best chance to finally have some stability in the huddle.
Still, if Zaire’s mere presence means permanent clipboard-holding status for Del Rio, Gator Nation would consider that a win.