Notebook: Frustrating season for UF’s Zuniga

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Florida defensive lineman Jabari Zuniga (92) plays against Missouri during last year's game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. [Cyndi Chambers/Gainesville Sun Correspondent]

There is a chance that starting defensive end Jabari Zuniga will miss Saturday’s game at Missouri with a lingering high-ankle sprain. If he does, it will mean half of his season (six games) has been wiped out by injury.

 That’s got to be frustrating for a player who made the tough decision to return for his senior season rather than leave early for the NFL draft. It’s been hard, but his coaches and teammates say he’s handling it well.

 “For him, it’s just a matter of being patient, continuing rehab, continuing treatment and when you’re ready to play we’ll put you out there and let you be part of our defense and be productive,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “But until then, get yourself healthy.

 “For him, it’s probably frustrating in the sense that he put a lot of work into having a productive year and it didn’t really pan out. But that’s not going to affect him because he’s already put on tape (for the NFL) the kind of player he is.”

 Although Zuniga is not playing, he’s remained engaged with the team, doing what he can to help his teammates get ready each week.

 “This is just more of a testament of him wanting to be a Gator, wanting to play on our defense and wanting to have a good year and help us win,” Grantham said.

 “I’ve been pleased with the way he’s approached it. He’s still been a good teammate from the standpoint of working with some of the younger guys like Zach Carter and T.J. Slaton, and being there for those guys. That part of it helps.”

 UF coach Dan Mullen said earlier this week that he’s hopeful Zuniga will be able to return for Saturday’s game. When asked Wednesday if Zuniga has been able to practice this week, Mullen said, “same as Monday.”
So, Zuniga’s playmaking ability might be missing again from the UF defense.

 “It’s frustrating for him. It’s frustrating for us,” senior defensive tackle Adam Shuler said. “But he’ll be ready when he’s ready.”

Bryant set to return

 Speaking of injured players, Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant, who missed the Georgia game with a hamstring injury, has practiced his week and is expected to play in Saturday’s game.

 The Gators have been studying tape of Bryant from this season and from when he was the starter at Clemson.

“Definitely watched him,” middle linebacker David Reese said. “We watched him in big games, all through his career at Clemson. He’s an athletic quarterback and a veteran guy that probably doesn’t make too many mistakes with the ball.”

 With dual-threat Bryant out last week against Georgia, the Tigers were shut out and produced only 198 yards of total offense.

 “When he is in there you have a guy that can extend plays,” Grantham said. “He brings athletic ability to the quarterback position. I’m sure he has some leadership qualities about him that allows the guys around him to play, so we are aware of that.
“They still run the same plays regardless of who plays the quarterback position. I think that the biggest thing with him is that you are looking at a physical guy that has a physical stature to him at that position, a guy that can extend plays, and you can get some positive yards out of him.”

Start for Elam?

 With Marco Wilson practicing exclusively at the star position this week, it appears true freshman Kaiir Elam will be making his third start at cornerback Saturday. His others were against Tennessee and Towson.

 He has more than held his own playing in all 10 games.

 “Elam is a guy that has really good poise for a freshman,” Grantham said. “He doesn’t panic and can play the ball when it is in the air. He is talented. He is smart. He has the skill set you are looking for to play outside corner, and I think he is a guy that will continue to get better. 

 “He is a talented outside guy. He has instincts, so he is going to get his hands on balls and make plays. He is a willing tackler and brings a presence that way. I think he has a bright future and we will continue to play him and develop him.”