By Mark Long
AP Sports Writer
Update: DESTIN — The Southeastern Conference tweaked its graduate transfer policy Friday, making changes that would allow former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire to land at Florida.
School presidents and chancellors voted to reduce penalties for programs whose graduate transfers fail to meet academic requirements.
The ease of restrictions could impact Florida immediately. The Gators had been unable to add Zaire because two previous graduate transfers — linebacker Anthony Harrell and offensive lineman Mason Halter — failed to meet academic requirements after transferring to Florida in 2016. That put coach Jim McElwain’s program on probation for three years.
The penalty was lowered to one year. The SEC remains the only Power Five conference with that kind of punitive system.
“There’s still that oversight, which is unique to the conference,” Commissioner Greg Sankey said. “Let’s be careful that we’re not making decisions based on an individual. We’re making decision based on what’s an informed policy for the entirety of the conference.”
Zaire tweeted shortly after the change was announced, posting “Let’s go!!!!!!!!!!”
Florida coach Jim McElwain, who is unable to comment on prospective student-athletes until they sign a letter of intent and attend class, released a somewhat tongue-and-cheek statement regarding the new rule.
“Yeah, our phone has been ringing off the hook this afternoon,” McElwain said. “There is a lot of interest in the Gators.”
If Zaire lands in Gainesville, he would compete for the starting job with redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask as well as Luke Del Rio, who started six games last season. Zaire missed most of the 2015 season because of a broken ankle and lost his starting job to DeShone Kizer in the 2016 season opener. The left-hander had 816 passing yards and six touchdowns in three seasons in South Bend, Indiana.
The SEC first installed stiff penalties for graduate transfers in 2011 after Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli transferred to Mississippi and failed to get a graduate degree. The league initially passed a five-year ban for programs whose graduate transfers failed to meet academic expectations. Presidents and chancellors reduced that to three years in 2014.
Sankey called the shifts a “maturation process,” and league officials welcomed the changes.
“It was early on in the grad transfer process and there were some high-profile situations that we were probably overreacting to and we kind of got out in front of everybody else,” Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said. “Enough time has passed it seems wise to step back and put ourselves in line with what everybody else is doing. … It makes a lot of sense.”
Other notable items from the final day of the SEC’s annual spring meetings:
—The league tabled a proposal that would have allowed intra-conference graduate transfers. Georgia suggested the legislation after Alabama initially balked at letting defensive back Maurice Smith transfer to the Bulldogs in 2016. The league stepped in and granted Smith to a waiver to transfer to Georgia. He ended up starting 11 games and finishing as the team’s sixth-leading tackler. Alabama coach Nick Saban was strongly opposed to the legislation.
“We have an NCAA transfer working group and there’s an interest in seeing what ideas might be generated nationally,” Sankey said. “That’s based on the knowledge that there’s the opportunity for institutions to request waivers now under our current approach.”
—Sankey said there were conversations with presidents and chancellors about alcohol sales on campus. The SEC currently does not allow alcohol sales at athletic events except in designated private areas.
“It’ll be a conversation topic as we go forward,” Sankey said. “We’ve not currently changed our policy, but it’s one of those things that will be under discussion. There’s been a policy in place for a while. A lot of changes in people and some need as I said probably in April for continuing conversation to make sure we have the right policy.”
—Sankey said the league supports a concept identified by the American Football Coaches Association that would allow football players to play four games and not lose a year of eligibility.
“I think we have to learn more,” he said. “The feedback this week was positive with still any number of question marks around the idea. There’s a positive view of the concept. There’s a lot that remains to be done.”