The upside: The addition of Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire brings a new dynamic to the backfield, and it has more to do than just the fact he is a dual-threat quarterback who can make plays with his arm and his legs. He also brings leadership skills and much-needed experience to the position. He is clearly a positive addition to the quarterback room whether he starts, plays coming off the bench, or doesn’t play at all.
Zaire has been promised nothing by Florida coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier other than he will have a chance to compete for the starting job, which he will start doing in less than a month.
Zaire has an edge in playing experience, but he’ll have some catching up to do in a new offense against three players who have already grown comfortable in it — presumptive starter Feleipe Franks, fellow redshirt freshman Kyle Trask and junior Luke Del Rio, the former starter who missed the last half of last season with shoulder injuries.
Franks will enter preseason camp at the top of the depth chart following a solid spring where he demonstrated a good command of the offense. He and Trask were engaged in a tight competition throughout the spring, with both displaying potential big-time arm talent.
Although pretty much forgotten after missing the spring, Del Rio could be a factor if his shoulders hold up. He knows the offense and is highly respected by his teammates. True freshman Kadarius Toney also will be in the mix, at quarterback and possibly slot receiver.
Whoever the QB turns out to be, he will be handing off to a talented and proven trio of tailbacks — Jordan Scarlett, Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson.
After emerging as the starter in the second half last season and leading the Gators in rushing with 889 yards, Scarlett appears primed to have a breakout season in 2017. He’s a tough and determined runner between the tackles who also has the vision and speed to go the distance.
Perine flashed plenty of potential as a true freshman last season and showed he can make plays as a runner and a receiver.
Thompson rebounded from a tough second half last season with an 85-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown against Iowa in the Outback Bowl. It is a play that seemed to restore his confidence — and give everyone a chance to see what he is capable of when he holds onto the football.
The downside: Del Rio, who started six games last season, had surgery on both shoulders in the offseason and there is still no timetable for his full return. If the shoulders remain an issue and Del Rio is not cleared medically, it would leave Zaire as the only QB with any experience at all. And he really hasn’t played all that much over the past two seasons. He started the first two games at Notre Dame in 2015, but missed the rest of the season with an ankle injury. Last season, he played in seven games as a backup and threw only 18 passes, completing eight for 92 yards.
Franks and Trask appeared to have a big upside, and Toney is an intriguing prospect, but none have played a down of college football heading into the season. And you have to wonder how the young quarterbacks are going to react to the presence of the newcomer, Zaire.
The quarterback position has been a huge question mark at UF since Tim Tebow departed after the 2009 season. It will remain that way until someone steps up and is productive in the offense.
Young player to watch: Toney electrified The Swamp with some dynamic runs in the second half of the spring game. He also showed he’s a legitimate threat with his arm. He’s still very raw, and still learning the offense, but he has the speed and elusiveness (and skill set) to have an impact in some capacity.
Don’t be surprise if … The Gators play at least two quarterbacks during the normal flow of games, at least early in the season. Regardless of who wins the starting role, Zaire and Toney bring a different dimension with their ability to make plays with their legs, and there’s a chance one or both will have a package of plays for each game. Toney also could line up at running back and slot receiver. And don’t be surprised if Toney is given an opportunity to throw the football. Even though his high school tape is filled with dynamic runs and scrambles, he also was an accomplished passer. During his junior and senior seasons, he combined to throw for 6,598 yards and 69 touchdowns, so opposing defenses will need to respect him as a passer.
UF’s Possible Depth Chart
14-Luke Del Rio
Ranking the SEC backfields
6. Mississippi State
13. South Carolina
14. Texas A&M
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.