HOOVER, Ala. — Being an old quarterback himself, and having coached quarterbacks throughout his career, Jim McElwain has always found comfort and fulfillment in the quarterback room.
But it didn’t feel quite that way in his first two years at Florida. The room wasn’t complete, not quite whole.
Now it is, McElwain said Tuesday at SEC Media Days.
With the addition of graduate transfer Malik Zaire and the return of former starter Luke Del Rio, to go along with young QBs Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask and Kadarius Toney, the Florida quarterback room is complete.
And McElwain is clearly feeling good about it.
“Here’s the beauty,” he said. “I think for the first time our room is really good. We’ve got talent. We’ve got guys that are going to be able to compete against each other, learn from each other. And I’m looking forward to it.
“Obviously, not being able to go watch them do what they’re doing. There are some reports. A lot of guys have been doing some good things. Obviously, with Z coming in, that changed the room a little bit. Feleipe has been having a fantastic offseason leading up to that as well. And Luke is back to throwing as well. I think it’s a great problem to have.”
The problem with McElwain’s quarterback room the first two years is it didn’t have enough depth, enough arm talent, enough experience. Injuries also were a factor. It was reflected on the field, where lack of inconsistent play at the position contributed greatly to the Gators finishing outside the top 100 in the nation in total offense.
It’s a different situation now. Zaire, a former starter at Notre Dame, is in the mix. Del Rio is finally back after having surgery on both shoulders in the offseason. And the young quarterbacks have been steady in their development, led by Franks, who ended the spring on top of the depth chart.
The addition of Zaire, a dual threat, could be big.
“He’s been good. He’s been good in the locker room, he’s been good in the quarterback room,” McElwain said. “I’m excited about that room. We’ve got some guys in there.
“As I’ve said, it doesn’t matter the position, you’re trying to strengthen your team in any way you can. In this case, he’s a guy we were aware of, knew of his talents and obviously his fit. He’s a great leader. He’s a great guy who has a great smile and great energy, affecting people around him in a positive way.
“Some things needed to fall into place obviously rule-wise and us being able to accept him into school. When you think he was accepted to graduate school at Harvard and he gets a letter of recommendation from the president of Notre Dame, I think that speaks to what kind of person he is.”
Zaire, who enrolled in Summer B a few weeks ago, has already been accepted by his teammates, including the other quarterbacks, junior offensive tackle Martez Ivey said.
“He seems like a great guy and a great football player,” Ivey said. “He’s always smiling. He’s so happy just to be here.
“It’s going to be a hard battle (for the starting role). It’s going to be tremendous to see how they react to it. When we find out who that starting guy is, he will do great. It doesn’t matter who it is, I feel comfortable with all of them back there.”
The competition for the starting role will be settled in preseason camp in August. But McElwain acknowledged Tuesday that one QB has it to win. “Yeah, I believe so,” he said.
When McElwain was asked if he knew who the starter will be, he said, “Mmm-hmm.”
Later, standing at the podium, McElwain said he doesn’t know who the starter is yet.
McElwain said whoever it turns out to be, he’ll have the pieces around him now to possibly lead the offense out of its two-year slump (which actually goes all the way back to 2009).
“Oh, absolutely,” McElwain said. “And yet, I don’t put it all on the quarterback, either. I think the pieces around him. … hopefully I’m not jinxing them, but I really think we’ve got some good offensive linemen. And this will be the first time hopefully (we can) climb on their back when needed and dig down a little bit and let those guys protect that position a little bit better.
“I’m fired up about our O-line guys. For the first time, we’re not feeling like we’re reaching and trying to get somebody to plug in there. I think that’s a group that really has come from the farthest from the first year we got here when we had four scholarship guys. I think we’ve got a really good unit. That’s going to help us a lot.”
McElwain seems to feel equally good about the situation at wide receiver, where the Gators are considered to have their best group in several years.
“Yeah, I said it kind of earlier, I really felt just going through spring practice that Florida speed is back,” he said. “I think we’re much faster of a football team in a lot of those ways. And I say that only having sat on the other sideline, and seeing those guys give you windburn as they’re running by you. And I’m excited about that group as well.”
A turnaround season could be forthcoming for the Florida offense. And it starts in the quarterback room, which now seems complete for the first time under McElwain.
— Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.