Florida’s newest quarterback made his much-anticipated debut Wednesday, and he delivered a performance that seemed to match the hype that’s been surrounding him since his arrival from Notre Dame.
Malik Zaire appeared poised, confident, composed. Smiling throughout, he exuded contagious energy and an effervescent personality. He looked, sounded and carried himself like a natural born leader.
Now, can he do this, will he be this, if and when he gets on the field for the Gators this fall?
On Wednesday, he wasn’t dropping into the pocket against an onrushing SEC defense. He was sitting comfortably behind a table at the team’s media day facing microphones, cameras and tape recorders — and a lot of softball questions.
So, the real evaluation of this much-publicized graduate transfer will not begin until UF gets at least a few days into preseason camp, which begins today.
What was evident Wednesday is this: Zaire is thrilled to be here, and the Gators are pretty happy about it, too.
“Malik is a great guy, man,” senior cornerback Duke Dawson said. “As you can see, high energy. He has love for everyone. Not just on offense but on defense as well. Just him being in a relationship with everyone on the team is something great to have.
“Energy, competitiveness. He brings it all. He brings everything to the table that you need.”
Zaire expressed great passion about finally being a Gator. It took months — and the SEC to change its graduate transfer rule on June 2 — before it could happen.
He said coming to UF has lived up to his expectations.
“It’s been everything and more,” he said. “The guys have been great. Getting into everything has been exciting for me. Being able to get back and just being around football guys and making it family makes it even better.
“Who doesn’t want to be a part of the Gators? If you think about it, I think this offense is the best offense in the country. We have the best talent in the country and I think we are the big dogs in the SEC and we’re looking to take the challenges from whoever comes up.
“This team is pretty confident, and it’s going to make my job even easier just like the rest of the quarterbacks jobs just to be able to distribute the ball and have a good day doing that. I don’t want to put any pressure on myself. I’d rather just focus on the team. This team has a lot of potential. We’re just trying to make it happen.”
Zaire enters a quarterback competition that is deep and figures to be hotly contested in the coming weeks leading up to the Sept. 2 opener against Michigan.
He’s been offered no promises or assurances about starting by UF coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. Neither have redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks (the presumptive starter coming out of the spring) and Kyle Trask, former starter Luke Del Rio and true freshman Kadarius Toney.
The race for the starting role is wide open — and there’s no leader at this time, McElwain said.
“It’s even,” McElwain said. “I haven’t put a deadline on (naming a starter). We’ll see where it goes.”
There are some certainties when it comes to the left-handed, dual-threat Zaire: he’s already been accepted by his teammates, and he’s not necessarily at a disadvantage because he’s new to the offense, and it is new to him.
“All indications, he is a great teammate,” McElwain said. “He’s done a great job of getting along with and introducing himself and bringing a certain energy and understanding of what it takes. He’s obviously on a mission, and he’s here to help us win a game and win a bunch of games. I think the one really good thing it brings, it brings great competition to the position.”
Zaire has already dived deep into the playbook. Several of his teammates said he pretty much knows the offense just as well as the other quarterbacks. They’ve seen it on the practice field over the past few weeks during players’ only practices.
“To be able to learn this offense as quick as he did, you’ve got to be a smart dude,” senior slot receiver Brandon Powell said. “It also shows he works hard and studies the playbook.”
Zaire apparently also has been a quick learner when it comes to getting to know his new teammates. He said he’s already close to most of the players. His roommates this fall will be Powell and Dawson, two fellow seniors.
“I feel like I’m a pretty personable guy. I keep it about winning, and I keep it about football,” he said. “I know these guys love football and love winning, so that kind of bonded us pretty fast. We can only continue to build from there.”
Based on what the coaches and players were saying Wednesday, Zaire has been a good addition — whether he starts, comes off the bench, or takes on a different role this season.
“I think the biggest thing that stands out to you when you meet him, it’s instant energy,” Nussmeier said. “He’s a guy that can command a room. He has presence. I think the team has gravitated towards that and getting to know him.
“He’s a great personality to get to know. Just like our other guys around Feleipe and Luke and Kadarius and Kyle. They all have their own unique personality, but the one thing about Malik is he’s bubbly and he’s out there.”
And now he’s here.
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or email@example.com. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.