COLUMBIA, S.C. — Florida’s injury situation has gone from bad to worse to almost downright scary.
The Gators lost two more starters in Saturday’s loss to South Carolina, including quarterback Malik Zaire, who went down in the second quarter with an injured left knee. There is a chance he could miss the final two games against UAB and Florida State.
UF also lost starting center T.J. McCoy to an ankle injury. His status is uncertain.
If Zaire is unable to return, the Gators will be down to one scholarship quarterback — redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks. The only other options are walk-on Nick Sproles and slot receiver Dre Massey, who has not played quarterback since high school.
UF’s other scholarship quarterbacks — redshirt freshman Kyle Trask (knee) and true freshman Jake Allen (back) — remain out with injuries.
“Somebody will step up,” interim head coach Randy Shannon said. “Feleipe will have to be the guy until the evaluation of what happened with Malik, and we’ll have to move some other guys around.
“We’ve got some walk-ons on the deal and Dre Massey, believe it or not, played some quarterback in high school and he’s done some wildcat. We worked him at quarterback last week. It’s not going to be (asking him) to drop back and throw the ball 34 times. We’ve got to use what he can do, if that happens to come to that situation.”
Zaire injured his left knee during a 23-yard run in the second quarter. He tried to come back one play later, but collapsed as he tried to roll out of the pocket. He did not return.
“After he collapsed, we took him out because we didn’t know the seriousness of his injury,” Shannon said. “We took him out. This is not the NFL. This is college football. No matter what the injury is, we can’t allow guys to put themselves in harm’s way.
“He wanted to go back in. He came out at halftime and I walked up to him and said, ‘I can’t do it to you. We’re OK here, we’ll be all right with Feleipe. Even though you’re the starter, we can’t do this do you.’ He just started crying. I cannot put anybody in that situation.”
Led by Franks, the Gators rallied in the fourth quarter. He completed 10 of 25 passes for 174 yards and had the interception on a tipped pass that ended UF’s chances of possibly tying the game in the closing minutes.
There’s a good chance he will be the guy — the only scholarship guy — at QB the rest of the way.
“My focus is just to continue to work, continue to get these guys going and make sure they keep a positive attitude,” Franks said. “As long as the players and coaches have trust in me, it doesn’t really matter what the whole outside world has for me. As long as the players trust in me and they think that I can get the job done and the coaches think that I can get the job done, then, you know, what else do I have to worry about?
“As long as the players have confidence in me and the coaches do, I’ll be just fine. I’ll be all right. We’ve got some good players, like Nick Sproles, walk-on guy, but good quarterback. And, you know, he’ll be there to back me up. He’s a good player.”
The Gators also lost true freshman defensive tackle Elijah Conliffe in the second half with an apparent ankle injury. He also will be re-evaluated back in Gainesville.
There actually was a bit of positive news on the injury front for the Gators. True freshman slot receiver Kadarius Toney made the trip and played in Saturday’s game after it was announced earlier in the week that he would miss the game with an injured shoulder.
Toney caught three passes for 37 yards, but did not play any wildcat quarterback like he’s done in past games.
Lots of warm feelings
There were a lot of hugs and handshakes before and after the game among the two coaching staffs and the UF players.
Will Muschamp coached most of UF’s veteran players at Florida and there are seven members of his USC coaching staff that served with him in Gainesville — Coleman Hutzler, Mike Peterson, Travaris Robinson, Kurt Roper, Jeff Dillman, Kyle Krantz and Carina Hargreaves. During pregame warmups, Muschamp and interim UF head coach Randy Shannon had a lengthy and friendly conversation at midfield.
After the game, most of UF’s veteran players hugged Muschamp. Muschamp said after the game he feels bad for what the UF players are going through right now.
“It’s a very difficult thing to go through what those young men are facing, and I hate for those guys,” Muschamp said. “I know those guys. They represented Florida extremely well today.”
What coaching search?
While many of their fans are burning up energy searching social media for news and rumors concerning Florida’s coaching search, the players are ignoring it.
“We aren’t paying any attention to it,” junior place-kicker Eddy Pineiro said. “How do I avoid it? I don’t pay attention to it.”
Junior offensive lineman Tyler Jordan said the coaching search is irrelevant right now.
“I’m thinking about the now,” he said. “I’ll worry about that when the time comes. We’ve still got games to play.”
For some of UF’s veteran players, this is their second coaching search.
Junior defensive tackle Khairi Clark said he’s trying to guide the younger players through the process.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’ll always keep the young guys up to date about how this business goes and what not. Since I’ve already been through it as a player, it doesn’t affect me as much as some of the young guys who just got here, so they look up to me to kinda talk to them and whatnot.
“My message is just keep doing what you’re doing. Just keep focusing. Because everywhere you go, there’s always going to be a business. You’ve just gotta focus on getting to the top regardless of whatever happens.”
Franks said UF athletic director Scott Stricklin has not discussed the coaching search with the players.
“No, he hasn’t,” Franks said. “The one thing he said when he called us in was just more about focusing on the rest of the season, and then after the season, that’s when they’ll start talking about it.”