It has been a long process, but Malik Zaire has finally found his home. The former Notre Dame quarterback is planning to continue his college football career at Florida, as first reported by FOX Sports' Bruce Feldman. The signal caller chose the Gators over schools like Texas, Wisconsin and North Carolina. Zaire's decision comes in the wake of the SEC changing the SEC graduate transfer penalty, which reduced penalties for programs whose graduate transfers fail to meet academic requirements from three years to one year.
Although the Gators were in hot pursuit of the quarterback, what exactly is Jim McElwain gaining with Zaire? For more insight into the quarterback, FightinGators.com asked Scout's expert on everything Fighting Irish, IrishIllustrated.com's Pete Sampson, to answer a few questions on Zaire.
How do you feel Malik Zaire will fit in at Florida and in the SEC?
Sampson: I wish I could sit here and say that I knew how this was all going to shake out considering I’ve covered Malik Zaire going back to high school, have dug into his training, his family, basically the whole package. But I don’t. Obviously, being there for spring practice would have been huge for him. But I also wonder just how big an upgrade he’ll be over what Florida has now considering the Gators played in the SEC title game last year with a Purdue grad transfer [Austin Appleby]. Zaire absolutely offers more than that for Florida, but will he be good enough to go out and win a game against Michigan or Florida State or LSU or Georgia on his own? I don’t know. My hunch is that he won’t be consistent enough to win every week for Florida, but he’ll be talented enough to win games that Florida has not won the past couple years because the Gators will have somebody who can make something out of nothing while also stretching the field vertically.
Another way to look at it, if Florida is facing 3rd-and-7 against LSU, last year you’re probably thinking that’s going to be a punt a snap later. With Zaire, he’s athletic enough to run for eight yards on 3rd-and-7. He’ll make defenses defend the whole field in ways Appleby didn’t and Luke Del Rio cannot.
There is much talk about him wanting to play in a pro-style offense, which is why he chose Florida. Do you feel like that style of offense will suit him?
Sampson: Zaire is a spread quarterback who wants to run pro-style, which means there’s going to be a learning curve, assuming Florida doesn’t work some spread principles into the playbook. I think what Zaire really wanted to do is learn some pro-style concepts and get away from running read-option plays that expose the quarterback to injury. It’s worth remembering that [Notre Dame head coach] Brian Kelly has had his opening day starter last an entire season just twice in the past decade. His offense puts you at risk as a quarterback.
All that being said, Zaire wants a shot to play in the NFL. Full stop. And Florida can help him get there. This is as much about learning a new way of playing the position for Zaire as much as it’s winning games in Gainesville.
From what you were able to see, what would you say are his biggest strengths and weaknesses?
Sampson: Watching Zaire play against Texas, Virginia and USC, I think it’s fair to say he was inconsistent. When he’s on (Texas in ’15), he can be amazing. When he’s off (Virginia in ’15), he looks very average. I’d throw out the Texas game last season as the coaching staff didn’t put him in position to have success.
His strengths start with personality, which is something really unique. He comes across as so confident that it can feel like an act if you don’t know him. But he’s really just that self-assured. There’s no doubt in his mind that he’s going to make every throw, win every game, etc. Sometimes you wonder if you’re sharing a reality with him the way he talks about wining Super Bowls and championships. Physically, Zaire’s arm strength is outstanding, better than DeShone Kizer. He’s also a very natural open-field runner. When you watch him take off, you don’t think about him being a quarterback scrambling. He just looks like an athlete.
Weaknesses start with consistency. He’s footwork and accuracy are tied together and can be all over the place at times. I’m fascinated to see how working with Florida’s coaching staff can push his game forward.
In your opinion why did Kizer beat him for the starting job after he returned from injury.
Sampson: A couple reasons.
The first is that Zaire was never fully healthy last off-season and Kizer kept separating in that quarterback competition during the off-season and during camp. Think about it another way. When the ’15 season started the difference between Zaire and Kizer was significant in favor of Zaire. When the season ended it was significant in favor of Kizer. But from the moment the Fiesta Bowl ended, Kizer got back to training and Zaire got back to rehab. The gap just kept growing because one quarterback was progressing while the other was hurt. Zaire did spring ball last year but he wasn’t the same. He was still healing the ankle. The fact Kelly tried to rotate them last season was a terrible mistake because it damaged both quarterbacks.
The other reason is that Kelly is a pass-first head coach. And while Zaire is a running quarterback who can throw, Kizer was a passing quarterback who can run. Basically, if you had Brian Kelly make a quarterback in a lab, it would look a lot more like DeShone Kizer than Malik Zaire. When Kelly said both would play last season I was shocked that he even wanted to experiment with that because everybody here knew Kizer was the better fit, including Kizer. It’s amazing to think that Notre Dame couldn’t choose between a quarterback who’s now doing a grad transfer and another who might start in the NFL next year.
What type of character is he off the field and in the huddle? How would you describe his leadership style?
Sampson: It depends on who’s doing the following. If Zaire didn’t break his ankle in ’15, he would have been a lock to have been voted a captain here last season. I think he’ll do very well in the locker room at Florida if they’re looking for a quarterback to take over the offense and the receivers and running backs are willing to follow. Zaire was a popular locker room guy and his injury was difficult for a lot of guys to process up here.
I would caution the coaching staff down there to either be all in with Zaire or all out. Don’t rotate him with other quarterbacks because I think that will ruin him mentally and you’ll never see the best of Malik Zaire. For how confident Zaire is in himself, he needs a coaching staff willing to believe in him too.