GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Malik Zaire was asked last week what kind of relationship he and fellow Florida quarterbacks Feleipe Franks and Luke Del Rio have away from the field as they continue to compete for the starting job.
“I mean, it’s as close as QBs can be, right?,” he said with a smile and a laugh. “But, you know, it’s not hostility. We’re all here for the same thing. But I think me coming here I definitely feel like I’ve raised the level of competition in the QB room and pushed those guys to be better each and every day, whether it’s spoken or unspoken.”
Zaire, Franks and Del Rio each indicated in their own way that they don’t know where the Gators’ quarterback competition stands and that they can only continue to focus on what they can control.
They’ve kept rotating turns with the first-team offense this month and on Friday all took turns complimenting the others.
And yet, they each want to be the guy taking the first snaps Sept. 2 in the season opener against Michigan.
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“I’ve been really kind of pleased with how the guys that were here kind of accepted the challenge when Malik came in,” coach Jim McElwain said while revealing little else about the competition.
That much seems to be a point of agreement between the quarterbacks.
“Yeah, I mean absolutely. To be honest with you, yeah, bringing in competition, like I said before, it only brings out the best in a person,” Franks said of the offseason addition of Zaire. “The competitor that I am, I want to do the best that I can do to be better than anyone else around me. But he has brought out a fire in me.”
Most of this quarterback battle has taken place outside of the view of reporters, who are only permitted to watch the first period or two of practice a couple times a week.
What is known is that McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have three distinctly different quarterbacks to choose between.
Zaire, the graduate transfer from Notre Dame, has made three starts at the collegiate level, including compelling performances in wins over LSU and Texas. He’s the true dual-threat quarterback of the three, the one who can make plays on the ground either by design or necessity. And he’s the guy with the most at stake, the former high-profile 4-star recruit whose career arc in South Bend, Ind., was forever altered by a broken right ankle two games into the 2015 season.
Franks is the up-and-comer, a fellow 4-star recruit who redshirted last season, won one quarterback battle in the spring while showing how far he had come in a year and is now trying to win another. He has the prototypical 6-foot-5 quarterback frame and the cannon arm that one can’t help but envision him connecting on big strikes downfield with playmakers like Antonio Callaway and Tyrie Cleveland.
And Del Rio is the sage veteran, the underdog most of his collegiate career as he bounced from Alabama to Oregon State and finally to Gainesville. He’s the guy who never really got to show what he could do as a full-time starter last year as one injury upon another mounted. Injuries to his left knee and right shoulder forced him to miss a total of seven games, and then he had offseason surgeries on both shoulders. He’s the guy perceived to have the best command of the playbook, the steady option looking for another chance to show he can be more than a competent game manager.
“When it comes down to leadership and if you need to point to a guy to go to to keep the offense going and keep the offense turning, I think you can point to all three of us to be able to do that job,” Zaire said. “Obviously we all have our different skill sets.”
Said Franks: “I think every quarterback brings their own little style, own little swagger.”
As for the relationship between the three of them, well, Zaire probably said it most candidly.
There does seem to be a genuine mutual respect with each feeding off the others in this competition, but yeah, ultimately they’re chasing one job.
“It’s been a fun camp. I said earlier that camps can be kind of miserable if you don’t like the room, but we’ve had a great room and it’s been fun,” Del Rio said. “I mean, it’s like professional, but we still joke around. We’re always around each other in camp, so if we hated one another it would kind of be a miserable camp. I’m friends with both of them. We’ve hung out outside of football. It’s a good relationship.”
Said Franks: “Yeah, I mean we’re in the facility from 7 in the morning to whatever time at night. We’re always around each other, so obviously we see each other all the time every day. We’re all pretty close, we’re all pretty good. We’re all rooting each other on just to do our best each and every day at practice. … There’s no tension in the room. It’s always, everybody has a smile to be in there.”
Meanwhile, listen to enough outside perspectives on the competition, and there’s somebody willing to make the case for each guy.
Some even think more than one quarterback might get into that first game against Michigan.
Zaire, for one, doesn’t believe that is the best outcome.
While having one winner in this quarterback battle means two others will be disappointed, they’re all aware of the stakes and trying every day to make the impression that ultimately will leave them as the starter.
That’s the unspoken understanding.
“Obviously it’s not ideal. I don’t think anybody in the quarterback room wants that,” Zaire said of a potential dual-quarterback arrangement. “But at the end of the day, you’ve just got to do what Coach wants. I feel like Coach should be confident enough to stick with a guy and be able to roll with that guy because that’s best for the team. When you have all these quarterbacks, you still have none at the end of the day.
“So being decisive, just like how quarterbacks have to be on the field, is [what’s] most important for this team’s success. And I think everybody’s put in some good work for this camp and everybody’s done some great things, and there are things we still need to work on. I just leave it up to those coaches to make the great decisions that they do. That’s why they get paid the big bucks.”
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