GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida quarterback Malik Zaire strolled into the conference room and started looking for his seat.
It was relatively easy to find. After all, it was the only one surrounded by television cameras and reporters.
Zaire was the main attraction at the team’s annual media day Wednesday, talking publicly for the first time since transferring from Notre Dame to Florida and becoming the trendy pick to be coach Jim McElwain’s fifth starting quarterback in three seasons.
Zaire spent an hour fielding questions about his past, present and future. He was poised, energetic, entertaining and ultra-confident — traits the Gators surely could use at the QB position and on the field.
“Of course I want to be out there for the first play and be out there for the season, but who doesn’t?” Zaire said. “But it all comes down to the work that we put in.”
The Gators open fall practice Thursday, and although McElwain insists Zaire, journeyman junior Luke Del Rio and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks will compete for the starting job, several teammates made it sound like they’ve already seen enough from Zaire to hand him the job.
“He never shuts up, but he’s a cool dude,” receiver Brandon Powell said. “He’s loud. It can be 5 in the morning and he’s hyped up. That’s what I like about him. He brings energy to the team. You want somebody that’s going to be vocal and all that. That’s a good trait for him.”
Added guard Fred Johnson: “He’s very poised in the pocket when he’s making calls, how he controls the huddle. He seems like he’s done this before and he’s very confident in how he plays. It’s the new nature, and I like it.”
Zaire missed most of the 2015 season because of a broken ankle and lost his starting job to DeShone Kizer in the 2016 season opener. Zaire threw for 816 yards and six touchdowns in three seasons in South Bend, Indiana.
So it’s not like the Gators got a polished passer.
But given Florida’s lackluster offense since Tim Tebow graduated in 2009, Zaire could be an upgrade.
The Gators have started 10 different quarterbacks since Tebow’s departure, and none of them has proven to be a long-term solution for the team’s long-standing problem. Florida took another step back in 2016, dropping from 112th to 116th in the nation in yards and 100th to 107th in scoring. The Gators ranked last in the Southeastern Conference in total offense.
“It certainly is one of the things, as we all know, that I was brought here to do,” McElwain said. “And it hasn’t been done yet.”
McElwain quickly pointed out that he also was hired to win games, and the Gators have won the SEC’s Eastern Division in each of McElwain’s two years. He became the first coach in SEC history to do that in his first two seasons, but both came thanks mostly to a dominant defense.
“Whatever hand you’re given, you figure out how to play that hand,” McElwain said. “Sometimes you’ve got to bluff now, right? But at the same time, you’ve got to get a win at the end of the day. I think our guys have done a pretty decent job of that.”
With the defense in rebuilding mode, it could be up to Zaire to get the Gators back to Atlanta.
He said McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier plan to use his running skills in Florida’s scheme.
“Being able to have that multiple scheme that we run here just similar as I did at Notre Dame, just kind of fits me,” Zaire said. “I think being around playmakers, it’s kind of hard not to fit. … The talent here is so good, so deep, so my job doesn’t have to be to do everything. My job is just to be able to manage the offense and lead and put the team in great positions to score points.”
Zaire said Florida reached out to him to gauge his interest in coming to Gainesville. He jumped at the opportunity, picking Florida over Texas and Harvard (after the SEC eased restrictions on graduate transfers).
“I’ve always seen potential,” he said. “Florida was the school during the time of me growing up, getting through high school. … I kind of sold myself. I bought into the program. I bought into the guys around me. I believe in what Coach Mac wants to do. I believe in this team and I mean this is an attractive to be. I think this is the best place in the country to be, and I’m glad that I’m able to be a part of the team.”