Gainesville, Fla. — Florida fifth-year senior Malik Zaire cannot remember a time he was not embroiled in a quarterback competition.
“This is nothing new to me,” he said on Friday.
One thing Zaire has learned during four seasons at Notre Dame and two months at Florida is the competition can be both good and bad for a team.
Michigan and Florida meet on Sept. 2 in Arlington, Texas, in the season opener for both teams.
Zaire said the Gators’ quarterback race has raised the level of play of Feleipe Franks, Luke Del Rio and himself.
“They’re great competitors,” Zaire said. “I think they care a lot about the position, care a lot about this team, and that’s gonna make us even better as a team overall.”
Zaire also believes the longer the competition goes on ultimately could have a negative impact on the Gators.
“I’ve been in this situation for the last five years and I know that having all these options at quarterback is not always the best thing for the team,” he said. “It would be nice, obviously, to be the guy. But at the end of the day, you just got to continue to do whatever it takes to help this team be the best.”
A year ago Friday, coach Jim McElwain named Del Rio his 2016 starter. These days, McElwain continues to take a wait-and-see attitude on a decision that has the attention of fans, media and players, especially the three quarterbacks vying to become the starter.
McElwain hoped to get more clarity during Friday’s scrimmage, the second of preseason camp. But he said prior the scrimmage he could not even single out a front-runner in the race.
“It’s tough to say,” McElwain said. “We’ll take a look at how they handle another opportunity where no one’s on the field. It’s you executing the calls, handling the fastballs, getting guys in the right formations, understanding the snap counts, all those type of things.
“I think it goes back to putting in as many game-type situations as possible.”
Meanwhile, gamesmanship does not seem to be part of McElwain’s equation.
Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh returns Wilton Speight, a 2016 third-team All-Big Ten selection and just one of five returning Wolverines starters. But Harbaugh has insisted the job is up for grabs — first among three players and now between Speight and senior John O’Korn.
Zaire, Franks and Del Rio have done their best not to make their coach’s decision easy.
“It’s brought out the best in everybody,” Franks said.
Zaire’s June arrival as a graduate transfer raised the level of competition for every quarterback in the room.
During preseason camp, it has created challenges for quarterbacks vying for the job, coaches divvying up the snaps and players adjusting to different players under center.
“It is difficult because everybody kind of gets use to one guy and you’re trying to get in a rhythm,” Del Rio said. “It’s just part of it. It’s hard and it can be kind of awkward with timing sometimes.
“You just do what you can and kind of make it work.”
Franks might be the greatest benefactor. Zaire and Del Rio are in their fifth years at the college level, but last summer Franks was in his first preseason camp.
A year later, Franks calls the difference in himself “night and day.”
The 6-foot-6 Franks has gained nearly 20 pounds, now weighing 238, and a better understanding of the offense and his role as a leader.
“You gain confidence,” he said. “It’s like when you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s kind of like the offense, they don’t know if you’re going to make the right reads, stuff like that. I think that this year they’ve gained confidence, not only in me, but the other quarterbacks knowing what to do, knowing where to throw the ball, knowing where to hand the ball off, all of that, making the right checks.”
At some point, McElwain and his staff will have to decide which quarterback does those things best and tab him the starter.
Franks’ size and big arm, Zaire’s experience and escapability, and Del Rio’s decision-making and grasp of McElwain’s offense are all selling points.
Each quarterback said he will leave the decision in McElwain’s hands and live with it.
“If I’m not starting,” Del Rio said, “I’ll do what I can to get them ready.”
Each QB also made it clear he believes he can handle the job.
“The team is first for me and I know I can put the team in the best position to win,” Zaire said. “I feel like I can do my job better than anybody else, but I feel like that’s how you should feel, especially when you’ve been doing stuff like this and you’re still fighting.
“Every day’s a fight to get better and I focus on that.”