Jabari Zuniga’s mind was made up after the 2018 season.
Zuniga finished 2018 with 6.5 sacks, 45 tackles, and 11 tackles for a loss. He had a great season and was being talked about as a potential first-rounder or, at worst, a second-day pick in the NFL Draft. In his mind, he was ready to go.
Then, the most important person in his life — his mother — talked him out of it. Zuniga decided to return to the University of Florida for his senior season.
“I honestly wanted to leave (early) last year but she got in my ear,” Zuniga said of his conversation with his mom after the 2018 season. “She told me I wasn’t ready and that I needed to get that diploma.”
When Zuniga announced his decision to come back most people were surprised. His numbers were good and physically he was ready to play in the NFL. Nobody would have been had he chose to leave but getting him back was viewed as a huge coup for Dan Mullen and Todd Grantham.
Unfortunately due to injury that promise never panned out. Zuniga came out with a great game against Miami. He had six tackles, 3 for a loss and 1.5 sacks. he added to that in the second week of the season but suffered a high ankle sprain in the SEC opener against Kentucky in the third week of the season. That injury kept him off the field against Tennessee, Towson, and Auburn. He tried his hardest to go against LSU on the road but was limited to only passing downs and clearly not as effective as he would have been if he were healthy. He missed the next week against South Carolina and was limited again against Georgia before missing the next three games. on the field, it wasn’t what he expected or what he wanted.
Off the field, however, Zuniga did exactly what he planned and set out to do four years ago — he earned his degree from the University of Florida. Zuniga says graduating meant “everything” to him and to his mother.
“To be honest with you, no. I don’t feel like I have any regrets,” he said. “I came back and got to experience a great year with a great team. I got to graduate, so that was extremely important.”
This week Zuniga is meeting with teams and in a few months, he’ll be in the NFL. His size, speed, intelligence, and film will make that a reality. He still feels as though he has a lot to prove this week at the Senior Bowl.
He met with the Texans on Monday night and they showed him a play where he was bumped out of his gap, allowing for a long run through the “B-gap.” His talent as a pass-rusher is well known but he wants to show teams he can be an every-down defensive lineman.
“I’m a very versatile player and I love playing the run game,” Zuniga said. “I want to show that I’m an emotional player on the field and that I love playing football.”
He’ll have all week in Mobile to show that and he’ll have pro day, individual workouts and the NFL Combine to show all 32 teams the kind of player he is, this is just the beginning of his journey.
If this season and year taught him anything it’s that your physical gifts and abilities can be taken from you at a moment’s notice. A degree from a university such as Florida is forever.