Few college football players with the talent of Jabari Zuniga choose to return to school for another year when the possibility of making millions and playing on Sundays is sitting right in front of them. That’s an opportunity almost every 22-year-old in the country would take without hesitation.
But the fifth-year senior defensive end still had business to take care of at Florida.
A 10-win season coupled with a New Year’s Six bowl win wasn’t quite good enough, and he knew the 2019 team had potential to go even further. His goals this season are crystal clear.
“I really want a National Championship,” Zuniga said. “Before that, I want to win the SEC East and an SEC Championship. Me personally, I have high expectations for this team. I feel like we can definitely go a long way.”
Not only did he dream of adding a natty to his long list of accomplishments with the Gators, he and his family wanted to ensure he left Gainesville with the piece of paper he set out to get. Football will not last forever, but a degree from the University of Florida will.
“His mom keeps me up every day making sure he’s on track to graduate,” said head coach Dan Mullen. “That’s the most important part of his decision to come back his senior year, even more so than his growth development in a football career, but to make sure he gets his degree.”
While the chance to walk across the stage played a big role in Zuniga’s return, football remains a major priority.
Now more than ever, the Gators need him to be a leader on defense. It’s not a role he’s been accustomed to in his first four years, but it’s one he’s ready to take over.
“I’m the oldest now, so I’ve gotta talk more,” he said. “I’ve gotta lead more. I’ve gotta lead guys in the right direction. When we had CeCe [Jefferson] and Khairi [Clark] and those guys, I was kind of the quiet guy that just worked. Now, it’s different. You gotta work and lead the guys behind you.”
Out of all the leaders Zuniga has had a chance to look up to in his time at Florida, one stands out in particular. It’s a guy who was held back by injury for a large part of his career, but always played the game the right way.
That made a lasting impact on him.
“One guy that I really looked up to and tried to model my game after, my work ethic after, was Jordan Sherit,” he said. “That was a guy that spoke it, talked the talk and walked the walk. He led the guys and you could follow him because you knew he was going to do the same thing.”
As Zuniga tries to balance his new leadership responsibilities with preparing for his final season and becoming more NFL ready, he’s found himself in the weight room even more and working on his technique every chance he gets.
That already seems to be paying off as he’s been named to the watch list for the Bednarik Award, given to college football’s best defensive player each year. With 6.5 sacks as a redshirt junior, only two SEC returners recorded more than him last season. And the projected first-round draft pick is poised to surpass that number in 2019.
The expectations for Zuniga are high, but the ones he puts on himself are even higher. With the season just over a month away, his sense of urgency is strong.
“It’s the last year, the last go-around,” he said. “There’s no coming back. It’s now or never.”