Scouting Malik Zaire’s first start as Florida Gators quarterback

The Florida Gators’ loss to Missouri was a disaster on many levels, but it was notable for being Malik Zaire’s first start for the program. As he’s going to be the starter again versus South Carolina this coming weekend, it’s worth a look to see how he fared and what to expect moving forward.

The story on Zaire is that he’s a dual threat quarterback. We didn’t actually see a lot of that against the Tigers. He only had five carries, two of which were scrambles on called pass plays. Florida also didn’t roll him out or move the pocket until after the second quarter started and didn’t use those kinds of plays frequently. There is still room to use his mobility further if the coaches want to; whether that desire is there or not remains to be seen.

One thing that Zaire did well is throw the ball down the field. He hit on three of his eight throws that traveled more than ten yards upfield in the air. A fourth one was dropped, and another that was nullified by a holding penalty doesn’t show in the official stats.

The throw negated by a flag was one of his better ones in the game. It came late in the second quarter as UF was driving down on what would become its second field goal drive. Tyrie Cleveland beat his man on a sideline double move route, and Zaire lofted it right to him. It’s a little underthrown, but it was still in a place the defender couldn’t get to.

The play after that, Zaire went vertical again. He found Dre Massey between three defenders on a deep middle post. I think this was his single best throw in the game.

Then on the Gators’ first drive of the third quarter, Zaire hit Brandon Powell on the middle of three verticals. It was a bit behind the receiver, but Powell made a good play on it.

Zaire did his job well on five of his nine throws of 11+ yards down the field, counting the drop and penalty-negated plays in there. His sole turnover did come on one such throw, however, and he missed an open Powell high on that same route as above late in the third quarter.

I’m not sure how much of this was Zaire playing well and how much was Mizzou’s defense playing poorly. Despite the impression Florida’s offense may have given you, the Tiger defense is pretty bad. Some of those good downfield throws were open courtesy of coverage breakdowns. At least Zaire was able to identify them and get the ball to the receivers, tasks Feleipe Franks hasn’t been good at this season.

Not everything went well with Zaire behind center, obviously. For instance, he stared down C’yontai Lewis and underthrew the ball on his interception. The former alerted the safety to where the ball was going, and the latter put it in a place where it could be picked off by multiple defenders.

There were also problems with getting plays in during the third quarter. The Gators used at least two of their three second half timeouts to avoid delay of game penalties. The play clock still had six seconds on it when UF took its third one on offense in the third quarter, so it could’ve been that the coaches didn’t like the look the defense was giving. However, Moral Stephens hadn’t settled into place after motioning across the formation when the whistle blew, so it seems likely to me to also be in the same category as the first two.

Furthermore, the screen game was a disaster with Zaire behind center. It was not his fault per se, as he didn’t just plain miss guys with his throws.

The blocking on screens was atrocious, though, from Tyrie Cleveland whiffing on his block on the game’s first play to a pair of offensive linemen not coming close to blocking the one defender going after Lamical Perine. On 3rd & 11 in the third quarter, the downfield blocking was decent enough on a screen for Brandon Powell, but both tackles got beat so badly that Zaire had to tuck it and scramble before the screen was fully set up. Mizzou was ready for every single one of them, which suggests the Tigers were keying on the “safe”, short plays and/or had sniffed them out from film study.

Zaire getting the start again this week is probably the right move. He’ll likely settle in a little better with another week of practice with the ones. He’s not going to be the solution to this bad offense — there really isn’t one at this point — but he appeared to take a stronger hand leading the attack than Franks ever did. Plus, it’s worth it to have him out there generating some film to help the next coaching staff decide if they’re going to push for Zaire to try to get an NCAA waiver for another year of eligibility.

Zaire was an island of relative positivity in the Gators’ debacle against Missouri. He’s earned another shot.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2