Meaty SEC for Florida af­ter Michi­gan

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - SPORTS -

HOOVER, Ala. — It shouldn’t take the Florida Ga­tors long to find out if they can be con­tenders for a na­tional cham­pi­onship this sea­son.

Florida plays Big Ten pow­er­house Michi­gan at AT&T Sta­dium in Ar­ling­ton, Texas, on Sept. 2 to start a bru­tal sched­ule.

The Ga­tors al­ready play eight SEC games and Florida State ev­ery sea­son.

Why add Michi­gan? Florida Coach Jim McEl­wain said he was on board with the de­ci­sion to sched­ule the Wolver­ines in a neu­tral site game.

“We’re the Univer­sity of Florida and I think Ga­tor fans de­serve us to go out and play who­ever we can to the best of our abil­ity no mat­ter where they’re from,” McEl­wain said at SEC me­dia days. “I think it’s re­ally good for col­lege foot­ball that two different con­fer­ences are play­ing each other on open­ing day.

“It’s some­thing that I agreed to. I wanted to do.”

“I just think it’s the way it should be. I don’t know. Maybe I’m screwed up, I guess.”

The Ga­tors will look to avenge a 41-7 loss to Michi­gan in the Cit­rus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2016.

“Of course it’s go­ing to grab your at­ten­tion be­cause it’s a team that beat us re­ally bad in a bowl game,” Florida se­nior cor­ner­back Duke Daw­son said. “We’ve all got a chip on our shoul­der about that, and we know what we have to do to beat a great team.”

Se­nior strong safety Mar­cell Har­ris said the Ga­tors wel­come the op­por­tu­nity for a mar­quee non­con­fer­ence opener, es­pe­cially in the home of the Dal­las Cow­boys.

“It’s go­ing to be crazy play­ing there,” Har­ris said. “Ev­ery­thing is big in Texas, so we want to come out and play big as well.”

Florida has played well enough to win back-to-back SEC East ti­tles and fin­ish 10-4 in 2015 and 9-4 in 2016, but a lack of pro­duc­tion on of­fense caught up to the Ga­tors against Florida State and Alabama in both sea­sons.

The Ga­tors ranked 111th na­tion­ally in to­tal of­fense (334.0 yards per game) in 2015 when they lost to the Semi­noles 27-2 and the Crim­son Tide 29-15. They ranked 116th in to­tal of­fense (344.0 yards) in 2016 when they lost to the Semi­noles 31-13 and the Crim­son Tide 54-16.

McEl­wain sounded con­fi­dent his team is now ready to com­pete against elite op­po­nents.

“Go­ing into year three, I’m re­ally ex­cited not only about our team, but more so about our or­ga­ni­za­tion, and un­der­stand­ing what it takes and un­der­stand­ing that the small lit­tle de­tails and sweat­ing the small stuff is some­thing that’s re­ally im­por­tant,” McEl­wain said. “I think we’ve done a pretty darn good job of un­der­stand­ing the why we’ve been suc­cess­ful at times and un­der­stand­ing the why we haven’t been suc­cess­ful.

“Learn­ing from those things is some­thing that you con­stantly grow with.”

McEl­wain said “time will tell” whether this be­comes his best team at Florida.

“It’s a pretty darn good team,” he said. “I’m ex­cited to see what they do this fall.”

Florida re­turns 17 starters, but a new­comer at quar­ter­back may help el­e­vate the team.

Fifth-year se­nior Ma­lik Zaire — a grad­u­ate trans­fer from Notre Dame — joined the Ga­tors in June and will com­pete for the start­ing job.

“I’m ex­cited about hav­ing him in there,” McEl­wain said. “We’re now up to fi­nally our num­ber in the schol­ar­ship count that we want to be in the quar­ter­back room.

“We’ve got some real op­tions there, and that’s a good thing. He’s a guy that can light up the room with his smile. He’s ex­cited to be there and ex­cited to com­pete, and we’re look­ing for­ward to see­ing what hap­pens.”

Zaire was MVP of the 2014 Mu­sic City Bowl when he com­peted 12 of 15 passes for 96 yards and a touch­down and rushed 22 times for 96 yards and a touch­down in Notre Dame’s 31-28 vic­tory over LSU.

In 2015 Zaire com­pleted 19 of 22 passes for 313 yards and three touch­downs to help the Fight­ing Ir­ish open by beat­ing Texas 38-3, but in the sec­ond game against Vir­ginia he suf­fered

a sea­son-end­ing an­kle in­jury.

Af­ter Zaire wasn’t able to re­gain the start­ing job last sea­son at Notre Dame, he made the de­ci­sion to trans­fer to Florida.

“When you see ev­ery­thing on In­sta­gram and Twit­ter it’s go­ing to open your eyes with like, ‘ Dang, yeah, we need him as our quar­ter­back,’” Daw­son said of the buzz gen­er­ated by Zaire’s trans­fer. “But you have to com­pete for the job. It’s not go­ing to be handed to you at Florida.

“As soon as he got here Ma­lik hit me up about watch­ing film even though I’m a de­fen­sive player. He wanted to pick my brain.

“So me and Ma­lik started get­ting a close re­la­tion­ship early from the first day he came in.”

Har­ris said he’s been im­pressed by Zaire in his short time with the Ga­tors.

“You can tell he’s a leader,” Har­ris said. “He just needs to get the trust of the guys, get the tim­ing down with his wide re­ceivers, watch film.”

Zaire gives Florida five quar­ter­backs to go along with red­shirt ju­nior Luke Del Rio, who started six games last year be­fore suf­fer­ing a sea­son-end­ing shoul­der surgery against Arkansas; red­shirt fresh­men Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask; and fresh­man Jake Allen.

“It’s go­ing to be a hard bat­tle,” Florida ju­nior of­fen­sive tackle Martez Ivey said of the quar­ter­back com­pe­ti­tion. “It’s go­ing to be tremen­dous to see how they react to it.

“When we find out who that start­ing guy is, he will do great. It doesn’t mat­ter who it is, I feel com­fort­able with all of them back there.”

McEl­wain shot down a re­port he has de­cided on a starter.

“I don’t know how that came out,” he said. “Who knows?

“I know we will start a quar­ter­back.”

AP/BUTCH DILL

Florida coach Jim McEl­wain might not have to wait long to find out how good the Ga­tors will be this sea­son since they’ll be fac­ing Michi­gan in the sea­son opener on Sept. 2.

AP/ANDREW SHURTLEFF

Ma­lik Zaire, a fifth-year grad­u­ate trans­fer from Notre Dame, will be one of five play­ers in the mix to be Florida’s start­ing quar­ter­back this sea­son.

Daw­son

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