With Florida formally announcing the addition of quarterback Malik Zaire on Monday, the attention turns from the Notre Dame grad transfer to the man who will coach him.
We’re about to find out just how good Jim McElwain is.
With the Gators losing seven defensive players to the NFL Draft, plus coordinator Geoff Collins to Temple, McElwain probably won’t be able to keep grinding out 16-10 wins. That means a third consecutive trip to Atlanta hinges on the Gators’ offense. And their offense comes down to how McElwain handles the quarterback battle between Zaire and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks.
Since McElwain became a Division I-A offensive coordinator at Fresno State in 2007, almost all of his quarterbacks have resembled Franks. He’s tall (6-foot-6) and can move, but he’s a more traditional drop-back passer.
Zaire is 6 inches shorter with a completely different skill set. He can throw, but he’s a more dynamic runner. He rushed for 96 yards against LSU, ripped off a 56-yarder against Rice and averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2015 before injuring his ankle.
McElwain occasionally lets his quarterbacks run. Austin Appleby opened up the field early against South Carolina with a 33-yard keeper. But McElwain hasn’t let his quarterbacks rush consistently – not even dual-threat Treon Harris.
Appleby and Luke Del Rio combined for 29 runs last season (excluding sacks). Zaire had 22 against LSU alone.
That doesn’t mean McElwain can’t use a running quarterback. But it means he must spend fall camp trying to figure out how best to do it, either by expanding the change-of-pace package designed for early enrollee Kadarius Toney or by implementing something new.
Once McElwain decides the answer, he can move on to the next issue: His top two quarterbacks throw with opposite hands.
Lefties like Zaire throw with different spin than righties like Franks. How much time is McElwain willing to give receivers to adjust to Zaire’s passes, when those playmakers also need to keep developing chemistry with Franks, a potential first-time starter?
In 2007, the Gators planned to flip tackle Phil Trautwein from the left side to the right to protect the blind side of their new lefty starter, Tim Tebow. Trautwein’s ankle injury changed those plans. Will McElwain want to make a similar switch for former five-star recruit Martez Ivey, who has been set to slide from left guard to left tackle?
Good coaches know how to adapt to different personnel and personalities.
Does that include McElwain? We’re about to find out.