DESTIN — The SEC ended its spring meetings Friday with a graduate transfer rule change that could drastically alter the Gators' season.
The fine print, as approved by the conference and confirmed by Gators athletic director Scott Stricklin: If a grad transfer doesn't make adequate academic progress, the program can't take another the next year. That's down from the old policy (a three-year ban).
With that out of the way, the path is clear for Florida to land former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire.
UF's best-case scenario with Zaire is what Arkansas coach Bret Bielema experienced when a "string of unhealthy, unlucky quarterbacks" led him to take Russell Wilson as a grad transfer at Wisconsin.
"I needed immediate help, just for depth," Bielema said. "I didn't know he was going to walk through the door and do what he did."
What Wilson did was set a Division I record in passing efficiency (191.78) and lead the Badgers to the Big Ten title, a Rose Bowl appearance and an 11-3 season.
It's unrealistic to expect similar production from Zaire, whether he lands at UF, Texas or somewhere else. It's also unfair to expect him to win a national title, as Florida State grad transfer Jake Coker did at Alabama.
The more likely scenario is that Zaire is a more athletic version of Austin Appleby.
"We did it a year ago with Austin, and he came in and ended up helping our program," Gators coach Jim McElwain said this week.
Appleby didn't dominate after joining UF from Purdue, but he was an adequate short-term patch who helped UF win the SEC East. With Appleby gone, Zaire would provide experience and ready-to-go depth to a position that needs both.
Of the five scholarship quarterbacks on UF's roster, only one has attempted a college pass. That one (Luke Del Rio) ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in passer rating (118.64), yards per attempt (6.8) and completion percentage (56.7) last season.
UF's frontrunner, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks, was a pedestrian 8-of-14 in the spring game against the second-string defense. He missed on four of his five passes inside the 22. Considering UF's biggest offensive problem last season was red-zone efficiency – the Gators scored touchdowns on only half their 42 chances — that's concerning, even with a tiny sample size.
That could be why McElwain made these telling comments after the spring game, when he was asked about the importance of grooming a young quarterback: "Being able to develop a guy is something that we've been fortunate to do a lot at stops along the way. And yet at the same time, we've got to go with who's going to give us the best opportunity to win ball games."
And that's why the addition of Zaire would make sense. He can help the Gators win immediately, against a schedule with two top-25 opponents (Michigan, Tennessee) in the first three weeks.
Maybe that's by pushing Franks during summer workouts and fall camp, so the Gators have an improved quarterback to throw to what might be the best receiving corps in the SEC.
Maybe that's by adding a more seasoned option on the bench. Two of its top three passers (Del Rio and redshirt freshman Kyle Trask) are recovering from offseason surgeries, and UF has needed backups to start at least three games each of the last four seasons.
Or maybe that's by starting until Franks is ready, whenever that is.
Franks looks like UF's quarterback of the future. But the future doesn't have to start Sept. 2 against the Wolverines.
Adding Zaire would ensure that.
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