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Lefty quarterback's task? Make sure nothing's lost in translation

Quarterback Malik Zaire, a transfer from Notre Dame, is in a three-way battle for the UF starting job.
Quarterback Malik Zaire, a transfer from Notre Dame, is in a three-way battle for the UF starting job.
Published Aug. 17, 2017

GAINESVILLE — When Florida receiver Brandon Powell met new quarterback Malik Zaire this summer, he was struck by the Notre Dame grad transfer's enthusiasm and outgoing personality.

But when they began working out together, Powell quickly noticed something else. Zaire's first pass looked … different.

"It came weird," Powell said.

It came weird because Zaire throws with his left arm, not his right.

The difference might sound insignificant, but in a sport obsessed with details, that one distinction leads to a handful of other adjustments and discussions. It shouldn't determine whether Zaire wins or loses the three-way battle to start in the Gators' Sept. 2 season opener against Michigan, but it affects everything from fundamental techniques to personnel decisions.

Start with a quarterback's most basic job: Get the ball from the center.

When a right-handed center snaps the ball to a right-handed quarterback, the laces land in the quarterback's dominant hand. That doesn't happen naturally with a lefty, Florida State quarterbacks coach Randy Sanders said, so the quarterback's hand placement or center's spin has to change.

"You just have to tweak it a little bit," said Sanders, the co-offensive coordinator who started lefty quarterbacks as an assistant at Tennessee and Kentucky.

Receivers also have to tweak their approaches.

A right-handed quarterback's pass spins clockwise and tails slightly to the receiver's right at the end. For a lefty like Zaire, it spins counterclockwise and tails left.

Because Zaire didn't arrive at UF until the summer, his new receivers only had a few weeks to begin getting acclimated to those nuances before preseason camp began. Powell said it took only a few passes before he felt comfortable with the differences, but SEC Network analyst Chris Doering said the adjustment isn't easy for every receiver.

"From my experience, that's something that certainly will have to take some getting used to from the receivers," said Doering, a former standout UF receiver who caught NFL passes from lefty Mark Brunell. "Going back and forth between a righty and lefty is not a huge thing, but it definitely is a little different."

Perhaps the most significant difference focuses on the offensive line.

In the NFL, teams typically put their best pass rusher in position to attack the quarterback from his left — the blind side. Offensive tackles who can stop those elite defenders see their prestige and paychecks rise.

The college game is less rigid. FSU's DeMarcus Walker was second in the country with 16 sacks last year but didn't just rush from one spot; he lined up at both ends and inside, forcing different offensive linemen to try to stop him.

Despite the defensive fluidity, some coaches still want their best blocker to protect the quarterback's backside. That usually means flipping the left tackle to the right. Coach Jim McElwain said he has done that with previous lefties, and UF planned to do so a decade ago for new starter Tim Tebow, before an injury to the line derailed that idea.

The Gators have mentioned two other possibilities, if Zaire wins the job. They could keep former five-star recruit Martez Ivey on the left side and Jawaan Taylor on the right. Or they could have one tackle assigned to the strong side of every play and the other to the weak side, as Louisville did last year.

"It may be something we would consider," UF offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Doug Nussmeier said.

While teams must make some considerations with left-handed quarterbacks, coaches say some of the popular concerns are overblown. Good coaches know how to adjust to the mirrored fundamentals; Nussmeier said it might actually be harder teaching a fellow lefty after reversing the instructions for most of his career.

Sanders doesn't buy the theory that right-handed quarterbacks throw better rolling to their right — an idea that would shape how teams structure plays.

"At this level, if you've got a quarterback that can't throw on the run to the left when he's right-handed, or vice versa, you're probably not going to win many games," Sanders said.

For Zaire, the differences don't matter much at all — aside from giving him something in common with the Gators' last great quarterback.

"If anything, I'm one and the same with Tebow because we're left-handed," Zaire said. "Because there's not a lot of us, we have to do a little bit more to show that we belong, too, in the whole quarterback world."

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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