Malik Zaire finds himself at the center of SEC rule debate
DESTIN, Fla. — Former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire could have another potential landing spot by the end of the week.
The Southeastern Conference is expected to ease graduate transfer rules during its annual spring meetings, clearing the way for Zaire to potentially end up at Florida.
Several coaches and Commissioner Greg Sankey said Tuesday they expect the SEC will tweak its policy, which penalizes teams if graduate transfers fail to meet academic standards during their time on campus. No other Power Five conference has a similarly restrictive clause.
"I don't think we should penalize ourselves as a league and allow people to transfer other places, but they can't transfer to our league," Alabama coach Nick Saban said. "So if there's some balance we can come up with on that, that's what I would be for."
Added South Carolina coach Will Muschamp: "I think we need to have the same rule as everybody else in college football. ... It is a little bit unfair for us as a league to have a different set of rules than the competition at other places."
The Gators are currently unable to add Zaire, because two previous graduate transfers — linebacker Anthony Harrell and offensive lineman Mason Halter — failed to meet academic requirements after transferring to Florida in 2016. That put coach Jim McElwain's program on probation, unable to add another graduate transfer for a three-year period.
The SEC is proposing to change the rule to a one-year ban, which still would be more than other Power Five conferences.
"If we have rules in the Southeastern Conference that are different than the other conferences that we're playing against and competing against ... I don't know what we're trying to prove there," McElwain said.
Zaire has reportedly chosen Florida over Texas and Harvard. He delayed an announcement earlier this month, assumedly to see if the Gators would become an option. For that to happen, the SEC would have to relax its policy.
Coaches discussed the issue Tuesday, and school presidents and chancellors are expected to vote on proposed rules changes Friday.
If Zaire lands in Gainesville, he would compete for the starting job with redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask as well as Luke Del Rio, who started six games last season. Zaire had 816 passing yards and six touchdowns in limited action in three seasons at Notre Dame after redshirting as a freshman.
"Competition is what breeds quality," McElwain said. "So whether it's that one or whatever one, I'm kind of all for it. I was the guy they always tried to replace every year at Eastern Washington, so I get it."
Saban would like to see another change to the league's graduate transfer rules.
The SEC allows players to transfer from one conference team to another and be eligible immediately but only with a waiver, like Alabama defensive back Maurice Smith did last year. Smith wanted to transfer to Georgia, but Saban initially blocked the move. The SEC ultimately ruled Smith should be allowed to transfer, and Saban reluctantly released him.
"I've never been in favor of free agency in our league," Saban said. "I don't think that's a good thing. I wasn't for it last year. I don't think I'll ever be for it. I mean, why should guys leave your team and go play for somebody else and you have to play against them? I don't think that's fair."
The league also will consider a third piece of legislation regarding graduate transfers. It is considering eliminating APR requirements for student-athletes considering a transfer, so anyone who graduates would be eligible to move to the league and play right away.
Arkansas coach Brett Bielema, who previously coached at Wisconsin, saw firsthand what a graduate transfer can do for a program and thinks the SEC should be on a level playing field with other leagues.
"A guy named Russell Wilson changed our season and was a very, very special player in a very special situation," Bielema said. "I needed immediate help just for depth. I didn't know he was going to walk through the door and do what he did."
There's no guarantee Zaire would do anything at Florida. But McElwain would like the help.
"What's good for our conference and what's good for college football is what I'm all about," he said. "They may say, 'Look, I don't want them to go there so I'm going to vote against it.' Then we've got issues, if that's it. You know what? Those people better check their hole card on that because that isn't what it's about. It's what's good for these kids."