It’s the same old story with the Florida Gators this spring. Since the departure of Tim Tebow in 2009, Florida has yet to find any semblance of consistency at the quarterback position and therefore has failed to enter a spring with a signal caller who possesses the full confidence of the coaching staff, his teammates and the fan base.
The history here is long and convoluted for having taken place in a five-year window, but it can be summed up as follows:
Cam Newton came and went as swiftly as a laptop flying out a dorm room window; all he wound up doing after transferring was becoming a Heisman Trophy winner and the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. John Brantley got his shot but failed to deliver at the alma mater of his father and uncle. Despite major coaching obstacles, Jeff Driskel was given plenty of opportunities to succeed – which led to the transfer of Jacoby Brissett (who flashed in his first season as a starter at NC State) – though his eventual failure subsequently resulted in him moving on from Florida, too.
That’s four quarterbacks having come and gone from the Gators program including a five-star prospect and three four-star recruits: the top-rated signal caller in the nation (Driskel) one year, the second-best in another (Newton) and two more top-three quarterbacks (Brantley, Brissett) in the lot.
Yes, history has repeated itself at Florida as – for the third time – a pair of top-three quarterbacks of the same age will go head-to-head to fill a five-year void at the position.
Sophomore Treon Harris got some much-needed experience as a fill-in for Driskel last season, and his absurd play in the Gators’ season opener – when he threw completed his only two pass attempts for 70+ yard touchdowns and achieved a 1,051.6 quarterback rating – coupled with him leading UF to a come-from-behind victory against Tennessee contributed to the groundswell of opposition to the established starter.
But Harris did not overwhelm when given the keys to the team; Florida finished 4-3 in his seven starts as the rookie signal caller completed just 48.6 percent of his passes for 835 yards, seven touchdowns and four interceptions.
Redshirt freshman Will Grier bided his time while taking a redshirt season that was planned to help him gain experience and seasoning due to his having competed against a lower level of high school competition. There were times when the Gators considered pulling the redshirt, but a back injury ensured that he remained out of action for the season.
“It was planned when I first got here. From then on, it was kind of just be ready, be ready, because we really never knew,” Grier said on Wednesday. “I always had to be ready; I was in every walk-through, every script. I had to know what to do in case I went in, until I hurt my back – that kind of put me out for a few weeks. I was always ready to go. I wasn’t dead-set on redshirting. I would’ve played. I would’ve loved to played; I would’ve loved to redshirt.”
The back now a “non-issue” and something Grier is simply monitoring and staying on top of with treatment, after having an epidural last fall, he is thankful for the time he had to get in shape physically (adding 20 pounds of muscle) and mentally during the 2014 campaign.
“Overall, it was a blessing, just getting a year to work on my body, work on the mental side of the game and still getting to travel and see everything,” he said. “I got to rehab [my back] and really do that the right way, just get a lot of mental reps, and I think it helped me overall.”
Grier’s larger frame (6-foot-2, 197 pounds) gives him a physical advantage over Harris (5-foot-11, 193 pounds), especially considering Grier can still add 15-20 pounds to his frame. Over the last 12 years – as an assistant head coach, offensive coordinator or head coach – new Florida head coach Jim McElwain has never started a quarterback shorter than 6-foot-2 or weighing less than 215 pounds.
At this early stage of spring practice, Grier claims to not be worried about winning the starting job. Instead, he is focused on doing what he can to improve on a day-by-day basis.
“Right now it’s just learning the offense, being vocal. This team needs leadership; this team needs a voice, needs identity,” he said.
“Overall, at this point, it’s still really early in the spring. We’re still going through a lot of growing pains with a lot of guys and we’re still working through a lot of different [things]. It’s just still early. We got a lot of stuff to work on. I’m excited to get rolling with it.”
To his credit, Harris did not appear phased by the competition either, noting that he is focused on his mechanics and ability to read the field. He claims that no changes have been made to his release; he’s been working on improving his steps and drops.
“[I’m] just letting it fly. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody messes up,” Harris said. “Like coach tell us, ‘Mess up [at] 100 miles per hour.’ Don’t do nothing and just stop. You can’t do that in football.”
To that end, McElwain is pleased with what he’s seen from his young signal callers through two spring practices.
“I’ve really been happy with how they’ve grasped what we’re asking them to do. There’s a lot of things that obviously go along with playing the position. Especially in our red ball tempo, they’ve done a really good job controlling the line of scrimmage, taking care of the mike points and a lot of the things it takes to run our offense. That part’s been really good,” he explained.
“For the most part, they’ve thrown it to – the offense has been in blue – so they’ve thrown it to the guys in the blue jerseys. And yet, ball security is something we got to constantly talk about. They’re grasping what we’re trying to get accomplished, and I think that’s been really good.”
McElwain has been standoffish in discussing the quarterback battle, even feigning ignorance when asked about Grier taking the first snap from under center on Monday. Grier lining up to start the day was not happenstance; that is not how things work in big-time college football.
Nevertheless, the competition does not appear acrimonious. Harris claims he and Grier are “brothers” that “hang out a lot … get along well … chill … laugh … [and] make jokes.”
“Me and Treon are real close,” Grier co-signed. “We kind of came in this thing last year together. We were the young guys. We were the ones new to the college scene and everything else. We’re really close friends, actually.
“It’s been cool coming from two complete different backgrounds and everything like that and coming together at a place like this – a great school, great program. Being able to work with a guy like that who played at a completely different high school and different offense, [has a] different skill set – and being able to work with him, help each other get better – has been really cool.”
Perhaps it is for that reason that Harris insisted they are neither worried about the starting job nor what they will do depending who ultimately wins it.
“Nobody’s thinking about leaving, transferring schools, none of that. We’re just competing every day, getting each other better,” he said.
That sounds familiar.