Tyler Murphy passed his first test.
Well, it was actually more like a pop quiz.
The redshirt junior quarterback, who had never completed a collegiate pass let alone thrown a touchdown, did both – and much more – on Saturday to lead the Florida Gators back from an early deficit to a 31-17 victory over the Tennessee Volunteers.
Thrust into the game early in the first quarter with a seven-point deficit – created on a pick-six thrown by junior QB Jeff Driskel on Florida’s second offensive series – Murphy got something he likely thought would never come, an opportunity. Driskel broke the fibula in his right leg and had season-ending surgery on Sunday.
“When I saw him go down, I was just hoping he’s OK. He’s a good friend of mine,” Murphy said. “We’ve gone into practice a lot as far as pushing each other to get better. In my head, I was just hoping he was able to get up and keep playing. You never want to see a guy go down. I was just hoping he was healthy, a minor sprain or something, and he could get up and keep playing.”
Until 2013, he was never truly better than the Gators’ third option.
“It was tough sitting on the sidelines. Never fun. Sometimes you kind of have to do things when you come to a big football school like this. It’s always going to bring in the best guys in the country,” Murphy said on Saturday.
“It was tough, you know what I mean, but I was just happy the team was doing well and winning. I was just trying to find a way to contribute whether that was scout team or trying to coach guy sand push guys to get better.”
In 2010, Murphy’s first year, John Brantley was in his first year as a starter but struggled mightily, leading the coaching staff to employ a three-quarterback system, none of the three being Murphy. He redshirted.
He remained out of the mix as the fourth quarterback behind Brantley and a pair of four-star freshmen in Driskel and Jacoby Brissett in 2011 and bumped up one spot to third-string in 2012 when Driskel started and Brissett was the reserve. Suddenly, when Brissett decided to leave after being passed over for the starting job, Florida had no one else to turn to but Murphy to back-up Driskel in 2013.
“It’s been extremely tough for him. You got to give him a lot of credit. He’s been passed up by guys, by young guys and things like that, hasn’t been looked at as being one of the starters for a while – until now,” senior wide receiver Trey Burton said. “It shows what type of guy he is. He understands. He’s willing to sit and wait his turn.”
That turn looked like it had come during fall camp when Driskel had emergency appendectomy surgery and missed the first eight practices. Murphy got first-team reps he had never truly received before.
“Tyler was the quarterback and Brent [Pease] and I are looking at each other going, ‘This guy is approaching this the right way. He’s understanding this is his opportunity.’ And he stepped forward and did some really nice things for us,” head coach Will Muschamp said.
Driskel was healthy enough to return to practice and start the season opener against Toledo, but Murphy got additional practice time once again during the off week as Driskel hurt his left knee on the road at Miami and was “gimpy” for quite some time.
“Tyler went out and did a really good job with our offense. He ran one-minute against our defense – and our defense is pretty good – and made nice throws and made good decisions. He continued to give us confidence in practice that he’s going to be able to do the job once his number’s called,” Muschamp explained. “Then we’re sitting there the third series of the game, his number’s called. He’s got to go play. He’s got to perform at a high level. And he did it.”
Murphy’s first series resulted in a punt. He moved the ball just a single yard the second time he took the field as Florida was forced to settle for a field goal after taking over at Tennessee’s own six-yard line.
“I was a little nervous, you know, my first time getting up and playing an actual football game and playing actual game reps in a while, since high school,” Murphy said. “I was just looking to settle down and kind of just get comfortable.”
Then came the final three quarters. The Gators’ first drive of the second quarter was just two plays, the second being a well-thrown screen by Murphy to senior WR Solomon Patton that resulted in a 52-yard touchdown. Consecutive fumbles ended the subsequent two drives – the first bouncing off of Murphy’s facemask due to a miscommunication and early snap – but he regrouped before the half was over, leading a seven-play, 40-yard touchdown drive with less than a minute left before the break.
Murphy looked even more comfortable after halftime when he directed a pair of 11-play drives – the first for 79 yards, the second for 84 yards. Both resulted in touchdowns.
On the first drive, Murphy dropped a 31-yard dime in to redshirt junior WR Quinton Dunbar on 3rd-and-10 that kept UF’s scoring hopes alive. The second was ended with a seven-yard scamper by Murphy, who took off, stopped on a dime, changed direction and dove into the end zone.
“Hats off to him. He took the circumstances and defied what you would think a lot of back-up guys would do in that situation and went in there and didn’t just manage our team, he produced. He had great production in critical situations in the game,” Muschamp explained. “He came out after [halftime] and brought two drives right down the field, made some really good decisions in the throwing game and the passing game in those situations.”
The celebration started on the field but continued in the locker room where Murphy was hoisted on a teammate’s shoulders with the rest of the roster chanting his name.
“He’s a very popular teammate,” Muschamp said.
Added Dunbar: “I believe in Tyler and the team believes in Tyler. Like we’ve said before, we see him in practice and we know what he can do. He prepares like a starter.”
Now he is one.
“We’ve [always] had confidence in him. We’ve been here for four years with him. He knows the offense better than anyone,” said senior defensive lineman Dominique Easley*. “We got Murph. I got complete confidence in Murph. Complete.”
Having the support of his teammates is certainly relieving, but Murphy’s confidence in himself is what got him through the tough times.
“It was always in the back of my mind that I might never play, but I just kept working hard and kept faith in myself and kept praying for an opportunity,” he explained after the victory. “I was able to get it [Saturday]. It wasn’t the way I wanted it, you know, but an opportunity is an opportunity. You got to take the best of it.”
Murphy said a number of people strongly suggested that he should change positions or transfer in order to play elsewhere. He never seriously considered either option.
“I love playing quarterback. I played it all my life. I take a lot of pride in playing quarterback. I just didn’t want to give up. If I had changed positions, I would have gave up on myself and I probably wouldn’t have been able to live with myself,” he said.
“I enjoy the school. I have a lot of good friends here that I’ve become close with. I’m not really afraid of competition. I think competition makes you better. I just wanted to stay and just compete and keep battling. I kept praying maybe I get an opportunity.”
He added: “I mean, you can’t beat a University of Florida degree.”
That degree will come for Murphy in December when he graduates with a Bachelor’s of Science in telecommunications. Graduate school is certainly not out of the question and would not be a surprising move for Murphy considering his track record of hard work, dedication and persistence both on and off the field.
“At the end of the day, I felt like I had to make the decision that I felt like was best for myself. I talked to my dad about it and he encouraged me to stay and get my degree,” Murphy said. “I knew I wasn’t afraid to compete; even though I wasn’t playing, I felt like I was getting a lot better competing against some of the top quarterbacks in the country. I was happy with my progress and I was getting better.”
It is for those reasons that, while Murphy may not have been Muschamp’s first choice, he is the paradigm for how the head coach expects his players – especially his back-ups – to hold themselves.
“This guy is a guy that got a game ball. Number one, I don’t know if we can give them game balls. The NCAA said we could, no? We may break a rule there,” he joked.
“I just told our team what a great example, especially for young players. They don’t understand, ‘Why am I not playing?’ He never had that attitude. He was third last year behind Jeff and Jacoby. He took his opportunities when he had them, came down to scout team and helped us, came to me and said, ‘Coach, I want to work scout team.’ Came to me last year and asked to do that.
“There’s not many guys like that in this society. Everybody wants it now. … He’s a guy that’s worked extremely hard and he cashed in on his opportunity [Saturday] and we look forward to seeing him play the rest of the year.”
With no one in front of him now, Murphy will be tested week after week as he tries to lead Florida’s much-maligned offense.
The good news is that he got an ‘A’ on his pop quiz. What’s left to be determined is what grade he finishes the semester with after he gets to prepare for test after test including four against teams ranked in the top-12 nationally.
* Easley’s quotes were obtained via video published by FOX Sports.
Photo Credit: John Raoux/Associated Press