Image Credit: ESPNI
When head football coach Jim McElwain suddenly closed Florida Gators practice this week, it was worth speculating as to why.
While there is every indication that graduate transfer Austin Appleby will start for Florida on Saturday against the Tennessee Volunteers — Appleby is listed on his own atop of the Gators’ latest depth chart and McElwain has said as much — uncertainty at quarterback following the injury to redshirt sophomore starter Luke Del Rio is most definitely a concern.
There’s a reason Del Rio was the clear leader to start all offseason: He’s much better and more reliable. So with Del Rio sidelined for the biggest game of the season to this point, McElwain had to wonder early in the week whether Appleby was up to the task. Remember, Appleby’s stats during his two seasons of extensive play at Purdue looked like this: 52.3 percent completions, 18 touchdowns, 19 interceptions. He also scored nine touchdowns on the ground but averaged 2.5 yards per carry (after sacks).
Enter freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, who were listed second on this week’s depth chart sporting the OR designation.
“[Appleby’s] been great. From the get go, since he’s been here, I think him being here as early as he was was great,” said McElwain on Monday. “The guy, he’s played. He’s been in games. He knows how to prepare. He does some things differently so we’re going to have to highlight some of those things. And at the same time, we got to make sure that Feleipe and Kyle are ready as well.”
Earlier this week, OnlyGators.com wondered whether McElwain closed practice in part to give Franks or Trask the opportunity to either split reps with Appleby on Saturday or at least see some time as a change-of-pace player. Most who have watched Florida practice believe Trask is ahead of Franks to this point and throws the best ball of any of the team’s quarterbacks, though that’s really besides the point. The question is whether either will see the field in Florida’s biggest game of the season to this point and one of the most anticipated contests in college football this year.
During the weekly SEC coaches’ teleconference on Wednesday, McElwain appeared to hint that the Gators may do just that.
“It’s a great opportunity for Austin to jump in there and get a chance to get Kyle or Feleipe some reps,” he said. “… I know our guys have trust in Austin and Feleipe and Kyle.”
Asked to clarify those comments later in the day during his final media availability of the week, McElwain acted coy.
“Well, let me just give you my game plan. Here you go. Next,” he said. “You think I fell off the turnip truck yesterday, don’t you? I mean, I love it. There’s a reason I didn’t let you come to practice, you know?”
Now, McElwain may very well have been playing the long con of misdirection this week. The Gators could certainly take the field Saturday with the same offense they’ve been playing, simply with a different guy taking the snaps. His actions and words, however, indicate that Florida may be leaning otherwise.