Don’t blame yourself, Florida fan. After five seasons of offensive mediocrity, you are conditioned to question whether what you saw Saturday night in The Swamp was a mirage.
Did the Gators’ offense actually rally for what, according to the school, was its second largest fourth quarter comeback in recorded history? Was that comeback really fueled by a quarterback – and a receiver – not a ground game that ate up clock and hoped the defense could hold the opposition off?
Yes and yes.
Consider for a moment what redshirt freshman – yes, redshirt freshman – quarterback Will Grier accomplished.
Over Florida’s final two series, Grier completed 11-of-17 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns. He also went 3-for-3 on fourth downs (5-for-5 for the game), converting two as part of the Gators’ 17-play, 86-yard drive (10 yards, 16 yards) and a third for the game-winning touchdown on 4th and 14 from the UF 37-yard line.
Most quarterbacks would be lauded for that effort, anointed even. And while there should be no question that Grier is the quarterback Florida rolls with for the duration of this season, the immediate reaction to was to praise everyone but the signal caller – namely the receivers that hauled in his passes.
The Gators faithful is so disillusioned that they do not want to believe Grier may actually be what they’ve been waiting for all this time. And you can’t fault them for that.
Before stepping foot on the field this season, Grier’s last game action came two years ago at Davidson Day High School in North Carolina; that’s not Florida or California or Texas high school football, and Davidson Day’s league was far from the top one in its own state. Prior to the final four minutes of the fourth quarter Saturday, Grier had attempted just 82 passes as a collegian (completing 62.3 percent of them) with four touchdowns and three interceptions.
What was impressive about Grier on Saturday was not just the fact that he led the Gators on a pair of late game-changing drives. He was poised and mature enough to handle the pressure. He showed guts, just as he did against Kentucky one week prior. Grier got his ass kicked behind a porous offensive line that failed to offer him the protection he – like any human quarterback – needs. He took hits, stood up, brushed himself off and demanded more. Grier listened to his coach and checked down less often with his feet, though that led to fewer gains, more incompletions and harder hits.
“Obviously everybody’s taking hits, everybody’s kind of beat up. You just got to work through it, man. If you ain’t broken, then you got to keep going,” Grier said. “That’s just part of this game. It’s a violent game. It’s a game that you got to take adversity, take the beating and keep going. I’m alright. I walked in here .I’m talking to you right now.”
But it is not only the tough exterior that makes Grier the right choice for Florida; while he still made his share of mistakes in the contest, he once again completed throws that have simply not been typical of recent Florida signal caller, perhaps since as far back as Chris Leak. Grier can fit the ball into tight windows and throw passes that only his teammates can haul in. He’s done it all season long and flashed that ability again on Saturday.
“Football’s a game where you got to battle. You deal with a adversity and you got to respond,” Grier said after the game. “My team, my teammates did a really great job staying in it. They fought to the end and that’s what you got to do to win games like that.”
Head coach Jim McElwain recognized Grier’s gumption. “He was sore. You’re playing in the SEC. You’re going to get score. I loved his courage. He played with some bruises. In this league, you’re playing that position, you’re going to get some bumps and bruises,” he said.
Remember, this was a redshirt freshman in the fourth game (third start, second real start) of his career. It’s natural to see a young quarterback misplace a defender (Grier’s first half interception) or get flustered and not finish his reads (multiple times in the game). What’s not ordinary is to have one who fights through that adversity and still leads his team to a gritty, seemingly-impossible victory.
McElwain may not believe that Grier alone is the best option to lead the Gators to their maximum number of wins in 2015, but he would be foolish not to take the opportunity to use what is very much a rebuilding year to mold Florida’s quarterback of the future.
Sophomore Treon Harris has proven to be unreliable and untrustworthy and, well, there is no one else besides him to legitimately push Grier. Instead of worrying about Grier being perfect, McElwain needs to throw his support behind the youngster and build him up, giving him every opportunity to develop into the player that the Gators have been crying out for since Tebow’s departure.
“I know that I am a freshman, but I can’t make freshman mistakes at this level playing in this league,” Grier admitted. “I hold myself to the standard of just being the Florida Gator quarterback, and I’m just going to do the best I can.”
It would be negligent to provide Grier with this praise and ignore the contributions of true freshman wide receiver Antonio Callaway, who similarly stepped into a vacant role Florida has been looking to fill for years – playmaker.
Callaway has been everything junior WRs Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood were supposed to be. Sure, he’s athletic and has good hands and runs crisp routes; Callaway is also smart, dedicated and tough – he is not afraid to go up and get the ball and fight for extra yardage. And he was not shaken when Grier called his number on a 4th and 14 with the game on the line late in Saturday’s contest.
“The young kid, my little brother, Callaway just made a hell of a play, man. Just another guy who has stepped up and is making a lot of plays. He turned that first down into a touchdown. Big players make big plays in big games like that,” Grier said.
That’s not to say Robinson and Fulwood have not contributed in their own ways. It’s simply to point out how Callaway is the complete receiver that Florida has desperately needed for years. He is the Gators’ leading receiver (nine catches, 172 yards) despite hauling in 11 fewer passes than Robinson (20, 153).
“We knew there was something special in this kid when we started recruiting him,” McElwain said of Callaway. “I think he’s proven that, and he still hasn’t really scratched the surface. He’s still learning how to play.”
To indicate Florida’s offense is fixed or even “turned around” would be foolhardy. But one would be remiss not to point out that the Gators currently have pieces that they have lacked for a long time.
Now it is up to the coaching staff, which has done a fine job to this point, taking the young talent they have and molding it into a foundation for the future of Florida football.
Beating the Vols is nice, and it’s a great win for a new Gators regime, but Florida has an opportunity to make Saturday’s thrilling victory just the tip of the iceberg.