By BUDDY MARTIN
Call me a QB aficionado. Call me and tell me to get a life. Just call me. I’ve seen about 50 Florida Gators quarterbacks prior to their starting over the last half century.
The only ones I felt were slam dunks before they suited up were Steve Spurrier, John Reaves and Tim Tebow. I probably would have missed on Danny Wuerffel, Shane Matthews and Chris Leak. And maybe a few others.
We know so little about these two young men. But, by the time one is ordained to start against Michigan in the AdvoCare Classic Sept. 2 in the AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, he will have been closely scrutinized, optimized and sanitized. And then, as is the usual case with Gator football fans, there will be a love-hate relationship until he leaves, is injured, benched or leads his team to a championship.
From 1938 and “Cannonball” Clyde Crabtree, to the 1950s era of Haywood Sullivan, to the Steve Spurrier days in the 1960s, right through John Reaves of the 1969 SuperSophs, to the SEC championship 1990s of Shane Matthews and right through to national title of Danny Wuerffel in 1996 and the national titles of Chris Leak and Tim Tebow in the early 21st Century.
Franks And Beans?
It’s always about the quarterbacks at Florida.
And why not? Any college football program which brandishes three statues of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks out front of its stadium – Spurrier (1966), Wuerffel (1996) and Tebow (2007) – would never be mistaken for DBU – Defensive Backs University – despite the bragging of some former Gators cornerbacks and safeties who make that claim.
So where have all the quarterbacks in Gainesville gone?
Old-timers always talked about Crabtree, who was head of the “Phantom Four” backfield of 1928 that led the nation in scoring. I once interviewed a Florida fan that saw Crabtree play and he confirmed that he could pass or punt equally well with either hand or foot while stationary or on the run. Crabtree is a member of the Florida Athletic Hall of Fame, an All-Southern choice and played in the NFL.
Since Tim Tebow’s reign ended after the 2009 season, there has been a parade of nine different starting quarterbacks taking snaps, and several more potential starters who transferred to other Power Five programs with some success – one of whom (Cam Newton) won a Heisman and a national championship at Auburn and three others (Tyler Murphy, Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel) who still were active in the NFL in 2016.
Meanwhile, head coach Jim McElwain seems to have a tougher task finding a regular starting quarterback than President Donald Trump does having a cabinet confirmed by Congress. For the moment, he appears to have narrowed the field to two — barring a comeback miracle by Luke Del Rio.
Which brings us to Gator spring practice and the two redshirt freshmen who are being hailed as the latest and the greatest: Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask. I hear good things about both, but because Franks has reportedly made big strides since the 2016 spring game debacle, I am anxious to see him in game-like conditions.
The revolving door for quarterbacks in Gainesville is well traveled. In McElwain’s two seasons alone, this will mark his fifth starter. In fairness, however, there were mitigating circumstances: Banned substance (Will Grier), transfer (Treon Harris) and injury (Del Rio) claimed three, leaving Austin Appleby standing.
For a brief moment, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier considered tearing off the redshirt of Franks for the final two games, but decided against it. As they say in baseball, sometimes the best trade you make is the one you don’t make. And in this case, with Appleby helping his team win the Outback Bowl over Iowa, it was wise not to waste Franks’ eligibility.
What we do know about Franks is that he is tall (6-foot-6), has a strong arm but, in the past, has been errant with his throws. After tossing three interceptions in his first handful of passes during the spring game last year, McElwain met his quarterback at the sideline and — in a classic coaching maneuver — taught Franks how to keep his emotions in check. A few plays later after a turnover, Franks went back in and led his team to a score with a touchdown pass.
It was an excellent piece of “quarterback whisperer” coaching by McElwain.
Franks is said to have improved by effectively using the tools given to him by his coaches. Trask has looked more poised with a strong arm. Both have sufficiently impressed their head coach and position coach. Nussmeier likes Trask’s accuracy and “the way he processes information.”
“Those guys aren’t afraid to put the ball down the field,” McElwain said. “There’s no doubt about it. We’ve got a couple of guys that can chase it down. I think we’ve got a chance to really push the ball down the field.”
This is not insignificant, because if you saw the success of McElwain’s offense at Colorado State, it was based on the tenet of stretching the field with the vertical pass game. At Florida, the only real deep throwing threat (Grier) didn’t last half a season. And unless the Gators can stretch the field vertically, they’re going to be among the weakest offenses in the SEC again.
For the first time in a while, however, there is a little buzz about quarterbacks in Gainesville, where defense has ruled the day since Tebow left. For instance, nine defensive players off the 2016 team have a shot to be drafted or signed as free agents.
Since Tebow there have been nine Gators picked in the first round – seven of them on defense. Since Tebow not a single Florida quarterback has been picked in any round – period.
Of course there are other things to grade quarterbacks besides arm strength. Intelligence, leadership, courage and toughness are among them. But the first order of business for a quarterback is getting his team lined up correctly.
So there is a long way to go yet on this quarterback adventure, Gator fans, but the journey, as always, is half the fun.
(Buddy Martin has been one of America’s great sports journalists as a columnist, editor, broadcaster, author and TV producer for five decades. He has won close to 200 awards, including an Emmy. He co-wrote the best-selling book “”Urban’s Way” with coach Urban Meyer and recently releasased his latest book, co-authored with Steve Spurrier, titled “”Head Ball Coach. My Life In Football, Doing It Differently — and Winning.” The book is available on Amazon and already is a best-seller.
He is a third-generation Floridian and journalist, having begun his early career at the Ocala Star-Banner where his father and grandfather also launched their careers. From there, Buddy had a distinguished career in newspapers as editor/columnist at Florida Today, Gannett News Service, the St. Petersburg Times, The New York Daily News and The Denver Post. As managing editor of The Charlotte Sun in Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, Martin directed coverage of Hurricane Charley which won many state and national awards — and was one of three finalists in the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news.
For his role as an associate producer and editorial consultant for the NFL Today Show on CBS, Buddy was awarded an Emmy.Returning to his hometown a few years ago, Martin has served as editor in chief of Ocala Magazine and a columnist for Ocala Style.
Martin is the author of eight books. He also wrote the autobiographies of two Hall of Fame athletes – Terry Bradshaw and Dan Issel — and was awarded an Emmy while working with Bradshaw on “The NFL Today” at CBS Sports.
Among the awards he or his newspapers have claimed were best Best Lifestyle Section nationally (Penny-Missouri), Best Sunday Sports Section nationally (APSE), Best Feature Writer New York State (Associated Press) and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in breaking news (2005). He has been named best columnist or sports columnist in Florida for both magazines and newspapers six times.
Buddy is a Gator through-and-through. He was educated at the University of Florida.
He is a regular contributor to woodypaige.com.