On any given football team, the quarterback is without a doubt the most important position on the field. For a Florida team that’s struggled mightily at that position, the importance is magnified several times over.
Thus, our pre-spring breakdown of the Gators’ roster begins with the quarterback position.
Synopsis: With Will Grier dearly departed and Treon Harris switching positions, there’s guaranteed to be a new face at the controls going forward. The question is who, and the possible answers are two transfers (Austin Appleby, Purdue and Luke Del Rio, Oregon State) with limited experience and a true freshman (Feleipe Franks) who shows tremendous promise but doesn’t appear ready quite yet.
What to watch for: The development of freshman Feleipe Franks has to be the biggest thing to keep tabs on this spring. The former LSU commit brings a big arm and big play-making abilities. Unfortunately, sometimes those “big plays” are good for the other team, particularly when he’s pressured. His mechanics and footwork need improvement, too. But he seems like a smart kid, and the progress he made from his junior to senior seasons in high school give reason to believe that he’ll at least make some strides this spring. How far he comes along is the question.
Dark horse: Appleby is the only one in the mix who’s ever thrown a collegiate pass. In fact, he’s thrown 485 of them. Yet despite being the only one with experience, he’s been thought of by some as an afterthought in the Gators’ QB race. But don’t be fooled by the 19 picks he threw over the last two seasons at Purdue; four of them were tipped, and he was hit as he threw on another. He’s a very bright guy, and very careful with the football, both of which feel like prerequisites to be a Jim McElwain-coached quarterback. (Aside: I feel like I’m supposed to include freshman Kyle Trask somewhere in here. I’ve heard he’s a nice kid, so nothing against him personally, but… he’s got a ways to go to even become a dark horse.)
Projected starter: Luke Del Rio. This is nearly impossible to predict given that none of the candidates have ever taken a snap under McElwain or offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. That has forced me to rely mainly on high school and practice tapes for all the analysis you’ll read, but from what I’ve seen in them, Del Rio looks like the most polished of the three. Franks may be the long term answer, but the Gators need a quarterback now, not “some random time in the future.” His mechanics are solid, and he throws a decent ball. Assuming he doesn’t panic when the rush comes at him and make bad decisions, he’s my pick to win the starting job.
Summary: McElwain knows the importance of finding a big time quarterback, and his track record of developing them speaks for itself. So it’s not that I don’t trust him to pick the right one, it’s just… well, Florida has had just one even decent QB since Tim Tebow. And that QB wound up transferring after he got nailed taking PEDs. Blame Will Muschamp for that if you want (because let’s face it, he deserves it) but the simple fact that this program has not had adequate quarterback play in six years now has gotten the fan base understandably antsy, and in some cases skeptical. As most people reading this already know: the QB battle is easily the most crucial component of the Gators’ spring practice.