GAINESVILLE — When quarterback Feleipe Franks threw a 3-yard jump pass to Tyrie Cleveland in Florida’s 53-6 rout of Charleston Southern, the flashbacks were obvious.
"Hello, Tebow," announcer Tom Hart said on the SEC Network’s broadcast.
Yes, it was an obvious homage to Tim Tebow, who helped build his legacy with similar touchdown throws against LSU (2006) and Oklahoma (to help seal the 2008 national title). It was a logical bridge from Dan Mullen’s championship past as Tebow’s offensive coordinator to the championship future he hopes to build in his first year as Gators head coach.
But there was more to the play and the call than that, starting with a history that predates Tebow.
The jump pass first appeared in Mullen’s playbook when he was on Urban Meyer’s Utah staff in 2003. The first person to run it wasn’t even a quarterback; it was Ben Moa, a 6-foot-2, 257-pound tight end who would occasionally take direct snaps in a goal-line package.
"He’d power away," Mullen remembered.
That’s what Moa did three times inside the 5 in triple overtime at Air Force. The final one (on fourth down) was his third rushing touchdown of the game and tied it at 43.
For the two-point conversion, Utah put Moa in the backfield again. Except instead of plowing ahead, he faked the rush and lobbed the ball to 6-foot-5 tight end Matt Hansen for the winning score.
"We’ve had that play in for several weeks now," Hansen told reporters after the game. "We’ve just been waiting for the right situation to run it."
The right situations arose later at UF with Tebow. They came up a few times more for Mullen at Mississippi State (Dak Prescott’s touchdown pass in a 2013 loss to Texas A&M) and for Meyer at Ohio State (J.T. Barrett’s scoring toss against Nebraska in 2016).
And the Gators found themselves in the right situation again Saturday night. UF was inside the 5, an obvious spot to consider running the 240-pound Franks.
"You’ve got to set it up a little bit to get them not expecting it," Mullen said.
Franks and backup Kyle Trask traveled a couple of times while practicing the move, according to Mullen. Although the play didn’t work every time during the week, it worked enough that quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson chose to call it during the second quarter.
You can nitpick Franks’ pass — it wasn’t as graceful as UF’s Jumpman logo, and it was more of a dart than an alley-oop — but the play is more about the timing than the execution.
"We scored," Franks said. "Pretty or not, it got in the end zone."
It might help the Gators get in the end zone again.
Instead of springing the jump pass on an unsuspecting team later, UF pulled it out up 24-0 against an overmatched Division I-AA team. Kentucky will know to look for it Saturday night, but that also means it will have to defend against it. A linebacker retreating slightly to cover a receiver might give Franks an extra few inches to power away with his legs.
"It’s like any run-pass option in place," Mullen said. "We’ll run some quarterback run. When we run quarterback run, they’ve still got to be ready to defend the pass with the play-action aspect of it."
So viewing Saturday’s jump pass as a throwback to the Tebow era is only half right. It’s also a forward-thinking, run-pass option that could pay off in the future.
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.