For three years John Brantley stood on the sideline at Florida football games with a headset and a clipboard, learning everything he possibly could from the coaching staff and former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.
He watched and listened intently, so that when his time finally arrived, he'd be ready.
Many believed the transition from Tebow to Brantley would be seamless and the Gators' offensive production would even improve with a drop-back, pro-style passing quarterback. But two games into the season, the offense has sputtered, and Brantley acknowledges he's still finding his way.
Today most likely will be a defining moment in that progression.
"His career high is 170 yards; he has got to be a 200-plus-yard passer," coach Urban Meyer said. "He's doing a better job. So much of playing quarterback is giving us a great protection, making the right check, management of the offense, and this will be really challenging. It is nice when everyone quiets down at home and you do your deal. Now we are really going to challenge him on the road."
With two starts of playing experience, Brantley leads the No. 10 Gators into Knoxville, Tenn., for his first SEC road game in one of the most hostile environments in the league. He is fully aware that a big part of today's spotlight will focus on how well he responds against the Vols.
"I am ready," he said.
Brantley's margin for error will be much smaller on the road against the Vols than the first two games as Florida aspires to play better than it has in seven of its first eight quarters. The Gators had two first downs in the first quarter of their first two games, mustered a combined 45 yards in 34 plays in the first quarter of both games, and has yet to score in the first quarter. Florida is No. 11 in the league in passing offense (142.5 yards per game), No. 10 in total offense (317.5) and Brantley is No. 9 in passing efficiency (128.8). The Gators went three and out in their first possessions of both games.
But midway through the third quarter last week against USF, the offense picked up, which Brantley believes is a positive sign.
"I do think the offense is coming together," the redshirt junior said. "The next thing we need to do is have it together from the beginning. We started out a little slow, but towards the end of the first half and second half, we got it going. But we need to have that together that first drive."
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley has heard some of the talk about the Gators' struggles. He's not buying it, and he has told his team to prepare for the Florida team that showed up in the second half against USF.
"I think he's doing a great job," Dooley said of Brantley. "I think it's always hard when you're new, and it's especially hard when you're replacing a guy like Tim Tebow, because of the expectations. But I think he's handling it phenomenally well. I think their offense really came into its own in that second game, and they poured it on. And they looked no different than any Florida team in the past to me."
Brantley's teammates agree.
"John Brantley is fine," receiver Deonte Thompson said. "Nothing wrong with him, nothing wrong with this offense. We have all the confidence in him, and he has confidence in us."
The expectations for Brantley and the Gators to be hitting on all cylinders right now are unrealistic considering the personnel they lost, some analysts believe.
"I really don't want to minimize at all the Tebow thing because it's much like when we went from Peyton Manning to Tee Martin back in 1999," former Tennessee coach and current CBS analyst Phillip Fulmer said. "Tee Martin rose to the occasion and played as a quarterback should play, and the team eventually rallied around him. It's early, and I just don't see those dynamics happening at Florida yet. So I think it's a little bit of a psyche and an emotional dynamic that are at work at Florida right now, and it's up to the coaches and the juniors and seniors on that team to make it happen. They are certainly very, very talented."
Brantley said he's becoming more comfortable with every practice, every game, but he has come to the stark realization that there's a vast difference between preparing to become the starter and actually taking over that role.
"It's completely different," he said. "The adrenaline is pumping, and you're just trying to make plays and help the team out. But it's tough seeing all the different kinds of defenses. You've got to really pay attention, you've got to really be locked in. You can't take a play off at all. It's been a great learning experience, and I've had a lot of fun with it so far."
The general consensus is the Gators, and Brantley, will be much better by the season's end. Today would be a good start. And as with all good offenses, it starts with Brantley.
"He's got to play a little better this week because we're playing a better team and better personnel," Meyer said. "Obviously the issue is going to be, this is the first time he's going to play quarterback in a situation where he's going to have to really manage in a tough environment. So that's the next step. And it's here."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]m. Check out her blog at tampabay.com/blogs/gators.