GAINESVILLE — John Brantley stood at the microphone last week, wearing his No. 12 jersey and shifting his weight from left to right, tentatively surveying the room filled with media.
It was his first media day appearance as Florida's No. 1 quarterback, and the questions quickly began.
About Tim Tebow.
Brantley smiled, answered politely and took it all in stride. Frankly, it was nothing new. The 21-year-old has been playing sidekick to Tebow's Superman for the past three seasons.
But when the Gators open their season against Miami of Ohio on Sept. 4, Brantley will start his first collegiate game since arriving at Florida in 2007.
The reality is it won't be just any first-time start. Brantley is replacing one of the best college football players ever, a former Heisman Trophy winner whose larger-than-life image still lingers with Florida fans.
So while few question his ability to drop back and throw like a pro, Brantley's greatest challenge may be forging his own path as Florida's new leader while navigating his way out of Tebow's shadow.
The message has been consistent from teammates, coaches, and former Florida quarterbacks from whom he has sought counsel. John Brantley is not Tim Tebow. And nobody should expect him to be.
"You can't go out and try to satisfy the masses by outdoing Tim Tebow," ESPN analyst and 1989 Heisman Trophy winner Andre Ware said. "That book has been written, it's published, it's done, it's out there. … As a player, you just have to go out and try to play your game and not try to take on too much to win games yourself and become the next Tim Tebow at Florida. He just needs to be John Brantley, and I think that's going to be good enough."
No ordinary rookie
The son of former Gators quarterback John Brantley III, the younger Brantley grew up in Ocala, 40 minutes from the Florida campus, in a Gator family that includes his uncle Scot, a former All-America linebacker at UF in the late '70s.
After orally committing to Texas out of Trinity Catholic High, Brantley eventually switched to Florida, where he spent the next three years, including one as a redshirt, behind Tebow.
"I've been waiting, I guess, a lifetime, but definitely three years for this," he said.
And that is one of the many reasons the Gators aren't overly concerned about Brantley's ability to step in and lead — because he isn't a typical first-year starter.
"I've grown up a lot," said Brantley, who is majoring in Humanities and Letters. "When I look back, I'm happy that I was able to take three years to mature, grow up and learn this game. And I got to learn from one of the best quarterbacks to ever play. So when I look back, I'm just happy that I took those years off, sat back and watched and learned the game of football."
"The good news is he was able to learn from a great guy in Tim Tebow," said Todd Blackledge, an ESPN analyst and former national championship quarterback at Penn State. "Not just how to play, and the X's and O's, but how to compete, how to lead. The intangibles that were kind of off the chart with Tim, Brantley now has a chance to kind of live out and play out what he had a chance to observe and learn from over the last couple of years."
Which is precisely how the Gators have groomed him.
"John Brantley doesn't need to be Tim Tebow, but he needed to learn everything from Tim Tebow," Florida quarterbacks coach Scot Loeffler said. "And that's what he's done. He's being himself, but he's taking all those great things that Tim showed us and Tim taught us and trying to apply that to his game. … Johnny got to watch one of the greatest quarterbacks in college football history prepare from week to week. And any time that you're around a guy like that, you're going to improve."
Brantley, his teammates and coaches began preparing for this moment long before he took over in the spring. When Tebow sustained a concussion in September at Kentucky, Brantley spent two weeks preparing as the starter in the event Tebow couldn't play in the next game, at LSU. Although he never got that start, through the turmoil and media scrutiny he gained his teammates' confidence — and more important, their respect. He has continued to do so throughout the spring and now fall camp, they said.
"You have to respect him," senior offensive lineman Carl Johnson said. "It's kind of like going into a battle with a general that you really don't like and you really don't trust. If you do that, then everyone's going to die. No one will have great success. We talk and say, 'Hey, Brantley, we're behind you 100 percent, up or down, we're going to be right behind you.' He's ready to go."
It's not as if Brantley is the first to follow a revered player. Aaron Rogers followed Brett Favre in Green Bay. Brian Griese followed John Elway in Denver. Steve Young followed Joe Montana in San Francisco. Doug Johnson followed Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel in Gainesville. All had varying degrees of success. The key?
"He just needs to be himself," said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who, as offensive coordinator at Florida State in the 1990s, coached former Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward, then his successor, Danny Kanell. "He just needs to play his game, play within his abilities. For me, when Charlie Ward left and Danny Kanell came in, I had to figure out what Danny did best, then do what he could do. That's really all you can do. If a kid tries to live up to a certain amount of hype or productivity, it's not healthy for that guy. It will crush him, especially following a guy like Tebow."
Florida coach Urban Meyer said he'd be having a lot more sleepless nights if Brantley was anybody else. Instead, he said the staff is filled with excitement.
"I want to make it clear that we do miss (Tebow)," Meyer said. "We are not relieved he is gone. We are excited. I would not be as excited if the guy behind him taking snaps was not any good, but he is really good. … We have a real, clear understanding of what John Brantley can do."
His own way
Brantley has already begun the process of establishing himself as an individual. He spends extra time with his receivers and offensive linemen. Although his low-key personality is in stark contrast to Tebow's, teammates say he's finding his own way just fine.
"Don't worry about John Brantley," senior safety Ahmad Black said. "Everybody's talking about following Tebow. How does he follow Tebow? Tebow was a great player, and we loved him. But Brantley is going to be a great player, too. Nobody's going to forget Tebow, but some day they are going to remember Brantley. He's going to shock some people. Remember I said that."
Brantley won't be holding Bible studies for teammates at his apartment, but he invited the entire offensive line to his family home in Ocala for a bonding session. He doesn't create a mob scene with a simple trip to the grocery store. And he's not planning on taking a victory lap around Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to shake hands with fans after every game. That was Tim Tebow.
Remember, this is John Brantley. And that's just not his style.
"I'm just a regular dude from Ocala," he said.
For the Gators, that leaves no questions.
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3389.