GAINESVILLE — Nobody expected John Brantley to be Tim Tebow.
After waiting patiently behind the former Heisman Trophy winner for three seasons at Florida, Brantley faced a level of expectation that he most likely couldn't avoid being measured by.
But with the way the offense has struggled, no one is sure even Tebow could have been himself this season.
"I see a lot of guys get down on Johnny this year, but it's a team game," senior running back Emmanuel Moody said. "The offensive line has to protect him. The running backs have to be able to make plays in the run game; the receivers have to get open. We can't just focus on one player and think that he's really bad just because they see the statistics or the results. (You) have to see the thing as a whole, what every position on the field is doing."
Instead of an all-conference player, Brantley is a befuddled, battered version of what he could have been. And 11 weeks into the season, as the Gators prepare to play at Florida State in the regular-season finale Saturday, many are asking, "What happened to John Brantley?"
What has gone wrong appears to be a combination of issues that have rendered Brantley ineffective at what he does best and led to the three-quarterback system Florida has used the latter half of the season.
Much of the Gators' high hopes for the redshirt junior entering the season rested on his big arm and ability to drop back. But without Chris Rainey, who was suspended for seven games; Jeff Demps, who has barely played since Sept. 18 due to a foot injury; and other injuries, the running game has been nearly obsolete.
"Get the running game going," Brantley said when asked what he needs most to play at his best. "We really got the run game going this past weekend, and that helps you out. You want to be as balanced as you can, and when we try to get away from the run game (when it isn't) working and try to go to passing game, it kind of messes it all up."
In four losses, the Gators' running game stalled in three.
Florida had 35 net rushing yards on 20 attempts vs. South Carolina (1.8 per carry), 89 yards on 32 carries vs. LSU (2.8 per attempt) and 79 yards on 31 carries vs. Alabama (2.5 per attempt). That's 83 rushes for 203 yards in those three losses — an average of less than 2.5 yards. Florida averages 4.3 yards per carry and is 38 percent on third-down conversions.
Coach Urban Meyer said college football today demands that if you don't have a running quarterback, you have to have "a big, dominant 235-pound running back," which the Gators don't have. Because he's no threat to run, Brantley relies upon the running game.
"Our tailbacks have to run really hard because with John in the game, as a tailback, that's the issue," Meyer said. "When John's playing, you need that guy, a tailback that can do it all. When Chris Rainey's in there, he's not one of those tailbacks who can do it all. He's 175 pounds. Jeff Demps is a little closer, and Moody has been banged up, and Gilly (Mike Gillislee) has been banged up. So when you have a quarterback like that, he's got to be able to hand the ball off. That's nothing new. It's been that way for 100-something years. You're limited at tight end, and you're limited at fullback. … Obviously, you want to hand the ball off, play-action pass and then execute the dropback passing game. When we do that, we operate at a very high level."
Then there's the Gators offensive line. What was supposed to be the most solid unit on the team this season, including five returning starters, has been inconsistent. The Gators have allowed 21 sacks, and receivers have dropped nearly as many passes as they've caught.
But Brantley will be the first to tell you there are things he has struggled with on his own. He's not the most mobile guy, and he's still struggling with getting out of the pocket effectively or getting rid of the ball quickly enough.
Despite the struggles, and with FSU on the horizon, Brantley insists his confidence hasn't waned — in himself or his teammates.
"I trust all those guys in that locker room; I trust all the coaches," Brantley said. "I'm just as confident now. Things happen, and what you've got to do is learn from that and keep going and that's what we've done. … We've all been, 'Hey, let's keep fighting; let's keep moving forward.' "
And trying to find out how John Brantley can prosper in this offense.
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.