Sunday, June 24, 2018
Colleges

Why every Gator quarterback has struggled since Tebow

GAINESVILLE — The only recent reminders of Florida's prolific passing history stand outside Ben Hill Griffin Stadium — the statues of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks Steve Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow that welcome fans to the Swamp.

Inside, the Gators have been stuck in a cycle of struggles at the game's most important position that will continue this fall when two walk-on transfers battle two true freshmen to become the ninth different starting quarterback since Tebow left for the 2010 NFL draft.

The statistics show why none of the previous eight lasted an entire year as the starter. From 2010-15, UF has completed 58.9 percent of its passes — No. 72 nationally. Its passer rating is 89th. The Gators fall outside the top 95 in passing yards, touchdowns and touchdown/interception ratio. In its past 60 games against Power 5 teams, UF has thrown for more than 300 yards only once — while failing to surpass 100 yards nine times.

Analysts and coaches point to several reasons for the Gators' dramatic drop-off: recruiting blunders, undeveloped talent and constant coaching turnover, all compounded with a little bad luck.

The end result explains why UF hasn't been in the national championship picture and why it enters Friday's spring game still searching for a long-term solution to life after Tebow.

"All these guys were supposed to be the quarterback of the future; one was supposed to hand off to the next," said Mike Farrell, Rivals' national recruiting director. "None of that happened."

•••

The Gators' quarterback problems begin with the prospects they've brought in — a mixed bag of recruiting misses, miscast athletes and what-ifs who got away.

The misses are easy to spot. Skyler Mornhinweg barely registered as one of the nation's top 1,000 recruits, but UF signed him over Paxton Lynch in 2012 — possibly as a favor to Mornhinweg's NFL dad, Marty. The next year, then-coach Will Muschamp's defensive-minded staff added another unheralded recruit, Max Staver, who held only one other Power 5 offer. Both were gone by the start of last season.

"There's some head-scratchers in there," Farrell said.

But there are also some big-name talents who didn't stick. Off-the-field problems eliminated five-star recruit Cam Newton, who resurfaced at Auburn and became a superstar. Will Grier looked promising last season but failed a drug test and is transferring to West Virginia.

Treon Harris was Rivals' No. 3 dual-threat quarterback prospect in 2014 — behind Grier and Clemson phenom Deshaun Watson — but some scouts believed his athleticism was better suited for receiver or safety. If he returns from an indefinite, unspecified suspension, he will likely switch to receiver.

Misplaced evaluation has been a recurring theme. From 2008-10, UF signed three quarterbacks who are all in the NFL. The problem is that none of the three belonged at quarterback. Trey Burton and Jordan Reed developed into tight ends, and Tyler Murphy is on the Dolphins' roster as a receiver.

Those three empty recruiting classes sapped UF's depth and forced Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel into action as true freshmen in 2011 before they were ready.

"They didn't hit on the quarterbacks that they used to," said Larry Blustein, who has covered South Florida recruiting for four decades. "They're getting too many athletes and not enough quarterbacks."

And the few viable quarterbacks have been hindered by questionable coaching.

SEC Network analyst and former Gators receiver Chris Doering believes UF had its quarterback of the future in John Brantley, Gatorade's high school player of the year who replaced Tebow after the 2009 season. But instead of implementing a more pro-style system to fit Brantley's strengths, the Gators and then-coach Urban Meyer stuck with the spread option that required a more mobile quarterback — like Tebow.

"I think everybody knew that he wasn't going to fit into doing the same things Tim Tebow did," Doering said. "It was a tough dynamic from the outset."

The dynamic was even trickier in 2012 between Driskel and Brissett.

Both players arrived at UF in 2011 as top 150 national recruits with lofty expectations. Brissett started four games for the Gators, but Driskel stole the job during UF's 11-win season in 2012.

Rather than let both players keep competing through the spring or fall, Muschamp anointed Driskel as the long-term starter. Muschamp's decision gave Brissett the chance to play elsewhere; he threw 43 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in two solid seasons at North Carolina State to establish himself as a likely midround NFL draft pick. But it left UF without an established backup and someone to challenge Driskel.

"Who knows what would have happened had Jacoby Brissett stayed around and let it play out?" Doering said. "The competition between those guys could have elevated each of their play significantly."

Instead, Driskel faltered. He broke his leg in 2013, then was benched the next fall after committing 12 turnovers in a four-game stretch. He never recovered at Florida.

Like Brissett, Driskel transferred. He rebounded at Louisiana Tech and passed for 4,000 yards last season. And like Brissett, Driskel will likely be on an NFL roster after the April 28-30 draft.

•••

Coach Jim McElwain evaluates quarterbacks based on how the team performs around them. In that context, UF's passers haven't been put in positions to succeed; they've weathered three head coaches and five offensive coordinators in six seasons.

"I don't know if it's that they missed on quarterbacks," said John Kaleo, a Tampa-based quarterbacks coach who worked with former Pasco High star and UF walk-on Jacob Guy. "The poor kids never had time to develop."

Because every coordinator has his own preferences, Kaleo said, quarterbacks had to retool their fundamentals and retrain their muscles to accommodate every coaching change.

By the time they were ready, the coaches who recruited them were usually gone, and the new system wasn't always the right fit.

"You're putting a square peg in a round hole," said Ken Mastrole, an Estero-based quarterbacks coach who has tutored Brissett and Driskel. "It starts to snowball on you."

Then-offensive coordinator Steve Addazio brought in Murphy to fit a spread-option system. When Murphy finally prepared for his first UF start 21/2 years later, he was on his third coordinator, and Addazio was the head coach at Boston College.

Murphy and UF didn't click; he threw six touchdowns and five interceptions and transferred after 2013. But he thrived after reuniting with Addazio at Boston College. His 1,600 passing yards and almost 1,200 rushing yards helped the Eagles to a bowl game and got him to the NFL.

The Gators' coaching carousel has damaged other positions, too. UF's receivers have had a different position coach each of the past six seasons. Any fundamental tweaks disrupt the passing game's timing, making the quarterback's job even harder. The Gators' lack of a big-play receiver who can jump-start an offense and bail out an embattled passer has only made things worse.

"There's only so much you can do," said Doering, UF's all-time leader with 31 career touchdown catches. "There were receivers that were not playing up to what their potential was because there was inconsistent teaching."

The results showed. From 2006 to Tebow's 2010 draft class, NFL teams drafted 10 UF offensive skill players. Only five have been picked in the five draft classes since.

Regardless of how Florida's current skill players develop, analysts provided one reason to believe the Gators' passers could regain their glory: McElwain, who groomed three quarterbacks at Alabama and Colorado State into draft picks.

"As he establishes his program and gets his type of quarterback in there," Kaleo said, "I think you'll see the stability of Florida Gators quarterbacks that the state is used to seeing."

Even if the quarterback cycle enters a seventh season.

In the four recruiting classes before McElwain's first fall, the Gators signed four quarterbacks. None are on the active roster.

Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

     
     
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