GAINESVILLE — In theory, this is what he's trained to do.
As Florida's backup quarterback, redshirt sophomore John Brantley's most important job is to be ready at all times, to step in at any moment. He has practiced that way for nearly two years. It's how he has lived in the shadow of Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.
Always ready, just in case.
Just in case arrives Saturday, and it comes in sudden, dramatic fashion.
If Tebow cannot play as he recovers from a concussion sustained Sept. 26 against Kentucky, Brantley faces the biggest challenge of his career: leading the No. 1-ranked Gators into Baton Rouge to play No. 4 LSU.
"The backup has to prepare just like a starter would in case something would happen like this," Brantley said. "I'm treating this like any other week. I'm treating it like I am starting."
But that's a big part of the problem.
Brantley has no idea if he's starting. In fact, he might not find out until game time. Tuesday, Tebow was medically cleared to return to practice in a limited capacity. But he has not been cleared to play. And even if he is cleared, no one knows if he'll start or be able to play the entire game.
"I grabbed him right before (Tuesday's) practice, and I said you prepare to play the game,'' coach Urban Meyer said.
So that's what Brantley is doing.
"If I do end up starting, I didn't imagine it starting out this way," Brantley said. "But I'm going to do what I've got to do and, hopefully, lead my team to victory."
You could say Brantley, 20, was born for this role. He is the son of ex-Gator quarterback John Brantley III and nephew of ex-Gator linebacker Scot Brantley. As a senior at Ocala Trinity Catholic in 2006, he was chosen the Gatorade national player of the year.
At Florida, he has played in 12 games, three this season, and is 40-of-58 for 467 yards with seven touchdowns. Although Brantley has never started, Meyer said he's comfortable with him.
"I have a lot of confidence, and it's not fake confidence. It's not false confidence," Meyer said. "Being quarterback is more than just catching the snap and throwing the ball. That's, obviously, a big part of it, but you've actually got to call a play in a very tough environment. It's just the management of the game. You've got 10 other guys that are looking at you for the play-call or looking at you to execute the offense.
"A year ago, he wasn't a good presence in the huddle and he wasn't a good presence on the sideline. He's much different now. Even when Tim's playing, our backup quarterback is very involved in the whole mechanics of getting the play called in and discussion on the sidelines. Johnny is very well prepared to take that next step."
That confidence extends to his teammates, who have spent the past 11/2 weeks reminding him if he weren't attending a school with a Heisman winner, he'd probably be someone's starter.
"Johnny is going to be just fine," offensive lineman Maurkice Pouncey said. "He ain't Tebow, but he can play, too."
"We've seen what he can do," receiver David Nelson said. "We know he's a tremendous quarterback, and we know that he's a tremendous player. We see him every day in practice. We know the throws he makes, the effort he gives us in practice. We see the kind of quarterback he brings to the table. … And (against Kentucky), he stepped in and did a phenomenal job for us. So we're very confident in him."
What they see in practice is a much different quarterback than Tebow. Brantley, 6 feet 3 and 217 pounds, is more of a drop-back, pure passer and admits he's not nearly as likely as Tebow to run like a bull and mow opponents down. But Meyer and Brantley say the offense won't change dramatically if Brantley is the quarterback.
Brantley has practiced with the No. 1 offense all week, preparing for whatever is thrown at him.
"I think I am ready," he said. "A year ago, I don't know if I could have said that. But this year, I think I'm a lot more ready."
After all, this is what he has been training to do.
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3389. Check her blog at blogs.tampabay.com/gators.