LEXINGTON, Ky. — Twenty-four minutes before midnight Saturday, Kyle Trask took a sack of Chick-fil-A food and started his triumphant walk out of Kroger Field.
It was slow.
One fan wanted a high five. Another wanted a selfie. There were cheers — lots of cheers.
But who could blame the quarterback for taking his time on the way to the Florida bus?
He had just come off the bench in unfortunate circumstances to lead a heroic double-digit fourth-quarter comeback for a 29-21 win at Kentucky in the first meaningful action of his Gators career. After years of waiting, he didn’t just contribute. He starred, won, and almost certainly cemented himself as an SEC starting quarterback.
At long last.
“In today’s college football world, people jump the gun,” coach Dan Mullen said.
Trask, a fourth-year junior, never did.
Not after a foot injury kept him from competing for the starting job in 2017. Not after he lost the competition to Feleipe Franks last year. Not after another foot injury ruined his chance of winning the job against South Carolina last season. Not even after his August graduation gave him the opportunity start fresh somewhere else with immediate eligibility.
“I haven’t heard a peep from any of our quarterbacks (about transferring),” Mullen said. “All I hear from them is, ‘Let’s get ready for when my number is called.’ ”
When Franks went down Saturday with a gruesome right ankle injury late in the third quarter — an injury expected to cost him the rest of his redshirt junior season — there was no guarantee Trask’s number would come up.
Mullen wanted to get blue-chip redshirt freshman Emory Jones some snaps in a specialty package; the Gators just hadn’t gotten to it yet. Jones and Trask were in the huddle with their helmets on as UF’s offense prepared to re-enter the game.
But trailing 21-10 at the time, UF needed Trask’s pure passing more than it needed Jones’ dual-threat abilities.
“I was expected to go out there and produce,” Trask said. “I was expected to go out there and win the game. It was nothing new.”
Except it was new for Trask.
In three-plus seasons at UF, he had never taken a significant snap. Scoring touchdowns in practice is one thing. Doing it on the road in the fourth quarter against a solid Kentucky team is another.
“I can’t tell you how hard it is to do what Kyle did,” Mullen said.
What Trask did as a whole was impressive: 9 of 13 passing for 126 yards and the go-ahead touchdown run. But two plays stand out as reason UF can be optimistic about life without Franks.
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The first happened two minutes into the fourth quarter. As Trask tried to squeeze between two defenders on a rush, he saw the outside one crash in and pitched the ball left to Lamical Perine.
“Good thing I did because he’s pretty dangerous with the ball in his hands,” Trask said.
Perine scored easily to make it 21-16. But he was in position to score only because Trask improvised and knew to get the ball to one of UF’s top playmakers, something he’ll need to do the rest of the season if the Gators are going to have a shot at another New Year’s Six bowl.
Trask’s other big moment came two drives later, moments after he took a hard hit that resulted in a targeting penalty. He dropped back again and scanned the full field all the way to his third read, Kyle Pitts streaking over the middle. His 30-yard pass set up Trask’s go-ahead rush.
“Great play,” Mullen said.
Trask was in position to make it because UF splits its quarterback reps more than most teams. Franks, Trask and Jones got relatively equal time with the first-team offense during preseason camp, though the starter was never really in question.
After what happened Saturday, the starting job doesn’t seem to be in question now, either, for the ninth-ranked Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC), though Mullen plans to use both Trask and Jones going forward, starting Saturday against Tennessee.
Like the cheers and Chick-fil-A late Saturday, the starting job at last belongs to Trask.
Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.