We're going to grade Florida's 2014 recruiting class over the next two weeks, but we're not just going to tell you the Gators got an A at quarterback and move on with it. We'll evaluate needs, positional value, and available talent, assess how Florida fared on the recruiting trail, grade the future Gators at each position based on talent, fit, and potential, do a little future-seeing, and deliver the most holistic verdict we can.
We would be shortchanging you if we did anything less. And today, we start with the most important position on the team: Quarterback.
Florida struggled mightily at quarterback in 2013, where Jeff Driskel and Tyler Murphy each had issues before bowing out with injuries, and Skyler Mornhinweg just had issues. And with Murphy and 2013 recruit Max Staver each deciding to transfer in December, Florida was down to just two scholarship quarterbacks when 2014 dawned.
The Gators have an entrenched incumbent starter in Driskel, but Driskel's health is and will be a major concern for Will Muschamp and staff. Injury has kept him from making starts in all three years of his Florida career: In 2011, an ankle sprain elevated Jacoby Brissett to starter on the eve of Florida's trip to LSU; in 2012, Driskel missed the latter part of Florida's bullet-dodge against Louisiana and all of the Gators' drowsy win over Jacksonville State with another ankle sprain; a broken leg suffered against Tennessee cost Driskel the final nine games of the 2013 season.
Florida telegraphed some of its belief in Driskel — whether justified or not, that faith clearly exists — by moving spring practice back to allow him to further rehabilitate his leg. But with Driskel having just two years of eligibility remaining, and potential professional prospects in either the NFL or Major League Baseball possibly leading him to leave Florida after 2014, the Gators could not let the 2014 recruiting class go by without getting Driskel's successor, and, after losing two quarterbacks to transfer, some depth at the position.
The needs, in essence, were at least one blue-chip quarterback, and two quarterbacks total.
Quarterback has been and will be the most important position in football, and no Florida fan who witnessed the Gators' fortunes plummet with their quarterback play in 2013 should ever question that. As I've noted in big-picture looks at Texas A&M and Florida State in the wake of Heisman seasons by their redshirt freshmen passers, the right quarterback can rev a program to the degree that he helps that program break its development curve. The opposite is also sort of true: Hitching a program to a top-flight prep passer who doesn't pan out can leave a program in a ditch.
Put simply: There's no position where consistently hitting on the recruiting trail is more important.
The 2014 recruiting class was a shallow one for quarterback talent, with only Texas A&M enrollee Kyle Allen ending up as a five-star player in the 247Sports Composite rankings. The state of Florida was even shallower, yielding just two composite top-300 players in Sean White (committed to Auburn) and Michael O'Connor (committed to Penn State). So Florida needed to get creative.
How Florida Fared
By picking up a commitment from Davidson (N.C.) Day quarterback Will Grier in December 2012, and keeping that commitment throughout the 2013 season, Florida hit arguably the biggest home run in the country at quarterback. No, Grier isn't as likely to play in 2014 as Allen is at Texas A&M or as Deshaun Watson is at Clemson, but Grier was also committing to a program that has struggled on offense of late, and he became a lodestar for Florida during its dismal fall, never wavering in his commitment despite the Gators' struggles and the firing of Brent Pease and earning himself a lot of fans in the process.
Getting Grier on campus as an early enrollee is also a significant win for Florida, both for the typical reasons of back-counting his scholarship and getting him ensconced at Florida and for a reason specific to Grier — he must add weight to his frame to better prepare himself for the rigors of SEC play.
And by adding Miami quarterback Treon Harris on National Signing Day, Florida finalized arguably the country's best haul at quarterback. Harris lacks ideal size and accuracy for quarterback, but has very good athleticism and an above average arm, and seems like an ideal fit as a quarterback who can play complementary roles in Kurt Roper's new system. (Swiping him from Florida State at the last moment, utterly absurd proclamations about Harris's value aside, is also a nice jab to the belly of the Seminoles.) Harris won't arrive at Florida until the summer, but he's also a scion — literally — of Tim "Ice" Harris's superb Booker T. Washington program, and is perhaps more field-ready now than Grier will be by fall, especially after leading the Tornadoes to a state title and the "mythical high school national championship" in 2013.
Grier profiles as Florida's next premier passer, and his eligibility clock should really start in 2015 after a redshirt season that allows him to grow, build strength, and learn Roper's offense. Driskel's continued presence and Harris's arrival should help him do that.
Harris is likely to be an excellent backup quarterback with versatility that makes him Swiss Army player, unless he sets the world on fire in practice, but his experience in big-time South Florida football and athleticism make him about as game-ready as quarterbacks without prototypical size truly get, and, though it is very early to project what a summer enrollee will do in the fall, it seems somewhat likely that Harris will get snaps.
Grier's potential is sky-high because of his frame, arm, surprising athleticism, and leadership. He's stood out throughout the last 15 months, since rising to national fame with one ridiculous performance, and early returns I've heard on him make me confident that he's likely to pan out with time.
While he lacks most of the assets that make Grier a prototypical quarterback, Harris, too, has ample potential, and could be a star. Unlike Grier, he could also shift to a different position or play multiple positions if his play demands it or if he ends up blocked at quarterback.
Optimistically, Grier is good enough to eventually lead Florida to a national championship, should he and the rest of the Gators' offensive talent develop into a good unit while Florida's defense stays fearsome. If Roper's offense churns out statistics, Grier could also certainly find himself in Heisman contention down the line. Pessimistically, Grier could struggle with the transition from small-school football in North Carolina to the SEC, and with putting on weight, which would leave him one sack from the trainer's table and could scuttle his career. Considering Grier's drive, I would lean more toward optimism on him.
Optimistically, Harris could be a playmaker from the moment he steps on the practice field, and a difference-maker for this Florida team this fall and throughout his four years in Gainesville as a sort of hybrid between Tyler Murphy and Trey Burton. Pessimistically, the potential exists for Harris to struggle to find a role in 2014, see himself being aced out by Grier in 2015 and beyond, and transfer, leaving a bad taste in his father's mouth that could harm Florida's chances of recruiting Booker T. Washington — not currently a Florida stronghold — in the future.
For both, the best-case scenario is a harmonious coexistence between primary passer Grier and dynamite super-sub Harris that beguiles defenses. The worst-case scenario is a contentious quarterback competition that ends up dividing a Florida team much like the one between Driskel and Jacoby Brissett did in 2012.
Florida needed talent and depth at quarterback desperately in the 2014 class, and secured both with the signings of Grier and Harris, likely among the top players on Florida's overall board and Roper's board in the class, respectively. Both players could make positive contributions early on, and if both players hit the high end of their potential — a prospect that currently seems more likely than one or both flaming out — they could team to be great.