clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Florida vs. LSU: How will the Gators' offense look with Treon Harris at quarterback?

New, 166 comments

Florida's entering a brave new world.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

With Will Grier suspended — and, hopefully, the tragedy of Wednesday behind it — Florida is firmly focused on LSU, and working Treon Harris into an offense that had risen to prominence with Grier under center.

Harris has been in this position before, but not with Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier designing his offense. What is this brave new world going to look like?

What changes with Harris

The most important (and most obvious) difference between Grier and Harris is their acuity as passers. Grier was thought of as the "better" passer by fans even before the 2015 season, which largely boiled down to two physical differences: Grier is taller, and can see the field better, and Grier has a stronger arm than Harris does.

If Grier has a cannon for an arm, Harris has a low-powered rifle.

That was never a totally fair comparison, especially because Harris was asked to see the field and work through progressions more often than Grier over Florida's first two games of 2015; if Grier had an advantage in his ability to see over a hulking offensive line, it also seemed like he wasn't trusted to do it as much as Harris was. And while Grier's arm is undeniably better than Harris's, he is also more than capable of short-arming some throws while trying to rocket them in, while Harris showed greater touch on almost all of his throws.

If Grier has a cannon for an arm, Harris has a low-powered rifle, trading power for accuracy. But while Grier's arm strength is his greatest advantage over Harris, it only showed up on one true deep ball through six games, his touchdown pass to Demarcus Robinson against Mississippi — which was still slightly underthrown. That arm strength, and Florida's confidence in it, is better seen in the number and type of difficult throws — 15 to 20 yards down to the field over the middle and on intermediate out routes — that Grier was asked to make.

Harris isn't dramatically better at throwing deep, and underthrew his most memorable deep ball of 2015 on a touchdown pass to Brandon Powell against New Mexico State, but he does have other deep connections (against lesser teams) to his credit. I wouldn't be surprised to see Florida try going deep with Harris against LSU, if only to put it on film and force defenses to anticipate it. What I would be surprised to see is more than a couple of those more difficult throws Grier has been asked to make. Harris can't rev up and throw balls into tight windows on a line, or at least hasn't shown that capacity; I doubt it's only for lack of opportunity.

The things Harris excels at as a passer are things that maximize his athletic gifts: He's shown significant deftness throwing on the run in 2015, and is good at scrambling to extend plays and/or get upfield. Florida is likely to try to move him around, and though it moved Grier around quite often on the popular play-action naked bootleg, Harris may get that as a default rather than a change-up.

Harris is also a better runner than Grier: He's quicker and more agile, though their top-end speeds may be fairly close. But Florida did not ask Harris to run reads often in 2014, and has not done that much in 2015; his two plays against Missouri both appeared to be inverted veers off of jet sweep action from Brandon Powell, and thus likely part of a package of plays for Harris rather than an integral part of Florida's playbook.

While McElwain and Nussmeier may try to utilize Harris's mobility in the passing game, it's unclear whether he'll be asked to do more running.

What should stay the same

Florida has not been an aggressive offense with Grier under center, choosing its spots carefully and attempting to gnaw at defenses rather than chomping them. And with Harris not having Grier's arm strength, it's hard to see big shots in the passing game becoming a significantly larger part of the offense with Harris at the helm.

Consequently, I think we can also expect Harris to be at least as safe as Grier was with the ball. Grier had only thrown three interceptions on the year, and only two were his fault; his 1.8 percent interception percentage will be the Florida's best by a quarterback with more than 50 throws in a season since Tim Tebow.

And yet: Harris had been less of a gunslinger both in practice and in games, and was relatively safe in his six starts last year (four of which were away from The Swamp, giving him twice as many road starts as Grier had made); Harris threw four picks on 111 throws in 2014, for an interception percentage of 3.6 percent, and one of those picks came on an otherworldly play by Florida State's Jalen Ramsey. I wouldn't expect him to suddenly start trying to make absurd throws now that he knows he's QB1.

Harris will also undoubtedly move around, but Grier was doing plenty of that. Grier also found tight end Jake McGee quite often from the second half of the Tennessee game onward, and I would expect Florida to continue to use its tight ends as a safety valve for Harris.

The most significant non-change, though, might be a lack of increased emphasis on Harris running. With Grier sidelined, Florida has just two eligible scholarship quarterbacks: Harris and Josh Grady, who is about as much wide receiver as quarterback. If they want to compete for an SEC East title, the Gators cannot afford to lose Harris, as the step down from him to Grady — who hasn't started at quarterback since high school — is likely much, much greater than the one from Grier to Harris.

Grier was already reckless as a runner, both in terms of his ball security (which did improve) on the hoof and his disregard for his physical well-being, notably on a pointless hurdle attempt at Missouri. Harris has never been quite so daring on the ground, so Florida might be able to justify a slightly larger workload for him as a runner with explicit directions to get down if trouble arises.

But the Gators' quarterback situation is currently more dire than it was at any point in the last five seasons, all of which featured multiple starting quarterbacks. Running Harris more than five to eight times is asking for disaster, to my mind, and I can't imagine McElwain and Nussmeier disagree.

What we should expect

I think the bottom line with a Harris-led Florida offense, at this juncture, is that it is going to be a reduced version of what Grier brings. Grier's arm opens up parts of the field that Harris's arm and legs don't, and what Harris can do as a runner is likely to be limited by that fear of injury; had this been Grier simply being benched, I'd feel far more confident predicting a more aggressive dose of quarterback runs.

The million-dollar question, though, is how reduced that offense is. Will it be less effective, or just less explosive? Will Harris be able to match Grier's level of performance despite his different skill set, or will that lead to a lower level of play? Will Florida play scared, or simply safe?

I don't know the answers to those questions. And we won't know them until Saturday night in Death Valley.