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Thursday Thoughts: The two-quarterback plan for Florida in the 2016 recruiting class

If you have two quarterback recruits, you really don't have to worry about one so much.

LSU commit Feleipe Franks.
LSU commit Feleipe Franks.
Student Sports

No one has a damn clue who first said "If you have two starting quarterbacks, you don't have one" — it's easier to just write it as an "adage" or a "football saying" than to do the etymological excavation, apparently — but the logic of that theory seems sound: Two quarterbacks of relatively equal caliber competing for a single job tends to not work out.

Florida's recent history bears this out, though the difficulties the Gators have had have been related not to struggles with naming a starting quarterback but the fallout from such decisions. Jeff Driskel beating out Jacoby Brissett in the fall of 2012 netted Florida one year of adequate QB play and two excruciating subsequent seasons that would likely have been significantly less excruciating had Brissett not transferred after that season; Cam Newton all but disqualifying himself from a QB competition that would've pitted him against John Brantley as Tim Tebow's successor left Florida with two tight ends and two freshmen to back up Brantley during his struggles as Florida's starter.

Even the Rex Grossman-Brock Berlin derby hurt the Gators, arguably: Grossman was a Heisman-caliber passer in 2001, and pretty good in 2002, but Berlin leaving after losing out to Grossman meant the Gators had to turn to Ingle Martin and a green-as-a-fairway Chris Leak in 2003. And while Leak would eventually win a national title for Florida (though, uh, not a Heisman, Sports Illustrated), it's hard to imagine Florida wouldn't have been better in games like its loss to Miami in 2003 with Berlin at the helm — especially since Miami wouldn't have had him.

Since the dawn of the 20th century, there's one quarterback "competition" between two legitimate candidates for the role that has worked out for Florida: Leak's "victory" over true freshman Tebow in the 2006 offseason gave the Gators complementary QBs who didn't need to compete with each other for the starting role, just for Florida in a national championship campaign. I put those nouns in quotation marks because it seems silly, in hindsight, to call the Leak-Tebow battery the result of a true competition, but there were plenty of people clamoring for Tebow to start over Leak in 2006, after Tebow's brilliant spring game (15-for-21, 197 yards), into the summer, and through the fall.

Besides being one of the more shameful moments in the history of Florida football, Leak infamously being booed by The Swamp during a poor showing against Kentucky, as Tebow helped throttle the Wildcats, is ample evidence that plenty of discontent with the starter existed among the fan base that fall.

But that discontent wasn't shared by Urban Meyer, who expertly rode both players (and a ferocious defense) to that first national title in a decade, or by Leak and Tebow. Those players' makeups — Leak, the consummate professional even as a college senior; Tebow, the competitor who would do anything asked of him to help his team win — certainly helped in that regard, but Meyer knew what he was doing: He had his steady starter in Leak, and his fiery spark plug in Tebow, and he used both almost perfectly that season.

Arguably, he followed that wizardry with a boondoggle, when recruiting Newton and Brantley in the same class, and allowing Newton to stray so far from the path that his and Florida's futures had to diverge. And, inarguably, Meyer bringing in no quarterbacks of any consequence between that 2007 recruiting class with Newton and Brantley and his departure from Florida was a tactical error papered over by Tebow's three fantastic seasons as a starter. But Meyer, who has another quarterback derby on his hands at Ohio State in 2015, handled that 2006 situation beautifully.

The easier way to manage a potentially dicey quarterback situation is through recruiting so that it never exists. And Jim McElwain appears poised to do that.

McElwain inherited Will Grier and Treon Harris, and his handling of them in 2015 will be the first great challenge of his in-season acumen at Florida. If Florida flames out in 2015, it may well be a result of McElwain failing to properly handle that derby.

But reeling in almost an entire recruiting class in two months and rebuilding an offensive line that was perilously thin were his first two great challenges — they just weren't in-season ones. And McElwain passed both of those tests with a stellar close to Florida's 2015 recruiting class and feverish work to bring eight scholarship offensive linemen (six true freshmen and two transfers) into the program.

So I'm inclined to trust his ability to build a roster — and to think that accepting a commitment from little-known two-star Texas quarterback Kyle Trask, as Florida did over the weekend, is a first step toward a secure future at the quarterback position.

Trask, to put it kindly, does not appear to be an SEC starter-caliber quarterback at the moment, at least on tape. He's a project, a piece of clay to molded by McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. He also isn't an impediment to any other quarterback in the 2016 class committing to the Gators down the line.

Florida not landing Dillon Sterling-Cole on Tuesday — after not landing Dwayne Haskins in May — leaves the Gators with no great options among uncommitted quarterback prospects in the 2016 class. The only uncommitted player among the top 30 pro-style quarterbacks per the 247Sports Composite is Utah thrower Keaton Torre, whom I had never heard of prior to writing this post, and who isn't a credible target for Florida; the only uncommitted player among the 247Composite's top 20 dual-threat quarterbacks is a more credible target, Lake Wales passer Xavier Gaines, whose star has cooled considerably since he was regarded, years ago, as a player close to the talent level of current No. 1 dual-threat passer Feleipe Franks.

And Gaines, who will visit USF this weekend, has been saying things like "I am waiting on them" ($) about his interest in Florida, despite naming Florida and Notre Dame among his top schools. But no one who has put in a Crystal Ball prediction on Gaines — and no recruiting analyst has picked a school for him since April — has him tabbed for either Florida or Notre Dame: Florida State, despite getting just two predictions for Gaines since 2013, is still the leader in his Crystal Ball. Clearly, there's a disconnect between what Gaines says and what the recruiting industry thinks; quite possibly, Gaines isn't actually a Florida target.

Without any indication of serious interest in Gaines, Florida's aim for the 2016 recruiting class has to be flipping a committed quarterback to complement Trask — and, assuredly, a higher-rated one. If Trask's commitment to Florida — which came with an advisement from Nussmeier that Florida plans to take two quarterbacks in its 2016 class — didn't make that obvious, Sterling-Cole's commitment to Arizona State should have.

Trask isn't going to scare off any potential competitors with his relatively unimpressive skillset, but Sterling-Cole, who has more talent and a significant amount of room to grow (physically, too: he's a skinny 180ish pounds), would have. Landing Sterling-Cole in addition to Trask might have been possible, but that would've set Florida's ceiling at just that pairing; landing Trask instead of Sterling-Cole doesn't limit Florida's flexibility at all, and its ceiling remains sky-high.

Trask would seem like a fine developmental complement to in-state passers Franks, a long-time LSU commit who had been friendly with the Gators prior to popping for the Tigers back in 2013, and Jack Allison, a long-time Miami commit, both of whom have the talent to play early in their careers if necessary. Tennessee commit Jarrett Guarantano would likely fit that bill, too — and Tennessee's got a logjam at quarterback thanks to the emergence of Joshua Dobbs, just a junior, and the Vols' success in reeling in former Florida commit Sheriron Jones in the 2015 class.

Florida could also work down from that trio, all of whom are consensus four-star prospects.

Clemson commit Zerrick Cooper, who could be stuck behind Deshaun Watson in that program, is a project closer to Sterling-Cole's level — he's ranked one spot behind Gaines among dual-threat passers — but he has a fantastic frame (6'5", 200 pounds), was at Friday Night Lights, and became the subject of a teacup tempest because of that visit.

Louisville "commit" Tylin Oden — seemingly recruited over by the Cardinals, who recently got a commitment from Jawon Pass — is another taller (6'5", 180 pounds) passer the Gators could go after; he initially set up a visit to Florida for Friday Night Lights, though that didn't come to pass.

That's a nice list of potential flips for Florida — and we have evidence, in the ultimately fruitless pursuits of eventual Florida State signee Deondre Francois and eventual Louisville signee Lamar Jackson in the 2015 class, that the McElwain-Nussmeier brain trust does not shy away from attempting flips.

They don't have much other choice: Florida taking two quarterbacks in the 2016 class makes more sense than taking one, and always has.

While it seems unlikely that the Grier-Harris derby will touch off the sort of distress in the locker room the Brissett-Driskel battle did, no matter who wins or loses, McElwain and Nussmeier have to operate under the assumption that the loser of the competition is likely to transfer, because that's just what talented quarterbacks relegated to backup roles tend to do.

That hypothetical transfer would leave Florida with just the derby winner, walk-on (for now) and wild card Luke Del Rio, and Trask at quarterback in 2016. That sort of gossamer-thin depth is a terrifying prospect, especially for a program that has had seasons ravaged by quarterback injuries of late.

Florida hasn't had one quarterback start every game of a season since 2009, when Tebow started all 14 games (and, er, probably shouldn't have): Brantley didn't start at QB (Trey Burton did!) and threw just 12 passes for Florida against FSU in 2010, injuries forced Brissett to start in place of Brantley and Driskel in 2011 and 2012, and Driskel's broken leg thrust Tyler Murphy into the starting role in 2013 (and Murphy's shoulder injury later elevated Skyler Mornhinweg). When Driskel's inefficacy led to Harris assuming the starter's role in 2014, it was at least a respite from injury sideswiping Florida's QBs ... and then a Harris injury led to the bizarre sight of Driskel playing in Florida's bowl game after requesting a transfer from the school.

And it's no coincidence, I think, that the worst of those seasons came in the year in which Florida's quarterback depth was at its shallowest. Murphy outperformed all reasonable expectations in his stint as Florida's starter, but he was still quite limited as a passer; Mornhinweg's abilities, though, were so limited that his installation as Florida's starter enfeebled an already struggling offense to the point that the Gators all but scrapped their passing game against South Carolina, couldn't score with an FCS team, and did well to avoid the cessation of their scoring streak against Florida State.

With all due respect to Mornhinweg, who played hard but not particularly well in a trying situation, Florida should never have a player as limited as he was as a redshirt freshman as its best option at quarterback; even in times of outrageous bad luck, like Florida's wave of injuries in 2013, the Gators' third-stringer should be a player coaches can trust to throw the ball more than 15 yards downfield.

Grier and Harris would obviously seem to qualify by this rubric, and Del Rio would eventually seem likely to qualify for it, though it's unclear whether he's even going to be eligible this fall after an itinerant start to his collegiate career. While Vanderbilt transfer Josh Grady kinda sorta qualifies, though — he has, at least, taken snaps and throw passes in a live college game before, something that couldn't have been said for either Murphy or Mornhinweg entering 2013 — he is just about as borderline as it gets, especially since he hasn't been a full-time quarterback since high school.

A Grier/Harris-Del Rio-Trask triumvirate would be similarly shaky in 2016 — but that should help Florida sell the prospect of playing time to a big-time QB in the 2016 class: "(Will/Treon) is going to be our starter, but if you can beat out Luke and Kyle," Nussmeier can say, "you can be our backup." And if the worst-case scenario transpires — Florida fails to land another quarterback in 2016 — the Gators could still go down the road of last resort, and pursue a graduate transfer for depth purposes. (That's another thing Jake Allen being locked in as a 2017 commit allows: The flexibility to get creative in 2016 without necessarily short-circuiting a future.)

But for now, Florida has a clear idea of what it wants in the 2016 class: Two quarterbacks. One of them should be Kyle Trask, and the other one is likely committed to another school at this very moment.

It's up to McElwain and Nussmeier to change that, and make their plan a reality.