clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Thursday Thoughts: So far, Jim McElwain is handling Florida's quarterbacks masterfully

Florida doesn't have a quarterback yet. But its coach seems like he knows what he's doing with the ones he's evaluating.

Rob Foldy/Getty Images

I'll say this first: I really don't care which Florida quarterback, Will Grier or Treon Harris, wins Florida's starting job.

I realize that writing Grier's name first, which I basically do because of alphabetical order habit — in case you're curious about whether I do that in other contexts and in other posts, just keep in mind that I do it when reading virtually any other listing of two or more names I write that doesn't have an obvious order — might make me sound like a Grier partisan, and I know that my theory, quietly espoused mostly in the comments here, that Grier would eventually win the starter's job might have made it seem like I was favoring him. But I don't know who should be the Gators' starter, much less who will be the Gators' starter, and thus I don't have an opinion on which player I want to start beyond "The better guy."

I'll say this second: We still don't know who that is.

Fans may think that Harris "sucks" because he wasn't able to single-handedly turn an offense that struggled and lacked weapons into a competent attack in 2014, or because he was strikingly inaccurate and ineffective (48.0 percent completion percentage, an abysmal 5.9 yards per attempt) against ranked teams, but enough has changed about Florida's offense to assume things could be better in 2015, and Harris himself may have changed, too. Six starts — especially considering that one was an anomalous beatdown in which he didn't do much by design, two others were abbreviated by injury, and half came after the coach who installed him was canned — isn't a huge sample size.

In fact, advanced stats suggest Harris being installed as Florida's starter was a turning point in performance for the Gators in 2014, and few would argue that Harris wasn't an upgrade on the 2014 version of Jeff Driskel. But as faint praise goes, well, that's an echo — from a distant galaxy.

Fans may now also think that Grier "sucks" because he couldn't beat out Harris, even with the advantages of a blank slate, an offseason apparently partially spent adding weight, or some extra time with coaches in the spring with Harris spending time in South Florida after a death in the family. And that might be an extension of all the old knocks on Grier: He's too soft, too skinny, simply isn't the big-time thrower that people thought he was because of statistics and achievements racked up against the woefully undermanned competition of small, private schools in North Carolina.

But, well, it wasn't just fans on Twitter who thought Grier was good in high school — scouting service evaluators, and schools that recruited him up until he committed to Florida, also did. And while Grier not beating out Harris can be spun as a failure, it can also just be a reflection of a greater level of comfort with an incumbent, or with Grier still needing to do work to close a gap that Harris getting experience as a true freshman opened.

One thing I don't think anyone can say, though, is that Jim McElwain hasn't given both quarterbacks a fair shot.

If Harris had lost this race based on losing ground while dealing with a death in the family, that wouldn't have been fair. If Harris had won it solely based on prior experience, that wouldn't be fair, either. If either player had lost a sham competition in which roles were clearly conceived prior to fall camp, and both players were held hostage for the sake of keeping Florida's quarterback depth from reaching a state of emergency — the exact possibility Associated Press reporter Mark Long speculated was McElwain's design this spring — then that would be unfair to virtually everyone involved except for the starter. And if Florida were picking starters based solely on which player the team likes better, well, that would be both unfair and a foolish way of running a football team.

Instead, McElwain has, by all appearances, staged a legitimate quarterback competition. While Grier has, on occasion, been better in front of reporters who see just 15 minutes of practice a day, so has Harris — and while I've seen some other outlets also hedging toward Grier being Florida's likely starter, there's been remarkably little to suggest either player has been clearly better.

So McElwain is going to do a smart thing — something he hasn't always done — and play both quarterbacks in significant situations against New Mexico State, with scripted sequences for both and some sort of rotation (likely by multiple series) that should allow them to either distinguish themselves or fall flat on their faces, in full view of both the coaches and tens of thousands of fans. A game situation, even against the overmatched Aggies, is arguably the best one in which to evaluate what a player can do to help a team win, and getting both Grier and Harris experience in one can't hurt.

I like that. I think McElwain's doing right by both QBs and giving them one last shot to compete for the permanent starting role — I strongly suspect McElwain will name a starter for the season prior to next weekend's game against East Carolina — and, admittedly, I think having both Grier and Harris "cap-tied" to Florida for this fall (if either player transferred after Saturday's game, he couldn't play anywhere else this fall by virtue of his participation for the Gators) is a valuable thing.

Keeping both players around, after all, is probably almost as important as having a clear-cut starter.

Florida's 2012 quarterback competition was run fairly similarly, with both players getting shares of the reps into the Gators' season opener — and I'll forever think Will Muschamp made the right decision for that year's team by starting Driskel over Jacoby Brissett, because of the vital mobility Driskel brought behind an offensive line that struggled mightily with pass-blocking, though we can (and will) debate the long-term ramifications of that decision forever — but, importantly, Muschamp also kept both of his starter-caliber QBs on the roster for that fall (sorry, 2012 versions of Tyler Murphy and Skyler Mornhinweg). That paid off: When Driskel got hurt, Brissett helped save the day against Louisiana, then allowed Driskel to rest a bum ankle with Florida State looming by starting against Jacksonville State.

Consider this: This 2015 team doesn't even have an eligible quarterback on Murphy's level. Joshua Grady is it at the position, with Luke Del Rio pretty clearly not about to be cleared by the NCAA to play for a third team in three years and every other QB on the roster never meriting a scholarship from an FBS school — and Grady's spent time working with wide receivers in camp.

Maybe Grady running routes is a sign that McElwain and Co. know that they'll have both Grier and Harris in the fold this fall, no matter who starts Saturday's game, but it's also a reminder that Florida's third-string quarterback had as many catches as pass attempts at Vanderbilt over his three years seeing the field for the Commodores. Holding on to what depth existed was a crucial task for Florida this fall; with Grier and Harris both still in the fold, it seems like that mission is more or less accomplished.

But in thinking about that, and 2012, in comtemplating Harris being named Florida's starter for that game last night, I came to realize that I like him getting this start in this game better than I would've liked Grier getting the start.

The other great parallel to 2012, at least where Florida's offense is concerned, is the enigmatic offensive line. Florida was at least returning players who had played FBS football in 2012; that's not a luxury McElwain has this year, though his hastily-welded line hasn't apparently been as leaky as the 2012 line seemed early on. (Of course, not going against Dominique Easley, Sharrif Floyd, pre-ACL tear Ronald Powell, and Dante Fowler in practice might be part of why.)

And the other means of preserving existing depth at quarterback is simply keeping both Harris and Grier upright. Perhaps the greatest difference between how this QB battle and 2012's were discussed by the respective programs is that no one wearing orange and blue has tried to convince anyone in the media or the public that Harris isn't nimbler on his feet than Grier. That's a welcome change from the laughable insistence that Driskel and Brissett were athletic equals, an insult to the intelligence of everyone involved.

But the logic that followed from Driskel starting in 2012 applies now: If a quarterback has to stand behind a leaky line, it's better for him if he can also run a little bit. It pains me to reach a co clusion reached by a certain chrome-domed columnist, yes, but if Florida's QB in 2015 is going to be running for his life — something that could be more likely in early games with greener players — it would make sense if that guy could, you know, run. While Grier's better on the hoof, I think, than the ungainly Brissett, Harris is certainly the better choice if wheels are the only concern, and a first drive with a host of new starters on the line is a situation in which that might make sense.

I also think, though this is almost purely theory, that starting Harris and sitting Grier could do more to get good performances out of both players than the reverse. Harris starting could be a reward for coming on late in camp, and motivational as a result, while sitting Grier should burn him and make him respond; Grier starting, though, could have been more like a coronation, while Harris coming in afterward could be viewed as a relegation. If discomfort breeds growth, then picking the path with the most prickles is the right choice, and this certainly seems to be the path.

That, and the rest of the reasoning here, is why I think McElwain's done an excellent job of handling Florida's quarterback competition to this point. The problem, though, is that it could still all go awry. What if both players struggle on Saturday? What if someone does get hurt? What if there's no separation, and that uncertainty seeps into the rest of the team? What if McElwain's ultimate choice isn't seen as the right one by players, and sparks a loss of confidence in the locker room?

This stuff isn't easy, and McElwain should be lauded for getting as much of it right as he has; it may be one of the first great positives of having an experienced coach at the helm, something that stands in slight contrast to Muschamp's handling of the 2012 tussle. The road's only getting harder, though, with potential for skids.

Do you trust McElwain to steer into or out of whatever sticky situation lays before Florida? For now, I do — and, really, that means more than a quarterback balling out would. It doesn't matter who I think should be Florida's quarterback, after all.

It only matters what McElwain thinks — and does.