There's no position where one player can make a bigger difference for a college football team than quarterback, and the Florida Gators are proof of that concept. Since 2010, Florida has started an incredible nine different starting quarterbacks, never had a starter make more than 11 starts in a single season, and been reduced to starting its third-string quarterback in two distinct years for two completely different reasons.
The Gators will likely run out a 10th different starter in 2016, with Treon Harris's final seven weeks of the 2015 season showing that he likely cannot lead Florida to success. And that starter is likely to be Luke Del Rio, or Austin Appleby, or another instantly eligible graduate transfer.
But the future of Florida's quarterback position may be in the Gators' 2016 recruiting class.
Enroll and develop
Here's what I wrote about Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask — Florida's two quarterback commits, both early enrollees — while discussing the Gators' early enrollees on Tuesday.
Feleipe Franks could be an instant-impact player, but it seems much more likely that he will redshirt in 2016, sitting behind transfer quarterbacks Austin Appleby and Luke Del Rio while gaining the weight and rhythm necessary to be Florida's starter. If Franks shows out in spring practice, something that seems unlikely after his struggles at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl earlier this month, he may find himself in the mix at QB, but that's a substantial if. (Kyle Trask, meanwhile, is a mortal lock to redshirt.)
Ideally, Franks won't be needed. Trask is maybe the most likely of any Gators recruit this year to redshirt, and it would be a minor shock if he didn't.
You'll note that there isn't a long-winded explanation of what both can do there; that's because we don't honestly know all that well for either Franks or Trask. What we think we know is based on what we see.
Franks played for a state title in 2015, with his team coming up just short, and he has all of the physical tools to be an exceptional college quarterback, from fantastic size (he's at least 6'5", though he's listed at 6'6" and 214 pounds if Florida's roster is to be believed) to great arm strength to good mobility. The tangible physical qualities a coach cannot impart are his best assets.
Trask, too, appears to fit the mold of the tall, well-built (Florida lists him at 6'4" and 230 pounds), big-armed quarterback that Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier clearly prefer. His arm isn't as good as the cannon Franks possesses, but he is slightly more ready to take the punishment of an SEC pass rush — and as readiness to be an emergency quarterbacks goes, he might actually be slightly ahead of his fellow freshman.
But both players need development, and come in more raw than refined. We don't yet know what a year with McElwain and Nussmeier focusing only on a quarterback's development can do — though we got glimpses of that with Will Grier, who looked much improved from the form flashed in practice in 2014, in 2015, and will see more with Del Rio in 2016 — but it's most advantageous for Florida to redshirt both of its freshman throwers and see what happens. They could develop with instant playing time, true, but conventional wisdom holds that developing without the pressure to win immediately is ideal.
Creating a depth chart
And redshirting Franks and Trask would also allow Florida to finally have some depth at the quarterback position.
In 2014, Florida had two rostered quarterbacks — Jeff Driskel and Skyler Mornhinweg — who had started games at the collegiate level. That was the first time Florida began a season with more than one quarterback on its roster who has started a game at the collegiate level in over a decade. Players with the talent to start at quarterback simply don't seem to stick around Gainesville, and five transfer quarterbacks who began their careers as Gators have gone on to start at other FBS schools since just 2010, the most prominent among them being Super Bowl starter and likely NFL MVP Cam Newton, with Grier likely to be a sixth in time.
Whether that's a product of those players maturing after their Florida careers, missed evaluations by coaching staffs, or mismanagement of recruiting that generated a glut of starter-caliber players with few backup-caliber prospects to buttress them is debatable; it's probably attributable to a mix of those three factors, and maybe more. The unavoidable truth, though, is that all of that has forced Florida into a series of crises at quarterback. The only Florida quarterbacks to start more than 10 games since Tim Tebow are John Brantley, Driskel, and Harris, and all of them were replaced for ineffectiveness at one point or another.
Franks and Trask provide a potential succession plan. If either or both can be redshirted in 2016, that allows either one to play in 2017 with four years of eligibility remaining — which would allow 2017 Florida commit Jake Allen to redshirt in 2017, and play in 2018 with four years of eligibility remaining, and so on.
That sort of depth at quarterback has helped Alabama, Florida State, and Ohio State win national titles in recent years: Alabama (with McElwain and then Nussmeier handling its offense) was able to groom AJ McCarron while playing Greg McElroy, Florida State got a year of development for Jameis Winston thanks to EJ Manuel's four-year career, and Ohio State needed all three of its starter-caliber QBs to make and then win the inaugural College Football Playoff.
Being able to install Franks as a starter no earlier than 2017 doesn't guarantee that he'll be better then than he is now, but it does make that exceedingly likely. And being able to roster several quarterbacks doesn't mean Florida will be able to totally avoid crises at the position, but it does mitigate risk significantly. In a sport in which mitigating risk and reducing vulnerability to luck has been the best blueprint for success for decades, anything a program can do to make that happen is probably advisable.
Florida set out to bring in (at least) two quarterbacks in its 2016 class, something that became clear in the summer when Trask committed and Florida target Dillon Sterling-Cole committed to Arizona. The Gators kept the pressure on Franks and Maryland-turned-Ohio State commit Dwayne Haskins most consistently, but also tried hard to flip Georgia commit Jacob Eason at the tail end of his recruitment, looking to add as much talent at the position as possible.
While the early-enrolling Eason is probably the biggest prize of this recruiting class at the quarterback position, and Haskins is seen by most as more game-ready than Franks, it's arguable that Franks becomes a better prospect than Haskins simply because of his availability. The extra semester that early enrollees get is a substantial advantage on summer enrollees, especially early in their careers — and that effect is magnified for quarterbacks, who have more to pick up than just weights and books.
Of the quarterbacks to win national titles as starters since Tebow did so in 2008, the only ones to do so without previously redshirting at the school where he won said title are Newton, a special case in nearly all regards who redshirted at Florida, and Jake Coker, who redshirted at Florida State. To put that another way: The only quarterback in the last decade who was immediately thrust into playing time as a true freshman and won a national title is Tebow.
And the QBs that have won Heisman Trophies since Tebow did so in 2007 have all had at least one redshirt year, from Sam Bradford on down to Marcus Mariota. Redshirt freshmen are not true freshmen, and redshirt sophomores are not true sophomores, and so forth: The body of evidence backs this up.
So it's probably a good thing for Florida, on balance, that Franks and Trask project to redshirt.
2016 Florida Gators Recruiting Class: Quarterback
|Name||Hometown/High School||247 Composite Rank/Rating||Measurements||Commitment Date||Highlights|
|Feleipe Franks||Crawfordville, Florida/Wakulla High School||No. 54, .9721 (4*)||6'6", 214 pounds||November 29, 2015||Hudl | YouTube|
|Kyle Trask||Manvel, Texas/Manvel High School||No. 2,078, .7986 (3*)||6'4", 230 pounds||July 26, 2015||Hudl | YouTube|