Barring injury or some other catastrophe, Florida will not play a freshman quarterback in its Outback Bowl meeting with Iowa. Jim McElwain said as much on Thursday, and his remarks on the matter are close to crystal clear.
“That was an ‘only if’ situation,’” McElwain said about playing a freshman quarterback. “That’s all it was.”
That’s sure to disappoint some fans who would have very much liked to see Feleipe Franks and/or Kyle Trask in the Gators’ bowl game, either as an alternative to the play of Austin Appleby, which has wearied those fans, or as a tantalizing glimpse of a future in which McElwain’s Florida might start a QB its coaching staff recruited out of high school.
But it’s also probably the right call — for Franks and Trask, anyway.
Fans and media members who have been proponents of Florida starting a freshman QB have done so almost entirely from Florida’s perspective, diagnosing a change as what’s good for the program as a whole. That’s true of Zach Abolverdi, Patrick Pinak, and Andrew Olson — and that’s obviously perfectly fine.
What’s good for Florida is not necessarily good for Franks and/or Trask, though. And while a tattered redshirt might not ultimately matter if either passer were to play and flourish after that bowl game, wasting a year of eligibility on a hypothetical close loss to Iowa seems like it might change the trajectory of their careers.
And who says those careers will end at Florida? Franks and Trask are Gators now, but if recent history is any guide, one or both might very well transfer, just like every Florida starting quarterback from 2012 to 2015 eventually did. Florida’s habit of bringing in two talented QBs to compete for a spot only one can ultimately own sent Brock Berlin to Miami, Cam Newton to Auburn via Blinn College, and Jacoby Brissett to N.C. State; what evidence is there to suggest that the runner-up in this eventual quarterback derby will be any more likely to stick it out in Gainesville? And could starting one of them and not using the other make it more likely that the backup would transfer, and sooner?
For Franks or Trask, having four seasons of college ball left probably makes transferring and starting over significantly more appealing than having three seasons would — and, for coaches who could potentially eye them, an extra season with which to keep either player around and/or develop said player is obviously an asset.
We don’t think of players’ welfare often enough in college football, and when we do, it’s often to use it as a cudgel against coaches doing arguably slimy things. (By the way: Holding onto a QB whose passer rating in 2014 was, in fact, higher than his reputed successor’s passer rating in 2015? That was always sensible and defensible on a macroscopic level, even if some of the steps in the process were ripe for ridicule.) Running a year off the eligibility clock for either Franks or Trask for the purpose of winning an game that is mostly important for optics would be just such a slimy thing.
Not doing that, though, is probably worthy of at least a bit of praise for restraint. And if McElwain is as smart as I think he is, his resistance to throwing a lamb to the wolves for his own sake could be a workable recruiting pitch.
Though it’s far from a 1:1 comparison, Kevin O’Sullivan’s restraint with pitchers has become a powerful lure for talented hurlers who have professional careers to consider, and must navigate a college baseball landscape that sometimes features managers riding pitchers beyond reasonable limits for their own benefit. Of course, football and baseball are different, and McElwain’s spin on that would be more qualified (“We won’t play you until you’re ready to play, or just because we need you — but we will play you as soon as you are, and preserve your eligibility until then”), but I can imagine an interested, savvy mother and/or father — and quarterbacks’ parents invariably are — seeing the wisdom of restraint as a positive for their son.
Does the value of that pitch outweigh the value of Franks and/or Trask coming to play in Tampa and throwing for 300 yards and three touchdowns against Iowa? Probably not. But how probable is that sort of performance, really?
Iowa isn’t a particularly exciting football team — a shocker, surely — but it is a solid one, and Iowa’s defense is quite good, ranking No. 12 in both S&P+ and Passing S&P+. The Hawkeyes have given up 16 passing touchdowns, but nine came in just three games — with five of them coming against, uh, Purdue? — and they had as many picks as sixes allowed (seven) in their other nine games. Cornerback Desmond King was the 2015 Thorpe Award winner, is a two-time All-America selection, and is one of the greatest players in Iowa history. Iowa defenders broke up 51 passes in the regular season.
Florida’s celestially talented defense broke up 39.
The last we saw of Franks, he was throwing picks aplenty in Florida’s spring game. The last we saw of Trask, he was putting together a performance that had many optimistic about his chances of superseding Franks. Since then, Franks has apparently taken hold of the role of emergency quarterback, which suggests that what we saw in that spring game might be relatively worthless compared to what Florida’s coaches have seen in (mostly) closed practices since.
And as mentioned last week, I have to think that if Franks and/or Trask were completely beyond Appleby’s level in practice, they would already have been playing. Nothing I’ve seen out of McElwain and this coaching staff suggests that they are incompetent enough to trot out Luke Del Rio and Appleby to be above average at best if they knew Franks and/or Trask were guaranteed to ball out against Florida State or Alabama.
Taking all that into account, I’m left thinking that either freshman would probably be at least an incremental upgrade — though Applheby did just throw for the third-most yards Alabama’s defense has conceded this year, and did so with the aid of a running game that produced fewer than 50 yards before accounting for sacks — and wondering whether an incremental upgrade is worth it. One chrome-domed columnist thinks it emphatically isn’t, wondering whether a poor performance in a loss would help either freshman at all.
I’m just unsure — and while it is uncomfortable to be unsure, I can’t be anything else.
I think Florida can beat Iowa — which is No. 20 in S&P+, one spot ahead of where Florida was prior to Alabama’s beatdown dropping the Gators all the way to No. 42 — with Appleby at the helm, or with a hypothetically healthy Del Rio at the helm, so long as those throwers avoid costly mistakes. The same is probably true for Franks and Trask — but are true freshmen starting in bowl games really less likely to make costly mistakes than more experienced options, even if both of those experienced options have spates of horrible throws?
I also think — and I realize I’m close to alone here — that Florida doesn’t need to top Iowa as badly as some folks in the fan base and on the beat think. Florida losing to Iowa sure would leave a wound open for salting in the offseason, and would make the narrative of the Gators beating up on the SEC East but being devoured outside it under McElwain all but inescapable for seven months — but Florida scoring a win over Iowa seems unlikely to move the meter all that much. A win over Iowa would be a par, not a bogey, unless Florida is unexpectedly spectacular — and though the vision of that blowout is tempting, it’s also unlikely.
Recruiting, and specifically how the ugly state of Florida’s offense may be hampering the Gators on the recruiting trail, is an oft-cited reason for playing Franks or Trask. (It’s also why I seriously doubt Del Rio figures into Florida’s quarterback picture in 2017, except perhaps as a backup: Florida simply cannot keep selling the same old offense once the calendar changes.)
But how much could one game really do this cycle? I have a sneaking suspicion that Donovan Peoples-Jones isn’t suddenly picking Florida if Franks throws for 600 yards, and that Jerry Jeudy’s decision to go to Alabama has been cemented long before the Gators looked hamstrung this fall. The players Florida will add to its 2017 recruiting class will join more despite the 12 games of mostly miserable offense leading up to the bowl than because of a hypothetical bonanza of points and yards in Tampa.
I’m also of the belief that essentially every major contributor to Florida’s 2017 offense is on Florida’s 2016 roster, for better or worse — and while Trask looking like the second coming of Tim Tebow might hypothetically add one or two future playmakers to the fold, I don’t think a freshman wide receiver is particularly likely to dislodge Antonio Callaway or Tyrie Cleveland from the starting lineup, or that a freshman running back could supplant Jordan Scarlett or Lamical Perine in the McElwain-favored rotation.
Besides, it’s what Florida does in the fall of 2017 that will be the major determinant of its success in swaying the 2018 recruiting class. And while there’s a line of argument that holds that giving Franks and/or Trask experience in Tampa or the lion’s share of reps during Florida’s bowl practices will help make them stars on those fall Saturdays, I just can’t buy it.
I have been thinking for the last three weeks about the history of teams making dramatic switches on offense in November and beyond, and the only example I can recall is Auburn doing so with Kodi Burns.
Burns was used as a complement to Brandon Cox for much of 2007, but was given a much larger role in a rapidly-installed Tony Franklin spread offense prior to the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl, and he helped the Tigers beat Clemson in overtime in one of the more dramatic games of that bowl season. With Cox leaving the Plains to go pro in something other than sports — eventually, as it turns out, construction — and Burns at the helm of a reputed spread guru’s attack, Auburn got plenty of hype in the subsequent offseason, and was ranked No. 10 in the preseason AP Top 25 in 2008.
Auburn promptly went 5-7 in 2008, with Franklin being fired just under 10 months after being hired, Tommy Tuberville stepping down at year’s end, and Burns throwing just two touchdowns to seven interceptions on the year. Burns would be moved to wide receiver before his junior season, and threw just 20 passes over his final two years with the Tigers — but he did catch a touchdown pass from Cam Newton in the 2011 BCS National Championship Game.
Glory can be as illusive as it is elusive, in other words.
For a slightly less dramatic switch, we don’t even need to look beyond Florida’s own history. While Will Muschamp never confirmed this, and few fans cared to autopsy the Gators after the 2013 Sugar Bowl, there were whispers that Florida was trying to open up its offense prior to and during that game. That obviously yielded disastrous results: as Jeff Driskel’s first pass glanced off Andre Debose’s hands and was pick-sixed, and Florida chased Louisville all night.
There are probably other examples of pre-bowl remodels that I’m not aware of, and I may even be forgetting a switch that paid off — but I seriously doubt it, because if such a change had occurred, we would know about it. What Florida fans are hoping for, in pining for Franks or Trask, is setting a new course now instead of in a month, and reaping the benefits — but there’s no evidence that there are benefits to reap.
And, regardless of fans’ wishes, it’s simply not going to happen. So we will be left to wonder what might have been all offseason, either curse or hail Appleby for his play in his final game as a Gator, and take some solace in the fact that Florida is doing right by two Gators, possibly at the expense of the Gators.
That’s not satisfying. And while we can guess until the day is done that the alternative was better, all we know is that we will continue to deal with a frustrating unknown.
Jim McElwain quite certainly realizes that Florida fans who can’t get no satisfaction are a grumpy bunch indeed.
And so his goal, for the next nine months, has to be figuring out a way to prove that those fans not getting what they want now will be just what his Gators need.