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Why the Jim McElwain era is poised to end Florida's QB drought

Luke Del Rio is only part of it.

Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

One of the interesting things I've been thinking about since writing on Florida's extraordinary run of misfortune at quarterback since Tim Tebow — other than AlligatorAirForce's rhetorical strategies now being in the comments section of a SB Nation front page article that doesn't just live here — is how it's a past that begs for adjectives like "sad" (which I didn't put in the headline, for what it's worth), or "puzzling," and gets adjectives like "embarrassing" or "pathetic" from less charitable fans.

But it's also good to remember that it is, largely, Florida's past.

Every quarterback mentioned in that piece is no longer at Florida save for Treon Harris, whose suspension purgatory is extremely unlikely to be resolved with him returning as a competitor to take snaps under center for the Gators.

No quarterback at Florida (again, save Harris) has more than a minimal connection to the program's time under Jim McElwain, either, and only Feleipe Franks being recruited — and possibly snubbed, if you believe the message board-based theories about Franks's recruitment being tied to that of older brother Jordan — by Will Muschamp, Brent Pease, and Kurt Roper, none of whom were at Florida in the second semester of his junior year of high school, gets that weak tie.

The future for Florida is likely to be a different one at quarterback, and I think it's also likely to be a much better one. Through just over a year, we've seen enough evidence from McElwain and Doug Nussmeier to believe that Florida's about to enter an era of much better quarterback play for five main reasons.

1. The quarterbacks on the roster aren't beholden to badness

No one would argue that Will Grier was a bad quarterback, given his level of play prior to his Florida career-ending NCAA suspension last fall. But that is arguable for every single Florida starter other than Grier.

John Brantley threw some mystifying picks, and couldn't stay healthy enough to maximize his potential. Jeff Driskel did the same, and also seemed shell-shocked for most of his 2014 stint as starter. Jacoby Brissett was too slow on the hoof for the Pease offense, and didn't do that much to impress in his time under Charlie Weis; at best, he went from very green starter to bad fit. Tyler Murphy was an Urban Meyer project who also couldn't stay healthy. Skyler Mornhinweg was a bad take, and proved it with a alarmingly limited set of physical tools. Treon Harris is too inconsistent (and short) to succeed at Florida, and we have more than a dozen starts to back that up.

Most of those QBs did have some good to balance out the bad: Think of Driskel carving up Florida State at Doak, Murphy rescuing Florida against Tennessee, Harris stunning pessimistic fans for three quarters at LSU. On balance, though, there was far more bad than good, which is why, when Grier had a couple of good months with little bad to speak of, we were ready to coronate him.

None of Florida's current QBs has been steeped in that sewer water, and we're ready to believe in any of them. While that's not exactly a guarantee that any of them will turn out to be Heisman winners, it also gives them the benefit of fans not picking them apart on Twitter and other social media — for the time being, anyway. And I think the fresh start will be a very good thing for these Gators throwers.

2. And Florida is still stockpiling QBs

Del Rio looks like Florida's starter to be, and Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby his presumptive backup. That leaves Franks and the surprisingly impressive Kyle Trask to either redshirt or play sparingly as true freshmen. In 2017, Appleby will depart, but big-time prep quarterback Jake Allen will arrive, and Florida might well hit the graduate transfer market again for an Appleby figure if it wants a little insurance behind what should be a redshirt junior Del Rio.

And you can bet that McElwain will look for another big-time QB in 2018, or another two-QB pairing like Franks and Trask, and be relatively sure that he will be able to pull in someone with the potential to be Florida's starter, because he's already managed to grab Allen with the possibility of Franks or another top-tier 2016 commit looming.

This would be a sea change from the missteps made not just during the Muschamp era, but in the Meyer, Ron Zook, and late Steve Spurrier regimes: After bringing in hauls of at least one potentially great QB (chronologically: Rex Grossman and Brock Berlin, Chris Leak, Brantley and Cam Newton, and Driskel and Brissett) to serve as a next generation, recruiting at the position fell off, which is how Florida ended up with Josh Portis and Trey Burton and Max Staver as quarterback recruits. (Portis was the best of those players as a recruit.)

If Florida can keep just one of Franks and Trask at least through next year, it's set up to have three or four QBs with starter-caliber talent on its roster every year from here until the end of McElwain's tenure. Given that Florida's had to turn to third-stringers three times already this decade, and probably would have done so in 2014 and 2015 had a decent (sorry, 2014 Skyler Mornhinweg), healthy (sorry, 2014 Will Grier) third-stringer existed, any depth at all alone is a massive improvement.

3. McElwain and Nussmeier make a great team

That recruiting-based revamp speaks to the worthiness of the McElwain-Nussmeier brain trust that oversees Florida's offense, and perhaps to how valuable it can be to have an offensive-minded head coach and a strong offensive coordinator.

Florida hadn't had that since Dan Mullen teamed with Meyer, unless you'd like to argue that Steve Addazio circa 2009 and 2010 was a strong offensive coordinator. And the difference from the early Meyer years to the late ones on the recruiting trail alone is seismic: Florida nabbed Tebow, Brantley, and Newton in the first three Meyer / Mullen classes, but from 2009 to 2011, Driskel was the best QB to commit to Florida, and he doesn't even go down as a true Meyer / Mullen recruit.

Of the two, McElwain is the guy who can boast Alabama's championship pedigree a bit more authoritatively, given how instrumental he was for both Greg McElroy and A.J. McCarron. But while McElwain is plenty personable, Nussmeier is younger, and every bit as engaging. Nuss was a large part of why Florida was suddenly in the mix for Jacob Eason late last cycle, and is the most important reason that Trask, considered a befuddling take at the time of his commitment, is now looking like a diamond in the rough in orange and blue.

Florida might not keep the battery together forever, given that Nussmeier was deep in discussions with Southern Miss to take over as the Golden Eagles' head coach after last season. But in McElwain, it's got at least one damn good plant manager of a QB factory.

4. The offensive line is improving

The quiet subplot of Florida's offensive struggles in recent years, often pinned on QBs, is how thoroughly underwhelming and frequently overwhelmed Florida's offensive lines have been. Addazio churned out great lines and NFL prospects while serving only as the Gators' offensive line coach, but the line slipped a bit when he added the title of offensive coordinator.

Since, Florida's hogmollies have been brutalized often enough to pine for the captain of the pickle boat.

Florida gave up just 16 sacks and rushed for 5.94 yards per carry (fourth in the nation) in 2008, Addazio's last season as just the Gators' OL coach. In each of the seven seasons since then, Florida has given up at least 23 sacks six times, and only rushed for more than 4.5 yards per carry once, in 2010 — a season in which the Gators managed more than five yards per carry against just South Florida, Kentucky, and Appalachian State.

Last year, Florida gave up 45 sacks, worst in the nation, and produced just 3.48 yards per carry, good for 119th nationally. But that was genuinely about as bad as things could get, given the Gators' absurdly dire offensive line situation last spring, when Rod Johnson's medical retirement left the Gators with six healthy scholarship linemen, and the nicks and bruises that limited the shallow pool of linemen Florida played last fall, while redshirting four big men. And I think it's very much possible that Harris's struggles exacerbated the line's woes more than their struggles produced his, in a rare inversion of the usual interplay of quarterback and his protectors.

Mike Summers did, after all, oversee a line that gave up just 16 sacks in 2014, and though Kurt Roper's quick-decision offense helped keep that number down, Florida QBs took just 15 sacks through Will Grier's six games last fall, with five of those coming at Missouri, which has rung up the Gators for 16 sacks over the last three meetings between the teams. In Florida's final eight games in 2015, with Harris taking every snap of consequence, the Gators surrendered 30 sacks, and never fewer than two in a game.

I think we can assume that limiting sacks might be a focus of McElwain and Nussmeier's coaching of Del Rio and so forth as we proceed, and I think the quick, decisive throws (and throwaway) Del Rio made in Florida's spring game are strong, if very limited, evidence that such play can be ingrained.

5. We have already seen a good Florida QB under McElwain

This is the part that hurts, though: Will Grier was poised to be very, very good under McElwain, and quite possibly great.

When Grier was suspended, he had thrown for 1,204 yards, completed 65.8 percent of his passes at 7.5 yards per attempt, and tossed 10 touchdowns against three interceptions. Extrapolate that over 14 games, and you get 2.809 yards and 23 touchdowns against seven interceptions, and a passer rating just slightly lower than Grier's final passer rating of 145.43.

That would have been five more touchdowns, 400 more yards, and a better completion percentage than Florida had thrown as a team in any season since 2009, and fewer interceptions than any group of Gators throwers save the Driskel-led 2012 bunch that threw as little as possible. Grier would have matched the yards per attempt of the boom-or-bust Weis offense, too.

Extrapolating those numbers is obviously a stretch, because Grier would have had to see the Georgia, Florida State, Alabama, and Michigan defenses, all of which finished in the top 11 in Defensive S&P+ last season, and none of which yielded even 170 yards to Florida's passing game.

But remember, too, that Grier split time with Harris over Florida's first three games, and was posting those numbers despite some clear freshman struggles. Would he have helped Florida shred Vanderbilt, South Carolina, or Florida Atlantic? Could he have helped open up Florida's running game, in turn making things freer through the air? Would he have gotten better?

We'll never know, because what could have been had Grier not failed a drug test is forever lost to us. (And, in fairness, reasonable minds can wonder whether some of Grier's success was derived from pushing the boundaries of the rules.) But what we do know is that Grier's level of performance, likely due in at least some part to factors still in place at Florida, was the first sign that the Gators may, in fact, not struggle at quarterback forever, and may even be able to consider the position one of strength in the near future.

In 2009, in McElwain's second year at Alabama, Greg McElroy took the reins for the first time. In the Crimson Tide's 14 games that year, he would throw for 2,508 yards, 17 touchdowns, and four interceptions, averaging 7.7 yards per attempt and posting a passer rating of 140.54.

And prior to 2015, that was just about the floor for primary quarterback play under McElwain, though Garrett Grayson's first two seasons at Colorado State were close to that baseline. The ceiling, one that looks more like McElroy's 20-TD, five-pick senior season as the leader of an undefeated national champion or Grayson's 32-TD, seven-INT 2014 season, good enough to get him taken in the third round of the 2015 NFL Draft, is much higher.

Harris reset the floor, though it's obviously a bit unfair to use his stats to damn McElwain when the man from Montana damn sure wouldn't have played Harris if he had any other valid choice by season's end.

Florida, though, is almost certainly going forward without Harris.

And it's entering a future in which it has the foundation for fine quarterback play once again.