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Think Florida hasn’t made progress at QB? Consider the Gators’ ruinous recent history

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Before calling Florida’s QB situation a plight, consider what actual plight looks like.

Florida v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The famous quote used as a proverb by Italian writer George Santayana gets mangled often. Originally, it is “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and prefaced by a passage from Santayana’s The Life of Reason that does plenty to reinforce its context:

“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.”

Today, Santayana’s wisdom is often rendered as “Those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it” — catchier, yeah, but also lesser for its concision.

Boiling down the Florida Gators’ woes at quarterback to “They haven’t had a good QB since Tim Tebow” is also lesser for its concision. It’s worth recalling how we got here, and the fates of Florida’s QBs — both in and beyond Gainesville — at length.

2010

Seven years ago, Tebow ceded the job of Gators starting quarterback to John Brantley, whose “real quarterback” status nearly caused an international incident in the offseason and was swiftly undercut by a fall in which he threw for more than 250 yards just twice despite playing in all 13 of Florida’s games that year. Brantley got benched — or rotated out, if we need to be precise — for two different future NFL tight ends that fall, one of whom was one of the two athlete-slash-QBs that the Gators mined from Connecticut in Urban Meyer’s last recruiting class.

Both of those future pass-catchers — Jordan Reed and Trey Burton — would shift away from the backfield when Will Muschamp took over in Gainesville, as touted recruits Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett joined the program as the more- and less-hyped successors to Brantley.

2011

Six years ago, Brantley was still in town, and optimism was high that a new pro-style offense coordinated by Charlie Weis would remove Brantley from the round hole his square-peg game was in under Meyer. By Florida’s sixth game, the only healthy one of the three was Brissett, who was forced to make his first career start at LSU — and who would go on to split time with Brantley down the stretch, finish the season 18-for-39 for 206 yards, two touchdowns, and four picks, and still look like a better bet to start in 2012 than Driskel did as of December 2011.

That perception was erased when Weis, who had been instrumental in landing Brissett, left for Kansas unexpectedly, leading to the hiring of Brent Pease — who brought in the largely unknown Skyler Mornhinweg as a recruit, possibly as a favor to his college teammate, Skyler’s father Marty.

2012

Five years ago, Driskel and Brissett waged a battle to start that included such unforgettably glorious moments as players asserting — read: lying — that there was no difference between the two in fall camp and Florida “starting” both players in the year’s first game, with Driskel split wide as a receiver and Brissett taking the snap ... only for Driskel to then play the full first half of that game, with Brissett playing the second half. Driskel won the competition without truly distinguishing himself in that game, and went on to have a largely successful season as a caretaker of Florida’s offense that was submarined when he hemorrhaged turnovers in the Gators’ only losses of the year.

Brissett left that offseason in what could charitably be called a huff, with his high school coach protesting the perceived unfairness of Florida’s QB competition, and transferred to N.C. State. Florida’s lone QB recruit in the 2013 recruiting class? A project from Tennessee named Max Staver.

2013

Four years ago, Florida’s depth chart at QB to begin the year read Driskel, Tyler Murphy — the other athlete snagged from the Nutmeg State in 2010, and one who had seen no playing time entering what was then his redshirt junior season at Florida — and Mornhinweg, in order. And then Driskel had another of those turnover-filled debacles at Miami, and then went down against Tennessee, and Florida turned to Murphy. And then Murphy, fleet-footed but limited as a thrower, steered Florida past bad teams and kept games close against good teams before getting progressively more dinged up. And then Mornhinweg, lead-footed and limited as a thrower, started in game losses to South Carolina and Georgia Southern and a rout by Florida State.

About the only good thing that happened at or around QB for Florida in 2013 was Will Grier maintaining his commitment, made in December 2012 — despite the Gators’ throwers combining to throw just 11 touchdown passes, the program’s fewest since hiring Steve Spurrier, and Pease, the offensive coordinator who recruited Grier, getting fired — through the season. Grier would be joined in the 2014 recruiting class by Treon Harris, an athlete-slash-QB who was pried away from FSU by new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper.

Murphy and Staver, meanwhile, would transfer — Murphy to Boston College, Staver to Tyler Junior College in Texas. And Blake Bortles — an Orlando-area QB whom some had begun to compare to Driskel thanks to their shared hometown of Oviedo and their previous membership in the high school class of 2011 — would lead UCF to a Fiesta Bowl victory, and then be selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars with the third pick of the 2014 NFL Draft.

2014

Three years ago, Florida started its season with Driskel once again at the helm, and got two superficially impressive starts out of him against Eastern Michigan and in an overtime thriller against Kentucky. Then Driskel got stymied by Alabama for the second time in his career, and struggled so mightily at Tennessee — the site of maybe his finest game ever — that Florida’s 10th straight win over the Vols came via a rescue job by Harris ... which still featured Driskel taking the final snap, because Harris had no experience doing that. Less than 12 hours later, Harris would be involved in a sexual encounter with a woman whose subsequent sexual battery complaint resulted in his suspension — and while that complaint was withdrawn and Harris reinstated within a week, his inability to practice meant that Florida had to start Driskel out of need, allowing him to see LSU at home for the second time — Driskel never took a snap at Tiger Stadium — in his four years. And when Driskel was decent against those Tigers, he earned the start against Missouri a week later — and subsequently turned in a horrific performance that featured him contributing more points to the team in white, and getting well and truly benched for the final time. Harris would start the rest of Florida’s games, starring against Vanderbilt and Eastern Kentucky and staying mostly out of the way in the rest, with Driskel doing mop-up duty.

Florida would play unevenly enough down the stretch — upsetting Georgia in a stunning rout, losing to South Carolina late, threatening College Football Playoff-bound Florida State — to make Muschamp’s departure, a fait accompli as early as halftime of the loss to Missouri, a welcome one for almost all parties. Oh, and Grier redshirted and was never an option to replace Driskel or Harris, putatively because of injuries suffered midseason.

Driskel would graduate and transfer to Louisiana Tech after the season. Elsewhere, Brissett and Murphy would have decent-to-good seasons at their respective schools, and enter the NFL via draft pick — Brissett, to the New England Patriots — and undrafted free agency — Murphy, to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mornhinweg would leave Florida in May 2015, transferring to Columbia.

(It is here, maybe, that one could note that 2014 was a season in which Florida entered the fall with an upperclassman with significant starting experience at quarterback backed up by multiple touted but green recruits, dealt with a significant shakeup at QB at midseason, and exited the year with that veteran player bruised both literally and figuratively and with those backups back in a dead heat to take over for the four-year player thanks to coaching turnover — which parallels the 2011 season to an uncanny degree.)

2015

Two years ago, Florida — unable to woo FSU commit Deondre Francois or Louisville commit Lamar Jackson to Gainesville despite pushes to flip both from new offensive brain trust Jim McElwain and Doug Nussmeier — staged a quarterback competition between Grier and Harris that was so heated and exciting that buzz about Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio leaked out in July. Both players excelled in Florida’s opener, but Grier won out over the next two weeks, eventually taking the job for good prior to a road trip to Kentucky — where, naturally, he had the worst game he would have all year.

But while Grier struggled for much of Florida’s game against Tennessee the week after, his brilliance down the stretch in that game and in a torching of Ole Miss a week later made him seemingly not only Florida’s entrenched starter and long-awaited savior, he was merely okay in his follow-up to that rout of the Rebels — and, thanks to an NCAA suspension for a failed drug test, suffered the program’s first season-ending brain cramp. Harris would be pressed into service at LSU — allowing the Tigers to face a sixth different Florida starter since 2010 — and played a fine game, but never reached those heights again that fall, concluding the year by throwing six touchdowns and six picks in the Gators’ last seven games, and scoring wins over only Georgia, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and Florida Atlantic — then quarterbacked, naturally, by Jason Driskel, Jeff’s younger brother.

In 2015, Jeff Driskel thrived at Louisiana Tech, getting named the 2015 Conference USA Newcomer of the Year and an honorable mention all-conference performer by virtue of a 4,000-yard, 27-touchdown campaign; he would later be drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Mornhinweg made all 10 starts for Columbia in 2015. The Lions went 2-8. Staver spent 2015 at Houston Baptist College. He completed 84 of 192 passes that fall; the Huskies went 2-9. Paxton Lynch, an Orlando-area recruit whom some had faulted Florida for not pursuing instead of Mornhinweg in the 2012 recruiting class, led Memphis to an 8-0 start and a bowl game against Auburn, then got drafted in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Brissett spent 2015 as the New England Patriots’ third quarterback. And Murphy was briefly an NFL backup, thanks to injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick, before being released by the Steelers in November.

Florida landed 2017 QB Jake Allen, then thought of as a rising star, midway through 2015. After being denied a chance to be immediately eligible in 2016 through the NCAA appeals process, Grier would announce a transfer — with questions lingering as to whether he was pushed out by McElwain, given that Grier’s camp alleged indifference, and other reports suggested Grier wanted to be promised a starting role — and ultimately end up at West Virginia. After taking just Texas project Kyle Trask in the summer, though, Florida revved up its quarterback recruiting in the fall, flipping tall and strong-armed Feleipe Franks from LSU and making a run at doing the same with Georgia commit Jacob Eason. And with just Harris and Del Rio returning at QB, Florida was able to add graduate transfer Austin Appleby to the mix — a more experienced insurance policy for the Gators than was available in previous years, and a player who would become Florida’s backup when Harris — embroiled in what would ultimately be revealed as yet another incident of alleged sexual indiscretion as of early 2016, and suspended for it for almost all of the offseason — eventually decided to transfer.

2016

That quartet of scholarship QBs — Del Rio, Appleby, Franks, and Trask — seemed to give the Gators more options entering 2016 than they had on hand at any point prior in the entire decade, even if the experienced options were retreads and the young ones painfully green. But those options would turn out dismayingly routine results, with Del Rio’s promising spring and start to fall getting wrecked by a knee injury and a subsequent shoulder injury that helped sideswipe his season, Appleby’s brilliance contained to a first half against Tennessee and occasional deep shots for the rest of the year, and Franks and Trask kept shelved to the consternation of some frustrated fans.

And Allen’s star cooled in the run-up to 2017’s National Signing Day, leaving the prospective quartet of Del Rio, Franks, Trask, and Allen looking a bit less impressive entering the 2017 season. So Florida began a months-long dance with Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zairedelayed by SEC rules that prohibited the Gators from taking a graduate transfer thanks to past academic failures by other grad transfers, and perhaps by Zaire’s own delayed graduation — that would feature the partners finally joining hands in June, as the SEC revised its rule and Zaire chose the Gators.

But most of the rest of Florida’s cast of cast-off passers struggled in 2016, and Florida’s QBs were allowed to pass or fail on their own, rather than being graded against any curves.

Brissett played adequately — no more, no less — in one start in relief of Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo early in 2016, and would win a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots. Driskel was cut by the Niners before being picked up as a third quarterback by the Cincinnati Bengals. Murphy spent some time with the Miami Dolphins, but didn’t make it through training camp with them, reaching an injury settlement in August. Mornhinweg was replaced as Columbia’s starter, and the Lions improved to 3-9; Staver was replaced as Houston Baptist’s starter, and the Huskies improved to 4-7, with Staver choosing to transfer for a third time, to Maine, in the offseason. Harris spent much of the fall off anyone’s radar, then chose Tennessee State as his transfer destination. Grier, by virtue of his year in exile at West Virginia, got glowing write-ups about a redemption story, and his potential in Dana Holgorsen’s system — but he also sat the year out.

And the noise about Bortles and Lynch — a knockoff Franklin and Bash, or a bootleg Bartles & James? — quieted, as Bortles complied empty-calorie stats while throwing interceptions in bunches and Lynch languished behind the unremarkable Trevor Siemian in Denver.

2017

All that past is today’s prologue. But it does seem, today, that Florida has largely emerged from the shadows of its dire and dismal quarterback situations of years past.

Del Rio is back from previous years, but he’s the only QB to have thrown a pass as a Gator on the roster. Del Rio is in a three-way quarterback battle with Franks and Zaire — a former four-star prospect who was coveted by big-name schools out of high school — and there doesn’t appear to be a truly poor choice among those three as Florida’s starter. Del Rio’s floor, seen in 2016, was partly produced by injury, and both his finer games and his clunkers were enough for a Florida offense with fewer playmakers to get past much of the SEC East. He, Franks, and Zaire are all seen as better options than Appleby was — and Appleby was enough for Florida to beat a very good LSU team on the road — and, at worst, that means Florida’s backup and third-string quarterbacks in 2017 should be better than its backup in 2016.

And, furthermore, Florida reeling in Zaire represents a recent stretch of success when it comes to bringing higher-level talent to Gainesville. Franks was a four-star passer not far removed from five-star status; Zaire was a solid four-star, but among the nation’s best dual-threat prospects in his class; July commit Matt Corral, a 2018 recruit, could be Florida’s highest-rated enrollee at the position in 15 years. Add in lower-rated players likely to stick for at least some time as developmental players like Trask and Allen, and a tantalizing change-of-pace weapon like Kadarius Toney, and the agglomeration of talent at QB is making it harder and harder to see all of Florida’s bets on a future star busting — especially given how those players are being staggered, rather than clumped together in single classes.

With just 10 days between now and the moment when Florida’s season moves from paper and practice fields to reality, the spectrum of possibilities remains vast. It’s possible, for example, that Del Rio wins the job and plays only marginally better in 2017 than he did in 2016, but never gets meaningfully pushed by Franks or Zaire.

It’s also possible that Del Rio wins the job and plays significantly better than he did a year ago, with another season of experience and the benefit of good health. It’s possible that Franks, whose arm strength outstrips virtually any player Florida has had at quarterback this decade, unlocks more of the deep passing that McElwain and Nussmeier have haltingly attempted to make integral to Florida’s offense, and consequently emerges as one of the nation’s breakout players. It’s possible that Zaire, either as a starter or a backup used as a change-of-pace player and runner, gives Florida a dimension like those that so many other collegiate programs have used to madden and maul defense — or that Toney, even swifter, does that.

It’s possible, in other words, that I will find myself writing another version of this article next August, wondering if this is the year that Florida will find the way to make its quarterback play more than middling.

But it’s more possible, I think, that I — that we — will have a new narrative then.