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Recruiting Review: Where Florida stands at quarterback

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After a decade of wondering and wandering, the Gators seem to have a plan and a path forward at QB.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Through next Wednesday, we will be reviewing Florida’s recent history and current standing on the recruiting trail on a position-by-position basis. We start at the top.

The Florida Gators entered the Dan Mullen era with a slew of question marks on offense.

How would Mullen attempt to resurrect what had been a moribund Florida offense? How successful could he be, and when? And what players would he do it with?

Through almost all of one season, Mullen has been able to answer those questions — and even, in some cases, put exclamation points on the end of his responses. But the way he has swiftly refitted his Gators with an effective — and, occasionally, efficient and explosive — offense has plenty to do with what was already on hand.

What comes in 2019 and beyond will increasingly have more to do with what Mullen and his staff do to add to the players they inherited and have developed. And at the most important position on offense — you will be shocked to learn it is not tight end — it seems to me that Mullen has inarguably done well with the QBs he has on campus and the ones he has convinced to commit.

The Past

And given the mess Mullen inherited at QB, that is a feat.

During the three years Jim McElwain began as Florida head coach, the Gators started an alarming six quarterbacks, with at least two different passers starting in each year. In 2015, that was Will Grier and Treon Harris; in 2016, Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby split time; in 2017, Feleipe Franks, Malik Zaire, and Del Rio all threw at least 25 passes, and not one could muster a passer rating above 116.0 on the year.

And while those struggles at QB — and to recruit elite QBs, apart from Franks — left the Gators with a depth chart barren enough to help persuade five-star 2018 passer Matt Corral to commit to Florida and remain pledged even after the firing of McElwain, that commitment was tenuous enough when Mullen was hired that insufficient attention led to his eventual flip to Ole Miss.

But Mullen and Co. made QB a priority in their sprint to Early Signing Day last year, targeting athletic dual-threat passers that would fit the Mullen-style spread offense and eventually flipping Emory Jones from Ohio State after making runs at Georgia commit-turned-signee Justin Fields and former Oregon player Terry Wilson, who ended up at Kentucky.

And entering 2018, Florida had two four-star passers — Franks and Jones — as its most likely starter and eventual successor at the position, with two-star Kyle Trask, a perennial backup and dark horse to win quarterback competitions, waiting in the wings.

The Present

Franks would ultimately establish himself as the Gators’ QB1, as expected by many, but his claiming and maintaining of that position has not come without controversy. Trask arguably outplayed Franks in Florida’s spring game despite running mostly with backups, and while Franks was named Florida’s starter and promptly threw for five touchdowns in a lopsided season-opening win, his play in 2018 has been uneven.

That has included peaks that he had not previously produced in addition to very familiar valleys, though, and the peaks — Franks has posted six games with 219 or more passing yards, seven games with multiple passing touchdowns, and five games with both this fall — have been frequent enough to make clear why he is Florida’s starter.

Yet the valleys have been deep enough to make clear that Franks is far from flawless, and likely not so deeply entrenched at starter to be inked into that spot on the depth chart until his departure. Franks completed under 50 percent of his passes in three games this fall, two of them losses, and compiled a combined line of 22-for-43 passing for 189 yards, one touchdown, and one pick in back-to-back losses to Georgia and Missouri.

And in both games, Franks was supplanted — either as Florida brought in backups with an intent to spark its offense, as Florida brought in backups with a game out of reach, or in the truest sense of being benched, depending on how much stock you put in Mullen’s public explanations of the moves — by Jones, who was mostly ineffective against Georgia despite one beautiful throw, and by Trask, who threw for 126 yards and a touchdown in relief against Missouri.

The latter performance, the first by Trask in extended regular-season action in his three years as a Gator, was well-received by a fan base that had mostly soured on Franks, and spurred renewed calls for Trask to start over Franks. But that sentiment was rendered moot not a week later, as Trask suffered a season-ending injury in a practice the following Thursday.

And yet, even though Franks started very slowly in Florida’s next contest against South Carolina, he rebounded to have a very good day, notching new career high in completion percentage and carries, accounting for three touchdowns, and repeatedly shushing Florida’s home crowd en route to a comeback win.

Franks has also been arguably as good as he has ever been since that Saturday, posting the best two of the 200-yard, multiple-TD games against Idaho and Florida State by throwing for 274 yards and three TDs against the Vandals and 254 yards and three TDs against the Seminoles. And his combination of a live arm and decent — if, uh, ungainly — mobility, long thought to be the key to his fit in Mullen’s offense, has made him successful in that offense even as he has demonstrated only partial mastery of it, with Mullen repeatedly reminding media members that Franks has only been learning it for under a year.

Barring the unforeseen, Franks will certainly start for Florida in the Gators’ Peach Bowl showdown with Michigan, and in so doing become the first Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow in 2008 to start every game in a season. He is also on the verge of at least one surprising statistical milestone.

But my guess is that all Franks has done this year is assure himself of pole position in qualifying for Florida’s next quarterback competition — and that competition may be fierce.

The Future

When Franks committed to Florida, it was as the Gators’ first four-star passer since Grier. When Corral committed, it was as Florida’s first four-star passer since Franks.

What Mullen has done since taking over in Gainesville is create a chain of four-star passers that should cement taking a four-star — or five-star — thrower in each recruiting class both Florida’s goal and its bar for success.

For the 2018 cycle, that player was a Jones whom Mullen had long coveted.

Emory Jones, from Franklin, Georgia, had been a big blip on Mullen’s radar while at Mississippi State, with the Bulldogs tendering Jones his first SEC scholarship offer long before he ended up committing to Ohio State. And while Mullen did not persuade Jones to flip while he was in Starkville, his inheritance at QB in Gainesville looking far less formidable than what he had with Mississippi State and the emergence of Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins as a clear successor to J.T. Barrett in Columbus likely helped present a different picture to Jones once Mullen donned orange and blue and Js, and Jones flipping to Florida on the first day of the Early Signing Period last December was rightly viewed as a coup.

And for the 2019 cycle? That player was also a Jones whom Mullen had long coveted.

In the case of Maryland-turned-Virginia passer Jalon Jones, Mullen had previously engineered a commitment to Mississippi State, one that ended shortly after Mullen departed Starkville for Gainesville. By April 2018, Jones was once again a Mullen commit, this time as a Gator, and though he began the cycle as a three-star player, he has risen to the level of fringe four-star passer since.

Both Joneses profile fairly similarly, as raw talents with great speed and good arms that have much to learn as passers. I think I would lean slightly toward the younger Jones in assessing their talents, but the elder Jones came to Florida a bit more game-ready than the younger, and that year’s advantage may lead to the younger redshirting in 2019.

Then again, it seems possible — even likely — that Florida will have a three- or four-man quarterback competition in the spring, with Franks entering as the incumbent, Trask (should he choose not to transfer) as the veteran backup, Emory Jones as the speediest option with game experience, and Jalon Jones, an early enrollee, as a contender in his own right. And while I had no problem assessing Franks as the leader and likely winner of the 2018 Florida quarterback derby based on his edge in game experience, I think the calculus changes with more players around to push Franks.

And Mullen stocking up on talented QBs who can push each other seems to be a play well in place thus far, as Florida is one of the very few programs nationally with a 2020 QB committed at the moment. That player, Gainesville’s own Anthony Richardson — who attends the city’s Eastside High — committed during Florida’s Friday Night Lights camp this July, and may have the highest ceiling of any of the three Mullen-era QB commits.

Richardson stands 6’4” — taller than both Emory Jones (6’2” per Florida’s roster) and Jalon Jones (variously listed between 6’1” and 6’3”) — and appears to have as much or more speed than those more compact players, while also possessing good arm strength. And while Richardson has not participated heavily in the summer camp circuit to date and is likely underrated as a three-star prospect as a result, he was also about as must-get as a three-star QB could be for the Gators, as a hometown hero, a scheme fit, and a talented quarterback in a class that appears bereft of many of them both nationally and locally.

Just eight 2020 QBs sit within the nation’s top 100 prospects for the cycle, per the 247Sports Composite, and none of them hail from Florida. In fact, the current top-rated 2020 QB from Florida is Alabama commit Carson Beck, a pro-style QB from Jacksonville who ranks just No. 207 nationally. Richardson, despite being only the 247Sports Composite’s No. 427 prospect at the moment, is still the 2020 cycle’s No. 2 QB in Florida, and its No. 1 dual-threat QB in the Sunshine State — and given that Mullen’s system is tailored far better to QBs who can hoof it at least a bit, Richardson was always going to be the Gators’ top in-state option at QB.

Locking such player up some 17 months prior to his likely signing allows Mullen and Co. to groom him as a leader of that recruiting class, and to spend their time constructing a class around its keystone, rather than the reverse.

Of course, in recruiting, everything is subject to change, and while Florida appears to have its future sketched at QB to a degree not seen since the Gators landed John Brantley and Cam Newton as potential successors to Chris Leak and Tim Tebow, all of that is not assured. Persistent rumors that Florida could ultimately pursue Alabama’s Jalen Hurts if (read: when) he chooses to transfer have not gone away, and the Gators staying on the fringe of the pursuit of Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant despite Franks succeeding this fall should be evidence enough that nothing is chiseled in stone.

But the outline of the future at QB for Florida does look a whole lot brighter than it has in a while — and Mullen bringing some shine back to a position where there was darkness has done a whole lot to bring sunshine to Gator Nation.