Advantage, Florida Gators! How the Quarterbacks Can Change the Season

Kyle Trask could give the Gators the advantage in the SEC East Title race in 2020. Photo Credit: Kassidy Hill

“Any quarterback that understands what the offense is really about is going to succeed” – Joe Montana

There isn’t a quarterback in the Southeastern Conference that better understands what the offense is all about than Florida’s Kyle Trask (6-5, 228, RSR), whose three years in Dan Mullen’s offense have him operating at what Mullen calls a grad school level but is slimmed down 10-12 pounds for added mobility and quickness. Behind him is uber-talented Emory Jones (6-2, 205, RSO), who is also in his third year in the offense and now has the experience of playing at critical moments of big games.

When you add what Trask and Jones bring to the Florida offense to what has happened at Georgia (Jamie Newman opted out, claiming Covid-19 as the reason) and you have what might be the perfect storm for the Gators to win the SEC East and perhaps even more. Florida already had the best quarterback situation in the SEC with Trask returning as the SEC’s leading passer from 2019 and Jones having proven he is an explosive change of pace ready to add another dimension to the UF offense but with Georgia’s situation suddenly in turmoil, Florida’s advantage has grown.

While there is an element of truth to that old saying defense wins championships, you also don’t win them without a quarterback who can put a team on his shoulders due to his understanding and ability to execute the offense. Florida has that guy in Trask and in Jones a star in waiting.

Trask’s story – the football equivalent of rags-to-riches – is well documented but it bears repeating. He went from a QB who hadn’t started a game since 9th grade to one who put up the best numbers – 2,941 passing yards, 66.9% accuracy, 8.3 per attempt, 25 touchdown passes – since Tim Tebow’s senior season in 2009. As good as those numbers are, they would have been even better except Trask didn’t take over as Florida’s QB until the fourth quarter of game three with Kentucky.

What we saw of Trask in 2019 was week-by-week improvement, enough so that most of the preseason magazines had him as the All-SEC quarterback. But, what we saw of 2019 might be the tip of the proverbial quarterback iceberg. If you don’t believe it, then consider what Mullen had to say recently:

You know one of the great things is that we’re on kind of graduate level stuff with Kyle right now. I mean he understands the offense and the reads and all of that. It’s how fast he’s getting to everything, the ability to check and change plays. The ability to extend the game plan where he has automatics that he can get us to, ‘hey, we like this play against this look’. I don’t love to get into three-way or four-way, or automatic checks and all of that stuff, it’s real graduate level stuff in playing the position and now he’s managing and leading everybody on the field. That’s a lot of the stuff we’re working on right now with him because I think with him understanding the offense he knows where we want to go with the ball, what we’re trying to do on each play, and why we’re trying to do it. Now we’re just trying to put it all together and let him be that field general out there and let him go.”

Graduate level. That is a thinking man’s QB Mullen is talking about, the kind of leader on the field that knows what it takes to play under pressure and win games. Trask has it. He knows how to get the Gators into good plays and out of bad ones. He showed last year that he’s rather oblivious to pressure, another quality you want in your starter.

It’s also a quality that Mullen has in his backup. Jones has earned Mullen’s trust enough that he got inserted into important games like Auburn, LSU, Georgia and Virginia at moments when the game was on the line. Jones – 25-38 passing for 267 yards and 3 TDs; 42-256 rushing for 4 TDs – showed that when given the chance he can produce at a high level. As a true freshman it was thought Jones was all-run and no-throw but he proved that isn’t the case in 2019 when he displayed a very strong arm to along with a burst of speed to go with those dancing feet.

Adding Jones to the equation along with Trask gives the Gators a 1-2 punch that will keep opposing defensive coordinators up late at night. They have to prepare for both because Mullen will use both. Every game. Whereas Trask is more of a thrower, he has shown he’s a willing runner who can be effective. Jones is a dynamic runner who has shown he can make all the throws. Nobody else in the SEC has two quarterbacks whose skills and experience are as elevated.

QB coach Brian Johnson knows what he has in Trask and he sees how Jones is growing into his role:

“Emory is a very special talent. In terms of his overall knowledge, we can run our base with both quarterbacks. The thing that becomes different is they both have a different skillset. We can run the same play and get two different outcomes just because of the skillset of the quarterback. He’s done a great job of improving on a day-to-day basis of just his consistency of performance. Emory, every time he’s gotten into games he’s played really, really well. My challenge to him has always been be consistent in everything that you do. He’s really continued to do that and improve. I love coaching Emory. I think he’s a fantastic player, a fantastic talent, and I can’t wait to watch him play.” 

Emory Jones brings an added unpredictable element to the Gators QB unit. Photo Credit: Alex Shepherd

Even before Jamie Newman elected to opt out, Florida had the advantage in the SEC East because of Trask and Jones. Despite the hype, Newman was pretty much a question mark since his numbers at Wake Forest were inflated by great games against bad teams while his numbers against good defenses ranged from below average to downright rotten. Neither Trask nor Jones had bad games last year and the Gators played six teams whose defenses ranked among the nation’s top 31.

Newman opting out puts Georgia in a precarious position and that only solidifies Florida’s chances to climb that next rung on the ladder to elite status that Mullen installed the day he took the Florida job. This is year three of his plan to win. It’s also year three for Trask and Jones, a huge part of the year three plan.

Of course, championships are won on the field and not on paper. If they were won on paper, Georgia would have at least 10 national titles since the last one in 1980. Florida hasn’t won an SEC or national title since 2008, but Mullen has the Gators on track to move another step closer to where they were from 2006-08 or during the 12 years of Steve Spurrier.

The Gators have the defense to do it, but they also have the best situation at quarterback. Advantage Florida.

Here is the quarterback situation at every SEC school:

ALABAMA: Mac Jones (6-3, 214, RJR) seems like the reincarnation of AJ McCarron. He isn’t flashy, doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and gets the job done. It helps that he can throw to receivers like DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. After taking over as the starter when Tua Tagovailoa went down with a brutal ankle injury last year, Jones completed 52-66 of his passes for 937 yards and 10 touchdowns and finished the season with 1,503 yards (10.7 per attempt) and 14 TDPs. Jones will be pushed by stud freshman Bryce Young (6-0, 194, FR) who dazzles with his feet but has already shown he’s got a Kyler Murray-like arm. Jones will be the starter, at least for the foreseeable future, but OC Steve Sarkisian will find ways to get Young onto the field, particularly since it will count as a redshirt year for Young no matter how many games he plays in 2020. Situation: It could be excellent but only if Nick Saban and Sarkisian can keep both Jones and Young happy. A QB controversy could be disastrous for a team expected to be in the national championship hunt.

ARKANSAS: New HBC Sam Pittman and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles really needed the spring to install a brand new offense. Missing the spring really didn’t hurt grad transfer Feleipe Franks, who would have been seriously limited on an ankle that was still healing, but it was problematic for the backups. Franks (6-6, 228), who started 24 games at Florida before dislocating his ankle in game three last year against Kentucky, threw for 4,593 yards (7.4 per attempt) and 38 touchdowns at Florida, but he also heaved 17 passes that the other team caught. He can be brilliant as he showed in Florida’s win over Michigan in the 2018 Peach Bowl, but he can also do things that leave you scratching your head. Backups K.J. Jefferson (6-3, 240, RFR), Jack Lindsey (6-2, 214, RSR) and John Stephen Jones (5-11,187, RSO) combined to complete 45.9% of their passes for 324 yards and 5 touchdowns last year. The likely backup will be true freshman Malik Hornsby (6-2, 180), a US Army All-American. Situation: Really grim if Franks struggles or can’t go physically.

AUBURN: With those fourth quarter rallies that led to wins over Oregon and Alabama, Bo Nix (6-2, 213, SO) sealed his status as an Auburn legend. Tiger fans think that if Nix can make that kind of magic as a true freshman (2,542 passing yards, 6.7 per attempt, 16 TDPs; 313 rushing yards, 3.23 per attempt, 7 TDs), just think what he will be able to do when he’s old enough to shave. Auburn has a new offensive coordinator in former SMU/Arkansas HBC Chad Morris, but the transition will be very smooth and the offense won’t change, only the way plays are called. Morris and Auburn HBC Gus Malzahn share a common brain, enough so that Malzahn turned the play calling over to Morris, who has been running a form of the Malzahn offense his entire career. It’s the offense Morris designed for Clemson when he the coordinator for Dabo Swinney. The backup is former minor league baseball player Cord Sandberg (6-3, 222, RSO) who was a stud back in his high school days in Florida, but whose college experience is 10 rushing attempts for 70 yards and 6-8 passing for 106 yards and 2 TDs. As long as Nix stays healthy Auburn should be in the SEC West championship hunt. Situation: Nix is a winner whose game should grow with Morris calling the plays and coaching up the QBs. If Nix goes down, Auburn’s chances to win the West will sink faster than the Titanic.

GEORGIA: The 2020 season will probably go down as one of those Near National Championships Georgia fans are so fond of talking about (the last time they won one was 1980), only this one will have an asterisk beside it. The asterisk will represent all those wins the Poodles believe they would have had it Jamie Newman had only decided to play instead of opting out. Newman says it’s because of the Covid-19 virus. If you’re buying that theory then you probably believe the magician when he says he’s sprinkling magic woofie dust on his hand before he pulls out the red hanky. With Newman gone, all hope is on Southern Cal transfer JT Daniels (6-3, 210, RSO) getting a medical clearance to play again. Daniels, who threw for 2,672 yards and 14 TDPs in 2018, tore an ACL in last year’s season opener. Whereas Newman offered a measure of mobility, good since Georgia will start four newbies on the O-line, Daniels can’t run a lick. If it isn’t Daniels, there is D’Wan Mathis (6-6, 205, RFR), who missed last year after brain surgery; Stetson Bennett IV (5-11, 190, RJR), a juco transfer who threw 27 passes last year; and true freshman Carson Beck (6-4, 225, FR), who has a strong arm but who regressed as a high school senior. Then there is that matter of a new offensive coordinator (Todd Monken) and an offense that nobody got to rep during the spring. Teensy little detail there. Situation: Georgia fans are already saying that if the Gators win the SEC this year it’s only because of the Covid-19 turmoil. It’s a spin job. The fact is Georgia’s offense is looking like a very weak link right about now.

KENTUCKY: Everything depends on the health of Terry Wilson (6-3, 205, RJR) since (a) there is no telling what is going to happen with the transfer waiver request of Joey Gatewood (6-4, 242, RSO) and (b) Sawyer Smith (6-3, 215, GR) didn’t exactly light the world on fire during the eight games he played for the Wildcats last year. Wilson went down with a knee injury in game two last year but in 2018 he was the UK starter, throwing for 1,889 yards (11 TDPs) and rushing for 547 (4 TDs) while leading the Wildcats to a 10-3 season. If he’s healthy, the Wildcats have an experienced QB who has a 12-3 record as a starter. If he’s not healthy and Gatewood doesn’t get his waiver (transferring from Auburn; even if the NCAA says yes the SEC has to sign off and that might be tricky), then it could be a long, long year for UK. Situation: Since you can’t count on Gatewood getting a waiver, Wilson needs to be healthy and play better than he did in 2018 for the Wildcats to be a factor in the SEC East.

LSU: Everybody knows Myles Brennan has an absolute cannon of an arm, but he’s sat the bench three seasons, the last two as Joe Burrow’s understudy. He’s grown from a skinny 6-3, 170 pounds to a solid 6-4, 210, during which time he has thrown for 600 yards (8.6 per attempt) and 2 touchdown passes. When he had Ja’Marr Chase to throw to, everyone thought Brennan might do just fine and dandy in 2020, but with Chase opting out of the season and a bazillion guys already drafted from last year’s national championship team, the situation isn’t bleak but it’s not exactly rosy either. Don’t be shocked if true freshman Max Johnson, son of former FSU and Tampa Bay Bucs QB Brad Johnson, emerges as the backup. Situation: It’s not bleak, but it would look a lot better if Chase were still with the team.

MISSISSIPPI STATE: This is a very interesting situation because the Bulldogs are installing Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense and the QB is grad transfer K.J. Costello, who threw for 6,151 yards (7.8 per attempt) and 49 touchdowns at Stanford, including 3,540 yards and 29 touchdowns in 2018 when he was injury-free. Costello is smart enough and experienced enough that missing spring practice shouldn’t be a big deal. Costello could lead the nation in passing yards and TDs if the Bulldogs can find enough sure-handed receivers to catch the ball. The backup is Garrett Shrader, who showed he can be a dangerous runner (587 yards, 6 TDs) as a part-time starter last year as a true freshman. Situation: Maybe a lot better than anyone could anticipate.

MISSOURI: Here is the situation at Mizzou. There is a brand new coach in Eli Drinkwitz. There is a brand new offense that resembles Boise State and Appalachian State that didn’t get installed in the spring. The only experienced QB is Shawn Robinson (6-2, 220, RJR), who hasn’t played in a year and a half since transferring in from TCU. In two years at TCU, Robinson threw for 1,518 yards (below average 6.27 per attempt) with 12 TDPs and 8 INTs. He ran (389 yards, 5.4 per carry, 3 TDs) better than he threw. The backup will be either Taylor Powell (6-2, 210, RJR) or Connor Bazelak (6-3, 220, RFR). Powell isn’t very accurate (46% on 7 6 career attempts) while Bazelak only has some mop-up duty to his credit. With three new starters on the O-line, Robinson probably gives Mizzou and Drinkwitz its best chances to win and if he goes down, a long season could be even longer. Situation: Whatever is just north of grim unless Robinson improved substantially over the last year and a half.

OLE MISS: If Lane Kiffin could somehow combine the running ability of John Rhys Plumlee (6-0, 192, SO) with the big arm of Matt Corral (6-1, 206, RSO) he might have an All-SEC quarterback. Plumlee can run like a deer (1,105 yards and 12 TDs last year as a true freshman) while Corral (1,362 yards, 7.7 per attempt, 6 TDPs) can make all the throws. Since there was no spring practice to enable one to separate from the other, expect Kiffin to run a two QB system. It could work quite well if Plumlee can improve his accuracy (52.9% last year) and Corral (135 rushing yards) can improve his mobility. Jeff Lebby has the title of offensive coordinator after working at UCF the last two years, but this is Kiffin’s offense and he has one of the more creative minds in the business. Situation: If Corral and Plumlee can handle a two-QB system, it could work out well. If not, trouble.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Ryan Hilinski (6-3, 225, SO) became the starter in game two after Jake Bentley went down with a season-ending injury. Hilinski became the king of the dink and dunk (2,357 yards, 5.8 per attempt, 11 TDPs), which had everything to do with Will Muschamp bringing on a new offensive coordinator (Mike Bobo) whose offenses are predicated on throwing the ball down the field. Hilinski has way too good an arm to waste throwing 5-yard passes. He’s being pushed by grad transfer Collin Hill (6-4, 222), who played for Bobo at Colorado State. Hill has a live arm but has had problems staying healthy. Then there is true freshman Luke Doty (6-1, 210). He’s a dual threat who just wants to play and is a good enough athlete that Muschamp and Bobo are looking for ways to get him on the field, most likely as a slot receiver. Situation: The problem is keeping opponents from jamming up the box so it will be imperative for either Hilinski or Hill to take shots and complete them down the field. If the Gamecocks can’t stretch the defense it’s going to be a long, long year.

TENNESSEE: This will be Jarrett Guarantano’s fifth year in the Tennessee program and the first time he’s had the same offensive coordinator two consecutive years. Last year, Guarantano (6-4, 215) looked really good in the games against the bad teams, but he struggled against the good ones. The task for OC Jim Chaney is to get Guarantano playing at a consistent level no matter the opponent. Last year Guarantano threw for 2,158 yards (8.4 per attempt) and 16 touchdowns with 8 interceptions. He didn’t throw a TDP against Florida, Georgia and Alabama, completed less than 50% of his passes in those games and averaged less than 6 yards per pass attempt. With a schedule that includes Georgia, Auburn, Alabama, Texas A&M and Florida, if Guarantano can’t play at a high level then the Vols will be lucky to break even. The backup is Brian Maurer (6-3, 196, SO) who struggled with injuries and a concussion last year. Situation: It’s going to take Jim Chaney channeling his inner Annie Sullivan (see Helen Keller) to elevate Guarantano’s play and keep the Vols in the thick of the SEC East race.

TEXAS A&M: Kellen Mond is the most experienced quarterback in the SEC, having started 34 of the 37 games he’s played in. This is his third year in Jimbo Fisher’s offense. He’s thrown for 7,379 yards (a very average 7.0 per attempt) and 52 touchdowns (24 interceptions) in his career while rushing for 1,315 yards (3.5 per attempt) and 18 touchdowns. So where is the love? Why isn’t everyone talking up Mond as the top returning quarterback in the SEC? Maybe it has something to do with the fact everyone has expected so much more and he has yet to deliver. Is it a case that he’s played well and the expectations are way too high? The backup is Zach Calzada, who threw for 133 yards and two touchdowns on 12 completions in a redshirt freshman year. Situation: Great if Mond ever (a) plays up to his potential or (b) plays with more consistency in games against ranked opponents. Both are possible. Both are also humongous ifs.

VANDERBILT: The last thing a coach whose seat is blowtorch hot needs is to go into a season already filled with so much uncertainty without a quarterback who has ever taken a Division I snap. Derek Mason was already staring down another losing season even before Covid-19, but without spring football and breaking in a new offense under a new coordinator (Todd Fitch) there is a distinct possibility the Commodores do an oh-fer 2020. The four choices are juco transfers Jeremy Moussa (6-3, 219, JR) and Danny Clark (6-4, 232, JR) and true freshmen Kenny Seals (6-3, 218) and Mike Wright (6-3, 187). Moussa led his team to a conference title in the California juco league last year. Clark is a former Kentucky signee who transferred to Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi. Seals has a big arm. Wright is an outstanding runner. Situation: Grimmer than grim.

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