(First in a series of position-by-position analysis of the 2020 Florida Gators)
No, we’re not talking about the 1978 song made famous by Michael Lee Adday, better known as Meat Loaf. We’re talking about a quarterback room at the University of Florida where Dan Mullen has three highly skilled guys on scholarship, two of which – incumbent starter Kyle Trask and backup Emory Jones – are battle-tested and ready to go in 2020. The third, true freshman Anthony Richardson, might be the most talented of all but even though he early-enrolled back in January, the covid-19 virus wiped out spring practice where he could gotten some on-the-job training.
But, as the song says, two out of three ain’t bad and it’s a far superior situation than the one Mullen faced heading into the 2019 season. Last year Mullen had an incumbent starter in Feleipe Franks who finished the 2018 season strong but Trask and Jones were the backups and both were untested. When Franks went down in game three with a season-ending ankle injury, it might have been a recipe for disaster considering Trask had only thrown 22 passes in his three previous years on the UF campus. Instead of wilting under the pressure of taking over a flat Florida offense and a loud, hostile sellout crowd in Lexington, Trask provided an immediate spark to lead the Gators to 19 straight fourth quarter points for a comeback win over Kentucky. From that shocker of a beginning, Trask led the Gators to an 11-2 season that included a win over Virginia in the Orange Bowl.
With Trask as the starter and Jones coming off the bench to provide some Tim Tebow retro (as in 2006) moments as a run-pass changeup, the Florida offense finished with its best per game passing (300.8 yards) since the Spurrier years and total yardage (430.5) since Tebow’s senior season in 2009. Trask put up the best quarterback numbers since Tebow – 66.9% completion percentage; 2,941 passing yards; 8.3 yards per pass attempt; 25 touchdown passes; a mere 7 interceptions. As the backup, Jones went 25-38 passing for 267 yards and 3 touchdowns (no interceptions) while rushing for 256 yards (6.1 per carry) and 4 touchdowns.
The 1-2 punch of Trask and Jones was reminiscent of 2006 when then then offensive coordinator Mullen tailored a two-quarterback system around Chris Leak and Tebow. Leak was the pure passer capable of making all the throws while Tebow was a battering ram of a runner who could also throw. In that run to the national championship, Leak threw for 2,942 yards and 23 touchdowns while Tebow came off the bench to throw for 358 and 5 TDs while rushing for 469 and eight more.
If anyone knows how to mesh two different quarterback talents without upsetting the locker room it’s Mullen. The fact that he showed he hasn’t forgotten how to incorporate two diverse quarterback talents into one offense lends optimism that this 2020 team might put up the best numbers Florida fans have seen since the 2008 national championship season. The two-quarterback system will be used strategically just as it was in 2006 and again last year, but make no mistake about it, this is Kyle Trask’s team and he is a legitimate star.
Nobody saw that coming when Trask was recruited to Florida by Jim McElwain out of high school in Manvel, Texas where he spent three years backing up D’Eriq King, the grad transfer quarterback that Miami expects to rejuvenate the program down in Coral Gables. After spending three seasons carrying a clipboard on the sideline, nobody saw Trask emerging when the 2019 season began, either. That was supposed to be the year Franks lived up to and beyond his high school billing. Trask played so well after Franks went down that Franks elected to transfer to Arkansas rather than duke it out in the spring to regain his old starting job.
That Trask was so successful last year when thrust into the starting job may have surprised fans and media alike, but to Mullen nothing that happened was unexpected. With every successful game and Florida victory, Mullen was asked if Trask’s performances surprised him. The answer was always the same. Not in the least.
The lack of surprise has everything to do with Mullen seeing Trask through two spring practices and the 2018 season. Instead of a semi-interested backup, Mullen got to see how Trask came to work every day, soaking up whatever coaching he could while preparing as if he were the starter. When the time came, Trask was more than ready to get the job done. Now that he has a year of starting experience, Mullen believes the best is yet to come.
On a Zoom call with the media earlier in the week, Mullen talked about Trask’s journey from perpetual, untested backup to a cool enough customer under pressure to lead the Gators to an 11-2 season that was a handful of plays away from perfect.
“So, he's now going from a guy that was preparing the right way – obviously prepared with confidence and knew he was gonna put in the time and the effort to be ready in case his number was called – to a guy now that has the confidence of having experience, has the confidence of having done it,” Mullen said.
In the tough four-game 2019 gauntlet of then #7 Auburn (24-13 UF win), at then #5 and eventual national champ LSU (42-28 loss), at South Carolina (come from behind 38-27 UF win) and finally against then #8 and eventual SEC East champ Georgia (24-17 loss), Trask threw for 1,001 yards and 11 touchdowns with only a single interception. In all four of those games, Trask saw every exotic defensive look imaginable and blitzes that came from every conceivable angle. He took some monster hits and was under constant pressure yet he never seemed dazed or confused.
After proving last year that he is as well prepared as any quarterback in college football, Trask enters the 2020 season the top returning passer in the Southeastern Conference and the preseason All-SEC quarterback in both the Lindy’s and Street and Smith publications. He has the experience and should have the confidence to go with it.
Mullen said, “Now he's a guy that has the confidence of, 'As I'm preparing, I know what it's gonna be like out there on the field', and I think that experience will be a big help for him."
The experience will also benefit Jones, who showed last year that he is more than a one-trick pony. Everybody knew Jones had speed and make-you-miss qualities when he tucked the ball and ran with it, but he showed he is a true dual threat by completing 65.8% of his passes. Opponents can’t load up the box when Jones comes into the game because Mullen won’t hesitate to let his third-year sophomore air it out.
Getting more reps in spring practice certainly would have helped Jones but this will be his third year in the Mullen system and by now he’s completely comfortable in the offense, same as Trask. And, both of them have game experience in the Southeastern Conference going against some of the best defenses in all of college football.
Because of the covid-19 lockdown, coaches and players weren’t able to work together on the field or in the meeting rooms but Mullen knows the work ethic of both Trask and Jones. He can be relatively certain they studied film and their playbooks as much as possible while staying in shape and throwing whenever possible. Still, it’s not the same as the on-the-field coaching and in-the-meeting room mentoring they would have gotten prior to the lockdown.
“Since I haven’t been able to get out on the field with them, I don’t know if I have to get them to unlearn stuff,” Mullen said. “I have in the past with different guys who have done that, but those are the restrictions we’re under so I mean you just deal with it, keep coaching guys up and try to get then better … I have seen in the past, I'm not going to get into any specifics but guys take little steps backward."
The experience factor could be just the ticket for Trask and Jones to avoid any regression.
“For a guy like Kyle, everybody saw last year,” Mullen said. “He’s spent every offseason preparing. He prepared himself to be ready to go and hopefully both he and Emory have done that this year to continue to get prepared and be ready to go for that moment when their number is called to get out on the field. Both of those guys have experience in games now. It’s great to have some experience.
“When you look after that with Anthony, he’s the one to me that [with] missing spring right now, it’s going to be a little bit of a different curve. But the other two, having that experience, having veteran players returning, it is. I feel pretty comfortable that they’re going to be prepared for the season and ready to go.”
THE SCHOLARSHIP QUARTERBACKS Kyle Trask (6-5, 240, RSR) Emory Jones (6-3, 200, RSO) Anthony Richardson (6-4, 235, FR)
ASSESSING THE POSITION: Nobody knew what to expect last year when Trask took over for Franks to start the fourth quarter of the Kentucky game. A week later against Tennessee, he proved the comeback win over UK was no fluke. By the end of the season it was obvious, no moment was too big for Trask so now he enters 2020 as the top returning quarterback in the SEC. While Mullen says he didn’t hold back any of the playbook from Trask last season, now that the Head Gator has seen his quarterback in action against SEC defenses, expect some new wrinkles that will exploit has talents further.
Jones is an elusive runner and an emerging talent as a passer, enough so that opposing defensive coordinators are going to have to spend inordinate amounts of time prepping for an offense that has a completely different dynamic when he’s in the game. Trask is more of a pure passer but when Jones is in the game, the element of the option comes into play, which puts even more pressure on defenses to adjust on the fly.
Richardson, it is said, is the future of Florida football. He has ideal size to go with blazing speed and bruising power. As a passer, he has a powerful arm capable of making all the tough throws. Barring injury to either Trask or Jones, expect Richardson to see action in the NCAA allowed four games that will preserve his redshirt.
This is the best quarterback room Mullen has had since 2007-08 when his three scholarship quarterbacks were Tim Tebow, Johnny Brantley and Cameron Newton. Both Tebow and Newton (at Auburn in 2010) were the centerpieces of national championship teams.
Two of the three guys in Mullen’s quarterback room are ready to go and as the song goes, two out of three ain’t bad.