When a team loses its starting quarterback, its season often unravels. The passing game struggles with a less talented quarterback who might not understand the offense as well. Then, the head coach or offensive coordinator waters down the offense by making it overly reliant on running plays and short throws. Eventually, the defense, feeling the pressure of having to carry the entire team, tries to do too much and crumbles. Things culminate with players pointing fingers at each other as the losses pile up.
This scenario has played out several times over the past decade at UF, but, as the No. 9 Gators (3-0, 1-0 SEC) prepare to face the Tennessee Volunteers (1-2) on Saturday, Gators players insist that it will not happen to them this season. While they will miss Feleipe Franks’ leadership and elite arm strength, they believe that all of their goals for the season are still attainable under the direction of Kyle Trask and Emory Jones.
“Coach [Dan] Mullen’s going to put the players in the best position to make plays,” defensive back Trey Dean said. “Coach Mullen to me is one of the best OCs in the country. It’s not who’s behind the center. It’s who’s calling [plays].”
While Mullen said both Trask and Jones will play the remainder of this season, Trask figures to receive most of the snaps because he’s the better drop-back passer. Jones will likely be a change-of-pace option with a zone-read package.
The Gators’ confidence in Trask isn’t unfounded optimism. UF’s come-from-behind win over Kentucky serves as tangible proof that he can get the job done. Florida scored 10 points in the first three quarters. They scored 19 in the fourth quarter under Trask. He completed nine of 13 passes for 126 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown on the ground. Yes, some of that had to do with Kentucky being thin in the secondary due to injuries and a targeting foul and some questionable coaching decisions by Kentucky, but Trask still had to make the throws.
“Coaches do a great job of preparing us for these kind of moments,” Trask said. “This is why we come to Florida, to play in big games like this. I was trying to take advantage of my opportunity.”
If you can direct a comeback victory off the bench on the road in the SEC, you can do pretty much anything. Not that he needed it, but the victory earned Trask extra validation among his teammates.
Receiver Josh Hammond said Trask’s decisiveness stood out to him against the Wildcats. Despite his inexperience playing with the game on the line, he didn’t second-guess himself or hesitate to make throws. He knew exactly where he was going with the ball and threw with conviction.
“He got the ball out pretty quick, and he wasn’t afraid to let it sling a little bit,” Hammond said. “Coach Mullen did a good job keeping calls pretty simple in the first play to come out and throw a hitch just to kind of get warmed up and get a feel for the game.”
Added Trask: “I think it comes from the confidence you get from reps. Coach Mullen’s thing is he wants to get everybody as many reps as he possibly can. You just saw this past weekend, you never know when your number is going to get called. That's one thing that I can definitely say about the staff is that they know how to prepare our team for any moment."
While Mullen said the offense won’t change much with Trask running the show, Hammond said there are a few differences between Trask and Franks. Trask doesn’t have the arm strength that Franks has – few do – but he is more decisive at times and puts more touch on his throws. Franks will run a bit more than Trask will.
While the fourth quarter against Kentucky was Trask’s coming out party to the outside world, the players’ confidence in him was built long ago in practice. Trask and Jones received a bunch of reps with the first team throughout the spring and fall camp, Mullen said. Now that they’re in-season, they don’t have as much time to rotate anymore, but Mullen said Trask did a nice job of taking mental reps in practice and games. He studied the game plan as if he was the starter, watched plays closely and went through his reads as if he was playing.
“He is a poised guy,” linebacker David Reese II said. “He has always been a ball player since he has been here. Guy that loves Florida, loves the team. He is a people’s person that you can relate to, and you know you can depend on him. When he came in, we had no doubt that he would take care of us. We already know his ability.”
The cohesion and chemistry the rest of the starting offense built with Trask during practices made for a smooth transition when Franks got hurt, Hammond said.
“It just feels like practice with quarterbacks switching,” he said. “It’s nothing that we haven’t experienced before. Kyle’s able to come in and execute at a high level and lead us to the win.”
With the starting quarterback role come additional responsibilities and expectations. Mullen pointed out that the backup quarterback is almost always the fans’ favorite player on the team because they haven’t seen him play much or heard him speak at press conferences. Now that he’ll be playing most of the snaps and talking to the media regularly, every throw he makes and every word he says will be dissected and scrutinized.
Trask said he is ready for the added challenges.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to keep it all in perspective,” he said. “You can’t get outside of your element. My focus is 100 percent on Tennessee right now, so I’ll do my best to stay focused on that.”
Though he’s not as outgoing and flamboyant as Franks, his teammates believe he’s capable of commanding the huddle and becoming more of a leader.
“Kyle's not afraid to speak up and lead the guys when he has to,” Hammond said. “Kyle wants to make plays. Kyle wants to win. So, when his number's called, he's going to be that leader for the offense to try to get things rolling. You could see it throughout the game. He was just getting more confident, making checks, calling things, trying to get guys going and make those plays.”
His leadership is already starting to show. Against the Wildcats, he told safety Shawn Davis to “Get us the ball back. We’re going to score.”
“You play every game to win,” Trask said. “I was there for my defense, and they were there for me and the offense. We really fed off of each other in that second half and did what we had to do.”
Playing the bulk of the season with a backup quarterback isn’t ideal, but the Gators believe they are equipped to make the best of a bad situation.
“Like Coach Mullen says, he believes all three guys can start,” defensive end Zachary Carter said. “We have three good quarterbacks. One is down now. We still have two quarterbacks, so I think they’re both prepared to lead the team.”