Even before COVID-19 changed the landscape of the 2020 college football season, the Gators were set to have a major advantage at the most important position.
In an instant-gratification era that has seen three consecutive transfer quarterbacks win the Heisman Trophy, the Gators have somehow managed to assemble a deep and talented stable of quarterbacks.
First, there’s redshirt senior Kyle Trask, the loveable underdog who threw for nearly 3,000 yards last season and is an All-SEC candidate this season. Then there’s redshirt sophomore Emory Jones, a gifted runner who throws a pretty deep ball and provides a change-of-pace option. Freshman Anthony Richardson might have the most raw talent of any UF quarterback since Tim Tebow. He’s big (6-foot-4, 233 pounds), fast and improved as a passer during his senior year at Eastside High School.
Of course, the Gators’ advantage has been compounded due to the pandemic. With the virus looming as an additional threat this fall, the odds that teams will have to start multiple quarterbacks increases drastically. That shouldn’t hurt Florida as much as it will most other teams. Plus, the coaches didn’t have to worry about trying to install new systems or tinker with throwing mechanics over Zoom this summer. They could just pick up where they left off.
“I can tell you with all certainty we’re going to need everybody in the quarterback room to contribute at a high level in order for us to get to where we need to be as an offense,” quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson said.
Trask showed remarkable poise in clutch situations last season, and he displayed good accuracy on short and intermediate throws and an ability to identify mismatches prior to the snap. His biggest weakness appeared to be a lack of mobility. He wasn’t elusive enough to avoid some sacks, extend plays or make the read-option game work to its maximum capability.
Trask believes his weight was the primary culprit for his lack of mobility. After breaking his foot in 2018, he gained 10-15 pounds, which made him feel a little too heavy toward the end of 2019, he said. By sticking to a healthy diet, drinking a lot of water and doing workouts this offseason, he shed 13 pounds and is noticeably leaner.
Trask feels lighter on his feet this fall and thinks that will help improve his game, he said.
He also watched every game from last season and identified his footwork and making faster reads as two primary areas to work on back home in Texas with Brain Thiebaud, his personal quarterback trainer.
Trask has stepped up as a more confident leader since the Orange Bowl in December. Prior to spring practice getting canceled, he boldly proclaimed that the Gators “have a great shot” at making the College Football Playoff. In recent weeks, he released a statement on Twitter expressing he and his teammates’ desire to play this fall and calling on the NCAA to create stronger health protocols. He tweeted a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement last week.
That increased confidence is also manifesting itself on the field.
“In the quarterback position, experience is a huge thing,” Trask said. “So, just to have almost that whole season under my belt going into this 2020 season, I feel obviously a lot more confident about this year than I did last year, and that’s in all phases of the game.”
His teammates have taken notice.
“He has taken it to another level,” tight end Kyle Pitts said. “It’s just him running everything, him being a guy that’s the first to meetings and the first to call things up and make sure the offense is right and just making sure that everything around him is correct.”
Johnson has liked everything he’s seen from Trask through the first 2 ½ weeks of practice.
“He’s done a tremendous job so far, just in terms of taking everything to the next level from a leadership standpoint and a football standpoint,” he said.
“We’re just continuing to develop and add on to what he did last year in terms of the starting point. We were able to start at a much higher level.”
While Trask may have made strides with his quickness and running ability, Jones still fits firmly into UF’s plans this season. Jones is an electric athlete who opens up opposing defenses in ways that Trask will never be able to. The Gators need him, particularly if the running game struggles again this season.
“He has a completely different skillset, and he can be dynamic and change the game with his legs as well,” Johnson said. “When you’ve got somebody like that that can do everything, it really makes it tough on the defense, and it really changes the looks that you get. You can get some premium looks to spin the rock, and he’s been able to do that for us.”
Johnson also likes rotating Trask and Jones becomes it gives him the opportunity to coach one guy up while he’s sitting on the bench and prepare him for the plays that are about to be called when he gets back in. That kind of coaching usually has to take place between series when the defense is also making adjustments.
While Richardson isn’t likely to see the field much this year unless Trask and Jones get injured or test positive for the virus, this is still an important fall for his development. He didn’t get to go through spring practice as originally planned, so he’s playing catchup right now. Johnson likes the direction that Richardson is headed.
“He’s got a ton of God-given ability, and he’s a fast learner,” he said. “With him missing spring ball, I was a little concerned in terms of him not being able to get those reps and miss those really, really valuable reps in the spring. He was really, really engaged in our Zooms over the summer. He came in, and he’s a great note-taker, he’s a great listener. He really gives you everything in terms of his energy and effort to become a really great player. He’s got a fantastic skillset. We’ve just got to continue developing him at a rapid rate.”
The 2020 season will be marred with uncertainty. Individual players or whole position groups might get wiped out the day before a game due to the virus. Games might have to be postponed or canceled. Some conferences may not finish the season. The Big Ten may or may not decide to join in on the fun at some point.
One thing is for certain: The Gators have a quarterback room that most other programs around the country should envy.
“I think depth is a huge advantage in any year, particularly in a year with such uncertainty going forward,” Johnson said. “I think one of the things that’s definitely going to help us moving forward is that we have confidence that guys can go in the game and execute at a high level.”