As Billy Napier enters his first season at the helm of the Florida Gators, one of the biggest question marks surrounding his roster is the quarterback position, or more specifically, the depth of the quarterbacks.
With Napier bringing in Jack Miller III via the transfer portal after signing three-star Max Brown in the Class of 2022, many expected at least one of the freshman quarterbacks, Carlos Del Rio-Wilson or Jalen Kitna to depart.
One did, but the other decided to stick it out.
Jalen Kitna ultimately remained with the program amid a coaching change and despite many predictions and expectations to transfer. According to Jon Kitna, a former NFL quarterback with over a decade of playing experience, transferring never crossed his son’s mind.
“He just didn’t feel like there was any reason to leave except for because the world thinks the transfer portal is a new toy to play with,” his father, Jon said. “That’s just not the way we operate in our house. That never came up for us. Again, not really concerned with all that’s happening around us and what’s happening around him, and what’s happening around the program. He feels like the Lord has a plan for his life there. It’s bigger than just football.”
This mentality and will to stay at a school that had constant change and slim opportunities for early playing time come from Jalen’s faith and relationship with God, according to his father.
“Jalen felt like the Lord had called him and opened the door for him to be at Florida when Dan (Mullen) was there,” Kitna said. “We always say, ‘When God has called you to a place, then you stay at that place until God has called away from that place.’ We don’t feel like God has called him away.”
That faith led Jalen to ignore expectations to transfer. Part of those expectations that many held come from his relationship with former head coach Dan Mullen. Jon was the quarterback’s coach for the Dallas Cowboys in 2019 and coached Dak Prescott, who Mullen coached while at Mississippi State.
However, Kitna said that despite the relationship with Mullen, former quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Brian Johnson was the main reason his son picked Florida. Johnson never had an opportunity to coach his son after taking a job with the Philadelphia Eagles prior to the 2021 season.
In stepped Garrick McGee.
But after one season, McGee and Mullen were gone, and Jalen was left with a brand-new coaching staff, one that did not recruit him.
Despite the sudden changes, Jon Kitna said it was nothing new for his son, who he said went to four different high schools in four years.
“He understands change. He understands the world of professional athletics even though we’re calling it college athletics,” Kitna said. “… He thought Coach McGee was great. He loved Coach Mullen and thought he did a good job. At the end of the day, it was, ‘Man. Ok. That’s tough. Wish that didn’t happen. But at the end of the day, it did happen.’ That’s Jalen. He just trusts the Lord, and he trusts that God has him right where He wants him.”
That idea of change extended to the quarterback room following the beginning of the spring practice season. Between the beginning of spring and the beginning of summer workouts, Florida lost 2021 starter Emory Jones, who left for Arizona State, and third-string quarterback Carlos Del Rio-Wilson, who transferred to Syracuse after one season in the Orange and Blue.
With that, Jalen Kitna currently provides the biggest for Miller III as the backup to Anthony Richardson. Despite there not being much of a chance to overtake Richardson and the no guarantee of winning the top backup spot, Jon Kitna said his son isn’t fazed by the competition or Napier bringing in two more quarterbacks in the offseason.
“It doesn’t really matter where you go. At this point there are four guys on scholarship in the room,” Kitna explained. “Pretty much anywhere you go, that’s going to be the way it is. For him, he likes being there.”
However, with a new coaching staff comes a chance to hit the restart button and prove oneself. In 2021, Jalen did not record a single snap on the field, but he used the year for mental reps. Likewise in not even flirting with transferring, Jon Kitna said his son’s faith kept him from losing his mind while sitting on the bench.
“That comes back to his faith in the Lord,” Kitna said. “He has an incredible walk in which he trusts that God has a plan for his life.”
With the patience and understanding of his role with the team, Jon said his son used the time to focus on his development rather than the number of reps he was receiving.
“He felt like he was getting better every single week, both mentally and physically. We talk about it all the time in our home and in his athletic mental development,” Kitna said. “Mental reps are just as important as physical reps. While you’re not getting many (physical reps), you can be getting them in your mind and challenging yourself that way. So, that’s the way he approached it.”
That approach gave Jalen clarity as he enters his second season with the Gators. Despite the starting spot being locked up by Richardson and Kitna still battling Miller III for the backup spot, Jon said his son learned that he can be successful at the University of Florida.
“He said to me that the thing he learned the most was, ‘Number one, I can play here. Number two, I can play at a high level here. Number three, I can see myself as being the best quarterback in the country,’” Kitna said.
“I think that when you go off to college, you’re not sure. You don’t know,” Kitna added. “I think his time there in that first year was watching and sitting and learning and seeing other guys operate and run the offense and watching the defenses that come in every week. Studying them, he felt like he was in the right place, and he could be everything he wants to be here given the opportunity.”
However, Jon Kitna said that his son is still not focused on the number of reps he receives in comparison to the other guys in the rooms. Rather, the focus is on how Jalen is doing with the reps he does receive.
“We think that equal chances set up for failure,” Kitna said. “We’re all going to be given certain opportunities. Whatever opportunity is given to you, your job is to go be the best with it… All I do is talk about the reps he does get. ‘How’d they go? How do you feel about them? How can we get better?’ He’s gotten better this offseason.”
Specifically, Kitna said his son has made minor changes in his throwing motion and grip that increased the revolutions per minute in his throws.
“He feels like he’s on top of his game right now,” Kitna added. “If that opportunity comes for him, it’s great, but at the end of the day, they’re going to be recruiting people every year in college. It’s just how it is.”
These minor changes come from work with Napier and offensive analyst Ryan O’Hara, who Kitna said his son is enjoying working with so far. Specifically, Kitna said his son likes the focus on building relationships, the new offensive system and the way the coaches teach that new system.
“(Jalen) says they really try to break it down and make it as simple as possible for the quarterbacks so they can just go play. He really enjoys it,” Kitna said. “He enjoys their demeanor. He really feels like it’s the right place for him and that he’s got a chance to accomplish all of his goals while he’s there.”
As Jalen continues to navigate college life, Jon said the big advice he told his son was to “check every box of the things that people don’t see.”
“I’m a dependable person. I’m a great teammate. I’m going to know the offense. I’m going to know what I’m supposed to do. I’m going to be on time for meetings. I’m going to make all my workouts. I’m going to give you my best effort every single day. I’m going to be coachable. You can coach me hard. I’m not going to shy away from it. I’m going to compete for everything. I don’t want to be given anything. And I’m going to be ready,” Kitna explained.
As someone who did not see action on the field last season, focused on his own development, and has checked the boxes no one sees, Jalen has flown under the radar of Gator Nation. As for what Jon Kitna said he wants the fanbase to know about his son, it boils down to two main aspects: his faith off the field and his fire on the field.
“His number one passion in life is pleasing Jesus Christ as his lord and savior,” Kitna explained. “That’s where his life begins and where his life ends. He’s got a family that supports the heck out of him. He loves being around them.”
On the field, Jon said his son flips a switch that he can’t explain.
“At the end of the day, he’s a competitive sucker,” Kitna said. “Something happens to him when the lights come on and the helmet goes on. He has this demeanor that just switches. He’s a competitive kid. I’ve seen him do some things in the biggest games. It’s hard to find that moxie within players.”
With many expecting Richardson to possibly enter the NFL Draft after the 2022 season and Florida having yet to receive a commitment from a 2023 quarterback recruit, Jalen Kitna may very well become the starting quarterback of the Florida Gators in the near future.