GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Spring practice is still a few weeks away, but the evaluation process has already begun as it pertains to Florida’s latest spotlight quarterback competition.
New Gators quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson said Thursday that he watched all of incumbent starter Feleipe Franks’ tape from last fall, even went back and watched some Florida tape from last spring before Kyle Trask got injured, and he’s also been through just about every play of newcomer Emory Jones’ 2017 high school film.
“It’s going to be open. We’ll put everybody in the position to see what they can do. The beauty of us all coming in, and I talked to the guys about this [Wednesday], is that everybody is kind of starting from the same spot in terms of learning our offense,” Johnson said.
“[Franks] might have some advantages in having played in SEC football games before, but from a standpoint of us practicing and putting in the offense, everybody is kind of starting from ground zero.”
WATCH: Florida quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson meets with media
Posted by Florida Gators – SEC Country on Thursday, February 22, 2018
Franks is the only quarterback on the roster with any college experience, but it was a rough redshirt freshman season for him last fall. He completed 54.6 percent of his passes for 1,438 yards, 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions while starting all but three games — twice losing that job only to regain it following an injury to another quarterback.
Trask, meanwhile, lost the spring quarterback competition to Franks last year and missed the entire season with a foot injury. He’ll also be a redshirt sophomore in 2018, but without any game experience. Redshirt freshman Jake Allen also did not see the field last season.
Then there’s Jones, the 4-star dual-threat prospect from LaGrange, Ga., who flipped from a commitment to Ohio State and chose the Gators over Alabama and Florida State during the early signing period. He’s been on campus since last month, going through the offseason strength-and-conditioning program with his new teammates.
And it’s only natural for many to view him as Florida’s quarterback of the future, as he is the only true dual-threat quarterback on the roster and the only one recruited by this coaching staff.
Johnson was asked Thursday how realistic it is to think Jones could start as a freshman.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to play the best guy that we feel gives us the opportunity to go out there and compete at a high level,” he said. “That’s difficult for me to say right now without having seen him in the live practice situation with our guys yet. So I don’t know if I can fully answer that question, but he’s going to get every opportunity to get out there and compete and showcase his talent and see how he fits.”
The spring (and fall) quarterback competition has become an annual tradition for the Gators, who have been searching for another star at the position since Tim Tebow left after the 2009 season. For that matter, the program has been searching for any stability whatsoever at the position for too long now.
The addition of new coach Dan Mullen, who was Tebow’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach during the last glory era for the program, brings renewed optimism. As does the move to a spread offense and the addition of a highly touted prospect who chose the Gators over other top programs.
But while the evaluation process is underway, the real competition hasn’t even begun.
“I’m excited to get to spring ball and see what these guys can do in a real football setting,” Johnson said. “But when I first got here I turned on all the game film and turned on some film from spring before Kyle got hurt and got a chance to see what he could do and obviously we recruited Emory. So I feel good about what we have in the room. I think those guys are all talented in their own unique ways and they all kind of have a different skill set. What we have to do as an offensive staff is just find out a way to put our guys in a position to be successful and highlight what they do best.”
Johnson was groomed by Mullen early in his career at Utah, as a freshman backup to future No. 1 draft pick Alex Smith. After launching his coaching career with the Utes and eventually becoming their offensive coordinator, Johnson rejoined Mullen as the quarterbacks coach at Mississippi State from 2014-16. He was the offensive coordinator/QB coach at Houston last season before rejoining Mullen yet again at Florida.
In speaking on what he and Mullen and this tight-knit offensive coaching staff look for in a quarterback, Johnson highlighted the intangibles.
“There’s a certain talent required to play at this level. But I think the things that go underrated or unnoticed, the first thing you want is physical and mental toughness. You need a guy that can be the face of your program and be able to handle success, be able to handle adversity,” he said. “I think those are two aspects that [are] kind of a starting point for us. We want someone that’s tough, that can be a leader, that can process information and make decisions and has some ‘It’ factor.”
The chief criticism of Franks last season was his decision making, his proclivity to hone in on one receiver and not scan or see the full field, and what appeared at times to be a lack of comfort at the line of scrimmage.
To be fair, he was playing in an offense that had mostly struggled all three seasons under the previous coaching staff with a number of quarterbacks.
The lack of progress week to week, from the start of the season to the end, has caused many to turn the page on Franks, but the new staff will give him a fresh start and a chance to make a second first impression.
“The biggest thing that I see is the ability. He made plays when he had opportunities to make plays and then he obviously had some plays that I’m sure he would love to have back,” Johnson said of Franks. “But you can see the talent, you can see some of the ability that he has as a quarterback and as a passer and even as a runner. … He has some tools that we definitely can work with and get the best out of him.”
As for Jones, he was the first major recruiting win for Mullen, as he and his staff had less than a month after getting hired in late November to secure one of the coveted quarterbacks by the early signing period in late December.
They had a prior connection with Jones that played a key role in his decision to choose Florida.
“I remember it very vividly. He came on a junior day [to Mississippi State] with him and his mom. They drove down and we got a chance to kind of spend the afternoon with him and take him around campus and just kind of building that relationship,” Johnson said.
“I think it just kind of goes to show how relationships matter because, you know, we had gotten to a point where obviously I wasn’t recruiting him at Houston and Dan wasn’t recruiting him at State, but he remembered that relationship and he remembered how people treated him when he was around us and I think that played a huge role in his decision to come play quarterback at the University of Florida.”
As for the potential he sees in Jones as a quarterback …
“What I saw specifically on film was his ability to make plays in a bunch of different ways, as a passer, as a runner, checking the ball down, getting good progressions, being able to move in the pocket and keep his eyes downfield,” Johnson said. “Just things of that nature that show up that is kind of a prerequisite for good quarterback play.”
It’s also no secret that Mullen and his staff have had their best success with mobile quarterbacks. As Johnson mentioned, Franks has the athleticism to get out of the pocket and move, while Jones is a more prototypical dual-threat quarterback. But he hasn’t been through a college practice, hasn’t been evaluated at this level, and until that happens nobody knows for sure how he’ll adapt and perform.
Just as nobody knows how Franks will take to a new coaching staff and Florida’s new spread offense. Or what Trask or Allen can show in their opportunities.
However it ends up, Florida’s quarterback competition will be the story of spring practice and fall camp. Again.
And this coaching staff knows as well as anyone the expectations for that position, even if it’s been awhile since the reality met that standard.
“Absolutely. I truly believe there is no better place in America to play quarterback than the University of Florida,” Johnson said. “You walk right outside that stadium and you see three Heisman Trophy-winner statues out there. That excites me as a position coach.
“Coach Mullen always talks about the Gators standard. To me, that’s what the Gators standard is. We have some huge shoes to fill in that room, and we’re definitely up for the challenge.”