GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida will soon head into another offseason and eventually another fall not knowing what its future looks like at quarterback.
There is no greater source of frustration for the fan base and no more important issue for coach Jim McElwain and his staff to solve.
He’s not unaware of this.
“That’s something we’ve got to do, we’ve got to make sure it happens sooner than later. That’s my responsibility, and it will get done,” McElwain said after the SEC Championship Game.
But how? Who? When?
These are the unanswered questions that loom over the Gators’ future, the reason why some fans look at back-to-back SEC title game appearances and still feel dissatisfied with the direction of the program.
Unfortunately, 2016 — like 2015, 2014, 2013 and so on — was ultimately a lost year in regard to finding a cornerstone piece at the most important position.
To be fair to Luke Del Rio, he never really got a chance to develop through the season. There’s simply no way to know at this point what he might have been this fall if not for that knee injury in Week 3. Even though he sat out nearly a month to let it heal, he never looked fully recovered upon his return. He lacked oomph on his deep throws, threw 6 interceptions in three games after coming back and then returned to the sideline with a shoulder injury.
Fans who have now endured nine starting quarterbacks since Tim Tebow finished up in 2009 (with most of those finishing their collegiate careers elsewhere) may struggle to find sympathy at this point, but it was a tough break for Del Rio. He was onto his third school, had sat out a season following his transfer from Oregon State and put everything into earning his chance to be a starting quarterback this fall.
He had a breakout performance in Week 2 against Kentucky (320 passing yards, 4 touchdowns and 1 interception), but he didn’t show enough when healthy to truly know what he could have been over a full season.
He hasn’t spoken to reporters since the shoulder injury was announced, so it’s hard to know what his thoughts and plans are for 2017.
Meanwhile, Austin Appleby is gone after this season. The graduate transfer from Purdue got far more playing time — 6 starts already and one more coming in the Outback Bowl — than anyone expected in his lone season at Florida.
He didn’t exactly ease fans’ frustrations and had his struggles, but he’d note that he didn’t always get the help he needed. The Florida State game in particular was brutal, as he was sacked 6 times and under duress all game. Other times, the mistakes were clearly his.
Collectively, it was just another frustrating season for the Florida offense — a trend that is only going to change when McElwain and Co. find their quarterback of the future.
Whenever and whoever that is.
Florida ranks 83rd nationally in passing offense at 215.3 yards per game, but the numbers were even worse when it mattered. The Gators were held to less than 150 passing yards in four of the last eight games. They averaged just 186.9 passing yards per game over that stretch.
Among SEC teams, only Ole Miss (14) has thrown more interceptions than Florida (13). The Gators rank middle of the pack in the conference in total passing yards (8th, 2,583) and passing touchdowns (tied for 8th, 16), near the bottom in yards per attempt (tied for 10th, 6.7) and 11th in the conference in total quarterback rating (122.3).
This for a school that boasts three statues of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks outside its stadium and was once viewed as pioneering for its passing attack.
Again, should all the blame fall on the shoulders of Del Rio and Appleby? No, but that tends to be the nature of the position.
The loss to Alabama is a good example of the complexity of evaluating quarterback play. Two of Appleby’s interceptions were the result of a wide receiver missing a route adjustment and another not making a strong effort for a 50-50 ball. Appleby was actually the most accurate quarterback against the vaunted Tide all season, according to Pro Football Focus’ accuracy percentage metric, but those interceptions became the glaring stat. And ultimately, they did submarine Florida’s chances to compete.
So, no, it’s not all on the quarterbacks. The inconsistent play of the offensive line at times stunted the whole operation and the Gators did still finish atop the SEC East standings (with tremendous help from the defense, obviously).
In a different situation with more help maybe both would have fared better — they each had their moments — but collectively and for a number of reasons it was mostly a season of struggle at the quarterback spot.
And it’s simply hard to ignore that aside from South Carolina’s Brandon McIlwain (who lost his starting job midway through the season), Del Rio (56.7 on a scale of 1-100) and Appleby (57.4) were the two lowest graded quarterbacks in the SEC by Pro Football Focus.
Our grade, meanwhile, is for the lack of overall progress Florida saw at the position this year, albeit with a variety of factors contributing to that.
Star of the group
Well, we won’t go that far.
As noted, Del Rio didn’t get a full chance to prove himself, and that’s unfortunate for a guy who worked so hard for this opportunity. But even when healthy, the well-traveled fourth-year sophomore didn’t have the season he or the coaching staff were hoping for. He completed 56.7 percent of his passes for 1,358 yards, 8 touchdowns and 8 interceptions over 6 starts.
Making the same number of starts, Appleby completed 61.4 percent of his passes for 1,225 yards, 8 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He also took 17 of the team’s 25 sacks (however one wants to assign blame for those) and had some issues with fumbled snaps in the red zone.
On passes that traveled 20 or more yards in the air, PFF had Del Rio completing 5-of-28 for 228 yards, 2 touchdowns and 3 interceptions. On those downfield passes, Appleby was 9-of-26 for 353 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception.
Looking at 2017
Enough reflection. Let’s look ahead at how the Gators address the position moving forward.
Florida really wanted Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham, who ultimately chose Auburn instead. Stidham already had sat out this season and was the most obvious immediate upgrade for a number of teams looking for a quick fix at the position.
Because Florida is reportedly not eligible to take a graduate transfer, the options are now limited to those on the roster.
McElwain was asked last week how he views Del Rio’s role next fall, and predictably and understandably he was less than clear.
“Well hopefully we can get him healthy and he can come back and get ready to go,” he said, indicating he’ll compete with the freshmen quarterbacks.
He’s often less than clear about a lot of things, including the development of those freshmen, Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, but it seems like the coaching staff didn’t feel Franks (the higher of the two on the depth chart) was ready to take over at any point. McElwain hinted at that when asked if protecting Franks’ redshirt or his readiness to play was the main factor in not giving him a shot in the Outback Bowl. To that he said, “It could be a little of both.”
Florida only opens its practices to the media for a few minutes at the start a couple times a week, so it’s hard to know how ready they may be.
But there’s a lot of time to progress between now and next September.
Del Rio could get another chance, to at least buy some extra time for the young guys, and maybe if not undermined by injury he can look more like the quarterback who had that breakout game against Kentucky.
Or Franks could prove he’s ready for his opportunity.
Appleby gave an encouraging perspective on the progress of the freshmen quarterbacks last week.
“They’ve come so far,” he said. “They’re both extremely talented. The live arms, obviously you see the size. They pass the eye test for sure, Feleipe and Kyle both. The challenge for them’s going to be continuing to grow, and they’ve grown so much since they first got here in spring and they didn’t know how to call a play. They had no idea who a Mike (linebacker) was, what’s an X. They’ve come so far. Now they’re able to change protections if they need to, they’re able to get to their sight adjustments and do all the things that they need to do that are kind of graduate level. And they’re only going to get better.
“It’s going to be on them continuing to push each other and push themselves and learn. They’ve still got a long, long way to go playing in Coach Mac’s offense, but the sky’s the limit for them.”
As for his thoughts on that 2017 QB competition?
“I’ll be interested to watch it. I’m a fan of all of our guys. I’m a Gator fan forever, and the best guy’s going to play and I’m confident whoever that is will be the man. And don’t count Luke out either. He’s still the man there,” Appleby said.
Florida also has Jake Allen, a 3-star prospect rated the No. 23 pro-style quarterback in this signing class, joining the roster as an early enrollee and trying to show he is the Gators’ quarterback of the future.
The bottom line is this process has no doubt taken more time than anyone involved would have hoped, but McElwain’s track record as a quarterback coach and offensive strategist is legit.
See what three of his former quarterbacks said about that earlier this season when we caught up to them.
Patience isn’t much part of the college game anymore. And Florida fans’ patience for the program’s next great quarterback has been stretched further and further each year since Tebow left town.
But McElwain deserves time to solve the issue, and no matter what some fans may think, there’s still plenty of reason to think he will.
All recruiting rankings come from the 247Sports composite.
Here are the rest of our position-by-position reviews, with a link to the earlier installments.
Dec. 12: Special teams
Dec. 13: Cornerbacks
Dec. 14: Safeties
Dec. 15: Linebackers
Dec. 16: Defensive line
Dec. 19: Offensive line
Dec. 20: Tight ends
Dec. 21: Wide receivers
Dec. 22: Running backs
Dec. 23: Quarterbacks