HOUSTON — Every football fan knows the old adage that the backup quarterback is the most popular guy on a team.
But that hasn’t been the case at Manvel High School near Houston.
The team’s No. 2 signal caller, Kyle Trask, might be a backup once again in 2016, but that role would hold much more significance.
Trask, a two-star recruit, enrolled early at UF in January with fans and media members still wondering how he even had a scholarship offer.
To their disbelief, Trask was the story of the spring. The 6-foot-5, 227-pounder proved to be the most natural passer of Florida’s four new quarterbacks, and surprisingly, he may not redshirt as a true freshman.
How things got to this point is as head-scratching as his commitment to the Gators last summer. But Trask’s emergence at Florida, first as a prospect in camp and then during spring football, came as no shock to his high school coach, Kirk Martin.
“One day they’ll do a ’30 for 30′ on Kyle Trask and talk about what a dumb butt his high school coach was for not starting him,” Martin said. “I’ll be the guy that cut Michael Jordan. I can own that. But I’m telling you, that’s how good this kid can be.”
Trask played three years behind fellow 2016 classmate D’Eriq King, a Houston signee and one-time TCU commit.
The Elite 11 semifinalist threw for nearly 6,000 yards and 90 total touchdown passes as a junior and senior. The dual-threat quarterback also accounted for 20 scores and 1,426 yards on the ground in that same span.
The Mavericks averaged 55.7 points per game last season and scored 70 or more points six times. If you want to know why Trask didn’t start, there’s your sign.
“Everybody talks about Kyle being a backup, I never viewed him that way,” Martin said. “D’Eriq was just so electric with the ball in his hands that it was hard to take him out. We run a wide-open spread offense with a lot of zone reads and quarterback runs that Kyle couldn’t do.
“He’s truly a pro-style quarterback. He can run now, but he’s not a 4.4 guy like D’Eriq. He’s one of the fastest track athletes in Texas. So he was just best for what we do.”
With an offensive system not suited for his skills and playing time hard to come by, transferring could have been beneficial for Trask. He was recruited by other schools to make the switch after his sophomore season but decided against it.
Under eligibility rules of the UIL (University Interscholastic League), prep football players in the state of Texas can be forced to sit out a year if they transfer to another high school for athletic reasons. But a potential penalty is not the primary reason Trask chose to stay at Manvel.
“I still remember the day he came into my office to tell me,” Martin said. “He goes, ‘Coach, I was born and raised in Manvel and I’m not going anywhere. If you allow me the opportunity to compete for the job, I’m staying right here. If D’Eriq is better than me, he has to prove it. I’m not going to run from competition.’
“He never was the full-time starter but he always played. He didn’t jump ship. In this day and age, if you got a competition, as soon as you pick a starter the other kid leaves. We as a society tell them just go somewhere else, there’s a better situation over here. Well, the grass isn’t always greener.”
Martin said he promised Trask and his family he would give him quality minutes and get his film to college coaches. He did both.
“I tried to play Kyle the third series of every game and then the seventh series, regardless of the score,” Martin said, debunking the notion that Trask’s impressive film consists of mop-up duty. “His strongest attribute is his arm and I wanted to showcase that, but I don’t believe in running the score up when you’re beating somebody. I wanted him to have enough film with the first-team offense because I knew he could play.”
In his last two seasons, Trask threw for 1,545 yards (759, in 2014 and 786 in 2015, respectively) and 16 total touchdowns. His career completion rate was 73 percent, and he threw zero interceptions in three years at the varsity level.
“Division I recruiters came to see him,” Martin said, “and I told all of them, ‘If you’re a pro-style team, I guarantee he can come play for you. Here’s what will happen. He’ll beat out whatever big-name guy you bring on campus. He’ll win the job, be a multi-year starter and go on to play in the NFL.’
“Most coaches laughed it off and said there’s no way they could offer a kid that’s a backup. Well, just figure that out for a minute. He’s backing up a kid that was the Houston area player of the year, better than every other quarterback in this huge city. All those other guys were getting offers, but they would have been his backup, too.”
After some selling by Martin, a few coaches decided to give Trask a look. One of them was Florida offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier.
“I reached out to Nuss and told him they had to come check out this kid,” Martin said. “He sent the area recruiter through here first and he was like, ‘Whoa.’ So then Nuss came. I put Kyle on the opposite hash throwing 22-yard comebacks. That’s NFL stuff and he was fire-shooting them out of his arm.”
Nussmeier then brought in Trask for a summer camp session last June. He again tried to find flaws in his game, but Trask’s fundamentals and skills showed up in person like they did on his tape.
“Every time you tried to say, ‘Well, I’m not sure,’ he did something that said you are sure,” Nussmeier said. “If you just turned on the film when he played in the games and looked at his production, it’s pretty darn good now.
“You look at the decision making, you look at the size, arm strength, accuracy, and you say, ‘What box aren’t you checking, what are we missing here?’ ”
What transpired in the weeks following that camp may be a first for college football recruiting. A couple small schools were recruiting Trask by that time, but a Power Five program offering a backup quarterback seemed like quite a stretch, and probably never had happened before.
Nussmeier, however, was sold on Trask after evaluating him twice.
“Right after the camp,” Martin said, “Nuss called and goes, ‘Kirk, he lit it up.’ He said it was unbelievable, that he was the best guy there. He was ready to offer him.”
But UF coach Jim McElwain wasn’t. Not yet.
Still on the fence about it, Martin said McElwain needed to see how Trask stacked up and competed against elite quarterbacks. He also wanted to put him under pressure in a loud atmosphere with fans watching, unlike the camp setting.
So Trask flew back to Gainesville by himself for Friday Night Lights, Florida’s annual recruiting showcase that draws hundreds of top recruits to The Swamp.
“As soon as the event was over,” Martin said, “Nuss calls me and goes, ‘Kirk, he freakin’ lit it up again man!’ They offered him and I started jumping up and down in my house. I was so happy and excited for Kyle. That’s the kind of stage he belongs on.”
It didn’t take long for Trask to show that in the spring. Gators cornerback Jalen Tabor, a projected first-round pick for the 2017 NFL Draft, has experienced Trask’s talent first-hand.
“I love Trask. Pretty ball. He has the prettiest ball,” Tabor said. “Can you still step up in the pocket and deliver a ball to help your team win? That’s the only question I have for him.
“But as far as just the eye test, the kid is big and he can throw. I tried to bait him into one play in the scrimmage and he baited me. He threw it right over my head, I’m like, ‘Oh, I thought I had it.’ But he put it right on a dime. He can definitely drop dimes.”
Trask had a promising performance in the spring game, completing four of his seven pass attempts for 67 yards. Few expected him to outplay fellow freshman Feleipe Franks, an Elite 11 finalist who threw three interceptions, but Trask’s production only confirmed Florida’s summer evaluations.
Gators QB Kyle Trask capped off a good Spring with a very solid showing in the Orange & Blue Debut. pic.twitter.com/qI15iQ4Mro
— Nikko Tan (@TheNikkoTan) April 10, 2016
“We beat Houston Baptist, or somebody on this guy?” McElwain said of Trask. “It goes back to what we expected. Are we surprised the way Kyle has played? No. We saw those things when he kept coming back to camp, putting him in situations.
“I mean, that’s the beauty of getting guys to camp because you’re able to kind of see how they react in different environments. He’s a guy that answered all the questions.”
More questions remain for Trask, such as how he’ll perform in a game or handle his shot at the starting job, if and when it eventually comes. Martin has no doubt it will.
“Kyle Trask is there to stay,” he said. “He’s going to stay the course and he’ll start at the University of Florida. I believe it with my whole heart. I literally told Nussmeier that.
“The really great thing about Nuss and that staff is they trusted their eyes. They didn’t worry about a star rating. They looked and saw the kid can flat-out play. You watch, Kyle Trask will light it up in the NFL and everyone will be going, ‘Man, how did we miss on that guy?’ ”
Zach Abolverdi is the Florida beat writer for SEC Country and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow @ZachAbolverdi