A Happy Johnny-on-the-Spot…Again

Posted: April 8, 2011 in Florida Gators, sports, sports teams
Tags: , , , , , ,

He's smilin' now...

Johnny Brantley is smiling more these days than he has in months. He feels like a college quarterback again. There’ll no doubt be butterflies before tomorrow’s Orange and Blue spring game.

The last seven months have been a bit of a nightmare for Johnny. He waited a lifetime — three of those years up close and personal — to become The Starting Quarterback of Gators. Sure, he expected a bump or two because he was replacing the Greatest Gator Ever, Tim Tebow. Comparisons to Tebow were inevitable. But he was ready last August to take on the challenge. He had been Tebow’s understudy for two years, his teammate for three. He handled the situation like a pro, always saying the right thing, acting the right way. It wasn’t easy, particularly that Saturday morning in Baton Rogue when he found out he wasn’t starting against LSU. Because of a recent concussion, Tebow wasn’t expected to play against LSU. Brantley had prepared all week to be the starter. He’d been told he was the starter. Then, boom! A few hours before the game Johnny was told Tebow would play. His close friends and family members were beside themselves. Johnny sucked it up, smiled and, as usual, said and did the right things.

But then came spring and Johnny was the man. Preseason practice started and Johnny was the man. Then the season started and everything in Johnny’s world went to hell.

Speculation — and, yes, common sense — was that Coach Urban Meyer would put his Spread Offense on the shelf. The Spread was perfect for Tebow. Johnny was seen as the ideal pro-style quarterback. Urban in love...He’d drop back, make his reads and throw the football down the field. Gator fans were excited. Who doesn’t like watching a bombs-away attack?

Urban Meyer, that’s who. Call it arrogance. Call it confidence. Call it ignorance. Meyer was convinced his Spread would work with Brantley. Mix in a few more passes, Meyer thought, but keep the Spread. Johnny had the speed and athletic ability to make it work.

Problem was Brantley didn’t have the instincts of a Spread quarterback. He’d beeen taught, forever it seems, by his dad, former Gator quarterback John Brantley, and Kerwin Bell, his coach at Ocala Trinity Catholic who is a former Gator great and 12-year NFL quarterback, to take his drop, go through his reads and throw the ball. Running, Johnny was taught, was always the last option; something you did when everything about the play broke down.

He’d been the most coveted passing quarterback in the country by college recruiters from coast to coast. He even gave a verbal commitment to Texas despite the fact he grew up a Gator, idolizing his dad and his Uncle Scott, an all-American linebacker at Florida who went on to have a fine NFL career. Texas Coach Mack Brown told Johnny he would throw a lot of passes for the Longhorns.

Besides, Florida ran the Spread.

But in the end, Johnny’s love for the Gators and the outcries of Gator-loving Ocala citizens won out. Johnny signed with the Gators. He knew he’d have to wait at least two years, maybe three, barring injuries, to get his chance, but that seemed like a small price to pay to become The Starting Quarterback of the Gators.

Johnny B. cocking the gunHis confidence soared. Former Gator quarterback Shane Matthews, two-time SEC player of the year and a 14-year pro, publicly said Johnny had better physical tools as a quarterback than any Gator quarterback ever. EVER. That list includes two Heisman winners, Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel, not to mention Matthews himself,Kerwin Bell, Rex Grossman, John Reaves and other Gator QBs who went on to play in the NFL.

Then the 2010 season started. Florida Field was packed. Miami (Oh.) was an outmanned opponent. The nightmare began.

Brantley "running" the spreadFirst, center Mike Pouncey couldn’t get the snap right in the shotgun formation. Balls were snapped at Johnny’s feet, over his head, too far left, too far right. The protection wasn’t very good. Protection in the Spread differs greatly from blocking schemes in a pro-style attack.

Then there was the problem at wide receiver. In the Spread, often only two receivers go out. Routes are less defined: Go to an area, be athletic enough to beat your man and look for the ball. The quarterback takes a quick look. If no one is open, take off runing. This fitted Tebow perfectly. In the pro-style attack, three or more receivers run diagrammed routes. The simple philosophy is to get two receivers against one defender; get three receivers against two defenders. The quarterback needs time to go through his reads.

Most people, including SEC coaches, expected the Gators to make offensive adjustments once it was obvious Brantley wasn’t effective in the modified Spread. That didn’t happen. Freshman Trey Burton, a superb athlete with limited passing skills, began sharing time with Brantley. It became obvious, even to the hacks in the pressbox like me, that when Burton was on the field the Gators would run and when Brantley was playing the Gators would pass. Meyer’s solution to that problem? Add a third quarterback, Jordan Reed, who’d been the starting tight end. Reed had difficulty learning the offense. Often Burton or Brantley or both, playing wide receiver and/or running back, would be on the field with Reed. They’d call the plays, including what audibles were allowed.

The result was a mess. Few teams had worse offensive production than the Gators. No team with as much talent as the Gators were as inept.

Why didn’t Meyer make changes in the offense? The most popular theory is neither him nor anyone on his staff understood the pro-style attack well enough to install it. And Burton and Reed lacked the experience and talent to run the Spread.

And now we have come to the Gators spring game, 2011 edition. Meyer has retired because (choose one or more): 1. spend more time with his family; 2. health concerns; 3. a secret desire to become a TV star; 4. to be available if the Notre Dame or Ohio State job opens up. His offensive staff has moved on.

Enter Will Muschamp, the Gators 39-year-old rookie head coach who built an impressive resume as a defensive coach. In his first news conference, Muschamp made it clear the Gators would switch to a pro-style offense. He backed that up when he hired Charlie Weis as his offensive coordinator. While Weis fell on his face in his one head coaching job, at Notre Dame, he has an impressive track record as an offensive coordinator in the NFL. First in New England where he mentored Tom Brady and earned Super Bowl rings for each hand and last year in Kansas City when the Chiefs’ offense excelled.

Talk of Brantley transferring died with the hiring of Weis. As always, Johnny has continued to say and do are the right things throughout all of this, but those close to him will tell you that haven’t seen him this happy in months.

This, of course, isn’t the end of this story. In fact, no one knows if there will be a happy or sad ending because no one knows if Brantley is as talented as recruiters rated him coming out of Ocala Trinity Catholic. Or if this experience has damaged him beyond repair? One coach told me Johnny’s mechanics are worse now than they were when he was in high school.

There are other questions as well. Do the Gators have the receivers to make the pro-style attack? Can they provide the needed protection? And, of course, there is a brutal schedule, especially in October.

But the No. 1 question remains: Is Brantley a big-time college quarterback? Has he been the victim of a bad offensive scheme or has he simply been overrated, another can’t-miss prospect who missed?

We’ll get a glimspe at the answers to those questions starting tomorrow.

  1. Wyman Stewart says:

    Time will tell. As a non-Gator fan, I will be rooting for John Brantley to succeed. Even think he has been through so much, he deserves to have a super season, plus a successful pro career. If nothing else, John Brantley has earned my respect. Despite the greatness of Tim Tebow and my respect for him, I hope John Brantley proves to be the greatest QB Florida has ever had.

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