<
>

Florida is still looking for a quarterback who can do what Tim Tebow did

play
Tebow's dynamic leadership at Florida (3:12)

Tim Tebow gave many an inspirational speech to his fellow Gators on the way to a Heisman trophy and two national championships. (3:12)

Believe him or not, Jim McElwain sounds more confident in his quarterback room.

When asked last month whether he thought someone in his five-man quarterback room actually had the mythical "it" factor to drag Florida out of its seven-year offensive depression, he didn't hesitate to answer.

"Yeah, I believe so," McElwain said.

Enter Feleipe Franks, Luke Del Rio, Kyle Trask, Jake Allen and former Notre Dame backup Malik Zaire. There isn't much experience, but Franks' spring and summer improvements, Zaire's arrival and Del Rio's health have McElwain excited.

A program that improved the forward pass under Steve Spurrier in the 1990s, started the SEC spread craze with Urban Meyer in the mid-2000s and has three Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks has been a wasteland for quarterbacks since the legendary Tim Tebow last graced campus in 2009. But McElwain can sense a change. Recent numbers might not suggest that, but, in McElwain's mind, he has more of what he needs at quarterback.

"We're now up to finally our number in the scholarship count that we want to be in the quarterback room," McElwain said. "We've got some real options there. And that's a good thing."

Options and good haven't exactly been in Florida's vocabulary when talking about post-Tebow quarterbacks. Since 2009, Florida has had nine starting quarterbacks -- Austin Appleby, John Brantley, Jacoby Brissett, Del Rio, Jeff Driskel, Treon Harris, Skyler Mornhinweg, Tyler Murphy and Will Grier -- which is tied for the most among all major-conference teams in that span. Athletes/tight ends Jordan Reed and Trey Burton also took quality snaps at quarterback, making for 11 bodies and few real answers.

Florida has gone 56-34 since Tebow's departure, collecting just two divisional titles (the same Tebow had as a three-year starter) and zero SEC championships (Tebow had one as a starter). Florida failed to average at least 400 yards per game in any season over the past seven years, entering the 2017 season averaging a paltry 339.3 YPG during that time. Tebow-led offenses averaged 453.2 yards in 41 games. Of those 41 games, only 16 dipped below 400 yards.

Florida has had just 27 400-plus-yard games in the 90 games since.

As far as pure passing numbers, Florida has averaged 184.7 passing YPG over the past seven years, with 105 touchdowns to 78 interceptions. Of the 11 quarterbacks used, only six completed more than 60 percent of their passes and only Brantley and Driskel reached 3,000 career yards. Grier, who went 5-0 as a starter, is the only player to register a QBR above the 50s (70.1). The next best? That would be Reed at 55.6, who is now one of the NFL's top tight ends with Washington.

To put all of that into perspective, Tebow threw for 8,927 yards with 83 touchdowns and 15 interceptions in 41 games as a starter. His average three-year total QBR was 83.3. Tebow also helped the Gators to a national championship as a backup in 2006, became the first FBS player to rush and pass for at least 20 touchdowns in a single season and won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore in 2007, broke a handful of records, and led Florida to another national title in 2008.

Tebow was one of college football's best players and most iconic figures, so following him up was going to be hard, but no one imagined it would be this hard. A top recruit, Brantley immediately followed Tebow and was never a stable option, going 15-9 as the starter. Driskel was a five-star who garnered Tebow comparisons, but he never reached expectations and transferred to Louisiana Tech after going 15-6 in three seasons.

Brissett and Murphy also went on to enjoy more prosperous careers after transferring, with Brissett eventually becoming a backup for the New England Patriots.

Then there's Grier. Positioned to be a star in 2015 after helping the Gators to a 6-0 start in McElwain's first year that included a historic comeback win over Tennessee and a blowout of eventual Sugar Bowl champ Ole Miss, Grier was suspended for a year after testing positive for a banned substance. He eventually transferred to West Virginia, where he'll start this season after being granted immediate eligibility.

"I'm excited to see what he's going to do there," McElwain said of Grier. "He's going to light that place up."

As easy as it has been to dwell on the past or think of what could have been at quarterback for Florida, McElwain can't do that -- and neither should fans. McElwain has helped mold the likes of AJ McCarron at Alabama and Garrett Grayson at Colorado State. Now, he has a chance to resurrect the QB position at Florida with the most prosperous deck he's had in Gainesville.

Franks has put his cannon arm and improved accuracy on full display this offseason, and teammates have been amazed at how quickly Zaire has picked things up and immersed himself inside the locker room. Del Rio still knows the offense the best, and his shoulder is better. Trask and Allen provide McElwain with more bodies to take quality reps. These are all good things, but Florida has to hope it has quantity and quality.

That's something McElwain hasn't had at Florida. He has watched two scholarship quarterbacks, Grier and Harris, fizzle before two transfer quarterbacks -- Del Rio and Appleby -- limped their way through a nine-win season. With three personally recruited quarterbacks in Franks, Trask and Allen, his vision at quarterback is a little clearer. With Zaire, he'll have more versatility back there.

"He's bringing in guys he feels can run the offense that he needs to be successful," safety Nick Washington said.

Although McElwain has yet to develop his own quarterback at Florida, there has been incremental statistical improvement under his watch. After going five straight years without averaging 200 passing yards per game, Florida has averaged 207.1 and 215.8 passing yards per game the past two seasons. Quarterbacks have thrown 37 touchdowns and 24 interceptions -- with the TDs the most in a two-year span since 2009.

Those aren't great numbers, but they are better. And, as far as the eye test, things are improving with Franks and Zaire. Beyond that, McElwain just got a commitment from ESPN 300 member Matt Corral, who is rated a five-star quarterback by multiple recruiting services, and the Gators are near the top of the list for elite 2020 QB prospect Harrison Bailey.

So, although an eligible Tebow isn't walking through that door, Florida's quarterback situation is looking better. The next step is for the aesthetics to translate in-game and in the stat sheet. Until then, that gigantic Tebow shadow will loom over the program and over McElwain.