Swan song for beloved Brantley

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Whatever happens in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl will have no effect on how quarterback John Brantley is remembered among his teammates.

Even though Brantley had a rather nondescript career as the Gators starter, he persevered through adversity and injuries throughout the past two seasons. For that they admire him as much as any player that has ever worn orange and blue.

"He's a tough guy. He doesn't point fingers," offensive tackle Chaz Green said. "He's a true leader. He's not one of those guys who starts blaming everybody when things go wrong when he's had reason to. I respect him a whole lot."

A lot has gone wrong for Brantley. His job as the starter was put on hold for a year after Tim Tebow announced he was going to return for his senior season in 2009. When it finally did come, he was dealing with a head coach who later admitted he wasn't 100 percent committed and an offensive coordinator who was also the offensive line coach.

Instead of switching to a more traditional pro-style attack to fit Brantley's skill set, the Gators still were running the spread-option offense in which Tebow flourished. Brantley wasn't helped by an unimpressive group of receivers and an offensive line that struggled with pass protection.

To try and spark the 2011 offense, Urban Meyer and Addazio started rotating Brantley with Trey Burton and Jordan Reed. They would run the spread-option plays and Brantley would come in to throw the ball, sometimes needing eight or more yards to convert a first down.

After Meyer stepped down after the season, UF hired Will Muschamp. One of his first hires was former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis. Brantley seemed to flourish, throwing for 942 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions in the first four games, but he suffered a severely sprained right ankle late in the first half against Alabama.

He missed two games and had mobility issues when he returned. He had finally gotten completely healthy but then turned in the worst performance of his career, throwing three interceptions and suffering a concussion in the first half against Florida State.

"It was unfortunate," said Brantley, who has thrown for 4,618 yards and 29 touchdowns with 17 interceptions in 40 career games. "You always want to go through your season healthy, but it's football. Things happen. But when you get around the guys and around the coaches, that's all that matters. They keep you going, they keep you positive. You've got to stay positive also. You can't bring them down while maybe you're feeling down one day. You've got to keep them positive."

Brantley never complained publicly or privately about his situation. Never asked "why me?" or doubted his decision to come to Florida in the first place, despite the fact that Tebow was already there and the Gators were running the spread-option offense. His teammates would certainly have understood if he had, but they love him for accepting his situation and trying to make the best of it.

"I'm just fortunate enough to wake up every day and put on the Gator uniform," Brantley said. "To be able to have this opportunity to play major college football at such a great university and one that I have loved my entire life is a dream come true, and I wouldn't want it any other way."

And that's why, as corny as it may sound, some of Brantley's teammates want to beat Ohio State in part to have Brantley finish his career on a positive note -- something that hasn't happened in Gainesville since the 2009 season.

"I don't know if he's a victim [of bad circumstances]," receiver Andre Debose said. "It was just the cards he was dealt, and he just had to play them.

"I want him to go out with a bang. I want him to have a career-day for the bowl game. Even if he didn't, I would still think he had a solid career, but I would want him to go out like a champ in his last game."

There is a segment of Florida fans who are glad that Brantley's career will wrap up Monday. That's unfair, Muschamp said, because Brantley's inconsistent play isn't the only reason the Gators are 6-6 and fighting to avoid the program's first losing season since 1979.

"The quarterback is a tough, tough position to play. It's the hardest position to play on the field," Muschamp said. "When it's going well, you normally are put on a pedestal that you actually are probably playing better than you really are. At times when things aren't going very well, you're probably painted to be a little bit worse than you really are. So, I think from that standpoint [he's] a guy that went through a frustrating year the previous year, came into our situation, really embraced it, did a good job with our offense. Unfortunately had some injuries and some setbacks.

"The one thing I'm gonna tell you about John, he's a positive guy. He loves being a Florida Gator, and that's important to me. He's a guy that does everything he can do in a first-class manner. [He's a] guy that I'm really proud of to be a part of this football program."

Michael DiRocco covers University of Florida sports for GatorNation. He can be reached at espndirocco@gmail.com or on Twitter @ESPNdirocco.