Forever an underdog, Kyle Trask was made for this SEC Championship moment
Eighteen months ago, Kyle Trask was an obscure backup most outside the Florida football building thought would transfer.
Trask was stuck on the depth chart behind Feleipe Franks, who was coming off a Peach Bowl MVP and widely expected to take a significant leap as a third-year starter playing his second season in quarterback guru Dan Mullen’s system. Trask was just fighting his rear off to stay QB 2, ahead of big-time recruit Emory Jones, the highest-rated quarterback recruit to ever sign for Mullen. Many fans entered the 2019 season convinced Jones was QB 2, or at least convinced Trask was the underdog in that battle. The fact that Trask and Jones played in Florida’s home opener that season against UT-Martin did little to dispel that fan fiction.
There were no public whispers about Trask leaving, but there are rarely rumblings when you are talking about a backup who only received a third recruiting star because Florida offered and wasn’t even in the top 2,000 of the 247 Composite recruiting rankings. But it was a possibility, one so serious that even Trask’s family discussed whether their son might be better off somewhere else.
Every athlete wants the chance to play, and sitting on the bench and waiting your turn is, for better or worse, largely a relic of the past in the age of the transfer portal. Trask wanted to play too, of course, but after 7 years of being a backup quarterback, Trask wasn’t disheartened by the anonymity. Trask sat behind nationally coveted D’Eriq King in high school in Manvel, Texas, satisfied with being the big-armed, headstrong backup quarterback who pushed “Johnny 5 Star” to get better. In his mind, simply doing his job, and taking his chances to play — typically late in games that King and Manvel had salted away — had given him the chance to earn a scholarship to Florida. It was a formula he trusted.
“Patience paid off for me before, and I thought it could again,” Trask said this summer when asked in a media session why he waited around at Florida.
In the end, Trask simply bet on himself. Plus, he was comfortable at Florida. And he believed in Mullen and the Florida coaches when they told him they would always look out for his best interests.
“I liked being in Gainesville, at a great university getting a world-class education, with great friends away from football and a coaching staff I trusted. I made the personal decision to stick it out and just told myself if and when my chance came, I would be ready to play.”
As we all know now, the chance came last season in the SEC opener at Kentucky. Franks was lost for the season with a leg injury after a freakish tackle on a quarterback scramble. With the Gators down double digits, Trask stepped in and guided the Gators to a comeback victory, running for the go-ahead touchdown himself.
Since that fateful night in Lexington, Trask has gone from emergency hero of the moment to Florida folk legend to almost certain Heisman Trophy finalist. He entered the Kentucky game with 2 career touchdown passes. He has thrown 64 in the 20 football games since, amassing over 6,000 yards passing along the way and posting an excellent 16-4 record as a starter.
All the while, he’s remained an underdog, with whispers of “he’s not that good” and “he’s just a system guy” swirling around him. The critiques came in all vintages and colors, morphing ever so slightly as Trask swatted away one after another.
First, folks wondered if he could beat a good SEC defense.
Cleaning up late against a Kentucky team that had no film on him was one thing. But how would he fare against a nationally-respected defense? He answered those questions for the first time a season ago against Auburn, which came to Gainesville ranked first nationally in total defense and left 24-13 losers. Trask threw for 234 yards and 2 touchdowns, playing the second half with a bulky knee brace after spraining his knee in the first half. Emory Jones, who played well in that game, returned to the bench in favor of an injured Trask, putting the “Trask or Jones” discussions to bed forever — or so we thought.
Second, folks wondered if Trask could compete in a big football game away from The Swamp.
The Auburn win was nice, but how would he fare in Death Valley, at night, against mighty Joe Burrow and LSU? Trask answered that bell too, throwing for 310 yards and 3 touchdowns in a tremendous back and forth football game Burrow would later call “the toughest game we played all season.”
Still, the doubters lingered.
When Trask and Florida lost to Georgia in a game where Trask played good but not great, the voices swelled. Was Trask good enough to win the biggest games? Could Florida get back to Atlanta with Trask at the helm? Even when Trask helped lead Florida to the program’s first Orange Bowl win since 2001, the fan base spent much of an interminably long offseason debating whether Mullen should turn the reins over to Jones in 2020.
Trask shook that off too, believing in himself and in his teammates. Even when spring football was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Trask worked relentlessly in the offseason with his receiving corps, developing a rapport with multiple receivers, learning their favorite routes, where they liked the football placed.
“There wasn’t ever a week where Trask wasn’t working with someone, calling one of us, pushing us forward,” Florida senior Trevon Grimes said earlier this season. “That’s who he is as a leader.”
As for big games, Trask answered that bell too, in Florida’s biggest wins but also as a leader in and after defeats.
Trask torched Georgia with a Cocktail Party performance for the ages, throwing for 474 yards and 4 touchdowns and leading the Gators on a 41-7 scoring run that put the game to bed after Florida had fallen behind 14-0 early. The game vanquished years of Cocktail Party demons for the Gators, and will always be a part of Trask’s formidable Florida legacy.
But Trask has led in other ways too.
In Florida’s loss to LSU, Trask shook off 3 first-half turnovers to rally the Gators. They reclaimed the lead, then lost it in the final minute. Down 3, Trask led the Gators 41 yards in just 20 seconds, only to see Evan McPherson’s game-tying kick sail about a cleat’s length left. After the defeat, Trask was among the first Gators to point to Atlanta, reminding teammates that the SEC Championship was still very much on the table. He also took ownership of his performance with the media after the game, acknowledging that had he played better in the first half, things may have been different.
Earlier in the season, in Florida’s other loss, at Texas A&M, Trask threw for 312 yards, 4 touchdowns and had only 9 incompletions, numbers good enough to win most any game where his defense could force a punt.
In other words, save one lousy half against LSU, Trask has done enough to win every game Florida’s played. In the rare instances Trask has not played well, he’s done what leaders do and been accountable.
Trask enters the SEC Championship Game leading the nation in passing yards and ahead of Joe Burrow’s record-setting touchdown-per-game pace from 2019. (He won’t catch Burrow’s historic numbers because he won’t play enough games.) He sits in the top 5 nationally in passing efficiency and top 10 nationally in yards per pass attempt.
He also enters the SEC Championship a huge underdog. Again.
Florida opened as a 23-point underdog, the second-largest point spread in SEC Championship game history, behind only the 1995 SEC Championship where Florida was a 24-point favorite. The spread has shrunk to 18 as a I write this, but Trask still opened as a bigger underdog Saturday than he was the last time he was here, when the Gators faced Alabama and opened as a 22-point underdog in 2016. Trask was a fourth-string quarterback then, but he kept the backpack players were given and promised himself he would use it until Florida returned and he could get a new one.
“I told myself I’m not going to switch backpacks until we get back here,” Trask told the media this week “It’s getting a little beat up — I’m not going to lie. I guess I’ll get to switch this year.”
He also hopes to switch up Florida’s history in this game, which now features 3 consecutive losses (all to Alabama). It won’t be easy. Alabama is a team without any weaknesses, and in Mac Jones, the Tide feature their own version of Trask, a guy relentlessly downgraded as a simple game-manager who is in fact a game-changer. If anyone understands that, it’s Trask. Mullen recognized that this week, when he compared Jones to Trask directly.
“Much like Kyle Trask, (Mac Jones) does a fantastic job of getting his team into the right play, getting the ball to his playmakers, taking what the defense gives them. He’s had a great year,” Mullen said.
He has, and in no small part due to Jones, Florida seems unlikely to win Saturday night. But if ever an underdog was made for this moment, it’s Kyle Trask. If Florida is going to do the very unlikely, who better to lead them than a guy who has spent his whole career doing the unlikely?