Is there a QB controversy brewing at Florida? Unlikely, but it's complicated
After spending most of the past decade searching for answers at the quarterback position, Florida enters the new decade with a proven commodity in senior Kyle Trask.
By now, even if you only follow college football casually, you’ve heard Trask’s incredible story.
A career backup, first to the uber-talented D’Eriq King at Manvel High School in Texas and then to Feleipe Franks at Florida, Trask hadn’t started a football game since freshmen ball in southeast Texas.
Heck, Trask only ended up at Florida when Randy Shannon caught a practice and some game film of Trask in high school mop-up duty and convinced Jim McElwain to offer him a scholarship. For 4 years, Trask labored as a backup, battling injuries, weathering coaching changes and resisting the urge to transfer to a smaller program where, finally, after all those years and practices, he might get the chance to play.
As a sophomore, he nearly earned his chance after Franks had a pair of poor late-season performances but was injured and lost for the season when Mullen reopened the quarterback competition.
But when Franks was unfortunately lost for the season at Kentucky in the season’s 3rd game, Trask finally got his chance. And wow was he ready.
In a season that included only 10 starts, Trask threw for 2,941 yards, 25 touchdowns and finished 15th in the country in passing efficiency rating, good for 3rd-best in the SEC behind only Heisman winner Joe Burrow and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa.
More important than the numbers, Trask stabilized the position and the football team after the loss of Franks, leading the Gators to an 11-win campaign that included an Orange Bowl victory. Even in Florida’s defeats, Trask played admirably, standing toe to toe with Burrow and throwing for 300+ yards in a closer-than-the-score 42-28 loss at national champion LSU in October and throwing for 257 yards and 2 touchdowns while coming up just short in a furious rally against Georgia at the Cocktail Party.
“We aren’t here without him,” senior Van Jefferson said during Orange Bowl week. “If you ever want to know what happens when hard work meets opportunity, Kyle’s story is like a movie version of that.”
After 2 seasons and change with the rocket-armed, magnetic, talented but inconsistent Franks, Trask’s ability to consistently execute at a high level was a refreshing change in Gainesville — and part of the reason Trask put together the best season for any Florida quarterback since the Tim Tebow roamed the sidelines of The Swamp.
That Trask accomplished as much as he did is all the more remarkable given how one-dimensional Florida was offensively the bulk of the season. Playing behind an erratic, young offensive line whose pass blocking ability was miles ahead of its ability to get leverage and a push in the run game, Florida finished 107th nationally in rushing offense.
Late in the season, Florida didn’t even pretend they were going to try to run the ball.
“We’re going to do what we’re good at doing,” Dan Mullen said candidly ahead of Florida’s road game at Missouri. “That’s letting Kyle do his thing and letting our playmakers and receivers make plays.”
All of that makes it tempting to wonder if Trask, in Year 2 as Florida’s starter, could take a big leap and become the league’s next superstar quarterback. For a 2-star recruit who was a backup high school quarterback, it’s a wild thing to think about, but it’s the type of offseason narrative that builds when you play as well as Trask did.
At most programs, that type of offseason attention and hype would make a guy like Kyle Trask a BMOC and preseason awards campaign type figure.
Florida, of course, isn’t most programs.
Especially at the quarterback position. All you have to do is take a walk on a sunny spring day outside The Swamp and see the statues of Heisman winners past — Steve Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel, Rex Grossman (OK, OK, wishful thinking) and Tim Tebow — to understand what I mean.
And so, despite Trask’s ability to deliver Gators fans from quarterback purgatory, there are loud whispers around the Florida program about a quarterback competition this spring.
Is it possible Trask, the highest-rated returning passer in the SEC, could lose his job to redshirt sophomore Emory Jones, the much-ballyhooed recruit who fits Mullen’s traditionally run-dominant spread offense like a glove?
The answer is complicated.
Mullen won’t say the job is wide open, but he did emphasize that Jones was a big part of Orange Bowl prep, upping his reps and working on expanding and growing his game. It certainly sounds like at a minimum, Mullen fully intends to use both quarterbacks in 2020.
“I think one of the things as it comes to Emory, I think Emory really learns from looking at a guy like Kyle and looking at how he prepared and how he continued to grow and how he continued to develop to be ready for this stage to go play at an extremely high level,” Mullen told the media Orange Bowl week. “They bring very different skill-sets to the table, and because of that, it allows us to play both of them within the game plan, to do different things.”
But what about winning or seizing the job from Trask outright?
Program insiders who spoke to SDS for this story wouldn’t rule it out.
One assistant told me that Florida’s growth in the run game will be a significant factor. Trask is a willing runner, but not terribly effective. Can an offensive line that appeared to grow up a bit in the Orange Bowl get a consistent push in the run game and in turn, offer Florida more balance offensively? That would likely favor Trask, and open up some of Mullen’s more vintage play-action concepts Florida didn’t get to use much last season because defenses simply didn’t believe the Gators would run the football. If the Gators have more balance in 2020, the assistant said, you can bet Kyle will be the primary guy, with packages reserved for Jones.
Attrition at wide receiver is another reason there is curiosity around Jones.
One reason Florida got away with being one-dimensional in 2019 was the Gators had one of the nation’s deepest and most versatile wide receiver corps, as well as a versatile, all-purpose running back in Lamical Perine. There isn’t a running back on Florida’s roster who profiles like Perine in the passing game in 2020, and while Florida has recruited very well at tight end, and All-American Kyle Pitts returns, Florida will miss the senior receiver quartet of Van Jefferson, Freddie Swain, Tyrie Cleveland and Joshua Hammond more than most Gators fans are willing to admit.
It isn’t a 2019 Georgia situation, where 5 of the top 6 passing game production pieces are gone, but Florida only returns 2 of those pieces (Pitts and senior wide receiver Trevon Grimes). Everywhere else, there’s talent, but not much in the way of proven production.
Could that limit Florida’s ability to create explosive plays in the passing game? Possibly. And that’s where Jones is an intriguing piece.
“The thing about Emory is everyone in the league knew he was probably going to run when he came into games last season and he still had the vision and ability to get them 6 yards a carry,” an SEC assistant who played Florida in 2019 told me. “Part of that is he’s a gifted runner — like Jalen Hurts a bit. Part of it is everyone respects that kid’s arm — that’s why everyone recruited him. He has both.”
It’s the “he has both” element that makes Jones so intriguing to Florida fans.
Mullen’s best quarterbacks — Tebow, Dak Prescott, Alex Smith — were able to threaten defenses with their legs and make big time plays with their arm.
Against Auburn, when Trask left briefly with a knee injury, it was Jones’s arm that helped Florida grab an essential field goal on a long drive. In other games, Florida used Jones purposefully as a runner to create just enough of a change of pace and run game threat to keep defenses honest. It didn’t always work, but Jones certainly had his moments.
Further, the idea that Jones isn’t a capable passer is undercut by any basis statistical analysis. According to Stats Solutions, Jones NFL passer rating of 112.5 is 5 points higher than Trask, albeit on significantly fewer dropbacks. He only attempted 38 passes. The biggest difference? Jones’ ability to avoid pressure — as Jones took 0 sacks and had only 1 “scramble” on a dropback all season, per Stats Solutions. Jones ability to threaten with his legs and arm changes the way teams defend Florida, something that may prove too valuable to keep off the field next season.
Then again, there’s the common-sense idea that for all the bluster about a quarterback competition, not much will change.
Trask might have played too well last season to lose the job altogether in 2020, and Florida’s staff has shown a willingness to game plan and deploy Jones in ways that complement Trask and put Jones in a position to succeed.
If last season proved anything, it was more evidence that Mullen isn’t a servant to any ideological system. Just as he adjusted his offense around the unique passing talent of Chris Leak and the 2-way talent of Tebow in 2006, he’s going to find a way to make his players successful using the versatile and differing skill-sets of Jones and Trask.
As tempting as it might be for Florida fans to pick camps (Trask hive vs. Jones hive), Mullen’s only concern is the Gator hive: What formations, personnel groupings and quarterback give Florida the chance to win downs and win the day on any given Saturday. A safe bet is that’s what Mullen will do again in 2020.
But it’s a testament to the talent of Florida’s 2 quarterbacks that we’re having a serious conversation about it in January.