It can't just be Graham Mertz or bust for Florida at QB ... right?
The analogy was a bit harsh.
When Graham Mertz’s commitment to Florida went public, I tweeted that it felt like when you go to the grocery store having not eaten all day, and you tell yourself that you’re going home with a nice juicy steak, but you instead panic and go home with a Hungry Man frozen dinner.
With all due respect to the fine folks at Hungry Man, where sodium is just a number, you get my point. Florida’s addition of a 3-year starter who never had more than 2,136 passing yards in a season was underwhelming. This was a place with multiple national championships in the 21st century that had a wide-open quarterback room after the NFL departure of Anthony Richardson. After Jack Miller’s underwhelming bowl game performance, there was an assumption that the Gators would land a big fish in the QB transfer pool.
Mertz wasn’t that.
However, there was also this assumption after Mertz’s late-December commitment that it was OK if he wasn’t some decorated transfer because blue-chip quarterback recruit Jaden Rashada was set to enroll as the quarterback of the future.
As we now know, Rashada won’t be that. An NIL deal that fell through led to Rashada being granted his National Letter of Intent release and now the Gators are entering 2023 with more questions than answers at the game’s most important position.
It might sound harsh to wonder — is Billy Napier really putting all of his eggs in Mertz’s basket?
The transfer portal is closed until May, so barring an addition from someone who already entered the portal, it doesn’t appear that Florida’s quarterback room is about to get a splashy addition until after spring camp. Of course, there was at least the possibility of landing former LSU quarterback Walker Howard, but he elected to play for Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss.
For now, it’s Mertz and the aforementioned Miller who will battle it out. Without a highly touted true freshman like Rashada, Feleipe Franks or Emory Jones, there won’t be some silver lining if the starter falters. There’ll just be a fan base getting more frustrated and a head coach’s seat getting a bit hotter.
Don’t get it twisted. If the over/under on Napier’s time in Gainesville is 2 years, I’ll be the farm on the over.
But at the same time, there should be that urgency from Napier. Consecutive incompetent offenses usually doesn’t excite the masses at Florida. Ask Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain about that.
(It’ll never not be baffling that Florida failed to have a top-50 scoring offense for the first 7 years of the post-Urban Meyer era. Yes, I know that was a triple negative. So were those Florida offenses.)
Napier sticking with a Mertz-Miller battle into fall camp would be a sign of 2 things. One is that Napier actually liked what he saw from them and he felt that they had enough skills to work with. The other is that Napier didn’t like what he saw from the transfer portal and he didn’t feel that they had enough skills to work with.
And I suppose I shouldn’t totally dismiss redshirt freshman Max Brown, though he’ll be playing on the Florida baseball team and it’s probably unrealistic to expect him to compete for QB1 in 2023.
With the portal closed, the only potential head-turner that Florida could add to compete this spring would be someone like Sam Huard. The former 5-star quarterback entered the portal after Michael Penix Jr. announced his return to Washington. Huard had 4 interceptions on 42 pass attempts in scattered work as a true freshman, and once Penix arrived in 2022 with first-year coach Kalen DeBoer, Huard had even fewer opportunities.
Huard, however, reportedly has eliminated Florida as a possibility.
Of course, even if Florida were to add someone like Huard, Napier would be banking on 1 of those 3 options soaring to new heights with the Gators’ surroundings. A group who just had its offensive line gutted by departures has a nice 1-2 punch in the backfield with Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne, but outside of Ricky Pearsall’s return, it’s hard to project the 2023 offense looking much more dynamic than it was in 2022.
That’s why it’s hard to assume that Mertz is going to step in and become the solid, reliable SEC starter that Florida needs to take that next step. Hopes are pinned on him being wildly misused by Paul Chryst’s staff at Wisconsin, and that Napier can find the remedy. At this time a year ago, that’s what we said about Richardson. I wouldn’t say that ended up being a positive. The game didn’t slow down for Richardson like Florida fans hoped it would. At least not for the entire year.
You could say the same thing about Mertz. In his last 2 years as a starter, Mertz threw an interception once every 27.1 attempts, which was almost identical to Richardson’s 27.9 in 2021-22. Mind you, that was while Wisconsin had a Power-5 worst 18 passes of 30 yards the last 2 seasons. That was only 2 more than Navy.
A month ago when Mertz committed, the hope was that he could at least Florida a couple of months of solid quarterback play before ultimately giving way to Rashada. Whether that was in early-November or in 2024, well, I suppose that hope depended on how optimistic of a Florida fan was laying out the plan.
Now, the plan appears to be rebuilding Mertz or banking on Miller moving past the bowl game performance and showing that he can be a viable signal-caller with a full roster. Neither one of those sound like enticing options, but for now, that’s reality.
The plan wasn’t for the Rashada situation to play out like this. If the new plan is for Mertz or Miller to be serviceable until No. 6 class of 2024 quarterback DJ Lagway arrives, that seems daunting, especially knowing that Florida’s NIL ducks don’t appear to be in a row.
Napier’s attention to detail is his biggest strength. He was praised for being so process-driven and for having the understanding of a support staff to help in all things talent acquisition. In 2023, there might not be a whole lot more opportunities for talent acquisition at quarterback. Napier’s best hope is continuing to add pieces around his new signal-caller and to develop like he’s never developed before.
If he can’t do that, his declining approval ranking will reach new lows.
That’s not too harsh.