Joe Burrow might not be the answer for Dan Mullen. Jalen Hurts would be
Florida fans have never been known for their patience.
Maybe it’s the decades the program spent on the outside looking in, the “last and most scary southern sleeping giant,” as Bear Bryant once said.
Maybe it hasn’t always been that way.
Maybe Florida is the nouveau riche, a fan base that became both wealthy and spoiled during the high-flying Spurrier era of the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Gators didn’t just win, they won big, revolutionizing the SEC along the way.
Maybe the halcyon days under Urban Meyer, which saw Florida win two national championships in four seasons and contend for a third, further entrenched the sense of entitlement in Gainesville.
Whatever the reason, Florida’s fans have little patience, even by college football’s lean standards. They expect not only to win, but to win with style and swagger.
Instead of resetting and lowering expectations, a decade mired in mediocrity under Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain’s failed stewardship has only created an even more insatiable desire to win, and do so quickly.
In Dan Mullen, Florida fans — and most writers — think the Gators have finally found the coach and leader to pull the program out of the muck and start the long march back up the mountain.
Gators fans are trying, fighting against their own instincts, to be patient and give Mullen time to rebuild a program that by the end of the McElwain era saw its culture broken and its roster too thin on elite talent.
But this is still Florida, and Gators fans aren’t going to change. They want wins and points and the chance to play for championships fast, and they won’t (and shouldn’t) apologize for that.
Florida fans are smart fans too. They understand football. They know how good Georgia is under Kirby Smart and know that the rebuild will be hard, but they also see a stacked group of skill position playmakers on Dan Mullen’s roster and believe they’re just a quarterback away from turning things around.
It’s no secret. At Florida, quarterback is the missing link, and save 5 PED boosted games from Will Grier, it’s been that way since No. 15’s eligibility ran out nine seasons ago.
That’s what made the news this week that highly-regarded Ohio State quarterback Joe Burrow was graduating and set to transfer so interesting to Gators fans. The news last month that Jalen Hurts might leave Alabama if he loses the starting job to Tua Tagovailoa was a force multiplier. Florida fans want to win, and they think either guy could help Mullen do that sooner than later.
Burrow would be eligible to play for Florida immediately, and there are smart football folks who think it’s a no-brainer that Florida should pursue the former Buckeye, who would have two years of eligibility remaining.
Burrow, a 4-star recruit who was one of the ESPN top 300 out of high school, is unquestionably a good, though probably not great, fit for Mullen’s run-dominant spread.
While a backup, Burrow ran a very similar offense at Ohio State for Urban Meyer. More important, he’s certainly a better fit for Mullen’s offense than Feleipe Franks, who isn’t a natural runner and whose inaccuracy as a thrower (54.6 percent completion percentage) is even more problematic.
He might be a better fit than Kyle Trask, who had the best spring of the quarterbacks on Florida’s roster and ran a similar spread in high school in Manvel, Texas, but is a limited runner and has been a career backup. Only true freshman Emory Jones is a more natural fit for Mullen’s offense, and Mullen has reiterated all spring and into the talking season that philosophically, he likes to bring quarterbacks along slowly and would like to follow that template with the talented Jones.
Were Florida to land Burrow’s services, it isn’t out of the question that he would start from Day 1 next autumn. For Florida fans, the thought of a talented junior quarterback swooping in and saving the day is almost too tempting to refuse.
Color me cynical, or at least allow me to tap the brakes.
Why Burrow isn’t the guy
The reality is Burrow is less battle tested, and no more proven, than Franks. Burrow has thrown 39 career passes, all in mop-up duty, and before you tell me that the 74.4 percent completion percentage is 20 points higher than Franks and bodes well for the young man’s capabilities, let me remind Gators fans of how capable John Brantley looked in mop-up roles behind Tim Tebow. In two years behind Tebow and at times, Cam Newton, Brantley connected on 72 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns. Spoiler alert: The movie didn’t end well.
Brantley’s coach initially?
Dan Mullen, which is useful only to suggest that Florida’s head coach has a bit of unique insight on how mop-up stats are deceptive and how quarterbacks who can’t win the job at Ohio State might not be the answer at Florida.
After all, Ohio State is a program Meyer and Mullen beat by four touchdowns for a national championship. Is Florida really convinced the answer to what ails them a decade later is a third-string Buckeyes quarterback? My how the mighty have fallen.
I’m sympathetic to the idea that Burrow shouldn’t be faulted too much for losing out to uber-talents Dwayne Haskins and Tate Martell. It happens. The priority in Gainesville, however, seems to be developing a quarterback on the roster, and a Florida assistant told me this week with no hesitation that Florida’s coaches were thrilled with the talent, attitude and progress made by Jones in the spring. If bringing in Burrow can help develop Jones, or if the two can play together, a la Leak and Tebow, next autumn, maybe he’s worth a look.
But perhaps the Gators can do better than an Urban Meyer castaway, and the early reports regarding Mullen’s lack of initial interest seem to suggest the coaching staff is taking the long view too.
Which leads me to Hurts.
If Hurts transfers, Hurts is the answer
First things first. Unlike Burrow, Hurts isn’t available immediately. But it’s likely he will be available eventually.
Hurts isn’t winning the starting job at Alabama.
Nick Saban can say whatever he wants and we’ll all listen and take notes, but we all saw the second half of the National Championship Game and we all saw and read about spring football on the Capstone. It’s Tua’s gig, and the only question there is how many championships will Tua win.
But if the NCAA, as expected, approves a new “academic transfer” rule that allows student-athletes with a GPA of 3.0 or higher to transfer without restriction beginning in 2019, Hurts, scheduled to graduate in December, would be free to go anywhere, including within the SEC, and play immediately.
The 2016 SEC Offensive Player of the Year, it became fashionable to criticize Hurts and diminish his ability as a collegiate quarterback late last year, despite advanced metrics suggesting he was even better as a sophomore than a freshmen. Hurts is 26-2 as a starting quarterback (Burrow is 0-0), was on average 2 yards better on attempts of 10 yards or more as a sophomore than a freshman (9.3-7.4), threw 8 fewer interceptions as a sophomore (1!) than a freshman (9) and was a more effective runner, averaging .6 yards more a carry (5.6 to 5).
Hurts is 2-0 in NCAA Playoff semifinal games (Florida has never appeared in one) and his lone college losses are the epic loss to Clemson in the National Championship Game and an Iron Bowl where his offensive line was whipped all night. Did I mention he was also a perfect fit for Mullen’s offense?
Mullen had a front row seat to Hurts at his best, when the sophomore led the Tide to a comeback win over Mississippi State last season, easily the Tide’s best win of the regular season and a huge reason Alabama was able to win Nick Saban a sixth national championship.
If Florida again goes the transfer route — despite being burned by Malik Zaire last year and only somewhat less redeemed by Austin Appleby and the competent, but injury prone Luke Del Rio before that — Hurts is the guy who becomes the most important recruit.
Burrow is just another guy to compete.
Hurts is a program changer.
The good news for Gators fans is Florida finally has the coach in place whose record says he can evaluate quarterback talent, develop it, and understand when to go after the big-name and when to pass. If Mullen thinks Burrow will make Florida better, expect him to make a play for Burrow. If he doesn’t, Gators fans should respect it and remember that in 2010, while John Brantley and the Florida program were crumbling, Dan Mullen was winning 9 games at Miss State with lightly-regarded Chris Relf.
It will be interesting to see what happens next.