A Florida quarterback situation that once seemed crystal-clear now looks a little muddied heading into 2016.
On Saturday Florida announced redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier will transfer from the program. “We will support him and help him in anyway we can,” Gators coach Jim McElwain said in a statement. “This has been very difficult on him and obviously he is looking for a fresh start. We will always be there for him as will all Gators."
Grier, who earned Florida’s starting job during fall camp, played in six games, with five starts, in helping the program to its first 6-0 start since 2012. The Gators looked like a different offense with Grier at the helm; he completed 83% of his throws for 271 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-10 upset of Ole Miss at the Swamp on Oct. 3. Grier was also the first UF signal-caller since Tim Tebow to pass for at least 200 yards in three consecutive games. After an inept offense effectively ended former coach Will Muschamp’s tenure at Florida, Grier helped that unit turn things around under McElwain in 2015.
But Grier’s season came to an end on Oct. 12, when the NCAA suspended the quarterback for one year after he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. In Grier’s absence, sophomore Treon Harris started the team’s final seven games, helping it win 10 games and the SEC East title. Grier lost the appeal of his suspension in November, meaning he wouldn’t have been eligible to return until the Gators’ seventh game of 2016 (Oct. 15 vs. Missouri).
Now McElwain must revamp his quarterback plans with Grier out of the picture. Harris boasts starting experience from each of the last two seasons, but the sophomore was hardly a game-changer behind a sluggish offensive line in 2015. Harris finished seventh in the conference in passing efficiency and throwing five interceptions against just nine touchdowns.
That’s why Harris is hardly guaranteed the first-team snaps this spring. Including Harris, Florida will enter spring with four scholarship quarterbacks on its roster. Redshirt sophomore Jack Del Rio is a former Alabama walk-on who transferred to Oregon State before landing in Gainesville this summer, and he should compete for the starting job. Two other scholarship signal-callers are true freshmen early enrollees, Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask.
Florida fans are likely most excited about Franks. Florida announced the signing of Franks, a 6'5'', 220-pound early enrollee from Crawfordville, Fla., earlier this week. The four-star freshman is Scout.com’s fifth-ranked quarterback in 2016, and he’ll acclimate to the offense in spring practice before his first college season. With or without Grier, Franks might be Florida’s true quarterback of the future, and that might have played into Grier’s decision to transfer. On Saturday Pat Dooley of the Gainesville Sun tweeted that Grier “felt like he wasn’t in UF’s plans next season.”
If Florida had already decided to move on from Grier, McElwain and the Gators can’t be too disappointed. With the way McElwain has recruited—Florida’s current 2016 class ranks first nationally, per Scout.com—talent won’t be hard to come by for the offensive-minded coach. But Grier’s departure also means McElwain enters next spring with a less experienced group of quarterbacks than before. And after playing for the SEC title in 2015, the Gators’ expectations will be predetermined, with or without a seasoned starter at quarterback.
But Grier’s transfer might still be the best decision for both parties. This season Grier proved he can lead a major program to success, and he could be just what another school needs once his suspension is over. McElwain, meanwhile, might prefer his own hand-picked passer to lead his offense. But there’s no doubt Florida’s quarterback situation will look different in 2016 without Will Grier.
The question is, will the Gators be better or worse?