GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As dozens of fans waited for their favorite southpaw to emerge from the south end zone tunnel at Florida Field at Florida's pro day last month, a 6-foot-3, 218-pound righty ambled out of the tunnel. No one paid John Brantley any mind. Even though Brantley was the heir apparent to Tim Tebow and carries on his right arm the future of Florida's program, no one cheered his arrival. No one called his name.
Saturday, as the Gators prepared to burst forth from that same tunnel for their spring game, Florida coach Urban Meyer couldn't help but rib his new starting quarterback about the affection disparity between Brantley and the last guy to hold the job. "I thought post-Tebow we'd have 11,000 out there," Meyer cracked. "I even told Johnny Brantley, 'No one's here to see you, big boy.'"
Meyer's prediction was off by a tad. The 51,500 in attendance did cheer Brantley when he emerged from the tunnel Saturday, but not half as loud as they cheered after his first play from scrimmage. On his first snap, the fourth-year junior threw a laser beam to Deonte Thompson for a 47-yard gain down the left sideline.
Yes, that Deonte Thompson. The one who started a firestorm when he referred to Brantley last month as a "real quarterback."
The quote was posted on Twitter without context by Orlando Sentinel reporter Jeremy Fowler, and even though Fowler later wrote a post on the paper's Web site explaining that Thompson wasn't insulting Tebow -- and that by "real" quarterback, he meant "traditional" or "drop-back" or "pro-style) -- the damage was done. You know what happened next. Meyer tore into Fowler at Florida's next practice. The moment was caught on video, and much navel-gazing ensued.
The hoopla over Meyer's out-of-character confrontation obscured Thompson's main point -- that Florida's offense will be decidedly different under Brantley this season than it was under Tebow the past three. Unlike Tebow, Brantley will not be expected to carry the Gators' run game. Unlike Tebow, Brantley will not be the first option on fourth-and-short.
Florida will run less option and fewer shovel passes, and Meyer and offensive coordinator Steve Addazio will order more passes such as the one Brantley uncorked to Thompson on Saturday. Because Brantley's arm is a wonder to behold. After Florida's 2009 spring game, I wrote that even as Florida's backup, Brantley was the fourth-best quarterback in the SEC behind Tebow, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett and Ole Miss' Jevan Snead. I was a little off. Alabama's Greg McElroy proved himself quite capable. Still, Brantley probably was No. 5 in the league without ever having started a game.
It's amazing in this age of political quarterback recruiting that Brantley hasn't started a game yet. The only pro-style quarterbacks ranked ahead of him in the class of 2007 were Jimmy Clausen, who is on his way to the NFL, and Mallett, who probably would be preparing for the draft if he hadn't had to sit out his sophomore year following a transfer.
This always was going to be the year for Brantley, though. The Ocala, Fla., native originally committed to Texas in 2006, and he would have gladly waited behind Colt McCoy. But Brantley's father, John Brantley III, played quarterback at Florida in the late '70s. Brantley's uncle, Scot, was a star linebacker for the Gators. The pull was too strong, even if Tebow had signed only a year earlier.
"I've been a Gator my entire life," said Brantley, who completed 15 of 19 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns Saturday. "Growing up right down the road, I've always wanted to be here. This is my dream. If that meant holding out a couple of years, I had no problem with that."
There are no hard feelings in Austin. Texas coach Mack Brown and offensive coordinator Greg Davis still correspond with the Brantleys. Besides, the Longhorns are happy with their own homegrown heir apparent, Garrett Gilbert.
Gilbert and Brantley now find themselves in the same boat. Each grew up less than an hour from campus. Each must replace a legend. Each has a father who played the position who can offer indispensable advice. Entering this spring, the elder Brantley offered his son some sage wisdom. "Be yourself. Don't try and be somebody you're not," the old quarterback told the young one. "Obviously, he's got some big footsteps to follow. I said, 'Don't try and be Timmy Tebow.' Nobody can be Timmy Tebow."
Oh, and try to be better than the last John Brantley to play quarterback for the Gators. "Until he passes me for total touchdowns, I don't even recognize what he's done," the elder Brantley joked. "He doesn't have many more to go. I think he'll pass me in the first game." The younger Brantley, who has thrown 10 career touchdown passes, will surpass his father with his fourth touchdown toss this season.
He'll probably throw far more than that. Thanks to Brantley's arm and a healthier, more mature receiving corps, the Gators will utilize a more vertical passing game this season. The offense will look a lot like the one piloted to a national title by Chris Leak in 2006. And who was that hanging around Brantley for most of Saturday's spring game? Chris Leak, that's who.
Brantley said Leak has helped prepare him for some of the pressures Florida's quarterback faces. Tebow certainly helped Brantley during the past three years, but Tebow had a drastically different experience than anyone else would have. Leak, who dealt with myriad issues as the guy who stood in the way of The Chosen One's ascension, can better help Brantley prepare mentally for playing in the shadow of Tebow. He also can show Brantley how to gracefully handle the fact that even though Meyer will adapt his offense to fit his quarterback's skill set, the coach still likes a big, relatively fast quarterback to take snaps and run single-wing plays every so often. In 2006, that quarterback was Tebow, who spelled Leak when the Gators needed tough yards. This year, that quarterback will be redshirt freshman Jordan Reed or freshman Trey Burton. "We talked about that, too," Brantley said. "Me and [Leak] aren't the best runners. We both agree with that. If we have to have someone else come in and run the ball for us, we don't mind at all."
Brantley sounds sincere when he says that. He has no reason to be insecure. Brantley may not have believed at the start of spring that the Gators are his team, but he believes it now. So do his coaches. "We know he can throw the ball," Addazio said. "Can he lead? Can he win? Can he motivate? Can he grab the team? Johnny did those things this spring. It was really cool."
Will he succeed? That remains to be seen. Florida's national championship teams in 2006 and 2008 had good offenses, but they hoisted crystal footballs because they had great defenses. This season's Florida defense might have more in common with the defense in 2007, when a host of talented young players struggled to replace 10 starters. Those players eventually matured into a national title-caliber unit, but their growing pains helped the Gators lose four games in a season when Tebow won the Heisman Trophy.
Florida returns more defensive starters in 2010 than it did in 2007, and Brantley will have an experienced group of offensive linemen blocking for him, but questions remain. Will dominant receivers emerge? Can the backup quarterback and backs Emmanuel Moody and Jeff Demps gain enough yards on the ground to keep opposing defensive coordinators from throwing blitzes at Brantley on every play?
Brantley smiles when he hears these questions. This is his team now. He knows Tebow and company set a high standard, but he plans to lead the Gators to the same heights as his predecessor. "People have been talking about our receivers not being as good as last year's or our defense not being as good as last year's," Brantley said. "We want to prove that we're not going to miss anything. We're not going to take a step back at all."