John Brantley, welcome to Gainesville. Perhaps you can fill Tim Tebow’s cleats after all.
The Florida quarterback, who has the unenviable task of replacing the former Heisman Trophy winner after waiting on the sidelines for three years, began his tenure as the Gators’ new starting quarterback with great success during the team’s annual spring game Saturday afternoon.
Competing against UF’s first-team defense and without four of his offensive linemen, Brantley finished 15 of 19 for 201 yards and two scores in leading his Blue team to a 27-24 victory over the Orange team. His completion percentage of 78.9 set a spring game record. He looked confident and seemed to have a nice command of the huddle, something he’s been working on throughout the spring.
“I feel like it's my huddle now,” Brantley declared after the contest. “I definitely do. That's what I've been working on with that leadership, being more vocal in the huddle.”
Critical of the offense last week and worried about the unit’s identity when the Sept. 4 opener against Miami (Ohio) rolls around, head coach Urban Meyer was impressed with Brantley’s performance and excited that some unknowns stepped up at the skill positions.
With the offense losing Tebow, center Maurkice Pouncey and four highly productive receivers, the primary focus on offense was finding playmakers — an issue that worried all of Gator Nation.
Perhaps those concerns were eased after Saturday’s performance.
Wide receiver Carl Moore, who left practice two weeks ago and has been dealing with personal issues, had a monster game with eight catches for 130 yards and a touchdown. The 6-3 senior missed the entire 2009 season with an injured back but is looking to be a go-to wideout on an offense that lost highly productive tight end Aaron Hernandez, along with wide receivers Riley Cooper and David Nelson. He was very productive in getting open in the middle of the field on Saturday.
Andre Debose, a 2009 highly rated prospect who missed his entire freshman season after tearing his hamstring, started for the Blue team and caught two passes for 30 yards. Despite not being at full strength, he reminded Meyer of former Gator Percy Harvin.
Then there’s Deonte Thompson, who caught Brantley’s first pass of the game for a 47-yard gain before giving way to Moore. Thompson is expected to give the Gators a deep threat when Brantley goes down the field.
Omarius Hines and T.J. Lawrence also found the end zone, while Frankie Hammond Jr. caught four passes for 20 yards.
With Tebow gone, much of the focus this spring for coordinator Steve Addazio was finding a way to tailor the offense to Brantley’s strengths, which would include more vertical passing and much less bulldoze rushing as Tebow so often provided in short-yardage situations. However, Meyer indicated just last week that the Gators may install the two-quarterback system that they employed in 2006 when Tebow was a freshman and relieved senior Chris Leak. That team won a national championship.
The Gators experimented this spring with freshman quarterback Trey Burton and tight end Jordan Reed taking snaps out of the shotgun in their single-wing offense — an important development especially with backs Jeffrey Demps fulfilling his track obligations and Emmanuel Moody battling injuries.
Their performances on Saturday only instilled more confidence in the coaching staff that the offense is finally starting to find itself in the post-Tebow era.
The 6-2, 219-pound Burton completed 12 of 18 passes for 120 yards and a touchdown for the Orange team, and he added 123 yards and two scores on 10 carries — including a 76-yard scamper that set a spring game record for the longest run from scrimmage.
Who needs Tebow, right?
Reed, who moved back to quarterback from tight end, had 80 yards through the air and a touchdown. He also carried the ball several times from the wildcat formation.
After watching the game on Saturday, Addazio is confident in the potential of his unit.
“We're going to be a strong throwing team,” he said. “We've got dynamic guys on the edge like Debose and (Chris) Rainey, and we can run the field vertically with Deonte Thompson, Carl Moore and those guys.
“We'll be able to line up in the I-formation and play some power football, but we'll be able to run wildcat football, we can run screens.
“We've got a lot of weapons right now, so we feel good about it.”
The positive vibes coming out of Gainesville starkly contrast the sentiments exuded by Meyer late last week, when he admitted that the offense was a work in progress. With new personnel, a new receivers coach (Zach Azzanni) and a new running backs coach (Stan Drayton), finding an offensive rhythm became less important than just getting acquainted with one another.
While there still remains much work to be done in Gainesville, Saturday at least eased the concerns of those who were worried about a potentially stagnant Gators offense in the fall. And it proved that there is indeed life after Tebow.
It also proved that baseball isn’t the only sport where hope springs eternal.
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