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Florida has far more options at quarterback than usual

Florida quarterback Luke Del Rio leaves the field after defeating Georgia in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, in Jacksonville, Fla. Florida won 24-10. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
John Raoux/AP photo

Florida will go into fall camp with a three-way battle at quarterback between last year’s starter Luke Del Rio, graduate transfer Malik Zaire and redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks. There’s an old saying that if you have three quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks. Even so, having that many options is not something the Gators are used to.

Last year, UF had only Del Rio and Austin Appleby as real choices given the decision to redshirt Franks and fellow 2016 signee Kyle Trask. The year before, Jim McElwain had to recruit graduate transfer Josh Grady, who almost never played at Vanderbilt, to have anyone behind Will Grier and Treon Harris.

Will Muschamp’s teams didn’t really have much depth behind center either. The 2012 season was the only one with a true battle for the starter’s role in preseason camp with sophomores Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett fighting it out. Brissett transferred after the year. In 2014 the true freshman Harris managed to pass up Driskel — whose confidence cratered through the year — but that wasn’t an example of having more than one solid option at the position.

Urban Meyer’s UF teams never had much behind the starting quarterback either. In only one of his six seasons was his second-string quarterback not a freshman. Chris Leak and Tim Tebow’s durability simply prevented the thinness at the position from being an issue. Even in 2010 when Meyer was using as many as three signal callers in a single game, two of the three (Jordan Reed and Trey Burton) were players who did not finish their college careers as quarterbacks.

Even in the Ron Zook era, the reserves under center weren’t inspiring. First Rex Grossman and then Leak were backed up by the likes of Ingle Martin (transferred to Furman), Gavin Dickey (quit football for baseball) and Cornelius Ingram (moved to tight end).

It’s not clear if any of the options that Florida has in 2017 are as good as the run of starters from Grossman to Leak to Tebow. That said, there are multiple players who could conceivably play well enough for the team to contend for the SEC East title. Florida hasn’t been able to say that often in the last 15 years.

McElwain landed a big get at quarterback thanks to a successful recruiting event last weekend. Matt Corral, a California signal caller rated a 4-star by the 247 Sports Composite and a 5-star by Rivals, pledged to sign with the Gators in the current cycle.

Corral’s addition puts UF in truly unfamiliar territory: having too many quarterbacks.

Despite 2017 being his fifth season in college, Del Rio already has a waiver for a sixth year of eligibility in 2018 thanks to transferring multiple times as a walk-on. Zaire may pursue a sixth year of his own due to missing most of the 2015 and 2016 seasons to injury. Franks and Trask will be redshirt sophomores. The 2017 signing class brought aboard a pair of quarterbacks in Jake Allen and Kadarius Toney. The 2018 class now appears likely to include Corral, and McElwain is still courting other signal callers in the cycle like Justin Fields.

If Zaire applies for and is granted a waiver, Florida would have be in line to have seven scholarship quarterbacks on its 2018 roster. That’s an unwieldy amount, and it’s an unrealistically high number given the way the game works today.

The first one down would be Toney, who is still listed as an athlete on the official roster rather than as a quarterback. He was a 3-star dual threat prospect coming out of high school, and Florida gave him a mobile quarterback package in the spring. Zaire largely obviates the need for Toney to do that, however. Therefore, the freshman will probably lose that package and only play in a hybrid running back and receiver role that he also practiced in the spring.

Who, if anyone, goes next will depend on who the starter ends up being.

I suspect that Del Rio will not win the starting job. He was physically limited in the categories of mobility and arm strength even before his knee and shoulder injuries in 2016. If he wants one more shot at starting somewhere else, he should be able to be a graduate transfer as he finished his bachelor’s last December.

Zaire, for his part, doesn’t have that option. There isn’t an affordance for being a graduate transfer twice under the current rules. If he doesn’t win the job in 2017, his only chance to start somewhere would be to transfer to Division II or lower. At that point, he’d probably be more likely to just be a backup with the aforementioned specialty mobile quarterback package or just move on with his life.

If Franks doesn’t win the starting job, he won’t get to start elsewhere any sooner than he would at UF. Unless he hustles and graduates no later than summer of 2018, he’d have to sit out the 2018 season as a transfer before being eligible in 2019. Having already taken a redshirt, there’s no year of eligibility to save over that transfer year either. If he does decide to get out, he should be able to find a new home given his 4-star recruiting pedigree and multitude of offers in high school.

More likely, though, would be an exit for Trask. He was second in the quarterback race in the spring, but Del Rio was out hurt and Zaire had yet to transfer in. McElwain will probably talk about a four-way race in the fall, but given Del Rio and Zaire’s starting experience and Franks’ spring lead, Trask will begin fourth in line. He has good physical tools and, given two spring games and the coaches’ reports, has outperformed his low 3-star rating as a recruit. He could easily be a good starter for an AAC or MWC team.

Allen is tough to gauge for now. He was a solid 3-star prospect, but he impressed at the Elite 11 in high school. He doesn’t appear to be destined for a career backup role, but the expectation has always been for him to redshirt this year. He should be around in 2018, though for how much longer than that will depend on how he battles for the job.

One realistic scenario for the quarterback depth chart in 2018 would have Franks and Zaire at the top with Allen the third-stringer and Corral set to redshirt. Three of those four would be former blue-chip recruits, and both the present and future would be accounted for.

Barring unforeseen events or multiple players turning out to be complete busts, Florida’s quarterback position finally appears to be in a good place for multiple years to come. Of all of McElwain’s rebuilding tasks, this one is one of the better jobs he has done.

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