GAINESVILLE, FL - OCTOBER 1: Quarterback John Brantley #12 of the Florida Gators is sacked by the Alabama Crimson Tide October 1, 2011 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
With the John Brantley era coming to a close at UF, uncertainty lies ahead for the Gators. Before looking ahead, we look back to see if Brantley was a colossal bust or a victim of circumstance.
As John Brantley's time playing for the Florida Gators comes to an end, Gators fans can only wonder where it all went wrong. How could such a promising prospect have such a disappointing career? Many are quick to point the finger at Brantley for not living up to expectations. However, this answer is far too simple and ignores a complicated series of events that cannot be overlooked.
Brantley has frustrated Gators fans throughout the majority of his time at UF. At the same time, Brantley was left equally frustrated by the school after he spent the entire 2010 season running a system he was never fit for and shuttling in and out of a ridiculous three quarterback system devised by former head coach Urban Meyer. So frustrated in fact, that he considered transferring from the school after the season. However, to get a proper grasp on these lost years of Florida football the only logical place to start is the beginning.
John Brantley was a highly sought after prospect coming out of Trinity Catholic High School in Ocala, Florida. By the time his high school career was over, he had set an FHSAA record for touchdown passes with 99, breaking the previous record held by some guy named Tim Tebow. He received a four star rating from rivals.com and was listed as their third best QB prospect and 49th overall prospect. He was the 2006 Gatorade National Player of the Year and was invited in 2007 to play in the U.S. Army All American Bowl. It seemed that Brantley possessed all the tools to become a good to very good college quarterback.
Although Brantley originally committed to the University of Texas, he later committed to his hometown Gators and enrolled in 2007. Playing at UF was in Brantley's blood, as both his father (John Brantley III, quarterback) and uncle (Scot, linebacker) started on the team in 1977 and 1978. By all accounts then, playing at UF not only seemed like something that Brantley was destined for, but also something he should have excelled at. So where did it all go wrong?
Let's start with Tim Tebow. Following a legend is no easy task; just ask any of the 16 Miami Dolphins quarterbacks to start a game since Dan Marino. Tim Tebow was, arguably, the greatest football player to ever throw on the orange and blue and one of college football's all time greats. He was beloved by Gators fans. During his time at UF, he won national championships in 2006 (he didn't start, but his presence was crucial) and 2008 and the Heisman Trophy in 2007. So, short of winning two national championships and two Heisman's, Brantley never had a chance of living up to the lofty expectations of Gators fans, as high on Tebowmania at this point as the sugar high of a group of eight year olds that had just consumed the contents of a birthday piñata.
Then there is the elephant in the room that no Florida fan wants to talk about, Cam Newton. What if Cam Newton hadn't (allegedly) stolen a laptop, (allegedly) faced expulsion for three counts of academic cheating and transferred from the Florida team? As every Florida fan knows, Newton went on to play a year at Blinn College, then on to the University of Auburn where he won the National Championship and the Heisman. If it weren't for Newton's questionable decisions, it is likely Brantley may have never seen the field for the Gators. Newton was ahead of him on the depth chart and Brantley likely would have transferred to somewhere he could start.
This is difficult to dispute. Who was the better fit to succeed Tebow in Meyer's spread attack? The 6'5'', 248 pound Tebow clone with a better arm and the ego that would have allowed him to believe he could live up to the expectations or the skinny, aw' shucks pocket passer Brantley? As evidenced by the three quarterback travesty that took place in 2010, it would have clearly been Newton. So, if all goes according to Meyer's plan, Newton takes over for Tebow in 2010, the dynasty continues and maybe Meyer sees no need to lie low for a year till a better offer comes along, I mean, go spend more time with his family.
This all leads us to the spread option system. In 2010, Brantley finally took over the reigns as the Florida signal caller. Instead of attempting to adjust their system to their new style of quarterback, Meyer and then offensive coordinator Steve Addazio stubbornly stuck to their spread option attack, certain that a square peg could fit into a round hole. Dark clouds on the horizon started appearing for Brantley as soon as the fourth game against Kentucky. In that game, freshman Trey Burton ran wild in the wildcat formation, accounting for six total touchdowns, a school record.
After a humbling 31-6 drubbing at the hands of Alabama in the next game, the Gators (and Brantley's) seasons were on a downward spiral. By the end of the season, Brantley's confidence was visibly shaken. The preposterous three quarterback system was now in full swing with Burton out there for running plays, Jordan Reed, who was a threat to either run or pass, for certain plays (but he was probably going to run) and John Brantley thrown back out there on third and long and obvious passing situations. Could they have made it any easier for opposing defenses?
In 2011, Brantley decided to return after learning that new head coach Will Muschamp would hire offensive guru Charlie Weis to install a pro style offense. Finally, it seemed that Brantley would be given a fair shot. Brantley played well in the first four games of the season and seemed to be progressing in Weis' system. Unfortunately, Brantley was injured not even halfway through the fifth game of the season against Alabama, a game in which he kept the Gators close up to that point. He would miss the next two crucial games against LSU and Auburn and make a valiant effort in a loss against Georgia, in which he was clearly still hurt. His injury took away all his mobility and has hindered Florida's offense throughout the remainder of the season.
So, at long last, I submit to you that Brantley was not a colossal bust. Brantley never had a chance of succeeding in the spread option or living up to post-Tebow expectations. In all likelihood, he never should have played a game at UF. When he finally got a chance to play in a system that fit him, he went down with an injury not even halfway through the season. I haven't even gone into the possibly painstaking detail of the dearth of talent at wide receiver while Brantley was at UF because of fear that you stopped reading this article three paragraphs ago.
There's an old Bob Dylan song called "Simple Twist Of Fate", from his 1975 album Blood on the Tracks. Dylan points out how strange it is that small events in a person's life can seem insignificant at the time, but later turn out to have an important impact that they never saw coming. In other words, he's trying to show what a funny, fickle thing fate can be. Brantley decided not to go to Texas because of family ties, even though it was probably a better fit. He never knew he would be trying to fill the shoes of a once in a lifetime player. He got hurt right when it appeared he was finding his groove. When I think of Brantley's career at Florida, I won't hear the groans or the what ifs of fans. It'll all be drowned out by Dylan crooning in the background, Blame it on a simple twist of fate.