August 09, 2011
Part of SEC Week.
After his openly bitter exit from Notre Dame in 2009, it would have come to one's surprise if Charlie Weis spent the rest of his days stalking assorted film caves and press boxes around the NFL. As Mr. Decided Schematic Advantage admitted himself, he always seemed more comfortable assembling game plans than exchanging slaps on the back with boosters, and had the Super Bowl rings to prove it. His first year out of the college ranks, overseeing the league's No. 1 rushing offense and a surprising playoff run as offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs, only served to drive home the point.
So exactly why Weis agreed to move his family into a horse farm mad revamp Florida's sagging offense in the "pro style" vision of new head coach Will Muschamp is a mystery. But there is no question about his first mission: Reclaim the Gators' shellshocked senior quarterback, John Brantley.
If he can, the same Gator fans who spent three snickering over the comedy of errors on Weis' watch in South Bend will have no choice but to acknowledge his powers. Because they have seen Brantley in action, and not as an up-and-coming underclassmen with years ahead of him after some initial growing pains. He was a fourth-year junior in 2010 who demonstrated almost none of the alleged promise that made him one of the most coveted quarterbacks in the country coming out of high school. He can't run (73 positive rushing yards for the year, not including sacks, on a long gain of 12), he's not a great decision maker (his 118.8 efficiency rating was 10th in the SEC among regular starters) and his 400-caliber arm supplied precious little of the downfield firepower that was supposed to be his greatest advantage over Tim Tebow. Brantley finished dead last in the conference in both yards per completion (10.4) and completions covering at least 25 yards (9).
For some context on that number, half the regular passers in the SEC hit on at least three times as many downfield strikes, and the two not-so-celebrated starters at Tennessee combined for four times as many. Pound for pound, Brantley posed the meekest threat to defenses of any starting quarterback in the league, and of any Florida QB of the post-Spurrier decade, by far. In four of their five games against opponents that finished the season in the top 25, the Gators scored six points on two field goals against Alabama, seven points against Mississippi State, 14 points (including a kickoff return for a touchdown) against South Carolina and seven points against Florida State; in the fifth, the offense put three TDs on the board against LSU only by virtue of a pair of short-field starts in the red zone following Tiger turnovers. Their record in those games: 0-5.
By November, the offense was at least as effective in sporadic appearances by either of two jack-of-all-trades freshmen, Trey Burton and Jordan Reed, who were shuttled in an effort to rekindle the Tebow magic as oversized runners out of the shotgun. From the perspective of the new staff, though, that might have been a symptom of the real problem — namely, that Brantley was shoehorned into a system designed for a more mobile quarterback, under a coordinator, Steve Addazio, who had somehow managed to rein in Tebow's big-play tendencies in 2009, too. Addazio refused to change horses in midstream, even after it was obvious that a) Brantley was a nonentity when it came to the "option" part of the spread option, and b) It was getting him killed. Brantley spent the entire second half of the season in various states of "banged up," and never looked like he was comfortably in control of the offense. No wonder he seriously considered a transfer at the end of the season.
For better or worse, the fact that he's still around seems overwhelmingly due to Weis' longstanding reputation with statuesque pocket types whose mission is to stand and deliver. That starts with Tom Brady, but certainly doesn't end there: Given a competent veteran quarterback, Weis' offenses at Notre Dame regularly lit up box scores. With Brady Quinn in 2005-06 and the more seasoned version of Jimmy Clausen in 2009 — as opposed to the overwhelmed freshman-in-the-headlights version of 2007 — the Irish unleashed top-10 passing attacks that averaged upwards of 30 points per game all three year.
In fact, in terms of total offense Weis' attack finished ahead of or in a dead heat with Urban Meyer's spread option machine at Florida in all three of those seasons, including the Gators' BCS Championship run in 2006 and the Tebow-led march to a 13-1 finish in 2009. With the exception of the '07 debacle and a mediocre follow-up in '08 — two alarmingly green teams across the board — Weis has a solid decade of first-rate offenses on his resumé, from the sideline and the booth.
At worst, the oversight of a respected pocket-passing teacher could still do for Brantley what it did a couple years back for Tennessee's Jonathan Crompton, who rebounded from a catastrophe of a season under first-year offensive coordinator Dave Clawson in 2008 to become a viable starter under Lane Kiffin in 2009. Applied to Brantley, the same rate of improvement Crompton showed from his junior to senior years would make Brantley one of the most productive slingers in the SEC and give Florida a fighting chance to retake the wide-open SEC East.
At best — well, it's probably better if Gator fans don't contemplate anything beyond basic competence, lest they get their hopes up. If Brantley still doesn't measure up, there has to be a little optimism left to burn on the freshmen.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.