Florida Football: Pre-Spring Practice Preview for Gators' 2016 QB Battle

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Florida Football: Pre-Spring Practice Preview for Gators' 2016 QB Battle
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Florida HC Jim McElwain

Since Tim Tebow ended his legendary college career in 2009, the quarterback position at Florida has been a roller-coaster ride.

Last year, Jim McElwain's first as the Florida head coach, the Gators reached heights they hadn't seen in a while with Will Grier as a starter. Then, after Grier was hit with a year-long suspension for performance-enhancing drugs, the offense zoomed right down that hill with former starter Treon Harris at quarterback.

The Florida quarterback roller-coaster ride took another sharp turn in the last couple of months. Grier decided to transfer, and Harris moved to wide receiver

Now Florida's quarterback situation will speed into the unknown of 2016 with four starter candidates who haven't taken a single snap yet for the Gators—a transfer who arrived last year, a transfer who arrived this year and two true freshmen who enrolled early.

All four will begin a wild race to start at quarterback this season for the defending SEC East champions, which returns a breakout SEC star in Antonio Callaway at receiver and a lot more experience along the offensive line.

Here's a breakdown of the four candidates—their strengths, weaknesses and chances—as the Gators get ready to open spring practice on March 9.

 

Luke Del Rio 

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Florida QB Luke Del Rio

Luke Del Rio's cross-country college football journey has taken the Colorado native from being an Oklahoma State commitment to an Alabama walk-on to an Oregon State backup to a Florida transfer in the matter of a few years.

Gainesville is looking like the final destination for Del Rio in his quest, as he has a great chance to finally fit into a program as a starting quarterback.

The son of Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio was just a 3-star prospect out of high school, but he made it to the Elite 11 finals in the summer of 2012. Doug Nussmeier, then the offensive coordinator at defending national champion Alabama, recruited Del Rio to be a preferred walk-on with the Crimson Tide.

After stints at Alabama and Oregon State, Del Rio has reunited with Nussmeier at Florida. Although he wasn't made eligible for the 2015 season, he wasted no time in drawing praise from both coaches and teammates in his scout-team work.

"He’s been having some really good practices out there," McElwain said in December, per Zach Abolverdi of SEC Country. "I think you guys were probably updated even through kind of the summer of when he came here he was a little bit of a spark plug out there."

Del Rio knows the type of offensive system McElwain and Nussmeier want to run at Florida, and although he has little in-game experience at the college level—he completed eight of his 18 passes for 141 yards in three games of mop-up work for Oregon State in 2014—he's widely considered the favorite heading into spring ball.

Eugene Tanner/Associated Press
Florida QB Luke Del Rio

The redshirt junior is said to have a strong arm and just spent an entire season plugged back into the Nussmeier offense. Del Rio should know what the Gators are looking for at quarterback and will have an advantage that the newcomers on campus don't have.

The downsides with Del Rio are his age and size. He'll have two years at the most as Florida's starting quarterback, which isn't great for the long-term potential of the position.

And at 6'1", he's shorter than the typical McElwain starting quarterback.

Matt Baker of the Tampa Bay Times broke down the sizes of McElwain's recent signal-callers, and Del Rio is shorter than all of them except for Harris:

Alabama's John Parker Wilson (6-2, 211)
Alabama's Greg McElroy (6-3, 225)
Alabama's AJ McCarron (6-4, 214)
Colorado State's Garrett Grayson (6-2, 213)
Colorado State's M.J. McPeek (6-4, 236)
Colorado State's Conner Smith (6-5, 220)
Florida's Will Grier (6-2, 201)
Florida's Treon Harris (5-11, 195)

Still, if Florida wants a consistent pro-style quarterback who is already familiar with the playbook, Del Rio is the leader right now. He needs to continue his strong practice work in spring camp in order to take control of the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.

 

Austin Appleby 

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Florida QB Austin Appleby

Florida has another quarterback with some collegiate experience in Austin Appleby, but he's quite different from Del Rio.

Appleby transferred to Florida from Purdue last month, and, as a graduate transfer, he is eligible to play immediately for the Gators.

The advantages of Appleby are easy to see—he's got elite size for a pocket-passing quarterback, and he has the most collegiate experience of any passer on Florida's campus.

"Here’s a guy that brings experience," McElwain said, per Anthony Chiang of the Palm Beach Post. "The guy started at a high level, and a guy that understands what it is to prepare as a starting quarterback. That’s something that’s lost sometimes."

He was listed at Purdue as 6'5" and 239 pounds, which would make him bigger than any of McElwain's good-sized starting quarterbacks so far. Another former Elite 11 finalist and 3-star pro-style quarterback, Appleby signed with Purdue, didn't play in 2012 and played sparingly in 2013.

In 2014, he started seven games for Purdue and then five more in 2015. He threw for 18 touchdowns and rushed for nine more in his final two seasons with the Boilermakers, ending his time there with a career performance against Indiana:

While Appleby's experience is noteworthy in a quarterback battle featuring three other players who haven't started a single college game, his overall numbers aren't anything for Gators fans to get excited about.

He had 19 interceptions in his last two seasons with Purdue and completed 52 and 57 percent of his passes, respectively. He threw four picks in a 2015 season-opening loss against Marshall and two more against Virginia Tech, prompting his benching until the final two games of the year.

Those aren't horrific stats, especially considering the supporting cast he had at lowly Purdue, but they're not good, either.

His experience as a starter at a Power Five school might give Appleby something of an advantage against Del Rio and the true freshmen, and some programs have had recent success with transferring quarterbacks who were sent to the bench at their previous schools.

But in the grand scheme of Florida's quarterback battle, Appleby looks more like a newcomer who will bring valuable competition during spring practice and added insurance during the season in case of injuries.

 

Feleipe Franks 

Courtesy: 247Sports (Isaiah Hole)
Florida QB Feleipe Franks

And now for the true wild card in Florida's 2016 quarterback race—Feleipe Franks.

Franks, an in-state product, was rated as the nation's No. 5 quarterback for the class of 2016 and enrolled early for the Gators. That means he'll be thrown into the spring battle at quarterback right away with Del Rio and Appleby.

The true freshman is the future of the Florida offense. He's 6'5" with a powerful arm, and he has decent footwork and pocket presence. He has the look of the ideal quarterback in a McElwain and Nussmeier offense.

However, 2016 might be a little too early for him to have the pressure as the starting quarterback for the Gators, even with the additional practice time in the spring.

Franks isn't a polished product right now when it comes to certain areas of quarterback play, and he could stand to add some more weight to his 210-pound frame.

"The biggest knock on Franks is that his big arm doesn't always translate to crisp accuracy when the game goes live in scrimmages and practices," Thomas Goldkamp of 247Sports wrote. "He seems to be just a split-second slow getting the ball out, which is something Florida's coaches will harp on when he arrives on campus."

Thanks to Del Rio and Appleby, Florida doesn't have to rush Franks into the starting role and risk shattering his confidence as a true freshman. 

Instead, the Gators could start Del Rio and have Franks play in certain packages and situations during the season. That would speed up his development process without having to fully rely on a teenager who doesn't have the college-ready game of someone such as UCLA's Josh Rosen right out of high school.

Franks has the physical tools to make big plays happen for Florida early on, and there's still a chance he could blow the coaches away in spring practices and prove he's the best option right now in Gainesville.

He might not win the starting job in practice this spring, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Franks carve out some valuable playing time for himself with what he does in his first few months at Florida.

 

Kyle Trask 

Courtesy: 247Sports (Brian Perroni)
Florida QB Kyle Trask

Florida's other early enrollee at quarterback, Kyle Trask, is the least likely to start for the Gators this fall. There's a strong chance he'll redshirt this season.

But Trask is worth mentioning here because he'll be battling with Del Rio, Appleby and Franks during spring practices—and his path to Florida wasn't a normal one.

Trask was the No. 90 pro-style quarterback in the class of 2016, and he's from Manvel, Texas. In the land of dual-threat passers leading high-octane spread attacks, the nearly 6'6" freshman perfectly fits the mold of the traditional dropback quarterback.

According to Corey Roepken of the Houston Chronicle, Trask didn't even start at quarterback for his high school. But Florida coaches saw him during a spring practice in 2015 and offered him a scholarship after he attended a Gators camp last summer.

Florida likes the long-term potential of the tall Texas gunslinger, and he's not afraid of starting at the back of the pack at his new school.

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"I didn't want to run away from competition," Trask said, per Roepken. "No matter where you go, there is going to be some of that."

Trask is widely expected to redshirt this season for the Gators and battle for playing time later down the road. But he'll be in the mix this spring, and he has several strengths of his own.

"His arm isn't as good as the cannon Franks possesses, but he is slightly more ready to take the punishment of an SEC pass rush—and as readiness to be an emergency quarterbacks goes, he might actually be slightly ahead of his fellow freshman," Andy Hutchins of Alligator Army wrote.

Although he'll most likely fly under the radar as a redshirted quarterback in 2016, don't forget about Kyle Trask when it comes to the long-term future of the position under McElwain.

 

All statistics courtesy of CFBStats. Recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.

Justin Ferguson is a college football writer at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.

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