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Monday August 27, 2012Harry: Five Gator QB Competitions Worth Remembering

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. Will it be Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel?

Or Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett?

It's been the No. 1 talk radio, message board and water cooler topic among University of Florida football fans this preseason. Make that this entire offseason.

How many times have you heard Gators coach Will Muschamp say, "We can win with both of 'em?" Even after he names his starter, which figures to be any day now, given the 2012 season opener against Bowling Green is just five days away.

Muschamp has reiterated his confidence in both sophomores under center and Friday announced that both would play against the Falcons, and Monday he updated that each would play a quarter in the opening half. Eventually, though, it figures to be one.

Each took snaps as freshmen last season with mixed results. Their scrimmage performances have only reinforced how the close this quarterback battle is and how scrutinized the final decision will be.

But where does Brissett-Driskel rate when it comes to preseason quarterback duels in Florida history?

Below you'll find five worth remembering.

[Note: Before the emails start firing off, Terry Dean vs. Danny Wuerffel was left out intentionally -- and for good reason. Dean-Wuerffel was never a spring or preseason battle. Dean won the job heading into both the 1993 and '94 seasons, then lost it during both seasons (Week 2 of '93 with four interceptions against Kentucky, then Week 6 of '94 with four more against Auburn).

For ballast, we offer one QB competition (some might say controversy) from each of the past five decades.

1) 1990

Even with Miami set to defend its third national title and Florida State right on the Hurricanes' heels, there was no bigger story in the state than who would win the job as Steve Spurrier's first quarterback after the former Heisman Trophy winner returned to coach his alma mater.

The previous spring, just three months after Spurrier came to UF after winning a share of the Atlantic Coast Conference title at Duke, the Florida QB derby was a wide-open affair of five candidates, with junior Kyle Morris the favorite despite being suspended the previous October for gambling in a fantasy football league. 

For Morris, who started 12 games the previous two seasons, the big challenge was supposed to come from Brian Fox, an Orlando product who transferred from Purdue where he was 1988 Big Ten Freshman of the Year. After that, it was Lex Smith, Donald Douglas and a fella from Pascagoula, Miss., named Shane Matthews, who also was suspended in the fantasy football controversy and began the spring fifth on the depth chart.

In fact, Matthews spent the better part of his first two seasons with the Gators standing in the background at practices and sometimes snacking on Snickers bars when coaches weren't watching.

But when Spurrier announced 10 days before the opener against Oklahoma State that Matthews had won the job, no one was really surprised, especially after his near-flawless performance (3 TD passes) in the Orange & Blue Game.

"Shane's going to be out there barring anything unforeseen," said Spurrier, who wasn't initially impressed by Matthews, but in time became enamored with the skinny kid's decision-making and accuracy. "I didn't think Shane had a chance the first time I saw him throw. He had the least strong arm of all of 'em. But he got himself ready through the summer, and now he's going to get a chance."

Does anybody not recall how that worked out?

Morris backed up Matthews in '90 then transferred to Division II Mississippi College. The Gators asked Douglas to move to safety and instead he transferred to Houston. Smith was demoted behind true freshman Terry Dean and eventually moved to linebacker and became a very good special teams player over his career.

And Matthews?

He shattered UF and Southeastern Conference passing records on his way to the first of back-to-back league MVP seasons that fall.

2) 1984

After four seasons with Wayne Peace mostly at the controls, the Gators entered the season as a favorite to win the first SEC title in school history, despite virtually no experience at the quarterback spot.

Fifth-year senior Dale Dorminey, who had never started a game, held off a challenge from a trio of red-shirt freshmen and was set to start UF's ballyhooed season opener against No. 1 and defending national champion Miami at Tampa Stadium.

But then... heartbreak.

Just four days before the showdown against the Hurricanes, Dorminey blew out his knee in a non-contract drill with just five minutes to go in practice.

"It breaks my heart for Dale's sake," Coach Charley Pell said. "It's a challenge to all on the staff and the team to move toward the Miami game."

A bigger challenge fell to whichever freshman was going to go under center.

But instead of Rodney Brewer or Brian Massingill, both highly sought after recruits, Pell went with second-year walk-on Kerwin Bell (above), from nearby Class 1A Mayo Lafayette High, who wasn't even listed in the team's media guide.

"I know I can do the job," Bell said after his battlefield promotion. "I was preparing myself to play before, but not like I am now. My teammates have been encouraging. They tell me to go out and do what I can do -- and they know what I can do."

If they didn't, they found out. The "Throwin' Mayoan" didn't play like a quarterback who won his job by default. In fact, Bell was great.

In his debut against the Canes, Bell passed for 159 yards, including a shot 5-yard touchdown to Frankie Neal to give the Gators the lead with just 41 seconds to go. UM, though, rallied for two TDs to win a wild 32-20 shootout.

Bell went on to start the next four seasons, leaving UF as its career passing leader, breaking the records of both Spurrier and John Reaves.

3) 1967

Spurrier, the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner, was gone.

Who would replace him?

The top contenders were senior Harmon Wages, junior and hometown prep hero Jackie Eckdahl (below) and senior Larry Rentz, but after spring practice Coach Ray Graves and his staff favored Wages enough to move Rentz to flanker full time.

Wages, from Jacksonville, prepped over the summer by doing six weeks in ROTC camp and reported in tip-top shape. It was his job to lose.

Unfortunately, he lost it to an ankle injury 10 days before the season opener against Illinois.

"It will be two days before the swelling goes down and we know will learn how serious the injury it is," Graves said.

Enter Eckdahl, the local favorite who starred at Gainesville High and whose father was a UF professor. Rentz went back to taking reps at quarterback, just in case. Wages, sore ankle and all, was ready for the Illini.

Word leaked a few days before Florida's opener -- thanks to assistant coach speaking to a local fan club -- that Graves would play both QBs.

Eckdahl got the start and alternated possessions with Wages. The Gators struggled on offense, particularly in the passing game when Eckdahl was throwing, but their defense kept the game scoreless at halftime. Eckdahl figured he'd be benched for ineffectiveness.

"I didn't expect to start the second half," Eckdahl said.

But he did.

Eckdahl marched the Gators on a 76-yard scoring drive to start the second half and one possession later scored on a 16-yard run. That was all Florida needed for a 14-0 victory and for a record season-opening crowd of 59,391 -- despite Eckdahl finishing just 3 of 10 for 26 yards and an interception -- to commence a second-half chant of "STEVE WHO?"

"No, we haven't settled on our No. 1 quarterback," Graves said afterward. "We'll use 'em both, just like today."

Actually, they used Rentz, also.

And played three pretty much the rest of the season.

4) 2003

The quarterback legacy of Spurrier, the coach, ended after Rex Grossman went to the NFL.

It was Coach Ron Zook's second season and the starting job was basically a two-horse race between sophomore Ingle Martin and true freshman Chris Leak, the most sought-after prep quarterback in the nation the year before. A third candidate, redshirt freshman Gavin Dickey, was a longshot, but in the mix.

Few figured Martin, with just 10 career passes and with nothing like Leak's gaudy prep stats and pedigree, would win the job. 

"I can't worry about it," Martin said heading into the season. "I quit reading all that stuff after my first fall here. The people in the program are the only ones who know what's going on."

Neither Martin nor Leak distanced themselves during the preseason, with Zook giving Martin, the upperclassman, the starting nod in the Week 1. Both played extensively in the season opener against San Jose State, but defense and special teams stole the show in a 65-3 wipeout.

Martin went 14 of 23 for 196 yards and a touchdown, while Leak was 10-for-14 for 111 yards and a score. Dickey mopped up with 51 yards and a pick.

The multiple QB plan continued Week 2 against Miami at the Orange Bowl.

All three quarterbacks played that day, as the Gators got out to a 33-10 lead. But it was an ex-Gator quarterback -- Brock Berlin, who transferred to UM after the '01 season -- who led the Hurricanes on a stunning rally with 28 unanswered points and a 38-33 win.

UF's three-headed quarterback was pretty much a wash that day. The back-and-forth between Martin and Leak continued two more weeks -- a 63-3 win over Florida A&M and 24-10 loss at Tennessee -- before Zook settled on Leak, who got his first start in Week 5 at Kentucky.

The Gators trailed by 18 in the fourth quarter, but stormed from 21-3 deficit to win 24-21.

From then on, through Zook's firing in 2004 and Urban's Meyer's 2006 national title, Leak was the man, winning MVP in the 41-14 blowout of Ohio State in the BCS Championship game.

5) 1979

John Brantley had played pretty well in 1978, which turned out to be Coach Doug Dickey's last of nine seasons on the UF sidelines. Brantley likely would have been the favorite to be Pell's first quarterback were it not for the severe ligament tears he suffered to his ankle in the spring.

So when the preseason convened, the hunt for the job was between Brantley, who wasn't fully recovered, Tim Groves and Tyrone Young. Pell praised all three after the first scrimmage, but after the second scrimmage -- and 11 days before the opener at Houston -- he pegged Groves as his starter.

But he left wiggle room.

"We're not naming the starting quarterback for the season, but we're naming a quarterback for Houston," Pell said. "Tim was our best quarterback in our last scrimmage, so we'll play one game this way."

And that's about what they did. Literally.

The Gators lost 14-10 at Houston, then in their home opener were awful in totaling less than 200 yards of offense in a 7-7 tie against Georgia Tech, with Pell going with Groves, Brantley and Young at times in the game.

As the season went on, even running back Johnell Brown got some snaps, which was fitting because UF never really had a quarterback.

Groves ended up moving to safety, Young to wide receiver, Brown back to tailback. Brantley reinjured his ankle in the Tech game.

The quarterback who finished that season turned out to be walk-on Larry Ochab, who became something of a cult hero with fans who dubbed him "Dr. O."

That, too, was fitting.

As in 0-10-1, the Gators' record that season.

 

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