April 22, 2010

Brantley prepares for pressure as Gators' starter

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - Tim Tebow's pro day at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, like most things surrounding Tebow, turned into a spectacle.

A couple thousand fans attended on a rainy Wednesday morning in mid-March. Florida issued hundreds of media credentials to the event and the NFL Network aired the session live - all to see Tebow throw passes while being "rushed" by a trainer.

The real action was on Florida's practice fields later that day, when John Brantley began his first spring practice as the Gators' No. 1 quarterback. Brantley, at least, practiced in a helmet and a jersey.

"He has good mechanics," Tebow, whose revamped throwing motion had just been dissected by NFL coaches and scouts, said that day.

While Tebow didn't make it to the practice field to watch Brantley's practice that day, numerous other former teammates - such as Maurkice Pouncey, Riley Cooper and David Nelson - did show up.

"He's going to surprise some people," Nelson, a wide receiver, said of Brantley. "A lot of people know he can throw. A lot of people know he can sit back and throw the rock. He can impress people with his leadership, and he's quicker than people think."

Brantley might disagree about his quickness but not his arm. He was 15-of-19 for 202 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game, but he also was "sacked" four times (he was wearing a red non-contact jersey for the game).

While that's an impressive stat line, Tebow became a folk hero after his first Orange and Blue Game as a true freshman. If Brantley follows his father's advice, comparisons to Tebow will have no bearing on how the quarterback approaches this season.

John Brantley III, a former Florida quarterback himself, has given his son one suggestion: Don't try to be Tim Tebow.

Actually, that advice is directed more to Brantley's personality. Brantley can't be Tebow as a football player: He's not built like Tebow, who almost was a single-wing quarterback/linebacker hybrid. Brantley more closely resembles a Fun 'n' Gun quarterback from the Steve Spurrier era.

"I'm a thrower, I guess you would say," said Brantley, a top-50 prep prospect in the class of 2007. "I'm not going to run anyone over. I'm not going to outrun anyone. I'm going to try to sit in that pocket as long as I can."

Brantley could oversee an offense similar to the one the Gators ran in 2006, when they won the national title with senior Chris Leak starting at quarterback. Tebow was a freshman backup that season and essentially was a short-yardage specialist. That season, Leak was responsible for 442 passing and rushing attempts, Tebow for 122.

If Florida decides to follow that blueprint, Brantley would be spelled by true freshman Trey Burton, a running threat who has room to grow as a passer, or quarterback-turned-tight end Jordan Reed.

"I'm not a runner like Tim was," Brantley said. "You see teams that run a Wildcat and it's pretty effective. ... [Coach Urban Meyer] likes the two-quarterback system."

Brantley and Leak, now with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, have been in frequent contact through the spring to talk about the nuances of the position and handling the pressure of being the Gators' quarterback.

Brantley already has had a taste of the latter. He replaced Tebow in the second half of last season's victory at Kentucky after Tebow suffered a concussion. At that point, Brantley had attempted only 58 career passes. The game wasn't in question, but Brantley's ability to lead was. Before his first snap, Brantley gathered the offense in the huddle, looked everyone in the eye and said Florida wouldn't miss a beat.

"We almost got a delay-of-game penalty because he was talking to us so long in the huddle," Nelson said.

Florida scored 10 points with Brantley at quarterback and won 41-7. Brantley's first true taste of college pressure came during the next two weeks, as Florida prepared for a game at LSU without knowing whether Tebow would be able to play.

"We were ready for him to be the guy," Nelson said. "We were completely confident in his abilities. ... We had a solid backup, a guy who could be a starter for 90 percent of the teams."

Brantley's talent was enough to win his teammates over, and that didn't surprise his high school coach. Kerwin Bell, a Florida quarterback in the 1980s who played in the NFL and CFL, coached Brantley for four years at Ocala (Fla.) Trinity Catholic before moving on to become coach at Jacksonville University.

"The No. 1 thing a guy can look at is your actions - can the guy make special plays?" Bell said. "That team when they walk out in practice, they can see who is a special player. They don't need anyone to tell them. He had a special ability to make plays."

In Bell's experience, Brantley always has been a little ahead of the curve. He was a multi-sport athlete in high school. But after going to a football camp as a high school sophomore, Brantley decided to drop baseball and focus on playing quarterback.

Bell challenged Brantley with a playbook based partly on what Bell ran while he was with the Indianapolis Colts. Brantley called different protections, made two-progression reads and found hot routes. For a high school quarterback, Brantley worked in an advanced offense - especially given the rise of much simpler spread offenses at that level.

"It was a great offense," said Brantley, who passed for a state-record 99 career touchdown passes. "That's what we practiced every day. He always told me that some of it came from the NFL and some of it came from college.

"It was fun to learn. It helped me out for the next level."

Florida's spring practice ended April 10, and Brantley now faces his first offseason as Florida's starting quarterback. While the family hopes to distance itself from the comparisons, Tebow's leadership never was called into question, meaning this is an important summer for Brantley.

"It's hard to be a leader when the other guy is so overwhelming," Meyer said. "I saw some good leadership from John. I was hoping it would happen, and it happened. It's hard to take charge of the huddle."

Brantley looks to have the talent part of being a star quarterback down pat. If he proves to be nearly as adept as his predecessor at the intangibles part, Brantley might just find himself part of a spectacle at his pro day.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.



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