GAINESVILLE — Coach Jim McElwain is ready to promote all of the positives surrounding his Gators heading into Tuesday's first practice of the spring.
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The way Florida followed a smoke-and-mirrors 10-win season with another SEC East title. The way a once-weak receiving corps has become a position of strength. The fact that UF has chosen a firm to design the $60 million, stand-alone football complex McElwain called a "game-changer."
"I think the excitement and the momentum that we've built, it continues to roll and go forward," McElwain said Thursday.
But all of it might be moot this fall unless UF comes out of its 15 spring practices with the one hole it hasn't filled in years: A long-term solution at quarterback.
The Gators are the only school in the country to produce two 1,000-yard passers each of the past three seasons. That's not a good thing. And if UF hopes to fend off Georgia and Tennessee and stay atop the SEC East, it isn't a sustainable one either.
The problem predates McElwain. Ten different Gators have started at quarterback in the seven seasons since Tim Tebow left for the NFL.
That number will likely rise to 11 this fall. Austin Appleby is out of eligibility. Luke Del Rio is still around, but he didn't show much promise in his eight-touchdown, eight-interception season, and he'll miss all of spring practice to recover from last month's surgery on his non-throwing shoulder. His role this offseason has focused on helping redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask organize informal workouts before spring ball opens Tuesday.
That won't happen this spring, leaving Franks and Trask to battle for the job in his absence.
Ask McElwain how close the two are, and he'll only say that they're "real close; there's probably about a half-inch difference between them." The roster says 2 inches — Trask is 6 feet 4, while Franks is 6-6 — but maybe there's something to the joke. McElwain might not know yet.
The public's only glimpses of them were unspectacular showings in last year's spring game. Franks was the preferred backup after Del Rio's injuries, but neither played a snap. That means this spring's practices will be the first real gauge to see which player can handle the pressure that comes with leading a top-25 program in the season opener against mighty Michigan.
"I think the biggest piece we're looking for first and foremost is somebody to step up and say, 'You know what, I'm going to take this, and I'm going to lead this team and help the parts around me play better,' " McElwain said. "Now with that, it can't be forced. It's got to be natural."
And McElwain doesn't yet know which player can do that. Franks hasn't done it since he was a U.S. Army All-American at Crawfordville's Wakulla High. It's been even longer for Trask, who was a backup to current University of Houston receiver D'Eriq King at Manvel (Texas) High.
The Gators could have another option, too. UF lists early enrollee Kadarius Toney as an athlete, and McElwain said he'll get looks at quarterback this spring. But Toney seems more likely to become the change-of-pace running option McElwain has hinted at but hasn't really employed. Receiver Dre Massey — a limited participant this spring as he recovers from a torn ACL — will be a similar possibility in certain packages.
That leaves the focal point, for this spring and likely beyond, as either Franks or Trask. Both players have grown since this time last year, when they were early enrollees learning the system.
"Not to be overshadowed there is Luke's involvement in helping them prepare to be a starter," McElwain said.
That opportunity, for one of them, is almost here.
Contact Matt Baker at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.
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