September 21, 2010
No one stumbles randomly into the starting quarterback job at Florida or Texas, but even by the standards of hyped heirs apparent coming off the assembly line, the expectations for John Brantley and Garrett Gilbert in two of the most scrutinized positions in the country seemed unusually optimistic. Compared to their endlessly decorated predecessors, guys won (and won and won) largely by virtue of their savvy and mobility in spite of less than prototypical arm strength or mechanics according to the scouts, Brantley and Gilbert both ascended to the No. 1 role this year with big, NFL-ready frames supporting very live arms that potentially made their respective offenses even more explosive they were last year under Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy by reopening the downfield passing game.
If there was any doubt, though, the early returns from the first three weeks – with both coming off competent but often sloppy efforts Saturday in their first road starts – should confirm that they're still much, much closer to first-year starters getting their feet under them than a pair of two-time Heisman finalists.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. But even against the dregs of the non-conference slate in September, both have been more "manager" than "gunslinger," especially Brantley, still waiting on his first career interception at the expense of completing a single pass covering at least 25 yards – a 25-yard, Hail Mary tip drill on fourth-and-long for a meaningless touchdown against Miami , Ohio. The Gator passing game currently stands at 103rd nationally, and next-to-last in the SEC in total offense, a category it led three straight years under Tebow.
Gilbert has been a little more adventurous downfield, but also served up three interceptions to go with a pair of touchdown passes Saturday at Texas Tech – one returned for a Tech touchdown – alarmingly reminiscent of his two-TD, four-INT debut against Alabama in the BCS Championship Game back in January, except against Texas Tech instead of Alabama, and not on emergency notice. Twenty-four points was the fewest the Longhorns have scored against the Red Raiders in Mack Brown's 13-year tenure, and that includes scoring "drives" of seven yards and two yards following turnovers. In both cases the transition from a mobile, frequently off-the-cuff playmaker to a pocket-bound artillery piece in a more conventional, "pro style" system is looking like slow, relatively rocky going for the immediate future.
And in both cases, that's ... OK. At the same time that their young quarterbacks have been firmly establishing themselves as young quarterbacks, the defenses have been busy making it clear that the kids are going to get all the room they need. Texas has already picked up where it last off last year as the nation's top defense against the run, largely due to the wall it put up (and the pressure it put on quarterback Taylor Potts) in the process of making Texas Tech look like North Texas on Saturday night. Florida had a couple of coverage breakdowns leading to both of Tennessee's second-half touchdowns in Knoxville, but still came away with the national lead in interceptions and total takeaways (along with Ohio State). Both defenses are anchored by deep, talented, veteran secondaries and long-in-the-tooth defensive lines that have already integrated a pair of terrifying freshman pass rushers, Ronald Powell and Jackson Jeffcoat, into the rotation.
And this weekend seemed like the moment when both officially became "defensive teams." In their first significant tests of the year against key division rivals, the Gators and 'Horns combined for ten sacks, forced six turnovers and allowed a combined 15 yards rushing. You don't need a star quarterback to get back to a conference championship game or the BCS with that kind of effort on a weekly basis.
Really, that shouldn't come as any surprise, since these were both top-five defenses last year, even if Florida lost five starters to the draft and Texas lost four. The difference this year is the slimmer margin of error: With season-defining games on the horizon in early October (back-to-back dates with Alabama and LSU for Florida, Oklahoma and Nebraska for Texas), the top priority will be keeping the green QBs comfortable and as far from trouble – i.e. a shootout, or any kind of must-pass situation like the one Gilbert faced during the last the quarters of the BCS title game – as possible. As bright as their offensive futures may be by next year, or even by November, for now, the Gators' and 'Horns' paths back to the top are clearly going to be forged by the D.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.