Brantley ready to take reins


Published: Tuesday, July 6, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, July 5, 2010 at 10:29 p.m.

It was just another day at The Swamp for the backup quarterback.

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Florida's John Brantley sets to throw in the against Kentucky in 2008. (Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun)

Doug Finger/Staff photographer

Utah was in town for homecoming and John Brantley III, tucked safely away on the sidelines, had postgame plans.

And there was no way the lowly Utes were going to spoil it.

The Gators' wishbone attack was hitting on all cylinders as Brantley watched senior quarterback Terry LeCount soak up the love from the home crowd. Brantley just had to wait out three more quarters before the sure-victory celebration would spill over onto the streets of Gainesville.

Then it happened.

LeCount took a vicious shot from a Utah defender and went down in a bloody heap. He limped to the sidelines, clutching his disfigured nose, and took a seat on the bench.

Head coach Doug Dickey searched the sideline for No. 12, then jerked his thumb toward the field.

Brantley was in. And it wasn't even halftime.

The sophomore responded by finishing off the Utes that day, 39-28, then got a one-week crash course before heading south to the storied Orange Bowl for his first career collegiate start against the upstart Miami Hurricanes.

“It all runs together,” Brantley says, nearly 33 years later. “Just going through that week and that process of starting your first game. I remember more about the prepping than the actual game.”

The first-time starter filled in valiantly, leading the Gators to a 31-14 victory over a Miami program that had yet to become “the real Miami,” according to Brantley.

“I played decent,” he said. “Nothing special. But we won the game, and Terry came back the next week.

“It was a great experience and I used that the next year when I became the starting quarterback in 1978. It was good to already have a starting game under your belt.”

More than three decades later, the University of Florida will look to another No. 12 for similar results.

John Brantley IV will lead the Florida Gators out of the tunnel Sept. 4 when they host Miami-Ohio in the 2010 season opener. It'll be his first collegiate start, and his first start of any kind in nearly four years since setting state records and collecting a title back at Ocala's Trinity Catholic High School.

“It's one of those things that you'll never forget,” his dad said. “Like being there for your first child being born. It's kind of neat to remember your first start in college football, especially when it's for the Gators.”

Ready or not

This has always been Johnny's destiny.

From the days he suited up in his old orange and blue Hutch uniform — using his parents' king-size bed as the field and the wall as his unsuspecting opponent — Brantley has been dreaming of running out of the tunnel and into an ocean of orange and blue as Florida's starting QB.

All the camps. All the extra throwing sessions. All the sacrifices. All of it has led him here.

“I'm just excited to get back out there and start playing again,” Brantley said. “I'm not used to running out and having the first play in front of 90,000 people yet. I'm just going to take it all in.”

While the jury's still out on the younger Brantley, there are few questions about his skill set.

One of the country's most sought-after prep quarterbacks, Brantley possesses an NFL arm and a calm demeanor in the pocket.

And he's a winner.

From his multiple championships in youth leagues to his 27-1 record in high school, Brantley is more than just a combine phenom.

Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper saw plenty of Brantley during his UF career. Cooper was there each and every time the rifle-armed quarterback turned heads in practice.

Florida's top wideout from a year ago says Gator fans will be wowed by their new quarterback this fall.

“Brantley has all the tools a great quarterback will ever need,” Cooper said. “He's got great composure, great football sense, a great arm and knows how to read defenses really well. He can pick defenses apart.

“The offense will change, for sure. They will be more of a pro-style system with John throwing routes more on rhythm. He is a pocket passer, and a great one at that.”

In mop-up duty, Brantley has shown flashes of brilliance. Over two seasons, he's completed better than 71 percent of his passes with 10 TDs and just one pick. His quarterback rating is a ridiculous 183.1, and he's even averaging 3.4 yards a carry.

But most of that was against the Charleston Southerns and Troys of the world. Most was in the second half, with the Gators already firmly in control.

Brantley knows — like most anxious Gator fans know — that this year will be a different type of test altogether. And he understands the expectations that come with the position.

“From Florida's past record, of course, there's always a fear of taking a step back,” he says. “But I've tried to channel that out. The support of my teammates — my offensive linemen and my receivers and running backs — everybody has made me feel a lot more comfortable.

“That's going to help me out when I run out there for the first game.”

A wide shadow

John Brantley is not Tim Tebow.

But he still has to follow the iconic Heisman Trophy winner who blurred the reality of the quarterback position and took the words “vocal leader” to a whole new stratosphere.

Then again, Tebow's no Brantley either.

“Following up Tebow is definitely a task in itself,” admits Cooper, Tebow's roommate last season. “But John is going to have so much success at Florida that people will start comparing him to different style quarterbacks, because he doesn't play Tebow's style.

“He is the perfect guy for the job. He throws a perfect ball and has a very quick release. I'm anxious to see my boy ball out next year.”

Former Florida quarterback Kerwin Bell, who groomed Brantley for three years at Trinity Catholic, thinks his prized pupil is on the verge of stardom.

As long as he doesn't try to be someone that he isn't.

“I think Johnny's going to be fine,” the Jacksonville University head coach said. “I've told him to just be Johnny and understand your strengths. Don't try to be Tim Tebow.

“Johnny knows his strengths — getting the ball in his playmakers' hands, making good decisions — he's a true drop-back, pocket passer.”

The elder Brantley fully understands the challenges facing his son. He's been there, on Florida Field, while a jam-packed stadium either cheers their approval or vents their disappointment.

“There's a lot of pressure,” Brantley III said. “You know, the Gator Nation is a tough crowd. And if (the team doesn't) meet their expectations, it can get nasty at times.

“And then following Tebow makes the thing even tougher as far as what's on (Johnny's) plate. Every throw or every sack or every interception, he's going to be compared to Timmy. May it be fair or unfair, it doesn't matter. That's what it is. And he's going to have to deal with all that.”

The new Gator quarterback just shrugs it off. Brantley said he used his time under Tebow to further hone his craft, while maybe picking up a few pointers along the way.

“The past few years I've seen Tim and how he did it, and it's definitely worn off on me,” said Brantley, who has taken over the role of organizing extra throwing sessions with his teammates this summer. “I just keep getting better at it every day from a leadership aspect.

“The receivers love what they're doing right now. They love going out, having fun, throwing, and getting better. It's worked out well so far.”

Full circle

Growing up in the Brantley household, there was never a shortage of glorified gridiron tales.

If it's not “Big John” who has the floor — which is rare — it's Uncle Scot, the former Gator great who went on to play seven years in the NFL as a bruising linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (A quick look at a video clip from 1985 — www.bucpower.com/video-scot-brantley.html — will show you all you need to know about the type of player Scot Brantley was.)

Johnny has heard all the stories.

He knows well his dad's trip to the Orange Bowl in '77. He's heard about the 31-7 thumping the Gators laid on Auburn in 1978, and the near-miss against the Bulldogs in Jacksonville the following week.

Those tales have been background noise since he was just big enough to cradle a football.

Now, in two short months, he'll start building his own UF storyboard.

“My dad's told me a bunch of stories,” Brantley said with a laugh. “I can't even keep up with them. Some of them he makes up.

“He's told me about different kinds of games and atmospheres. I can't even remember half of them.”

But dad makes it clear who he thinks the best quarterback in the family is.

“He has a lot more talent,” the elder Brantley said. “He's got all the attributes to be a top-line quarterback. He's got size. He's got decent speed. And he's got the support of his teammates, and that's probably the biggest thing he's got going for him. His teammates want him to succeed. And these are some of the best athletes in the world.

“His locker room has got his back, so he's not going into this thing alone.”

Both father and son know what's expected.

There are no rebuilding years in Gainesville under Urban Meyer. Even after the Gators lost a crop as talented as last year's bunch, which saw a record nine players go in the first five rounds of the NFL draft, the goals remain the same.

“They expect to go undefeated,” John Sr. said. “They expect to be in Atlanta.

“The goals for this team are the same as last year's team. And losing's just not part of the plan.”

Johnny echoes Meyer's mantra when he tackles the question of what a successful season in Gainesville will look like.

“We always stress the fact — just get back to Atlanta,” Johnny says. “That's all we want to do. We get back there, and we'll go from there.”

History will write the story of the 2010 football season. How Brantley measures up, the number of wins the Gators will collect, the titles they may or may not play for.

But when John Brantley IV runs out onto Florida Field on Sept. 4, his father's dream will be complete.

“What are the odds of seeing your son, with your number, at your position, at the same school?” John asked, his voice breaking for the first time. “That's pretty neat right there. That's a special deal. You can't put it in words.”

Contact Byron Saucer at (352) 387-2491 or byron.saucer@starbanner.com.

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