Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has been coaching for a long time, so yes, his defense has been torched by a true freshman quarterback before.
“Oh, man, I try to forget those,” he said.
But there is one instance he will never forget, and it’s quite a story.
“I remember when I was at Virginia Tech, true story, we were up by four touchdowns,” Grantham said. “We knocked the starter and the No. 2 guy out of the game. This third dude came in and torched us.
“We basically won the game by seven or 10, and I’m sitting there and saying, ‘Man, we stink, we got this third-teamer come in and do that.’ It’s Brett Favre. So anyway we got torched by a third-teamer, right. This Brett Favre dude, he torched us.”
Grantham was caught off guard that day because no one knew who Brett Favre was yet, or what he would become.
It’s a much different story with the true freshman quarterback Florida’s defense is facing Saturday in The Swamp. Grantham won’t be caught off guard by Bo Nix, who is already making a name for himself. The rapidly rising star has led Auburn to a 5-0 start and No. 7 national ranking.
Grantham is well aware of the dual-threat quarterback’s capabilities.
“First of all, he’s a talented player,” Grantham said. “He’s competitive. He’s accurate with the ball. Now at times maybe in the games leading up to the last one, he wasn’t quite what he needed to be, but overall he’s accurate with the ball.
“He can keep plays alive with his feet. Any time you can extend plays it allows your offense to have positive yards. The combination of all that — his competitiveness, his toughness, his athletic ability, the way they protect for him — that all works well for them and allows him to be a productive player.”
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn seems to be bringing his former five-star recruit along at a comfortable pace that has allowed Nix to steadily improve over the course of the season. He’s looked less and less like a freshman from week to week. In fact, last Saturday, he did not look like one at all, throwing for 335 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 56 yards and a TD in the Tigers’ 56-23 rout of Mississippi State.
“The first thought is he’s a guy who’s really progressed from game one to now,” Grantham said. “Probably got a little more poise than he had earlier. Really good athlete that can make guys miss, very competitive guy on tape that works hard at knowing where to go with the ball, both from a passing standpoint but also on the quarterback designed runs.
“He’s progressing really nicely for them. They’ve got some really good skill guys around him. That helps. The combination of that make him really good.”
Florida coach Dan Mullen, who is known for his success developing quarterbacks, tried to recruit Nix, but he showed no serious interest in the Gators. Nix always had another SEC school at the top of his list — Auburn, where his father, Patrick Nix, was a standout quarterback in the 1990s. Patrick Nix threw the winning touchdown pass against UF in 1994 in The Swamp in Steve Spurrier’s first SEC home loss as a coach.
Early indications are that Bo Nix has a higher ceiling than his father.
“You just see him growing up as a quarterback, maturing as a quarterback,” Mullen said. “He’s got an ‘It’ factor about him. You see that translate onto the field. That’s what allows him to have success early, and to be able to handle big situations.”
Grantham and his defense will try to put Nix in as many difficult situations as possible. The Gators seem capable of doing that. They’re first in the SEC in scoring defense, third in total defense and second in rushing defense. And they’ve really gotten after opposing quarterbacks, producing a league-leading 24 sacks.
Usually the plan against a true freshman quarterback is to come up with some different wrinkles to try and confuse him and lead him into negative plays and possible turnovers. But Nix doesn’t appear to be a typical true freshman QB.
“I don’t know about wrinkles,” Grantham said. “It really gets down to execution of what we can do. He has more confidence now than he did game one. A little more poise and a little more understanding with the offense because it is relatively the same plays, it’s just coming at you a little differently from a look standpoint which gives him continuity. So we know we are going to be challenged and we just have to find ways to affect his performance.”
The Gators seem to think they will be able to affect the true freshman. They have confidence in their coordinator.
“Coach Grantham has a scheme, so he’s going to put the defense in a great position with all the different things we want to do, to make the quarterback plays bad,” sophomore defensive back Trey Dean said.