It’s no secret by now that Florida will be without starting quarterback Luke Del Rio against Tennessee, or that his role will be filled by Purdue transfer Austin Appleby. And at this point, there’s been a good enough amount of internet ink about Appleby that we (more or less) know who he is, most notably this awesome feature from Scott Carter of FloridaGators.com.
But it’s difficult to imagine what he’ll be like in a totally different offense at Florida with less expectations of him and a better supporting cast around him than he had at Purdue.
All we know about Appleby, or all we can really go by, are his numbers and film from Purdue. We know that he’s got a big arm and brings the potential for big plays, like the 19 touchdowns he threw as a Boilermaker. And sometimes, those “plays” are good for the other team, like the 19 interceptions he threw as a Boilermaker.
It’s at this juncture that we have to remember who the Gators’ coach is. As we’ve heard about nonstop since he took over, Jim McElwain is one of the best there is at developing quarterbacks. When you hear “developing quarterbacks,” you probably think of Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees being molded into the stars we know them as today. But that’s not the only way to develop a quarterback. In fact, it’s quite rare.
Much more frequent are the cases of modestly talented but smart guys who can one day lead their team to a ring- the Greg McElroys, the AJ McCarrons, and even the John Parker Wilsons of the world. Actually, in this case, JPW is the most relevant example, so let’s focus on him for a minute. When McElwain first got to Alabama, he inherited an offense that had had very inconsistent results in the two preceding years, both which were piloted by Parker Wilson. To his credit, he did throw for a lot of yards in 2006 and 2007, but the rest of JPW’s numbers weren’t pretty: completion percentages of 55.2% and 57% with 12 and 10 interceptions, respectively.
Then along came McElwain in 2008, with the clear order from Nick Saban to transform the offense into one that didn’t make things harder for the defense. Now compare JPW’s numbers in 2006 and 2007 numbers to those in 2008: 58% completion percentage and only seven picks. The amount of yards he threw for and passes he attempted (and thus, completed) under McElwain decreased significantly, but so did the mistakes. Parker Wilson threw seven interceptions in the one season he called Mac his offensive coordinator, one of which he had no choice but to throw in a desperation situation against Florida in the SEC Championship.
So, take those stats of Appleby’s from Purdue with a grain of salt. McElwain’s main job on Saturday is to develop Appleby from an error prone gunslinger into a game managing winner. In other words, his job is put Austin Appleby in position to succeed, and the way to do this is simple: by putting less on his plate, and simplifying the offense.
The difference between Del Rio and Appleby may not be noticeable at all, but if it is, it will take quite a keen eye to spot it. In fact, Appleby is actually the more naturally talented of the two, boasting a stronger arm and similar football intelligence. Del Rio’s advantage over Appleby was that he knew the Gators’ offense backwards and forwards having spent a year at Florida before and learning as a QB under Doug Nussmeier at Alabama in 2013.
So it wouldn’t come as a complete shock if Appleby and his receiver aren’t on the same page at some point and Appleby throws one route while the receiver runs another. Appleby is also slightly less accurate than Del Rio, so assume that any given ball can be up to 6 inches off target and less convenient for the receiver. And now for a plus: given Appleby’s rocket of a throwing arm, I wouldn’t be surprised if the two or three deep shots Mac is bound to call in this game are all cashed in, while Del Rio has been hit or miss with those (hit against Kentucky, miss against Massachusetts).
But now let’s look at the whole equation. Florida’s defensive line, featuring Caleb Brantley, Cece Jefferson, Jachai Polite, Bryan Cox Jr. and Jabari Zuniga, should have a field day messing with Tennessee’s inexperienced offensive line. Whatever help they need, they’ll get from the second wave of Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone. And good luck to Josh Dobbs trying to complete a pass, something he doesn’t do very often to begin with, with Teez Tabor and Marcus Maye lurking back there.
Now let’s flip the field over. Tennessee’s defense, which hasn’t looked good so far this year at full strength, is now down its top corner (Cam Sutton) and two starting linebackers (Darrin Kirkland and Quart’e Sapp) for this weekend. How they plan to stop Florida’s four headed running game, an offensive feature the Gators are bound to use early and often, is beyond me. And even if Antonio Callaway doesn’t play, the Vols don’t have the personnel in the secondary to stop Brandon Powell, Josh Hammond, Freddie Swain, C’yontai Lewis or DeAndre Goolsby.
Essentially, Florida gets the nod in pretty much every position vs. position matchup that can possibly take place this Saturday. And we know the defense will do its job. So if Mac can just lean on the rest of his offense to do their jobs, Appleby- and the Gators- will be just fine.