John Brantley has nation's toughest job
From their third-row seats in the upper deck of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, John Brantley III and his young son had a bird's-eye view of the action for Florida's home football games.
Their seats split the uprights in the south end zone, and Brantley, a former Gators quarterback, used the view to teach his son the intricacies of playing the sport's most demanding position.
The Brantley family's Saturday trips to "The Swamp" started when John Brantley IV was just a toddler, but they became even more important when he was old enough to digest what he was seeing.
"You could see the plays open up and see the plays progressing," the elder Brantley said. "It was like watching the end zone camera shot on TV."
At the time, the younger Brantley could not have known he was staring into his future, too.
When the No. 3 Gators open their season Sept. 4 against Miami (Ohio) at The Swamp, John Brantley IV will make his first start at quarterback. For the first time in three seasons, someone other than 2007 Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow will start under center for the Gators.
Playing quarterback at a school such as Florida comes with enough on-the-job hazards. But replacing someone like Tebow, who is regarded as one of the sport's greatest players after helping the Gators win BCS national championships in 2006 and '08, might be the least enviable job in recent college football history.
"He's got more pressure on him than any player in college football history," former Florida quarterback Shane Matthews said.
Brantley, a junior from Ocala, Fla., seems to be embracing the challenge of replacing Tebow, who is now a rookie backup quarterback with the Denver Broncos. After all, Brantley patiently waited three seasons to replace him.
He's got more pressure on him than any player in college football history.” -- Former Florida quarterback Shane Matthews
"There's going to be a lot of pressure, but it's tough for me to look at it like that because Tim and I are so close," Brantley said. "I know fans are expecting a lot from me, but everyone expects a lot from the quarterback at Florida. Everyone expects a lot from the team."
Brantley's father knows his son will inevitably be compared with Tebow, who accounted for 145 touchdowns (88 passing and an SEC-record 57 rushing), 9,285 passing yards and 2,947 rushing yards in his brilliant four-year career.
"It's a situation I wouldn't want to be in," Brantley's father said. "But I think it's a situation he'll embrace. He's been going to Florida games since he was 2 years old. He knows what he's taking on, and he's ready."
It's almost as if Brantley was predestined to play quarterback at Florida. His father was the Gators' starting quarterback in 1977 and '78, throwing 13 career touchdowns while playing in a wishbone offense. Brantley's uncle, Scot, was a star linebacker at Florida and was named All-SEC in 1977 and '78.
After Brantley committed in spring 2006 to playing at Texas, his uncle immediately second-guessed his decision. John Brantley wasn't sure Gators coach Urban Meyer's spread offense was the right fit for his talents and preferred the Longhorns' pro-style attack.
"I warned him, 'Hey, Johnny, you're going to be an outsider going in there and trying to win the No. 1 job and take it from a Texas quarterback. Are you nuts?'" Scot Brantley said. "He was born a Gator, only 35 miles down the road."
Scot Brantley, who works as a radio analyst for the Gator Network, told his nephew the Gators would take care of their own. Five days before Christmas 2006, Brantley called Meyer and told him he wanted to play for the Gators.
"I think it does help to have the name recognition," Scot Brantley said.
It didn't hurt Brantley's development to have a former college quarterback as his father, either. Brantley's father coached him in youth league football, and he became the first fifth-grade quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl title in the Marion County (Fla.) Youth Football League by throwing a 58-yard touchdown in the final minute of the championship game.
Former Gators quarterback Kerwin Bell coached Brantley at Trinity Catholic High School in Ocala. Bell is now the coach at FCS program Jacksonville (Fla.) University.
Brantley had a 27-1 record as a starting quarterback in high school, leading Trinity Catholic to a Class 2B state championship in 2005. He even broke Tebow's state high school record with 99 touchdown passes.
Matthews said he realized Brantley would be a special player when he started attending his summer quarterback camps in Gainesville, Fla., when Brantley was in sixth grade. Brantley has worked as a camp counselor ever since.
"I've been around Florida football since 1989," Matthews said. "He's the most talented quarterback I've ever seen. People laugh at me when I say that, but they'll see."
Florida fans already have seen glimpses of his ability in the past two seasons. Playing behind Tebow in 16 games, Brantley completed 71.1 percent of his passes for 645 yards with 10 touchdowns and one interception.
Meyer has seen enough from Brantley to know that Florida's offense will be in good hands this season. The coach seems more concerned about the personnel around his new quarterback; the Gators also lost tight end Aaron Hernandez and leading receiver Riley Cooper.
"We have a real clear understanding of what John Brantley can do," Meyer said. "It's the guys around him. We have a lot of talent. I can't list you the top six or seven playmakers in order. I know we have them. Instead of all the focus being on John, it's certainly not our focus. We're very well aware of what he can do."
Gators offensive coordinator Steve Addazio said fans will be surprised by Brantley's running ability, too.
"He's a great passer," Addazio said. "I think people correctly point to the fact that he's a hell of a thrower. But he's a hell of an athlete, too. He can run and is very athletic. People look at him as a dropback passer, but he's also a great runner."
Brantley's father said his son won't be a fist-pumping, crowd-pleasing performer like Tebow was. Brantley is soft-spoken around people he doesn't know and quietly goes about his business on the field. Matthews said Brantley's personality reminds him of 1996 Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel's demeanor on and off the field.
"There are a lot of ways to be a leader," Matthews said. "There's a fiery way, which is the way Tim was after a touchdown run. Danny would throw a touchdown, say a prayer and walk to the sideline. It's going to take the Gator Nation a while to realize this kid is going to be a leader."
Brantley worked hard this summer to earn the trust and respect of his teammates. A few weeks ago, he invited his entire offensive line to his parents' home in Ocala for a barbecue. All but one lineman attended the gathering, according to Brantley's father.
"John has a phenomenal support group around him," his father said. "The most important thing is he has that locker room behind him. Those guys have his back."
Brantley also has the support of the quarterbacks who played at Florida before him. Former Gators quarterbacks such as Chris Leak, Matthews, Doug Johnson and Eric Kresser send him text messages and offer their support.
It's as if the Gators are determined not to let one of their own fail.
"It's a position not many people would touch with a 10-foot pole," Scot Brantley said. "I believe Tim was the greatest player who ever played the game. There are only a few people who could replace him, and I think Johnny will do it."
Mark Schlabach covers college sports for ESPN.com. He co-authored Bobby Bowden's memoir, "Called To Coach," which was published by Simon & Schuster. The book will be available in bookstores Aug. 24 and can be preordered here. You can contact Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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