Brantley stands tall in face of adversity

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It would be easy to define Florida quarterback John Brantley with numbers.

A 13-8 record as a starter.

Thirteen games as a starter in which he threw for less than 200 yards.

A career high of 248 yards.

Just 25 touchdown passes in 37 career games.

They are not particularly impressive numbers, especially his won-loss record. That's the one about which Florida fans are most upset. After Tim Tebow helped deliver two national championships, a Heisman Trophy and a Sugar Bowl victory, Gators fans are not happy about being an afterthought in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division and the prospect of playing in a pre-New Year's Day bowl game.

The easiest target for fan angst is always the quarterback, and Brantley has been wearing a bull's eye since the day Tebow threw his final pass.

Unfairly -- especially when you consider what Brantley has had to endure just to realize his dream of wearing orange and blue as his father and uncle did. The enormity of what Brantley has fought through finally struck UF coach Will Muschamp in the postgame locker room following the Gators' 24-20 loss to Georgia last month.

"You walk over to his locker, and you just see a guy whose father played at Florida, uncle played at Florida, been a Gator his whole life, and he's over there hurting," Muschamp said. "He's fought through adversity, handled adversity like a true class person does, and to see him hurt like that was very disappointing for me."

That was not how things were supposed to be for Brantley when he came out of Trinity Catholic in Ocala, Fla., where he threw 99 career touchdown passes to surpass the state record held by Tebow and former Florida State QB Xavier Lee. It was a natural that he would play in Gainesville like his father John, a quarterback in 1977-78, and uncle Scot, an All-SEC linebacker in 1976-79.

Brantley stepped on campus in 2007 and watched Tebow put together one of the greatest seasons by a quarterback in NCAA history. As a redshirt freshman in 2008 he got mop-up time in nine games, but he was so impressive (18 for 28, 235 yards, three TDs, one interception) that there was little concern that the Gators would be fine with Brantley when Tebow was gone.

But Tebow didn't leave after Florida beat Oklahoma for the BCS National Championship, choosing to return for his senior season instead of leaving early for the NFL Draft.

Brantley was going to have to wait one more year for his turn.

But just before that turn came, he found out it might be for a different coach. The day after Christmas, Urban Meyer -- who had a much-publicized trip to the emergency room the morning after the Gators lost to Alabama in the SEC Championship game -- announced he was going to retire because of health reasons.

Meyer eventually reconsidered and took a leave of absence instead, and offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Steve Addazio stepped in to handle the administrative and recruiting duties while Meyer rested.

The big surprise, though, was the offense. It hadn't changed.

Instead of switching to a more traditional pro-style attack to fit Brantley's skill set, the Gators still were running the spread-option offense in which Tebow flourished. But Brantley is a pocket passer who doesn't like to run the football, so not surprisingly, Brantley struggled.

He wasn't helped by an unimpressive group of receivers and an offensive line that struggled to pass protect, either.

In an effort to find some kind of spark on offense, Meyer and Addazio started rotating Brantley with Trey Burton and Jordan Reed. They would run the spread-option plays and Brantley would come in to throw the ball.

That mean Brantley often jogged onto the field facing a third-and-7, and the entire stadium knew it was a passing play.

Mix in Addazio shuffling between being the O-line coach and the offensive coordinator and Meyer admittedly not being 100 percent invested because of his health issues, and it's easy to see why Brantley became the first player to lead UF in passing and throw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine) since Kyle Morris in 1988.

Meyer did step down after the season, which ended with Brantley throwing for 41 yards in the Gators' Outback Bowl victory over Penn State, and UF hired Muschamp, who had never been a head coach. One of his first hires was former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis, who helped Tom Brady develop into a three-time Super Bowl winner and turned Matt Cassel into a Pro-Bowl quarterback.

Everything seemed to be in place for Brantley to flourish.

And for the season's first four-and-a-half weeks he did, throwing for 942 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions. That included perhaps the best performance of his career, completing 11 of 16 passes for 190 yards and one touchdown in the first half against Alabama.

Just before the half ended, though, Brantley got hit and sacked by Courtney Upshaw -- and he didn't get up.

He suffered a severely sprained right ankle and wouldn't see the field again for 28 days.

When he did return against Georgia, he was nowhere close to being completely healthy. He couldn't even take a snap under center because his mobility was so limited.

His offensive line, which had given up just two sacks in the first four games, struggled against the better competition. The Gators have allowed 19 sacks in the last six games, and Brantley has been battered mercilessly since his return.

Yet despite all those issues, Brantley never has complained, not publicly or to his teammates. He's never let on that the boos bother him, or that he regrets his decision to come to Florida and wishes he had stuck with his first verbal commitment to Texas.

"I hang out with all the guys all the time," Brantley said of how he copes. "We keep each other positive and just hang around all my teammates and coaches. That's what keeps us going, moving forward."

His teammates and coaches, however, aren't so politically correct.

"He's been up and down with everything since he's been here," defensive tackle Jaye Howard said. "People say that he shouldn't be playing, but he's a great quarterback, and everyone will see how much we need him.

"He's been through a lot, but something good is going to come out of this."

Weis admires the way Brantley has handled himself through a season that has obviously been disappointing.

"I like the fact when I got here he was a beaten down young man, and he stood as tall as you could possibly stand," Weis said. "That's what I like more than anything else. You don't think these kids hear the boo birds when they go off the field? They hear it, they take it to heart. There is no doubt the team looks to him as the leader of the team. That's something I didn't know whether or not would happen, but they definitely do."

Brantley says he's never asked himself "what if." He can't change his past, so he doesn't bother worrying about it. But Weis is convinced that Brantley's football future is a lot brighter than people may think.

"I wish I had him another year," Weis said. "He'll move on. I don't think his football-playing career will end when he leaves here."

With, Brantley hopes, a little less to overcome.

Michael DiRocco covers University of Florida sports for GatorNation. He can be reached at espndirocco@gmail.com or on Twitter @ESPNdirocco.