Why Florida’s hopes for a playoff spot sit in the hands of Kyle Trask

  • ACC reporter.
  • Joined ESPN.com in 2010.
  • Graduate of the University of Florida.

Kyle Trask received a FaceTime call in the locker room last weekend from Danny Wuerffel, offering congratulations for breaking his single-season school touchdown record.

Under a different circumstance, the call would have generated more attention, an unofficial welcome to the elite Florida quarterback club, if you will. But the Gators had just lost in stunning fashion at home against LSU, and the accomplishment became a footnote.

Instead, all anyone wants to talk about heading into Saturday’s SEC championship game between Florida and Alabama is how the Gators can rebound from their worst performance of the season heading into their biggest game of the season.

Oh, and the shoe. Lots of talk about the shoe.

Florida coach Dan Mullen tried his best to put what happened in the 37-34 loss behind the Gators this week, saying, “We get the opportunity to go compete for a championship. I think our guys are going to be excited to go play.”

But there are real questions about how such a brutal loss, and a few subpar performances that preceded it, are going to affect the Gators against the undisputed No. 1 team in the country. Trask might have thrown his 40th touchdown pass of the season against LSU, breaking the mark Wuerffel set in 1996, but he also threw two interceptions. Mullen pointed to multiple red zone failures as contributing factors in the loss.

Despite all that, there is one overriding reason the Gators will have a chance Saturday: Trask himself.

Forget about the recent Heisman Watch lists and what happened last weekend. Trask still has one final opportunity to have his Heisman moment with a mic-drop-type performance against the Tide.

Florida fans are ready for it. Several weeks ago, someone left a posterboard next to the three Heisman statues of Steve Spurrier, Wuerffel and Tim Tebow in front of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium that said “Kyle Trask, quarterback 2016-2020, Heisman Trophy winner 2020.”

Trask would never say this himself, of course, deflecting any talk about the Heisman Trophy and directing it back at his teammates. But he did see the sign walking into the football facility.

“I thought it was pretty funny,” he said in an interview with ESPN. “At the end of the day, obviously I’m not focused on that, I’m focused on what the team needs right now.”

What the team needs is the best performance of his career, and a little help from the defense. (OK, a lot of help from the defense.) If Trask comes through, his odds of winning the Heisman will grow. He currently sits at No. 3 in the most recent ESPN.com Heisman Watch. The two players above him: Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith and Alabama quarterback Mac Jones.

That he is even in the Heisman discussion is a victory in itself, considering how his career began.

As a boy growing up in Texas in a football-obsessed house, with a grandfather who played for the Houston Oilers, Trask took to quarterback and at one point chose to wear No. 15 in middle school because of Tebow — the Gators quarterback he watched win national championships in 2006 and 2008. Watching Tebow inspired him to maybe one day be like Tebow, though reaching that goal seemed nearly out of reach in high school.

Trask spent his high school years as a backup and had received only FCS offers when then-Florida defensive coordinator Randy Shannon mentioned to then-coach Jim McElwain that they should look at Trask after doing some recruiting in Texas. Florida desperately needed help at quarterback, which had turned into a wasteland of productivity after Tebow left. Each successive player, from John Brantley to Jeff Driskel to Tyler Murphy to Treon Harris, made the Heisman Trophy-winning standards Florida had set with Tebow, Wuerffel and Spurrier feel as if they’d happened in an alternate universe. The once high-flying Gators offense turned into a muddled mess without an identity.

With his strong offensive background, McElwain was hired in December 2014 in large part to reverse the Florida quarterback funk and restore one of the only acceptable traditions for the football team — an elite signal-caller and lots (and lots) of scoring. He appeared to hit on that with Will Grier, who led the Gators to a 6-0 start and No. 11 ranking in 2015. But Grier was suspended for the season after testing positive for a banned substance in October and ultimately transferred, leaving the Gators and McElwain to reconstruct a quarterback plan with the class of 2016.

The headliner in the class was Feleipe Franks, a four-star ESPN 300 recruit who flipped from LSU to Florida late in the recruiting process. But McElwain pointed out a player much further down the signing-class rankings named Kyle Trask, rated just above kicker Eddy Pineiro. “Just keep an eye out on this kid,” McElwain told a reporter on signing day in 2016. “He’s going to be special.”

Heisman Trophy-winning special?

“Gosh no,” McElwain said with a laugh in a recent interview with ESPN from his office at Central Michigan, where he is now the head coach. “I don’t think any of us probably ever think that, but it also wasn’t a reach in our minds.”

When Trask got to campus in the summer of 2016, coaches saw he had the physical size (6-foot-5, 211 pounds as a recruit) to play quarterback. What he needed was the right system and a chance, neither of which he had received in high school. The number he was randomly given when he arrived? No. 11, which had belonged to another Heisman-winning quarterback at Florida: Spurrier.

That’s right. At some point in his life, Trask has worn the two most iconic numbers in Florida school history. Although he grew up rooting for Texas A&M, Trask says Florida was “always was a dream school for me.”

“You’re a kid, you’re watching Tim Tebow win the national championship and you want to be like him when you grow up, so to be able to play on this field where so many legends have played and to wear Steve Spurrier’s number is really awesome,” Trask said.

Channeling Tebow and Spurrier was not exactly his plan coming in. Trask just wanted a chance to win the starting job. At multiple points during his first few seasons, Trask showed flashes of potential in practice. “I knew I could make all the throws,” he said.

But injuries curtailed those efforts. By the time McElwain was fired midway through the 2017 season, Trask remained a backup. For the second straight hire, Florida turned to another former offensive coordinator with an extensive history developing quarterbacks. Only this hire — Mullen — had worked as a coordinator at Florida, developing Tebow before leaving in 2009 to become Mississippi State’s head coach.

In a nod to the most successful seasons in school history, under his former boss Urban Meyer and Spurrier, Mullen said he would get the Gators back to their high-scoring offensive philosophy during his introductory news conference.

Once Trask emerged as the starter last season — because of a season-ending injury to Franks — the seeds were planted to get there. Florida made it to a New Year’s Six bowl game and beat Virginia in the Orange Bowl, serving notice that 2020 could be the Gators’ year. When Trask and his teammates returned to campus after months away because of the coronavirus pandemic, they built on the chemistry they had started to show in the second half of 2019.

That became evident in a 51-35 win against Ole Miss in the season opener, when Trask threw for 416 yards and six touchdowns, including four to tight end Kyle Pitts. Florida compiled 642 yards, a school record for total yards in an intraconference game. Trask, Pitts and the offense kept going from there, in a history-making turn that is not quite over yet. Florida currently ranks No. 1 in the nation in passing yards per game (386.4 yards), and Trask leads the nation with 40 touchdown passes. He also tied the school record for most 300-yard passing games against SEC teams with eight, joining Rex Grossman, who did it under Spurrier in 2001. Trask is the only quarterback in school history with four 400-yard passing games.

“I have high standards for our quarterback,” Mullen said. “We’re an offense that is very quarterback-based in that, of what we put on them, what we ask the quarterback to do, [it is] very much a pro-style offense in that way. He’s had a great year, and I know that certainly it excites Florida fans. The one thing you know about Gator fans, they love points and explosive offenses. I know they’ve enjoyed the points that we’ve put up this year.”

So, it is safe to say Trask can put himself into position to win the Heisman with a Heisman-worthy performance, and potentially get Florida into the College Football Playoff. Although the Gators have two losses, they dropped only one spot in the current rankings to No. 7, and it might be difficult for the committee to leave out the SEC champion with a win against No. 1 Alabama.

“Our main goal at the beginning of the season is championships, SEC championship, national championship, and we have a great group of guys and we’re all bought into that,” Trask said. “For me to be focused on individual awards wouldn’t be setting a good standard.”

He has at least helped reestablish a standard. McElwain has had a chance to watch Trask play this season from his home. Although he is no longer there, McElwain was directly involved in helping the Gators get back to Atlanta because he brought in players like Trask and Pitts.

“You know what is interesting to me watching Kyle [Trask], it’s the same way he goes through his progressions,” McElwain said. “You could almost see the action, the reaction and the checkdown. He’s got such a great understanding of what they’re asking him to do. They’re coaching him better, there’s no doubt. I get all that. I’m more than anything just very excited for his and the whole team’s success. I think it’s great.”

McElwain said he plans to watch Saturday night on his couch with some popcorn. He will join millions of others tuning in to see whether Trask can lead the Gators back from embarrassment with another history-making performance.

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