Dan Mullen pulled off his first big recruiting coup on December’s National Signing Day, netting quarterback Emory Jones over competition from his old boss at Ohio State and in-state rival FSU. The fourth-best dual threat signal caller in the 247 Sports Composite, Jones is a high 4-star prospect who has a chance to start right away.
Jones’s ability to make progress with his legs as well as his arm makes him fit Mullen’s scheme better than the now-decommitted Matt Corral would have. Because the incumbents on the roster — Feleipe Franks, Kyle Trask, and Jake Allen — are all pocket passers, Jones is the only quarterback wearing orange and blue who is such a fit. That could change if Mullen is able to secure a second quarterback in the class, but if so, that additional guy could make a play to take the first snap of 2018 for the same reason that Jones might.
If Jones does end up the starter next season, it’ll be a first in Mullen’s career. Since becoming quarterbacks coach for Urban Meyer at Bowling Green in 2001, he’s never had a freshman as his primary starter.
At BGSU, the starting job was a combination of junior Andy Sahm and sophomore Josh Harris in 2001, and Harris ran the show in 2002. Both years at Utah he had an upperclassman Alex Smith at the helm.
Meyer and Mullen signed dual threat guys in each of their first two seasons in Gainesville, but neither could beat out pocket passer Chris Leak. Josh Portis attempted only 11 passes and 29 rushes as the backup in 2005. Tim Tebow famously rotated with Leak in 2006, but he never has extended usage until after it was already garbage time. He did have 89 rushes, but he only attempted 33 passes on the season. He threw more than three times just twice, against UCF and Western Carolina, respectively.
As in the early years at Florida, Mullen had a number of freshmen as backups in Starkville. Tyler Russell backed up Chris Relf as a redshirt freshman in 2010. Russell then had a redshirt freshman as his top reserve two years later in the form of Dak Prescott. In Prescott’s final season, redshirt freshman Nick Fitzgerald was the first guy off the bench behind center.
Franks may have had a 79-yard run against Texas A&M that was at once awkward and amazing and awkwardly amazing, but his wheels are merely surprisingly good for a pocket passer. He’s not really the sort you want carrying the ball ten times a game or more. His lanky and thin legs are asking to be rolled up in an unfortunate tackle, and though tall, he’s not all that bulky.
Trask and Allen are probably not even as good rushing the ball as Franks is, and they both have thrown as many live game passes in college as Jones has. They’ve had more time on the college level to get used to the speed of the game and the larger size of the players, but their experience also came in a system that bears little resemblance to what Mullen will be installing this spring.
Add it all up, and Jones is about as likely as anyone else to be the opening day starter next fall.
It feels remarkable to say that, and for good reason. Franks was Florida’s first redshirt freshman to start at quarterback since Kyle Morris in 1988. Kerwin Bell pulled off the feat as a redshirt freshman in 1984 as well. Freshman starters in Game 1 are rare for a program that has had an excellent overall run of signal callers in the past 35-40 years, even including the recent instability at the position.
But if Jones is as good as the recruiting analysts think he is, he’ll make history as a true freshman starter at Florida — and be Mullen’s first in his career. That’d be something special.