There’s a stranger in the Florida Gators’ huddle, and stranger yet, he’s the new leader of a wobbly offensive unit that on Saturday actually ran smoother without injured quarterback Jeff Driskel.
Meet Tyler Murphy, who was forced into Saturday’s SEC opener against Tennessee in the first quarter with three years of scout-team duty on his resume and the quicksand of a startling 7-0 Volunteers lead to escape. What he contributed thereafter to Florida’s 31-17 victory wasn’t exactly epic, but with Driskel suddenly out for the season with a broken right leg, Murphy was able to electrify the Swamp by simply showing himself a viable alternative.
“It was always in the back of my mind that I might never get to play,” said Murphy, a redshirt junior who has been leapfrogged by every top quarterback recruit to come to Florida the last three years, including Driskel and Dwyer High School star Jacoby Brissett. “I just kept working hard and had faith in myself.
“This wasn’t the way I wanted it, but an opportunity is an opportunity.”
And an SEC win is an SEC win, which is what Florida fans will be telling themselves as the 2-1 Gators head to Kentucky next week, where a conference opponent supposedly even weaker than the Vols may provide Murphy another chance to find his footing.
Driskel, a junior who may yet get a redshirt out of this season, has never really found his. The play on which he was hurt Saturday, a 62-yard interception return for a touchdown by Tennessee’s Devaun Swafford, was the most humiliating way to leave the stage, particularly for a passer who was rated No. 1 in the nation coming out of high school in 2011.
Alabama and LSU, among many others, wanted Driskel. Temple, on the other hand, was Murphy’s original commitment. When former Gators coaches Urban Meyer and Steve Addazio gave him a call to request some game film, Murphy actually thought it might be a prank.
What the Gators got in Murphy is a smart and adaptable athlete who isn’t worried about competition. He could have transferred out, like Brissett did in leaving Florida for North Carolina State, or he could have changed positions, as many have suggested.
If any of that had happened, however, Murphy wouldn’t have found himself in position to save the Gators on Saturday. Previously he had thrown just one college pass, an unsuccessful two-point conversion play in the loss at Miami. Against Tennessee he played like a veteran, though, running for one touchdown, throwing for another and pushing the right buttons on nine of his 15 third-down conversion attempts.
The best of it was a perfectly thrown deep ball down the sideline which Quinton Dunbar ran under and tapped down just barely inbounds for a 31-yard gain. Good enough to keep a 79-yard touchdown drive rocking, that one.
Driskel rarely hit those deep throws and too often took sacks while waiting for something significant to develop downfield. Murphy wasn’t sacked at all on Saturday, and he drove Tennessee crazy with his scrambles, including one that went for 28 yards.
All told, Murphy outrushed the Volunteers all by himself, 84 yards to 66, and he completed 8 of 14 passes for 134 yards, too, including the simple bubble screen that Solomon Patton turned into a 52-yard touchdown play. That was the moment that Murphy felt he might actually make it. Just like that, Florida had its first lead at 10-7. Just like that, he was in the end zone celebrating, and not just on the sideline.
Of course, nobody knows what is coming next, especially when the real SEC bullies come calling. Kerwin Bell came off the bottom of the depth chart to make his magic at Florida nearly 30 years ago. Danny Wuerffel, who won the Heisman Trophy and a national title in 1996, was originally such an unknown on the night he threw a last-minute touchdown pass to beat Kentucky that nobody in the press box was certain how to spell his name.
Murphy looks like something less, of course, and so now do the Gators, with the possibility of a four- or five-loss season all too realistic.
For the moment, though, it’s entirely appropriate to sing the praises of Florida’s superscout turned starter. He actually rewrote that ugly old axiom known as Murphy’s law on Saturday.
What the Gators started so utterly wrong, he finished strong.
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