Peter Murphy waited a long time for this moment — unsure if it would ever happen — and he was not about to be distracted by a buzzing cell phone.
In the opening act of Florida’s game against Tennessee, the Gators lost starting quarterback Jeff Driskel to a broken leg. It was a jarring sight for Murphy, a self-described, “huge Jeff Driskel fan,” but reality quickly hit him: his son, Tyler, was about to take meaningful snaps for the first time in his college career.
Peter Murphy immediately switched off his phone and set it on the seat next to him. He was quiet at first, but as his excitement grew, he started reciting the same three words he texts his son before every game.
“I went from cheering to being very nervous,” said Murphy, a man with steely composure built during two decades as a firefighter. “I just kept repeating, ‘Protect the ball. Protect the ball. Protect the ball.’ Like a parrot.”
Gators coach Will Muschamp was probably muttering the same thing.
Tyler Murphy, a back-up who played three games in his first three years, calmed the crowd of 90,074 at the The Swamp and steered Florida to a 31-17 win. He hit 8 of 14 passes for 134 yards and a touchdown, plus he ran for 84 yards and a score.
His poise and performance surprised almost everyone in the stadium.
“Not me,” his dad said. “I’ve just been waiting. I’m not a conceited or vain person, but I know my son and I’ve always known he could do what he did Saturday. We hate that Jeff went down, but Tyler was ready for it.”
No. 20 Florida hopes he is prepared to take over permanently. Driskel is out for the year, and Murphy will make his starting debut Saturday at Kentucky .
It was unlikely for Tyler Murphy to land at a place like Florida, and even less likely he would stick.
As a skinny high school kid in Wethersfield, Conn., he drew little attention from college football heavyweights. A few FCS schools were interested, but Murphy aspired for better. Connecticut wanted him as a defensive back, and he did not want to hear it.
He was a quarterback and sought a coach who agreed. He found a believer in Temple coach Al Golden and committed to the Owls.
Then something odd happened. Urban Meyer, a prodigious recruiter who was assembling what would be the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class in 2010, was whiffing on quarterbacks. He had Trey Burton, but needed a contingency option in case Burton moved to another position.
They heard about Murphy from a private trainer named Travis Meyer and finally called him back. He had worked with Jordan Reed, who signed with UF as a quarterback and later moved to tight end. As the Gators neared national signing day, they checked to see if Murphy was available.
When Murphy called Golden to tell him about Florida, Golden advised him to go.
“He said he would encourage that because it was a program that not too many people get a chance to play at,” Murphy said. “He was very encouraging and really helpful.”
Golden, now Miami’s head coach, understood the appeal and could not blame him. He also praised Murphy for not ditching the Gators despite getting so few chances to play.
“I’m really happy for him,” Golden said. “It says something about him and the fabric of his family that he would stay there for all the right reasons. It’s never easy to stay there and endure that and grow, and not have any trapdoors and not make any excuses. But knowing his family and him, that’s exactly what they’re all about. And I think the benefactors of that now are in Gainesville.”
Waiting his turn
Murphy, 6-foot-2, 210 pounds, was the lowest-rated of 27 players Urban Meyer signed that year. Rivals.com gave him two stars and ranked him the 10th best player in his state, which is not exactly a treasure chest of talent. Currently, there are three Connecticut players in the SEC.
He sat behind John Brantley his first two years, barely playing despite Brantley’s frequent mishaps. When Driskel and Jacoby Brissett arrived in 2011, they immediately jumped Murphy on the depth chart.
Most quarterbacks would have transferred. Brissett did, heading to North Carolina State when it became clear he would not get a shot at beating out Driskel. Murphy, now a red-shirt junior, stayed because he loved UF and was unwilling to admit defeat. There was talk of moving to another position, but he did not view it as an option.
His perseverance endeared him to the Gators and it is one of the reasons they think they can win with him.
“There’s not many guys like that in this society,” Muschamp said. “Everybody wants it now. He’s a guy that’s worked extremely hard and he cashed in on his opportunity. We look forward to seeing him play the rest of the year.”
Post staff writer Matt Porter contributed to this story.