Brantley says Shrine is his place to shine
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A familiar face to Florida Gators fans will be on the Tropicana Field turf Saturday afternoon in the 87th annual East-West Shrine Game — a player waiting for one final collegiate opportunity to make a good impression on NFL scouts and personnel execs.
Of course, Johnny Brantley knows all about waiting.
The son of former Gators quarterback John Brantley and nephew of ex-UF and Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley came to Gainesville in 2007 and spent two seasons in the formidable shadow of Tim Tebow. When he finally got his chance at the starting job in 2010, he had his troubles adjusting to the spread-option offense of then-head coach Urban Meyer.
This season began amid hope that Brantley's time had finally come. Working in offensive coordinator Charlie Weis' pro-style system, the Ocala native got off to a good start, directing a 41-3 rout of Florida Atlantic, following with decisive victories over Alabama-Birmingham, Tennessee and Kentucky. But he injured his ankle Oct. 1 in Florida's first loss, a 38-10 thumping by eventual national champion Alabama, and once again Brantley was forced to wait.
He sat out losses to LSU and Auburn and was never quite himself the rest of the way, fighting through pain and constant criticism to finish out a rocky 6-6 regular season. His consolation came in the Gator Bowl when the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder helped beat Ohio State 24-17 in his final effort as Florida's quarterback.
It was a moment to savor for a player whose commitment to the Gator program never wavered amid all the turmoil and frustration. The kid who had always dreamed of one day following his father's footsteps as a Florida quarterback left behind a body of work with mixed results: a 15-9 mark as a starter with 30 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.
But now comes one more chance to add a positive flourish: the week of practices alongside many top-notch college players from around the country, coached by icon Bobby Ross on the East squad and scrutinized by countless NFL insiders, culminating with a kickoff at 4 p.m. Saturday in the Trop against the Brad Childress-coached West team.
Brantley came off the field Monday at Shorecrest Preparatory School feeling good about the pro system Ross is running.
"It's just like any other new offense you're going into," Brantley said. "You've got to learn it, the new verbiage and everything, and come out here and execute. You can tell we're a little confused, but everybody's picking it up pretty easily."
He's well-aware of the unique dynamic of the East-West game as an audition.
"Absolutely. It's a week-long interview," he said.
To nail it, Brantley knows he'll have to look sharp throughout the week — not just during the game itself.
"You have to show you can pick up on the new offense quickly, come out here and execute and register it in your head quickly and make all the throws," he said.
Working in a pro-style offense run by Weis (now head coach at Kansas) has helped prepare Brantley for the pro set run by Ross — the man who led the 1994 San Diego Chargers into the Super Bowl, coached Georgia Tech to a share of the 1990 national championship and retired in 2007.
"I'm definitely bringing what I learned from Coach Weis to this field, and it's helping me transition to this new offense," he said.
There's another thing helping Brantley this week: being away from the intense and often critical glare of the fans who'd grown accustomed to Tebow's heroics and the team's national success.
"Yeah, you're not on the radar," he said. "You don't have a bull's-eye on your back. You're just out here trying to have fun and trying to (make an impression)."
He's made a solid one so far on Ross.
"I thought he did some good things," Ross said. "We're going to be constantly evaluating the throwing. I thought those things were good and he picked up the system very well. He appears to be very smart, and we just have to get through the rest of the practices to see how he's doing. But up to this point, I'm very pleased with him."
Meanwhile, Brantley's father, who quarterbacked the Gators in 1978, couldn't be prouder of what his son has accomplished, especially amid adversity.
"The way he's handled everything, it doesn't surprise me," he said. "He's always been a class act. He's been in a tough situation his whole time there, but he's kept his chin up. He's smiled. He's been a great teammate. And he never threw one guy under the bus or anything. He plowed through it — and I admire him for it."
Brantley's roommate this week, quarterback Austin Davis of the University of Southern Mississippi, first met the Gators QB at the Manning Quarterback Camp. Davis can only imagine how hard it was for Brantley to have to follow Tebow at UF.
"How do you follow Tebow?" he said. "That's a tough deal."
Brantley, in fact, enjoyed following Tebow — on TV this season.
"I was very happy for him, especially with all the scrutiny that he catches," he said. "It's unbelievable. And for him to keep going out there week to week and showing the progress that he does, it's great. He's got the biggest heart and he's the hardest worker. And it showed going into the playoffs — and it's going to keep showing for years to come."
Brantley and Davis just hope they'll catch a team's attention enough to join Tebow in the NFL. Meanwhile, the two have made the most of their week in the Tampa Bay area, including a trip over the past weekend to visit kids at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Tampa.
"I've really enjoyed hanging out with him and being around him," Davis said. "We sit around and watch the Discovery Channel all the time."
Now Brantley is just hoping to be discovered by an NFL team and get a chance to prove he can compete in the pros in spite of an up-and-down college experience.
"I don't regret anything," he said. "I enjoyed my years there. And I wouldn't ask for anything else."
Except a chance to show that good things come to those who wait.