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August 5, 2010Last week in the mid-town section of Gainesville, a student emerged from a local sandwich shop wearing a t-shirt, shorts, baseball cap and Nikes. He turned right and began walking in the direction of Florida Field.
Nobody asked for his autograph.
Nobody stopped and pointed.
In fact, nobody paid any attention to him at all.
And that, quite frankly, is just the way the young man, who happened to be Florida Gators starting quarterback John Brantley, liked it.
"I look like a normal student," Brantley said.
The truth is, he is far from that.
As the player chosen to succeed Heisman Trophy winner and college legend Tim Tebow as quarterback for arguably the country's most high-profile program, Brantley is now the face of the Gators -- even if his face isn't yet recognizable to everyone in town.
Now a redshirt junior, Brantley, the Gatorade National Player of the Year in 2006 at Ocala Trinity Catholic, spent the past three seasons behind Tebow. He was redshirted in 2007, then completed 54 of 76 passes for 645 yards and 10 touchdowns during his freshman and sophomore seasons in mop-up duty.
When Tebow left, Gators coach Urban Meyer gave the keys to the Florida offense to Brantley. And in the spring, he didn't disappoint, displaying one of the strongest arms a Florida quarterback has had in recent memory. He also was accurate, distributed the ball well and didn't get too flustered when under duress.
Now, Brantley will try to carry that play into the 2010 season.
On Thursday morning, Brantley and his teammates began fall practice. And for the Gator legacy (his father, John Brantley III, played quarterback for Florida in the late 1970s), it was a special moment.
"I've been waiting three years for this," Brantley admitted. "It was a lot of fun to run out there with the first team."
To a man, Brantley's teammates heaped praise upon the quarterback Thursday.
Offensive guard Carl Johnson called him a "phenomenal" quarterback. Center Mike Pouncey said he is confident Brantley will lead "by winning games."
Without Tebow, who burned defenses both with his left arm and his legs, the Florida offense certainly will have a different look and feel to it this fall. Brantley admitted as much Thursday, but added that any alterations won't be drastic.
"As everyone knows, I'm not the running QB," he said. "But I don't see too much changing."
In the spring, Meyer said he wanted Brantley to become a more vocal leader. Tebow, a rah-rah guy for the ages, Brantley isn't. But his leadership skills haven't been questioned by those around him.
"He's our QB," Johnson said. "How can you not believe in him. He's our leader."
Said Brantley: "I'm not going to be doing the hoo-rah. That's not my style. But all the guys respect me."
For Brantley, leadership extends beyond the field.
This summer, he tried his best to bond with the linemen tasked with protecting the team's most valuable asset. Brantley recently had the group over to his family's home just west of Ocala for a steak dinner.
"We fed them pretty well," Brantley said.
According to Brantley, that dinner was another way to "build those relationships."
Brantley did one other thing of note during the offseason: He talked to former Gators quarterback Chris Leak at length, and in doing so soaked up more knowledge about what it takes to be Florida's starting quarterback.
"I've really got to step in there and lead the team," Brantley said. "I have a different outlook on things knowing I'm going to be the guy."
If he succeeds on the field, Brantley will be among college football's most recognizable players within a few months. For now, though, he's still just an average Joe around town.
"When people see me without my helmet on," Brantley said, "they don't know who I am."