Gators rally around freshman QB

GAIINESVILLE, Fla. -- Imagine being a redshirt freshman quarterback making his debut on the road against at top-10 team at night with a national cable TV audience watching. Then picture looking across the line of scrimmage and seeing the nation's most intimidating player lined up in a three-point stance and ready to pounce.

That was the scenario last Saturday as Florida's backup Skyler Mornhinweg took his first collegiate snap.

The opponent? Then-No. 10 South Carolina. The scene? Rowdy Williams-Brice Stadium. The intimidator? Gamecocks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, widely regarded as the top prospect in next April's NFL draft.

Mornhinweg's reaction?

"Oh yeah, he’s a great player. It was great, great atmosphere," he recollected with a smile. "Couldn’t ask for really any other better stage to play on. It was pretty sweet."

Mornhinweg, who entered this season No. 3 on the depth chart, said he felt prepared for the game. Offensive coordinator Brent Pease agreed, although Mornhinweg didn't know he would start until the day before the game, as Florida made the decision to sit starter Tyler Murphy with a sore throwing shoulder.

"I think early in the week [Mornhinweg] still approached it like he was going to be the guy," Pease said. "He's a young kid. He's eager. He understands preparation. His dad's a coach. His approach was good. He took all the reps so every day you knew he was trying to build off of that."

Mornhinweg downplayed the nerves that gathered in what turned out to be a 19-14 loss, and the Gators played an inspired game around him with the offensive line and the running game absorbing much of the pressure.

"I thought he played well, but there were a few miscommunications. I wouldn't say that was his fault being out there," Murphy said on Monday. "I thought he played well. I thought he controlled the things he could control. I thought he did a good job managing and controlling the atmosphere and not letting it get to him, and being calm and poised and just carrying himself with confidence.

"The team really had his back and [was] behind him. I thought he did a good job of leading the way. We almost came out with the victory."

Mornhinweg gave Florida a chance to win, but it was clear that his inexperience necessitated a limited game plan. In fact, he attempted just five passes until there was less than seven minutes remained in the game. Pease explained the conservative game plan on Tuesday, saying it had less to do with Mornhinweg's limitations and more to do with Clowney.

"Understand that last week was really based around No. 7 on their team, too," Pease said. "That guy's the best player in the nation. He can change a game, cause a fumble, pick the ball up and run. Going in, our plan was really designed to make sure that we were going to do things that [Clowney] couldn't change the momentum of the game.

"We need to expect more of Skyler now. I think he can handle it. I've got confidence in him that he can."

As Florida prepares to face FCS opponent Georgia Southern in the Swamp on Saturday, the Gators have the dual objective of trying to get Murphy back on the field while continuing to work with Mornhinweg.

Murphy, who sprained the AC joint in his throwing shoulder in the LSU game on Oct. 12 and aggravated it in the Gators' Nov. 9 loss to Vanderbilt, described his attempts last week to practice and try to make himself available for the South Carolina game.

"It was just painful," he said. "There wasn’t much velocity and stuff like that on the ball so it wasn’t coming out pretty."

This week, Murphy has progressed from jogging on Monday and working with Pease on the game plan to throwing on Tuesday. Florida coach Will Muschamp updated Murphy's status on Wednesday to questionable, saying he would throw again in Wednesday's practice.

"Right now Tyler Murphy is questionable," Muschamp said. "He threw a little bit yesterday, and we'll see what else he can do today and we'll go from there.

"If we had to play today, Skyler would start and be ready to go in the game. He had a good day yesterday. So we'll see what Tyler can do on Thursday, and as we move closer to the weekend, we'll see where it is."

With South Carolina's defense in the rear-view mirror, Muschamp said he expects Mornhinweg to be able to handle more of the offense if he makes his second career start on Saturday.

"I think he can handle more," Muschamp said. "I think a lot of our plan was based on their front and Clowney and [Florida's offensive line] being able to protect for his first start and a lot of those situations. When you move past that, he'll be able to do more."