Why Florida's new QB hasn't started since he was a high school freshman

While Kyle Trask was lifting Florida to a pivotal come-from-behind victory over Kentucky on Saturday night, a host of his former high school teammates reached for their phones.

Houston quarterback D'Eriq King, glued to the game from the Bayou City, didn't wait for it to end to send a message.

North Texas quarterback Kason Martin was midflight, returning home from a game at Cal, only to open his phone upon landing to see messages from a jubilant group chat flood in.

Texas State linebacker London Harris, having just finished a game against SMU, said the thread -- which included numerous Manvel (Texas) High School football alumni -- was "booming."

"Kyle's in! Kyle's in!"

The enthusiasm was infectious, because the participants know better than most how long the 6-foot-5 redshirt junior quarterback has waited for an opportunity. How patient he was, how hard he worked, how loyal he remained.

When the No. 9 Gators host rival Tennessee on Saturday (noon ET, ESPN), Trask will start at quarterback for the first time since he was a high school freshman, making him a 2019 college football unicorn. He'll fill the void left by starter Feleipe Franks, who suffered a dislocated ankle in the Kentucky win that will end his season. It's not the way he envisioned it, but Trask's opportunity has finally arrived.

"I just trusted my gut in this whole process," Trask told reporters Monday.

So far, it hasn't led him astray.

Trask was content to wait his turn, regardless of how much waiting that entailed. It began at Manvel High, a hotbed of Division I talent.

"When I got there, I was the eighth quarterback on the depth chart," said King, recalling his freshman season. "[Trask] was No. 3. Out of those eight quarterbacks, six of them transferred and he's the [other] one that stayed."

King and Trask were in the same class. It wasn't long before head coach Kirk Martin realized he had two capable, talented signal-callers.

Trask immediately drew attention with his size. He backed it up with his skill.

"He's a pure passer," said Brian Thiebaud, a quarterbacks coach who has worked with Trask since 2014. "[It looks] effortless; the ball jumps out of his hand ... he's a good athlete. He has a lot of things going for him."

King had a lot to offer, too. Though diminutive (he was 5-8 in his early high school years), he was a walking highlight reel.

"He was explosive," said Kason Martin, Kirk's son who succeeded King as Manvel's starting quarterback in 2017. "Every time the ball was in his hands, something amazing was going to happen."

Kirk Martin's preferred offensive style included a healthy dose of quarterback run game. That meant the speedy, agile King was a better fit. It's hard to quibble with the decision: King went on to set the Texas Class 6A state record for career touchdown passes with 140 and is a highly productive quarterback at Houston.

But Kirk Martin knew Trask was good enough to play and ensured that he received snaps.

"He could've started at most high schools in the state of Texas," said former Syracuse and Texas A&M offensive tackle Koda Martin, who also played at Manvel for his father. "Kyle continued to work hard and do the little things. He was always a team player, never complained, and my dad loved him for that."

Trask wouldn't have had to go far if he wanted to start elsewhere. Manvel, just south of Houston, is nestled in a fertile high school football region. Other programs would've welcomed him with open arms.

But he grew up in Manvel. Went to elementary school and junior high there. It's where he wanted to be. Once, when Kirk Martin heard a rumor that Trask might consider transferring, he brought him into his office.

Trask politely replied, "I was born and raised in Manvel, Texas. As long as you're going to let me compete for the starting job, I'm not going anywhere. If D'Eriq King is better than me, he's gonna have to prove it."

Martin, now the quarterbacks coach at Syracuse, agreed, and the subject was never broached again.

While King continued to dazzle, Martin looked for opportunities to work Trask in. When Manvel built a large lead -- which was often -- Trask would get his chance.

King estimated that his senior season included six games in which he played just the first quarter. Manvel would race out to a lead and Trask would come in so he could get time with the first team before halftime. In his final two seasons, Trask completed more than 70% of his passes, for 16 touchdowns and zero interceptions.

"On our team, guys didn't look at him as a backup," King said. "It was kinda like a 1A and 1B."

It wasn't just on the field that Trask earned respect. How he conducted himself every day -- "he was always positive," King said -- was noticeable, as was his attitude in the weight room.

Harris, who was a year younger than Trask, recalled being in the same weightlifting group. He found Trask's work ethic to be contagious.

"I really wasn't a big weight guy," Harris said. "I was skinny. I wasn't big enough to work out with the linebackers so I got put with Kyle and the quarterbacks. He was pushing me. He was really an extremely hard worker. And he loved the weights. So he pushed me and I got big with him."

Said Kason Martin: "He's not gonna cheat no reps, gonna do perfect form on everything."

King attributes some of his work ethic to Trask, too.

"He always tried to beat me to meetings and tried to beat me to practice," King said. "I kinda had to up my game to try to outdo him."

And Trask took full advantage of opportunities outside the Friday night lights. His graduating class alone had 12 players who signed Division I scholarships. That turned the Manvel campus into a turnstile during the spring evaluation period for college coaches, who got to see Trask. He also frequented the college camp circuit in search of an opportunity, working and waiting.

While King was committed to TCU (he pledged to Gary Patterson before flipping to the Cougars later in the process), Trask searched for a college to call home. He drew some interest before his senior season -- offers from Houston Baptist, Lamar and McNeese State arrived, and he got looks from some Group of 5 and Ivy League schools -- but attention from Power 5 programs was minimal.

That was the case until the Gators showed up. Defensive coordinator Randy Shannon stopped by Manvel for a recruiting visit. Kirk Martin gave him a message. When Shannon returned to Gainesville, he turned to offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier and said, "Hey Nuss, Kirk said to call about his quarterback."

Kirk Martin and Nussmeier knew each other well; Alabama recruited Koda Martin heavily when Nussmeier was an assistant there. After hearing about Trask, Nussmeier made plans to stop by. After hefty turnover at the position, the Gators were in search of two quarterbacks in the recruiting class.

"I went by and I watched the kid practice, and he's this big, strong guy, with good feet, could make every throw," said Nussmeier, now with the Dallas Cowboys. "Very powerful, accurate as can be."

That evaluation matched up on video: Trask performed well, consistently. Nussmeier loved him and invited him to a June camp. Everything went smoothly. Convincing others why the Gators should roll the dice on a quarterback who wasn't starting at his own high school, however, was another matter.

Martin's pitch to Nussmeier was emphatic: Trask wasn't a backup. He was a starter who just happened to be playing behind a special talent in King, who was a better system fit for Manvel. Trask, conversely, fit like a glove in Florida's scheme.

Nussmeier proposed getting Trask on campus once more, for Florida's Friday Night Lights camp in late July, an annual showcase that draws top-flight talent.

"I wanted to see him in an environment where he's going for a couple hours there against the best, because that's a very highly attended camp with really good players," Nussmeier said.

So on July 24, 2015, Trask made the return trip.

"Not only did he hold his own," Nussmeier said, "he shined."

The Gators didn't hesitate. The next day, head coach Jim McElwain offered Trask a scholarship. By the end of the weekend, Trask committed.

"I know a lot of people thought we were crazy," Nussmeier said. "But I knew it was the right thing to do."

Suddenly, multiple Power 5 programs had interest. It was a futile effort.

"I'm not interested in anybody [else]," Trask said. "These are the guys who believed in me and took a chance on me. I'm not wavering."

Just like at Manvel, when Trask arrived in Gainesville, there was another quarterback in his class. This time, it was Franks. Months after Trask committed, McElwain and Nussmeier flipped Franks from LSU.

While Trask was ranked modestly, a three-star prospect who was relatively unknown nationally, Franks was the opposite. A four-star recruit, he was tabbed as the fifth-best pocket passer in the country and No. 65 overall in the 2016 ESPN 300. He came with the usual fanfare that accompanies a top-100 recruit.

No matter. Just as in his prep career, Trask worked and waited for an opportunity.

"From the day he got there, he dived in," Nussmeier said. "The one thing you saw in Kyle was the consistency in his work ethic and his approach. Never too high, never too low. He had some really good days, he had some not-so-good days."

Trask's demeanor didn't change. His availability, however, did. A foot injury prior to the 2017 season kept him out of action as a redshirt freshman.

Last season, Trask got his first game action. After attempting only four passes in September, he turned in a promising relief performance of Franks in a November loss to Missouri. Momentarily, it appeared the door cracked open for Trask: a chance to challenge for the start the next week vs. South Carolina.

That week in practice, Trask suffered a broken foot. Season over. Opportunity gone.

"He just had some misfortune and that's what makes this story even cooler," Thiebaud said. "He's had to stay patient and work through some really frustrating situations, some things that are outside of his control."

Trask was undeterred. He rehabbed and remained focused on his future.

"I just trusted my gut in this whole process."
Florida QB Kyle Trask

After season's end, coach Dan Mullen met with Trask as part of his annual end-of-year player meetings. As with all such meetings, coach and player spoke about grades, Trask's 2018 performance, areas for improvement and more.

The most important question Mullen had, with graduation on the horizon for Trask and Franks having a strong end to the season, was, "Where's your head at?"

"You know you're going to get reps and get a chance to compete," Mullen said. "If it doesn't work out, is this where you want to be?"

In the era of the transfer portal, it's vital information, particularly for those who are eligible for a graduate transfer. Trask never wavered.

"I'm 100% a Florida Gator," he said.

That didn't surprise anyone who knows Trask, who's working on his master's in sport management this semester.

"He's a guy that once he commits to something, he sees it through," said McElwain, who's now the head coach at Central Michigan.

Added Nussmeier: "He has a really deep passion and burning desire to succeed. He's willing to do whatever it takes."

After three years of waiting for a varsity start that never came and three more years of working toward an opportunity that was twice interrupted, Trask's time has finally arrived.

Fittingly, he won't be alone behind center Saturday; redshirt freshman Emory Jones will play, too. With Franks out for the season, Mullen wants both his inexperienced starters to get plenty of reps. They'll need the snaps; the Gators have nine regular-season games left.

Is Trask so used to his supporting role that his first start brings Mullen some anxiety?

"If he looks nervous, then we'll let Emory play the first play," Mullen said jokingly. "[Trask] can run the second play, then he didn't officially start."

After his quip, Mullen got real: "He'll be fine."

It's not how Trask envisioned the opportunity going. Franks' injury was an emotional moment for the Gators on Saturday; Trask called it "a terrible situation." But Franks has been supportive and showed up to the team meeting Monday, even though Mullen told him he should stay home. Franks is due to undergo surgery next week and has a six-month recovery ahead.

In the meantime, Trask and Jones will lead the way. For Trask, who easily could have left, patience paid off.

"I'm happy I stayed at Florida," Trask said. "I wouldn't want things any other way. I didn't want to transfer, you know? Because I'm very happy to be at a school like Florida where academics are so great and there's great people to be around.

"I couldn't be more happy with the way things turned out."