Toughness from Harris gives Gators a spark

The Florida offense went three-and-out on its first drive of the game, and Treon Harris hobbled to the sideline trying to regain his breath.

The freshman quarterback took a shot to the chest while trying to run for the first down. Harris stayed on a ground for a few seconds after the hard hit from Darreon Herring, and Harris went gingerly to the sideline to prepare for the next drive. Florida trainers talked to him on the bench, making sure everything checked out before clearing him to return to the game.

Florida coach Will Muschamp walked over to his freshman quarterback to make sure he felt alright. The conversation didn’t last long.

“Go over and worry about someone else, I’m fine,” Muschamp recalled Treon Harris saying to him.

It’s that toughness that has rejuvenated a Florida offense that desperately needed it. The players feel it from Harris and have rallied around it. He has a quiet confidence on the practice field and in the huddle. Multiple coaches and players have said it the same way Harris doesn’t carry himself like a player that has been on a college campus for four months. He ended Saturday going 13-21 through the air for 215 yards, adding 49 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground.

The coaches knew it was there. They saw Harris handle himself the same way in fall camp, but he was swimming in information and trying to learn the offense.

They didn’t truly know what they had until they gave Harris a chance. That came in front of a sellout crowd of 102,455 in Neyland Stadium. The Gators trailed Tennessee 9-0 with eight seconds left in the third quarter when Harris took over. He got the offense in good looks, completed two of his four passes for 17 yards and led the Gators to 10 points and a 10th straight win over the Volunteers.

“To take control of that football team late in the game and our offense late in the game, the way he did it (was impressive),” Muschamp said. “The way he handled that situation, you always feel very good.”

That’s when the Florida coaches started to believe that Harris was able to lead the offense and be the starting quarterback. He proved it in practice, but even after the Gators beat Georgia, there was still doubt around Harris because of the six passes he threw.

Could he throw the ball effectively? Would he be able to throw accurate passes down the field?

It came against the worst team in the Southeastern Conference on Saturday in Nashville, but Harris seems to have answered those questions.

“I was extremely proud of the way Treon handled the passing game,” Florida center Max Garcia said. “I feel like he made really good decisions. Even when he was hurried he still made some good throws. And that’s just what we’re going to have to do. Obviously if they’re going to load the box, we’re going to pass the ball.”

He’s making reads in the passing game that showed how advanced he is. On the 60-yard pass to Quinton Dunbar, the play was supposed to be a throw to tight end Tevin Westbrook. Harris spotted the Vanderbilt safety coming down to cover the route, meaning he had one-on-one coverage with Dunbar.

The freshman made a great throw down the field for the biggest gain through the air on the day.

“A really outstanding player,” Muschamp said. “I'm really proud of him.”

The improvement of the Florida receivers is noticeable with Harris under center. Whether they lost confidence in Jeff Driskel or not, Harris taking over seems to have rejuvenated the entire offense. The receivers know they are more involved in the offense and can make plays down the field with an accurate passer under center.

“The receivers, they go out and run their routes knowing they’re going to have a good ball to them,” Garcia said. “They run their routes just a little more crisp. You can just see the connection they have out there. It’s something that we’ve kind of been missing . Just extremely proud of how that is developing. Guys making plays downfield, that is something we’ve been missing that this season.”

It also gives the Florida offense the balance it has been searching years to find. Since Muschamp took over at Florida, the Gators have been able to run the football. They’ve dominated time of possession most of the time because of the run tendencies, but they didn’t have a quarterback who could throw the football well enough to keep defenses honest.

It came against the 11th best defense in the SEC, but the progress is enough to make Muschamp believe his team can finally be balanced on the offensive side of the ball.

“I think we’re getting there,” Muschamp said. “We’ve got to continue to run it well to develop things in the passing game. Whenever you put (the passing game) on tape, as a defensive coach, now you’re saying ‘OK. These guys are willing to do what they need to do.’

“There was no question Vanderbilt was bound and determined to make us throw the football, and we saw that early in the game. We knew we were going to have some opportunities to take some shots.”

And for the first time this year, those shots worked.

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