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DJ Lagway is exciting, but UF’s future is in Graham Mertz’s hands | Commentary

GAINESVILLE — This timeless phenomenon is as old as college football itself:

Fans, almost without fail, will embrace the potential and promise of the future more than the steadiness and stability of the present.

They want to play with their new Buzz Lightyear action figure while casting old reliable Woody, the pull-string cowboy doll, into the deepest recesses of the toy box.

Who cares if Florida Gators senior quarterback Graham Mertz led the SEC with a 72.9% completion rate and had a 20-to-3 touchdown-to-interception comparison last year?

Who cares if he has 43 college starts on his resume?

Who cares if he has been the consummate leader on the field and in the locker room?

Doesn’t matter.

The common refrain among many in Gator Nation at Saturday’s spring game seemed to be:

It’s DJ time.

As in DJ Lagway, the five-star freshman and resident savior of Florida football.

Florida quarterback D.J. Lagway scrambles during the Orange & Blue Spring Football game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville on Saturday, April 13, 2024. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)
Five-star freshman quarterback DJ Lagway scrambles during the Orange and Blue spring game Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.(Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

Here’s all you need to know about the hype surrounding Lagway in today’s brave new NIL world: On the day Gator Nation saw him perform for the first time during the Orange and Blue spring scrimmage, Lagway’s own clothing line of T-shirts, hats and hoodies debuted on UF’s campus.

That’s right.  Lagway has his own brand-new clothing line and Mertz might as well be the old pair of Levi’s in the bottom dresser drawer. And what’s beautiful about it is that Mertz doesn’t care. He seems unfazed by the buzz and bustle surrounding Lagway. In fact, Mertz is not treating Lagway as a competitor; he’s treating him as an understudy.

“One thing about Graham, he is confident, he is humble, and he’s a great teammate,” Florida coach Billy Napier said after Mertz drove his Blue team for a game-winning field goal and a 19-17 victory over the Orange on Saturday. “He’s got awareness. He’s got 43 starts. He’s been through the highs and lows. He’s doing everything that he can to help DJ – not only teaching him the football part but setting the example every day of how to prepare, how to approach meetings, the self-discipline of how to take care of your body, how to study film.”

And then Napier made a bold prediction.

“I think we’re going to look back and we’re going to say that one of the best things that happened to the University of Florida is Graham Mertz came back for another year while DJ Lagway was a true freshman. It’s going to benefit both guys.”

As much as anyone, Mertz knows what Lagway is going through. He was a similarly hyped five-star prospect coming out of high school when he signed with Wisconsin five years ago but had an uneven career with the Badgers before transferring to UF before last season.

Amid the barrage of criticism Napier receives, can we at least acknowledge that Mertz has been his most impressive achievement? Not only is he UF’s unquestioned starting quarterback going into the season, he is the team’s most respected player.

“He’s the most important dude on the team,” star receiver Eugene “Trey” Wilson said. “You can’t have your head down around Graham. He brings motivation. He brings joy.”

He also brings accountability. Even though he was the least of Florida’s problems last season, Mertz says it is unacceptable that he was the starting quarterback on a team that finished 5-7 in 2023. That’s why Mertz came back for one more year at UF and has unofficially declared the team mantra this season to be “Unfinished Business.”

“We won five games [last year],” Mertz said bluntly. “We all know what we put out there [last season] and we all know that’s not what Florida football is about. That’s what keeps us waking up every day fired up and ready to get to work.”

Not that spring-game statistics really mean anything, but Mertz was 15-of-27 for 241 yards on Saturday, including a 60-yard TD pass to Wilson. Meanwhile, Lagway was 12-of-21 for 173 yards, but when he hit Aidan Mizell for a 22-yard TD, you’d have thought the Gators had just beaten Georgia in the College Football Playoff. A roar went up from the estimated crowd of 48,000 fans, and Orlando Sentinel colleague Edgar Thompson, sitting next to me in the pressbox, said: “I’ve got two words for you: Quarterback controversy.”

Thompson said it somewhat jokingly, but I’ll guarantee you this isn’t any laughing matter to many Gators fans who would like nothing better than to see Lagway trot out onto the field as the starting quarterback when the Gators open the season against Miami.

Lagway, in case you’ve been in a cocoon over the last year-and-a-half, is the five-star Texas recruit who committed to Napier’s Gators in December 2022 and has been hailed as UF’s salvation ever since.

Lagway threw for 4,604 yards and 58 touchdowns during his senior season at Willis High School and ran for another 957 yards and 16 touchdowns. His signing, as you would expect, set Gator Nation ablaze with excitement. His arm strength, speed and raw talent make Lagway the most hyped QB prospect in Gainesville since Timothy Richard Tebow himself.

Ideally, Napier would like to bring Lagway along much like Urban Meyer prepared  Tebow during his freshman season in 2006. Chris Leak started for the Gators during that campaign and led the Gators to the national championship while Tebow was given a limited package of plays — mostly in short-yardage situations. Tebow completed just 22 passes during his freshman season although he did run for 469 yards.

But Meyer had that luxury. He was the hottest coaching candidate in the country when the Gators hired him, won nine games in his first season and had a loaded roster (left behind by former UF coach Ron Zook) coming back for his second season.

In contrast, Napier inherited a mess of a team, has had two consecutive losing seasons and might be on the hottest seat in the country as he enters his third season. How hot is Napier’s seat? There were actually media members on Saturday questioning Napier’s spring-game play-calling.

This sort of scrutiny is why it would be foolish for Napier to start a true freshman even if the fans are clamoring for Lagway. To Napier’s credit, he seems oblivious to the noise surrounding him and his program and isn’t straying from his patient rebuilding plan just to appease the critics. In other words, Mertz is going to be the starter although surely Napier will have a package of plays for the athletically gifted Lagway.

If Mertz plays great and the Gators win, Napier’s job is safe.

If Mertz struggles and the Gators lose, Napier could be gone — and, then, who knows where Lagway ends up?

Gator Nation, you better get behind Graham Mertz.

When it comes right down to it, he is more important to the future of Florida football than DJ Lagway.

Email me at moc.lenitnesodnalro@ihcnaibm. Hit me up on X (formerly Twitter) @BianchiWrites and listen to my Open Mike radio show every weekday from 6 to 9:30 a.m. on FM 96.9, AM 740 and 969TheGame.com/listen



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