Three months after they played for the national championship in
the Sugar Bowl, both Florida and Florida State entered spring
drills facing the same question: Who will start at quarterback
next season? The Gators, 52-20 victors in New Orleans, have bid
adieu to 1996 Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel after four
years and 114 of his peculiar shot-putted touchdown passes. And
Florida State has thrown open the job, even though Thad Busby
last season led the Seminoles to an 11-1 record as a junior.
At Florida the question already seems to have been answered. On
the first Saturday in April, Doug Johnson all but settled the
quarterback issue by passing for three touchdowns in the Gators'
spring game. In truth, Johnson could claim to have won the most
glamorous quarterback job in college football on the second play
from scrimmage, when he threw a petrified rope through a stiff
head wind to junior wideout Jacquez Green for an 80-yard score.
"This was the day that I had to leave my mark at Florida,"
Johnson said after the game. "I had to make sure there would be
no questions. Things will take care of themselves."
Before that performance, though, Florida coach Steve Spurrier
had his doubts. The day before the Gators' spring game, Spurrier
sat behind his desk, leafing through a mountain of
correspondence--"Seems everybody thinks I'm a better speaker now
that we won the national championship," he said--and assessed
his quarterback situation. "This just might be a year where we
play two of 'em," he said. Meaning: Johnson, a true sophomore,
was dead even with Noah Brindise, a scruffy fifth-year senior
who walked on at Florida in the spring of 1994 after
transferring from Division II Wingate (N.C.) College.
Last fall Brindise carried a soft 238 pounds on his 6'3" frame,
the result of many meals of potato chips and beer as he wallowed
at the bottom of the Gators' depth chart. But Brindise didn't
stay discouraged for long. Through tireless film study and
learning how to throw accurately with a mediocre arm (it worked
for Wuerffel), he made himself into a contender for the job. He
also lost 15 pounds, pushed Johnson hard in spring drills and
earned a scholarship.
Behind them was 6'2", 205-pound true freshman Jesse Palmer, who
hails from just outside Ottawa and still has to learn to say hut
at the line of scrimmage instead of hoot. "That's fine," says
Palmer, "but I promised my friends back home I would never say,
'y'all.'" This trio will be joined in the fall by Parade
All-America Tim Olmstead of Binghamton, N.Y., which could make
things even more complicated.
Johnson will probably make all challengers carry clipboards for
the next three autumns. He is a 6'3", 200-pound package of
talent, strength and youthful self-confidence. "Everything is
going exactly the way my dad and I planned it," says Johnson,
whose career plan is so ambitious that it would make Deion
Sanders blanch. (Next month Johnson will head off for his summer
job as a third baseman in the farm system of the Tampa Bay Devil
Rays, an expansion team that will join the American League next
year.) In most respects Johnson is the anti-Wuerffel. Wuerffel
was self-effacing, pious and cerebral, and he needed all his
resourcefulness to compensate for a mediocre arm. Johnson is
cocky, irreverent and unafraid to drop the occasional
Anglo-Saxon expletive, and he possesses a brilliant throwing
He's the only child of Doug, a 6'7", 300-pound commercial
refrigeration mechanic ("If it's cold, I work on it," he says),
and Donna Johnson, who retired last year after 22 years as an
administrative assistant at Florida. Doug Jr. was raised three
miles from the Florida campus and tutored in the fine points of
quarterbacking by his cousin Doug Hunter, who played the
position at Valdosta (Ga.) State.
In second grade Doug Jr. was zinging passes all over the
playground during recess at Wiles Elementary in Gainesville when
his teacher, Ruthie Cunningham, scooped him up and delivered him
to the gym teacher's office with this message: "You've got to
watch this boy throw a football." In the ninth grade he was
allowed to dress for the Buchholz High varsity at its last game
of the season. During warmups he rifled a pass downfield with
such velocity that assistant coach Bob Smith saw the ball coming
only at the last second and dove to the ground in fear. "Who in
the world threw that ball?" Smith shouted. Between his junior
and senior years at Buchholz High, Doug Jr. attended the Bowden
Academy for quarterbacks and receivers, run by Florida State
coach Bobby Bowden. "Doug was not only better than [fellow
Academy attendee and Kentucky-bound high school All-America] Tim
Couch but probably was as good a prospect, as a passer, as we've
had in our camp," says Bowden, who offered Johnson a scholarship.
"Everybody in the Southeast offered me a scholarship," Johnson
says. But he was born to throw for the Gators. Last year, at
Johnson's first fall camp, Spurrier nicknamed him Slinger, in
homage to his wicked right arm. Junior fullback Terry Jackson
says, "When I catch his passes, my hands are sore."
The twist is that Johnson was also born to play baseball. After
hitting .407 with a school-record 12 homers his senior year in
high school, he turned heads by hitting seven home runs at an
invitation-only tryout with the New York Yankees. He also had an
impressive workout with the Devil Rays, who selected him in the
second round (64th overall) of the 1996 draft. Had not Johnson's
interest in football scared off many major league teams, he
certainly would have been picked even higher. "We figured we
were getting a first-round player in the second round," says
Tampa Bay general manager Chuck LaMar. The Devil Rays paid for
it too; they gave Johnson a $400,000 bonus ($230,000 at signing,
$70,000 last January and $33,333.33 to be paid when he arrives
at the Devil Rays' camp each of the next three years).
Johnson plans to play football each fall, participate in spring
practice and then report to the Devil Rays for May, June and
July. Last year in the Gulf Coast rookie league he hit .231 in
28 games and struck out 41 times in 108 at bats. This summer he
is expected to join the Class A Charleston RiverDogs of the
South Atlantic League. "If he was to devote himself full time to
our sport, he could be an impact player on the major league
level," says LaMar.
This is what the two Dougs expect under their current two-sport
approach: "The train is on the tracks," says the father.
"Looking down the road, some people are going to want his
services in both sports. We're going to see how bad they want
Even now, there is a subtle tug-of-war. Spurrier, who is so
enamored of Johnson's talent that he is tolerating the two-sport
arrangement, says, "He's promised me he'll bring along some
footballs and some film this summer." But LaMar says, "When Doug
is with us, we expect 100 percent of his attention to be focused
on advancing himself as a baseball player."
Johnson, meanwhile, has moved into a Gainesville apartment with
his best friend, Beau Crevasse, a 20-year-old seafood wholesaler
and, by all accounts, a superb cook. The two often tow Johnson's
new 20-foot fishing boat behind his 1997 GMC Yukon with the
slinger vanity plates to the Gulf Coast, where they fish the
shallow ocean flats. Both toys are courtesy of the Devil Rays'
bonus. Life is sweet.
No quarterback has similarly "arrived" at Florida State, where
competition for the starting job raged until the end of spring
practice last Saturday. Busby got a big push from third-year
sophomore Dan Kendra, a high school All-America from Bethlehem,
Pa., who was previously best known for his 11th-hour switch from
Penn State to Florida State (SI, Nov. 21, 1994, et. seq). Now
Kendra is known as the Lou Ferrigno of quarterbacks: He's a
6'1", 250-pound nutrition freak who eats six meals a day and
prepares all of them himself. ("They don't feed us very well
around here," he says. "You can kill all the nutritional value
of food by the way you cook it.") Kendra has a vertical leap of
40.5 inches and once leg-pressed 1,335 pounds, a record for a
Seminoles football player, though the effort burst blood vessels
in his eyes.
Ready to chase Kendra and Busby is Chris Weinke, who arrived in
Tallahassee in January after seven years as a minor league first
baseman in the Toronto Blue Jays' organization. Weinke plateaued
at Class AAA, where he hit just .186 last summer. He will be 25
when the football season begins, and, accordingly, his teammates
call him Paul Blake, after the graybeard college quarterback
played by Scott Bakula in the film Necessary Roughness. But the
Seminoles coaches have been impressed by Weinke's retention of
the skills that put him on the wish list of every pass-happy
school in the winter of 1990. "Weinke is a quick learner and a
mature guy, and I wouldn't be shocked if he came in here in
August and made a real run for the job," says offensive
coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mark Richt, who is quick to
add, "Kendra could be an unbelievable quarterback."
If you expect to read that all this coachly frothing over Kendra
and Weinke has left Busby despondent, forget it. True, Bowden
and Richt didn't think Busby was consistent enough a year ago,
and, true, Busby was criticized by Seminoles fans and the local
media for not quite living up to the standards of former Florida
State quarterbacks Charlie Ward and Danny Kanell. Busby, a
small-town guy from Pace, Fla. (pop. 6,277), just outside
Pensacola--Bowden calls him Ole Buzz, as if he were 72 and not
22--was unhinged by the sudden status of being the Seminoles'
starting quarterback. "It was way more pressure than I
imagined," he said last week. But Ward and Kanell were both
better as seniors than as juniors, and Busby expects the same of
himself. Plus, he has been given a shove, a tragic one, toward
On Easter Sunday, 20-year-old Kevin Land, Busby's roommate and a
lifelong friend from Pace, died after suffering head injuries
sustained two days earlier when the car in which he was a
passenger was struck by a tractor trailer. Land's death found
nerve endings in Busby that he didn't know existed.
On the following Wednesday, Busby was an honorary pallbearer at
Land's funeral. "It was about the hardest thing I've been
through," he says of his friend's death. Busby returned to
Tallahassee two days later and had to walk through Land's
bedroom to reach his own. "All his stuff was still there, like
he was just in the room," says Busby. "Here I was trying to
concentrate on spring practice, and something like that changes
everything. I'm going to try to play for him next year, be
thinking about him every week."
After completing eight of 20 passes for 100 yards and two
touchdowns in the heavy rain that drenched last Saturday's
spring game, Busby knows he will head into summer drills as
Florida State's starter. His cause was helped by the fact that
Weinke went 5 for 18 for 36 yards and a touchdown, and Kendra 3
for 11 for 54 yards. "I think, yes, definitely, he's our Number
1 quarterback," Bowden said of Busby. "I just want him to be
Two hours to the southeast, Johnson will soon experience similar
demands at Florida. In fact, he has been warned. Last November,
when the Gators were in Nashville to play Vanderbilt, Wuerffel
sat next to Johnson on the bus ride to the team's Friday-night
movie. Wuerffel, who sensed that Johnson would be his successor,
schooled him in the ways of Gators quarterbacking. "He went over
everything on that ride, and he's a great teacher," says
Johnson. "He told me what the fans would expect of me, how
important it was that I keep my nose clean, what the media were
like and how to deal with Coach Spurrier, that he was going to
be in my face and I just had to deal with it, no questions
asked, because he'll make me better."
Johnson cocks his head to one side and adds, "I didn't say one
word. I just listened. Danny put five years into 30 minutes."
Cramming? No problem. Johnson has been working fast since he was
in the second grade.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Johnson's three scoring passes in the spring game made him the favorite to lead the '97 Gators. [Doug Johnson throwing football in game]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS Busby (12), Kendra (10) and Weinke knocked heads for the job Busby held all of last season. [Thad Busby, Dan Kendra and Chris Weinke]
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS Bowden watched the Seminoles' spring game from afar but saw enough to name Busby his starter. [Back veiw Bobby Bowden watching football game on foggy field]