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 motion.
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 try-out 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).