5 early developments in Florida's fall camp
Florida’s fall camp is already a week old and with the Gators set to take the national spotlight and kick off the 2019 college football season Aug. 24 against rival Miami in Orlando, there’s already an added sense of urgency in Gainesville.
Dan Mullen told the media this week he thinks some of that is about Miami, but he also believes the Gators have a better idea of what is expected in Year 2 of his tenure.
“When you play the first game, everyone is juiced and excited,” Mullen said. “The other thing though is everybody understands what we’re trying to do, so everything is cleaner out there at practice. We’ve got to make sure we’re staying the intensity, the sense of urgency, the grind, the strain every day. Last year guys were trying to learn schemes. This year there’s a lot more confidence (in scheme), so guys can focus on how they fit and technique. That’s a lot better.”
The Gators completed the mandatory NCAA acclimation period practices and put the pads on this Tuesday, which should give the staff a much better idea of where things stand in terms of critical fall camp position battles, including the much-discussed rebuild of Florida’s offensive line.
Here are 5 early developments coming out of the first week, including an encouraging report on the hogmollies up front.
1. DBU: CJ Henderson and Marco Wilson are incredible and the safeties are improved
Florida’s 1-2 punch at corner is among the best in America, with CJ Henderson a preseason All-SEC pick who is in the top 20 of virtually every mock draft board.
Henderson didn’t allow a single touchdown in 1-on-1 coverage a season ago and that was without his partner in coverage, Marco Wilson, patrolling the other boundary. As I wrote last month, the Henderson hype is warranted, but Wilson was arguably the better player as a freshman, and he’s shown zero signs of any lingering effects of the ACL injury that cost him almost the entire season in 2018.
Those guys look every bit as dominant as advertised in individual drills, so much so that defensive backs coach Torrian Gray recently told Nick de la Torre of Gator Country that the duo may be the best 1-2 combo at corner he’s ever coached — heady praise from a guy who has coached a host of NFL draft picks at the position.
Florida’s safeties appear to be settling in nicely in camp, despite offseason questions about consistency, especially at the strong spot.
Senior Jeawon Taylor has impressed, and in media availability, the staff was quick to point out that Taylor was probably underappreciated at the strong spot, having quietly been one of the more effective coverage guys in the country in that capacity last season.
Jeawon Taylor only allowed a reception ever 30.6 snaps in coverage, the best mark in the SEC. pic.twitter.com/MpKPQz42GX
— PFF College (@PFF_College) August 1, 2019
Florida’s safeties might also be benefiting from the downstream impact of having 2 of America’s best cover corners in Wilson and Henderson, a future star at nickel in Trey Dean and a vastly improved linebacker corps. The presence of those players simplifies what the staff asks the safeties to do; it also limits the amount of ground they need to patrol, which helps offset the deficiencies some in the unit have athletically.
2. But the wide receivers keep getting open anyway
Despite the strong start to camp for Florida’s secondary, Florida’s wide receivers have been tremendous, with the 4th and 5th options among one of America’s deepest position groups constantly finding itself open. Feleipe Franks and that talented bunch appear to have a great rapport early in camp, and one Florida staffer told me “it’s more about the receivers being really good than the secondary having problems.”
The biggest problem?
There’s only one football, and only so many receivers who can see the field on a given snap.
Talented players like redshirt freshmen Jacob Copeland and redshirt junior Rick Wells are among those constantly mentioned as guys who have tremendous ability, but it’s hard to see how often they will get on the field with the likes of Van Jefferson, Trevon Grimes, Freddie Swain, Josh Hammond and Kadarius Toney ahead of them.
To quote The Wire’s Marlo Stanfield: “That sounds like one of them good problems.”
3. The backup QB competition is intriguing
Kyle Trask could have easily transferred in the offseason and no one would have blamed him. After all, he’s poured his heart into the program for multiple seasons and still is behind the mega-talented Franks.
But Trask opted to stay, and there’s very legitimate chance he remains the backup quarterback, at least in some capacity.
The media haven’t been able to see 11-on-11 — and likely will not get to — so it’s difficult to accurately report on how anyone is doing at full-speed. But Trask knows the playbook and, as we saw in a brief relief spell last season against Missouri, he can make enough throws in Mullen’s system to move the offense.
His competition is Emory Jones, who looks marvelous on one play and like a redshirt freshman in his second camp the next.
Jones is comfortable throwing with the pocket moving, and he’s too capable with his legs not to have some role in the offense this year, even if Franks, as hoped, remains healthy. But Dan Mullen has never rushed quarterback development, and while Jones is being asked to take on more responsibility early this autumn, he is still very much a (talented) work in progress.
4. The freshmen most likely to contribute early are on defense
The Gators are so loaded at the skill positions that it’s difficult to see any of Florida’s 2018/19 signees play beyond the 4-game redshirt limitation in 2019. Certainly one of the freshman offensive linemen (Michael Tarquin, perhaps) could find their way into offensive line coach John Hevesy’s preferred group of 8, but at present, even that seems a more distant possibility.
What is evident is that 3 players are ready to go now on defense.
Kaiir Elam, the 4-star corner from Palm Beach Gardens with the All-American and NFL bloodlines, is a freshman in name but has the build of a SEC regular already. His uncle Matt was famous for his football junkie work ethic at Florida and apparently, Elam has it too: He’s been a regular participant in post-practice workouts with CJ Henderson, Marco Wilson and starting nickel Trey Dean. Elam will play early and often.
The other 2 who should play quite a bit are 4-star defensive end Khris Bogle, who picked Florida over Miami and Alabama, and has elite speed and length off the edge, something Todd Grantham values immensely in his blitz schemes. Bogle won’t start at the Buck — Jeremiah Moon or Jon Greenard will — but he’ll play on pass-heavy downs almost immediately.
Finally, Mohamoud Diabate, a four-star linebacker out of Auburn, Ala., enrolled this spring and impressed Florida’s senior leadership with his work ethic and strength.
“He works relentlessly and is stronger than his size,” senior All-SEC defensive end Jabari Zuniga said this week. “He is willing to do anything to impact winning and teammates appreciate that.”
Diabate might still be a bit undersized to play consistently, but thanks to his attitude and work ethic, he’ll likely play — and make a difference — on special teams and could find himself involved in third down coverage situations as well.
5. About that offensive line …
At least outwardly, Mullen is projecting confidence in the group he has up front, especially the starting unit.
“I’m not as uncertain (as some),” Mullen said. “My uncertainty on the offensive line is depth. If we can stay healthy, (Florida is) OK. It’s just how fast we can accelerate some of the really young guys to get going.”
The starting unit projects to have at least 4 upperclassmen, guys who have paid their dues and are now getting their chance to shine. Brett Heggie, a quality SEC starter as a freshmen who lost much of 2018 to nagging injuries, is healthy, fit and ready. Chris Bleich, the one underclassmen who might start, is a big-time talent with a tireless work ethic. Jean Delance was a guy with a lengthy offer sheet who transferred from Texas. His talent has never been in question.
The reality is we won’t know until they go 11-on-11 how far along they are, and since the media is unlikely to see that, the real evaluation will come against a fierce Hurricanes front 7 Aug. 24. For now, Florida would like to build quality depth behind the preferred 5, which will require a good camp from the likes of Noah Banks, Richard Gouraige, Tarquin and Ethan White (cover photo, above).
Florida also seems likely to use heavy sets a bit more than last season, especially with the depth they’ve built at tight end.
But the good news at present is that the starting group seems to have made good progress.