5 questions I have about Florida's spring football camp
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 global pandemic, Florida won’t play a traditional spring game this season. But as the bulk of the country battled freezing temperatures and snow, the Gators began spring practice.
For Dan Mullen, getting a chance to have spring practice for the first time since 2019 was a relief.
“We didn’t get to play spring football last year, which I think hurt us. It hurt a lot of programs. But I think when you look at some of our problems on defense last year — some of them date back to the lack of spring football because of the virus. When you talk about alignment, you talk about playing with urgency against up-tempo offenses, making formational adjustments at the line of scrimmage when a team goes no-huddle — so much of that starts in the spring. So we are happy to get out there this spring.”
The bird’s eye view suggests this may be a transitional year for the Gators.
Florida replaces generational talent on offense, graduating Heisman finalist Kyle Trask, Paul Horning Award finalist Kadarius Toney, likely top 3 round draft pick Trevon Grimes and losing unanimous All-American Kyle Pitts (who, along with DeVonta Smith, was 1 of 2 unanimous All-Americans in the country). Losing those four pieces from an offense that finished in the top 5 nationally in S&P+ offense, 1st in passing offense, 6th in yards per play and 4th in success rate nationally will be a daunting challenge.
That challenge, of course, is complicated by the fact Florida’s defense was woeful a season ago, finishing just inside the top 100 in total defense and yards allowed per play. That’s historically bad by program standards, and Florida, with a brutal schedule in 2021, won’t necessarily be able to rely on its offense to simply outscore opponents as they did so often in 2020.
Here are 5 questions I have as Florida enters its first full week of spring ball.
1. How does Emory Jones look as he takes the reins?
Replacing a program great like Kyle Trask is usually difficult. For every Tua-to-Mac Jones handoff, there are plenty of stories like what happened last season at LSU trying to replace Joe Burrow, or the decade Florida had trying to figure out what to do at quarterback without Tim Tebow.
The good news for Florida is that Emory Jones, the highest-rated quarterback recruit ever signed by Mullen, has been in the program for 3 seasons. He has waited his turn, accepted being a role player and has gone to work, improving in every facet of his game and getting stronger and more physical.
We all know what he does well. A dynamic runner, Jones ranked 1st in the country last year in success rate on running plays among quarterbacks, besting dual-threat freaks like Justin Fields and Malik Willis. Jones has averaged 6.4 yards per rush over 3 seasons.
But is he ready to be the primary thrower? Time will tell. He looked inaccurate at times in the Cotton Bowl but was playing against a good Oklahoma defense with a group of tight ends and receivers who had taken few snaps all season.
He’s looked the part of a capable thrower at times — including in a big win over a top-10 Auburn team in 2019.
It’s just different when you are “the guy” — and this is the first spring where Jones enters as the unquestioned starter.
2. How does Mullen adapt the offense for Jones?
One reason Mullen has been so successful at developing quarterbacks is he tailors his offenses to suit their strength.
The basic principles of Mullen’s offense are preferably tailored to a run-dominant spread that opens up the passing game, as Mullen explains in the video below.
That’s the offense Mullen ran for Dak Prescott at Mississippi State and Tebow at Florida, climbing to No. 1 in the rankings with both under center.
But Mullen isn’t afraid to make schematic adjustments. He will always find a way to play to a quarterback’s strengths.
When Urban Meyer and Mullen arrived at Florida, they inherited Chris Leak, the SEC’s leading passer, but hardly a dual-threat quarterback. They made Leak a “willing runner,” but allowed him to continue throwing the ball around the lot and eventually, Leak won a national championship and collected BCS Championship MVP honors. After Leak graduated, Mullen catered his offense to the power-running strengths of Tebow, who won the Heisman in his first year as the starter and a national title the following season.
These aren’t just isolated stories.
At MSU with Nick Fitzgerald, Mullen advanced to New Year’s Day bowls despite Fitzgerald’s limitations as a passer. At Florida, he flipped the offense to a pass-first spread to suit the strengths of Trask, who became a Heisman finalist.
What does Mullen have in store this spring for Jones?
Mullen acknowledged there would be changes.
“(Trask and Jones) bring a very different skill-set to the table. So (our job) is to kind of manipulate around the strengths of what those guys are going to do well within quarterback runs, zone reads, the ability for them to scramble and improvise and even have to be more complex in the pass game because you’re multi-dimensional because some of the threats they pose to the defense.”
How will Florida react to those changes?
3. Can they make progress toward becoming DBU again?
Florida’s pass defense was so bad in 2020 that the “DBU” moniker needs to be retired for a bit.
The Gators finished 97th in passing yards allowed per game, 85th in pass yards allowed per attempt, and outside the top 75 in pass efficiency defense for the first time this century. (LSU was somehow worse.)
DBU? More like DBPU.
Florida made multiple staff changes on defense, ushering out the defensive back coaches Ron English and Torrian Gray after the Cotton Bowl debacle.
New assistant Wesley McGriff, who produced consistently outstanding safeties at Auburn and has NFL coaching experience, will be tasked with fixing the play of Florida’s safeties, which has been among the worst in the country the past 2 seasons. Florida ranked 107th in in deep pass success rate against a season ago, meaning McGriff has work to do.
The other new secondary coach is young Jules Montinar, a Nick Saban disciple who also spent time with Kirby Smart at Georgia. Considered one of the best young recruiters in the sport, Montinar will inherit a very talented cornerback corps that includes Florida’s lone All-SEC defensive selection, Kaiir Elam.
Florida has recruited well in the secondary the past 2 seasons — and the position now has the highest percentage of blue-chip players on the defensive side of the roster. But talent and potential don’t mean much if they can’t play better. That process needs to begin this spring.
4. Who will emerge as a playmaker?
Florida will replace over 70% of its production in the passing game this offseason. Last year, they survived losing 4 NFL-roster bound senior wide receivers and actually improved on their production. Replicating that feat is difficult to fathom in 2021, which feels a bit more like what Georgia had to deal with when it lost 5 of its top 6 pass game production pieces ahead of the 2019 season and slipped to the mid-80s in pass game success rate.
Florida doesn’t lose as many pieces as Georgia did in 2019, but among players who caught 25 passes or more, only Justin Shorter and Malik Davis return. Florida Twitter has long hyped Jacob Copeland, the high 4-star that chose Florida over Alabama. But Copeland caught only 23 passes in 2020 and has battled drops and consistency throughout his career. In our view, he has to show the talent before he’s hyped as the next great Gators receiver.
The rest of the roster hints at playmaking pieces. Demarkcus Bowman, a 5-star recruit from Lakeland who transferred from Clemson, has the fan base and coaching staff excited. Nay’Quan Wright, a 4-star out of Miami who had a marvelous freshman season in 2020, is a nice route runner with great hands and has breakaway speed. The tight position is the most talented on the roster, per recruiting rankings, even with the departure of a generational talent in Pitts. But all of these pieces have to prove it, with the exception of Davis, who is the most reliable returning playmaker on the Florida offense.
5. Who replaces some special specialists?
You don’t ever want to be “Punter U,” but Florida has had excellent punters in the last decade. Chas Henry, Johnny Townsend and Tommy Townsend all went on to punt in the NFL, and last season, Jacob Finn replaced the younger Townsend seamlessly, averaging 46.3 yard per boot and ranking 3rd in the SEC with a 4.1-seconds average hangtime.
He’ll be replaced, in theory, by Australian punter Jeremy Crawshaw, who punted twice in the Cotton Bowl but played only sparingly last season. Can Crawshaw continue Florida’s success at a key field position?
Florida also has the unenviable task of replacing All-SEC kicker Evan McPherson. McPherson was the most accurate field goal kicker in the SEC in 2 of the past 3 seasons, and connected on 51-of-60 field goal attempts in his 3-year Florida career. He departed early for the NFL as the 4th-most accurate kicker in Gators’ history (minimum 10 attempts). Specialists don’t typically go pro, even with credentials like McPherson’s. But with a salary cap reduction coming in the NFL, McPherson bet on his ability to sign a bigger deal, with reduction to rookie specialist contracts likely the first thing to happen after the cap reduction is in place.
Florida also brought in graduate transfer Jace Christmann, who kicked for Mullen at Miss State. But Christmann lost his starting job at State in 2020 and lacks the big range of McPherson. Christmann is accurate, having made 32-of-40 career kicks (80%). But whether he’s all that Florida has or not will be determined this spring — and if he is — then Florida needs to hope he reclaims his confidence in spring football.