Florida football: 10 things to watch for at spring practice
Spring practice started in Gainesville this week and with it, Florida’s first joyful winter in many years came to a close.
Not since Dan Mullen’s mentor Urban Meyer roamed the sidelines of The Swamp had the Gators entered an offseason with as much momentum and buzz. Florida rattled off 4 consecutive wins to close the season, including a state-reclaiming rout of reeling rival Florida State in Tallahassee and a dominant 41-15 victory over Michigan in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl to give the program its first major bowl victory since Tim Tebow’s final game as a Gator in the 2010 Sugar Bowl. The Gators finished the year ranked No. 6 in the Coaches Poll, with only Nick Saban’s Alabama ahead of them among SEC programs. Not bad work for Mullen and the staff and a program a year removed from a four-win season.
The Gators carried that momentum out on the recruiting trail, inking the program’s first top 10 recruiting class since 2014. Yes, Florida lost a head-to-head recruiting battle with Kirby Smart’s Georgia over highly-touted 2020 quarterback Carson Beck, but elsewhere, the Gators made strides. They upgraded at defensive back coach, bringing in nationally-respected Torrian Gray for the journeyman Charlton Warren. They kept talented and respected defensive coordinator Todd Grantham in Gainesville after a flirtation with the Cincinnati Bengals. They brought in All-ACC defensive end Jon Greenard to help ease the blow of losing All-SEC defensive end Jachai Polite to the NFL Draft. And the Gators still have the most favorable recruiting map in a decade to try to land a monster 2020 class.
As such, spring in Gainesville arrives with no shortage of optimism. That doesn’t mean there aren’t intriguing questions for Dan Mullen and this staff as they enter their second year with their eyes fully fixed on a different type of trip to Atlanta than a Peach Bowl.
Here’s a look at 10 of the most fascinating questions facing Florida this spring.
1. The OL has numbers, but who starts?
This position battle will extend into fall camp. But the decision to move the season-opener longtime rival Miami up a week only adds to the urgency of finding some answers this spring.
Offensive line coach John Hevesy has plenty of bodies to choose from. The only returning starter is center Nick Buchanan. Brett Heggie has All-SEC talent, but can he stay on the field? Stone Forsythe had an exceptional set of bowl practices and should claim one of the vacant starting jobs at tackle, but the battle for the other spot is wide open. Will blue-chip tackle Richard Gouraige be ready after a redshirt and a year in Nick Savage’s offseason strength and conditioning program? Michael Tarquin enrolled early and is another blue-chip prospect Florida’s coaches hope can contribute immediately at tackle. What will JUCO prospect Noah Banks offer at guard?
It’s an ominous sign the Gators had Tony Gray, a transfer who rarely played at Ole Miss, on campus this week. That’s a firm reminder this is a group with more questions than answers, and for a Florida team with a stable of tailbacks that can dominate a football game if they have the blocking- it’s the most significant question of the offseason.
2. Will the staff trust Kadarius Toney more?
In 2018, Kadarius Toney became the first Florida player since Percy Harvin to average a first-down per touch with a minimum of 45 touches.
Still, Gators fans spent much of Florida’s season wondering why the electric playmaker didn’t touch the ball at least 30 more times.
Mullen said during Peach Bowl week he’d love to get Toney to the point where he could touch the ball 10 times a game, but reiterated so much of that depended on scheme and Toney’s ability to “execute the play we call.”
Mullen loves Toney’s speed and ability to improvise (who wouldn’t?) but his understanding of the playbook is important for the Gators, who remain very much a rhythm play-calling offense. Improved polish as a route-runner would also help diversify what Toney offers Florida in the passing game.
3. How’s Malik Davis?
Early returns are good for the oft-injured, former All-SEC freshmen team tailback who missed most of last season with an injury, his second season-ending injury in as many seasons.
Malik Davis taking some reps pic.twitter.com/AujttyRrKY
— Will Sammon (@WillSammon) March 12, 2019
Davis broke big runs in Florida’s first practice, which was open to the media. More important, he was not in a knee brace and looked fluid making cuts.
His return gives Florida an opportunity to have one of the deepest and most dangerous running back rooms in the country with senior Lamical Perine and sophomore Dameon Pierce.
4. Best Florida QB room since Tim Tebow and Cam Newton dined alone?
Feleipe Franks was one of the country’s best quarterbacks down the stretch, capping a surprising sophomore season by earning MVP honors against a top 10 defense in the Peach Bowl.
One of the more surprising — and ridiculous — narratives out of the winter was that Florida had a “quarterback controversy” or challenging quarterback situation.
— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) February 28, 2019
The Gators don’t have any such thing, unless returning a quarterback who accounted for 31 TDs against only 6 interceptions and was MVP of a New Year’s Six bowl game counts as a challenge.
The bigger question this spring is about the progress of Emory Jones, the highly-regarded redshirt freshmen from Georgia, who has added weight and should challenge for the backup job over Kyle Trask. Jalon Jones, another blue-chip, gives the Gators a QB room with three blue-chip players — the first time that’s happened since Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and John Brantley were on campus at the same time.
5. Can Florida find a difference-maker at tight end?
Mullen loves to use tight ends in his run-dominant spread, especially in the red zone. Last season, Florida received quality play from the trio of Moral Stephens, C’yontai Lewis and R.J. Raymond, but the reality is all three were better as blockers than as receivers.
The roster is full of talent at the position: Kemore Gamble, Kyle Pitts and incoming tight end Keon Zipperer were all blue-chip players and both Gamble and Pitts had nice moments in Florida’s first practice. Couple that trio with Lucas Krull, who is a walking mismatch and can throw too (ask LSU) — and you get a group that has the potential to be far more explosive than the 2018 position group. The question is whether one of these players separates themselves or if Mullen again opts for tight end by committee.
6. Who steps up as a leader?
Martez Ivey, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson and Cece Jefferson were undoubtedly the vocal leaders on Florida’s 2018 football team. All are gone in 2019.
That’s a substantial leadership vacuum.
After the Peach Bowl win, I asked departing Florida tight end C’yontai Lewis who the young guys would follow in 2019, and he singled out Perine, who “most of us would follow anywhere.”
That’s one leader.
C.J. Henderson, who figures to be a preseason All-American at corner, is another. And don’t underestimate Franks, who for two seasons was polarizing in the fan base but beloved in the Florida locker room.
Still, Florida needs to identify its leadership core early to replicate and build on 2018’s success.
7. Will the Gators be better at linebacker?
David Reese will start at the Mike spot and is one of the SEC’s best run-stopping linebackers.
James Houston was electric in practice at times last season and figures to nail down one of the other spots.
Still, the departure of Vosean Joseph for the NFL leaves an opening at one of the other positions and one that is probably the most impactful to Florida’s team from a schematic standpoint.
Todd Grantham loved to move Joseph around and find ways to get the speedy linebacker downhill in blitz packages. Joseph rewarded him with a monster All-SEC caliber season.
The Gators signed one of the best group of linebackers in America, including versatile early-enrollee Mohamoud Diabate, who should compete for playing time at one of the outside spots.
Coaches rave about Amari Burney, who has added muscle and bulk and appears ready to move from safety to linebacker. Burney played linebacker on third downs against Florida State and Michigan and his speed replicates Joseph from an exotic blitz package perspective. He also offers a defensive back’s sense to Florida’s linebacking unit in coverage. As a result, he could be a breakout player in 2019 for Florida but a good spring would help lay that foundation.
8. How do you replace Chauncey Gardner-Johnson?
I’ll be honest, from a versatility and leadership standpoint, Florida probably can’t, at least initially. But there are always options at DBU.
Trey Dean is moving to nickel and will get first crack at it — from a pure football perspective he can handle the coverage aspect of the task, though he had some rough moments against elite talent in the Peach Bowl.
The aforementioned Burney is a guy Florida could move around. Ditto Marco Wilson, who is physical enough to play inside if necessary. Coming off an ACL injury, however, Wilson leaves the door open for others this spring.
Two players to watch out for are freshman Chris Steele, who has impressed early in spring practice, and John Huggins, who impressed in bowl practices and gives the Gators another safety that is physical and smart.
9. Do the Gators expand the playbook a bit in year two?
Mullen has hinted that they can put more in this spring, but will “continue to do what the players do best.”
Sounds like the answer is yes, but if early returns are any indicator, they will be a bit more versatile this season as the staff continues to place more trust in Franks.
10. Will the Gators be better at defensive tackle?
Many of Florida’s issues against power run games last season began and ended at the nose tackle and three-technique, where Florida’s tackles played hard but often struggled to get any significant push.
Adam Shuler was marvelous down the stretch and a huge reason the Gators stuffed a powerful Michigan run game in the Peach Bowl. But there is not a ton in reserve behind him.
Tedarrell Slaton is the most talented nose tackle on the roster, but Kyree Campbell continued to practice better and play better late in the season and is the likely incumbent starter.
If Slaton and Elijah Conliffe have nice springs and push Campbell, who is serviceable but lacks game-changing talent, that would be positive for Florida.