Florida football: 5 biggest areas of concern ... and possible solutions
The red bud trees are blooming, winter is headed out with a whimper and spring football is just around the corner.
In Gainesville, that means the beginning of a new era, as Billy Napier gets his first taste of spring football at The Swamp.
Coming off a 6-7 season, there’s little room to go but up for the Gators in Year 1 under Napier.
Florida also has outstanding talent on defense, led by 5-star talents Gervon Dexter, Jason Marshall Jr., and Brenton Cox. These players and the Gators defense should have a chance to shine playing in defensive coordinator Patrick Toney’s modern scheme.
As would be the case with any team coming off a losing season and a coaching change, the Gators also have plenty of questions as they ready for spring ball.
Here is a look at the 5 areas of biggest concern for the Gators in 2022, as well as a look at possible solutions.
1. Who plays quarterback?
If you scoff at this, shake your head and say, “Anthony Richardson, of course,” you are being optimistic. Optimism is healthy, but the reality, at least at present, is that Florida doesn’t have a surefire starting quarterback for 2022.
Emory Jones is still in Gainesville, having not entered the portal after the Gasparilla Bowl loss as expected. Jones will graduate this spring, and there are whispers that he may have simply stuck around Gainesville to finish his degree, but it seems odd he’d miss spring practice at another destination if he ultimately intended to transfer. Napier has praised Jones for his team-first attitude. And at least for now, there’s a chance that Florida’s 2022 starter is the same as the player who started 12 of the team’s 13 games in 2021.
As for Richardson, he’ll miss the spring recovering from a lingering leg injury. Staying healthy has become an issue for Richardson, but in fairness to him, he has battled the same recurring leg issue since his senior year of high school. He’s skipping the spring to finally get well, and he should enter fall camp at 100 percent. Richardson’s talent is astronomical. One NFL executive that spoke to SDS throughout the fall about Richardson and again this winter said that he’s “ahead of where Cam Newton was at that age, with the same gamechanging skill set.”
— Ryan Urquhart (@RyanUrqPxP) September 13, 2021
That’s heady praise, but Florida fans and SEC observers alike saw flashes of it in the 2021 season. Whatever his substantial ceiling, the truth is Richardson has started 1 game in his career, and he had 3 turnovers and his team lost 34-7. Was it fair for Dan Mullen to give Richardson his 1st career start against eventual national champion Georgia? Of course it wasn’t. But betting on Richardson to win the job after missing the spring is a calculated gamble, not necessarily easy money.
Possible solution? Ohio State transfer Jack Miller III, who grew up a Gators fan, transfers in and will have the chance to become QB1, at least entering fall camp, in the spring. Miller is a former 4-star prospect and Elite 11 invitee with a good arm, underrated athleticism and intangible leadership qualities that impressed Napier and his staff. Forget the fact that Ohio State transfer quarterbacks have worked out relatively well in the SEC recently. Miller isn’t Joe Burrow, though he’ll arrive in Gainesville having taken more college snaps than Burrow had when he enrolled at LSU. What Miller offers is an outstanding skill set, a strong work ethic and experience in a high-level program. That makes him a possible solution for the problems that ailed Florida at quarterback in 2021.
2 and 3. Playmakers in the run game and pass game
In short, Florida doesn’t have many.
Two of Florida’s top 3 rushers from 2021 graduated, and the other is Jones. Florida’s top returning running back in terms of production is Nay’Quan Wright, who is an All-SEC-caliber talent. But he suffered a serious injury late in the 2021 season, and it is unclear whether he’ll be cleared for spring ball.
At wide receiver, Florida’s best threat, Jacob Copeland, transferred to Maryland. Former 5-star Justin Shorter returns, but he has never been a game changer. Xzavier Henderson has elite speed and great hands, but he caught only 26 passes last year, which was a disappointment to Florida fans expecting the high 4-star to achieve a sophomore breakthrough.
Florida also loses its best tight end, Kemore Gamble, who was the Gators’ best passing game producer in big games last season but who oddly elected to transfer to Central Florida for his super senior season.
In other words, the cupboard is full of questions but not necessarily full of game breakers.
Possible solutions: A healthy Wright would be Florida’s best offensive weapon, but the good news for fans is that at least at running back, there is reason to hope. Five-stars Lorenzo Lingard and Demarkcus Bowman have to see a new coaching staff, and a run-first offense, as a window of opportunity to live up to their significant hype as prospects. Florida also added Montrell Johnson, a productive running back for Napier in the Sun Belt in 2021.
The receiving corps answers are a bit less certain. Tight end Keon Zipperer was highly recruited, but he isn’t a game changer. Trent Whittemore could become one of the SEC’s best possession receivers when all is said and done, but unless he blossoms into Hunter Renfrow, he isn’t going to constantly stress SEC defenses. That leaves Shorter, Henderson and seldom-used but athletically gifted Ja’Quavion Fraziars as potential game changers. Neither has done it yet, meaning a 2022 breakout would be a pleasant surprise.
4. Will Florida finally have an SEC-caliber offensive line again?
In fairness, Florida’s pass blocking over the past 2 seasons has been quite good. The Gators have finished in the top 20 in both of those seasons in fewest sacks allowed and the top 10 in both seasons in limiting quarterback pressures. In 2020, being stout in that area was essential, given Florida was the nation’s most prolific passing offense behind Heisman finalist Kyle Trask and All-American tight end Kyle Pitts. In 2021, it mattered less, because Florida’s quarterback tandem of Jones and Richardson couldn’t take advantage of having plenty of time to throw.
The problems for Florida up front have been in blocking the run game. The Gators ranked just 8th in the SEC in rushing success rate in 2021 and were 13th in that category in 2020. Last year’s fall to the bottom half of the SEC was stunning, given that the Gators led the nation in rushing and ranked 3rd nationally in rushing success rate entering the LSU game. The precipitous drop-off coincided with the collapse of the Mullen regime, and is a big reason Napier is in Gainesville.
Florida simply must be better up front if Year 1 of the Napier era is going to be successful.
Possible solutions: The good news is that the Gators return 11 of their 14 scholarship linemen from the 2021 campaign. That group includes tackle Richard Gouraige, who will be on many preseason All-SEC ballots. Florida also landed one of the most coveted offensive linemen in the transfer portal in O’Cyrus Torrence, who earned 1st-Team All-Sun Belt and FWAA Honorable Mention All-American honors at right guard at Louisiana in 2021. In addition to stabilizing the right side of Florida’s offensive line, whether he plays right guard or right tackle, Torrence adds institutional knowledge of Napier’s scheme, which should help the entire offensive line. The other good news? Rob Sale is one of the best offensive line coaches in the sport, and for the 1st time since the Urban Meyer era, the Gators will have 2 offensive line coaches in Sale and Darnell Stapleton. This group will be coached up, and there is plenty of returning talent, especially blue chippers like Josh Braun and Michael Tarquin, who suggest the future is bright. It’s just time to produce.
5. Are the safeties finally better?
Unlike some in Gator Nation, SDS is high on returning safety Rashad Torrence II, who finished his sophomore campaign with 87 tackles, 3 interceptions, 1 fumble recovery and Florida’s best tackle percentage rate. Does Torrence have All-SEC speed or coverage ability? Perhaps not, but he’s a steady SEC safety and a terrific tackler.
The rest of Florida’s safety room is a question mark.
Trey Dean III returns for his super senior season. His career has been up and down, and after a strong 2020 season, he struggled in all aspects in 2021, finishing with Florida’s lowest tackle percentage rate among safeties. Tre’Vez Johnson and Mordecai McDaniel both should factor into Toney’s plans, though Johnson will likely play more dimeback than a traditional safety role.
Florida’s safeties have been the weak link of the secondary for 3 seasons. That needs to change for the Gators to truly get back in the DBU debate.
Possible solutions: There’s plenty to like about Florida’s young talent at the position. Kamar Wilcoxson is another likely dimeback, but the early enrollee should benefit from another year in a quality strength and conditioning program. Donovan McMillon is another player who has a very high ceiling and will benefit from spring ball. Finally, there’s 5-star freshman signee Kamari Wilson. The safety was ranked 3rd at his position in the 2022 class and was a top-50 overall recruit, according to the 247Sports composite. The 6-foot, 200-pound prospect from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., picked Florida over offers from Georgia, LSU and Texas A&M, and he should get every opportunity to play plenty as a freshman, especially in Toney’s dime packages.