Florida football: 5 matchups that will define the Gators' game at Kentucky
When the celebration of Mr. Two Bits had cleared and Florida had smashed overmatched Tennessee-Martin 45-0 Saturday night, Florida senior wide receiver Van Jefferson spoke plainly about the challenges that lie ahead.
“SEC football begins next week at Kentucky. They beat us last year,” Jefferson told media following Saturday night’s Gators victory. “Everyone needs to focus and as coach Mullen says, we need to crank it up. Every practice matters now because every game moving forward is about accomplishing our goals.”
Florida’s trip to a sold-out Kroger Field for next Saturday night’s tilt with unbeaten Kentucky (7 p.m., ESPN) will be the SEC opener for both teams and for the Gators, will mark the first of a 9-game stretch that involves 8 SEC football games with only a bye week before the Georgia game as a break.
Dan Mullen is right about Florida needing to “crank it up” if they hope to have a chance to attain their goals (Atlanta, chance at College Football Playoff) this season. While there is plenty to be encouraged about after Florida’s 2-0 start, the Gators have clear work to do ahead of their first true road game in 2019. As Jefferson noted after the UT-Martin game, Kentucky isn’t a team the Gators can take lightly. The Wildcats beat the Gators in The Swamp a season ago and it was hardly a fluke, with Kentucky the better team along both lines of scrimmage.
Further, Florida was outplayed by Kentucky the last time they ventured to Kroger Field as well, with Kentucky dominant for most the night until two unthinkable mistakes late helped the Gators escape with an unlikely win. In other words, for all the talk about Florida’s longtime dominance of the Wildcats, Mark Stoops and Kentucky have been the better team for a couple of seasons, and the Gators better have their chin straps buckled when toe meets leather Saturday evening, even though the Wildcats will be without starting QB Terry Wilson.
Here are 5 key matchups that will define whether Florida opens SEC play with a victory — and gains some revenge for last season in the process — Saturday night in Lexington.
Kentucky run game vs. Florida’s front 7
Last season, the story of the game was Florida’s inability to fit gaps against Kentucky’s power run scheme. Benny Snell Jr. ran around, through and over the Gators en route to 175 yards rushing on 27 carries, pacing a Wildcats offense that finished with 303 yards on the ground. Snell Jr. is gone, of course, but Kentucky has a nice 1-2 combination in Snell’s stead this season with junior Asim Rose and the fast, powerful freshman Kavosiey Smoke. Collectively, these two have churned out 316 yards at a 6.1 yards per carry clip early in 2019, and running behind a line that starts 4 upperclassmen, Todd Grantham and the Florida staff will have respect for Kentucky’s talent and productivity in the run game even if Florida fans do not or expect a drop-off with the All-American Snell in the fold.
Oh my goodness. Kavosiey Smoke with all the moves taking it to the house. Mercy. pic.twitter.com/hFHsvKosvr
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) September 8, 2019
Smoke in particular seems to be the combination of speed, vision and power that is dangerous at any level of football, as the above clip demonstrates.
Early returns on Florida’s run defense are good: The Gators rank 10th nationally in rushing defense at 70.5 yards per game and are limiting opponents to just 2.2 yards per carry. But Florida’s tackles haven’t been tested by a front as big and experienced as Kentucky, so it’s hard to know what to make of those numbers just yet.
Plus, while Florida’s tackling was excellent Saturday night against Tennessee-Martin, it was woeful against Miami, especially when Canes running backs (and tight ends) managed to get to the second level and force Florida’s safeties and corners to tackle. The Gators will need to be sharp from a technique standpoint against Kentucky Saturday night — something they were not last year against the Wildcats when they missed a season high 23 tackles in defeat.
To me, this matchup dictates most of what happens in the football game, because Kentucky will want to speed up the football game, running clock and letting the crowd influence proceedings defensively because …
Sawyer Smith will have all he can handle
First things first.
Prayers up to Wilson, who seriously injured his knee in Kentucky’s victory over Eastern Michigan on Saturday night.
As we wrote this summer, Wilson is one of the most exciting football players in the SEC and he was set to shine in Year 2 in Eddie Gran’s offense this season. His injury is terribly unfortunate and I can’t wait to see him back for Big Blue soon.
In his stead, Stoops will go with Sawyer Smith, a Florida native who transferred from Troy, where he played in 13 games a season ago, starting 7.
Smith has a big arm, which he showed lofting a 54-yard touchdown to wide receiver Ahmad Wagner on his first throw as a Wildcat on Saturday night. What’s more, he brings a bit of the same type of ability to extend plays with his legs as Wilson offers, although without the top shelf speed of the Kentucky starter.
Stoops emphasized postgame Saturday night that the need to play Sawyer Smith for the injured Wilson does not change the goals for the University of Kentucky and that the “Wildcats will play with confidence regardless of who is playing quarterback.” But that’s easier said than done, especially facing a Florida front that has produced 15 sacks and 26 tackles for loss in its first 2 games, both national highs.
It’s one thing to have a brilliant Dollar General Bowl, as Smith did for Troy in its win over Buffalo last December. It’s quite another to wear out one of the SEC’s best defenses, especially if he’s facing stiff pressure most the evening.
If Kentucky can establish the run, life will be easier on Smith, who can make the type of low-pressure throws Gran loves to use to keep the offense on schedule and maintain balance. What the Wildcats don’t want — and what Florida needs — is to make the game about whether Smith can make high-pressure throws when down and distance don’t favor Kentucky. That’s the big question for the Wildcats at quarterback in the absence of Wilson.
How much does the CJ Henderson injury matter to Florida’s secondary?
The Wildcats have a deep and talented wide receiver corps, led by do-everything playmaker Lynn Bowden.
In a perfect world, you’d get best-on-best, with the All-American CJ Henderson shadowing the All-SEC Bowden all night. That would force Bowden to beat Henderson 1-on-1, which basically no one in college football did last year (44% completion percentage against), or Gran to find unique ways to get his junior playmaker the ball, whether it be motions, new formations or direct snaps and handoffs.
Finally, it would create pressure on other Kentucky receivers, whether Ahmad Wagner, Keaton Upshaw or another one of UK’s supporting cast to Bowden to make the game-changing plays Kentucky typically relies on Bowden to make, like the deep touchdown pass he caught to seal the win in last year’s Florida game.
Unfortunately for the Gators, Henderson was injured Saturday night and his status for Kentucky is unclear. Given he finished the game with a diagnosed ankle sprain, on crutches and in a walking boot, it’s probably reasonable to say he’ll be limited if he does try to play. That means Florida will likely shift Marco Wilson to Bowden-watch; a good option to be sure, but one with downstream implications. Shifting Wilson’s role means putting increased responsibilities on nickel Trey Dean in coverage, as well as true freshman corners Jaydon Hill and Kaiir Elam. While Hill and Elam looked sharp against the Skyhawks, that’s an FCS opponent. Producing on the road against a veteran SEC wide receiver corps that helped Kentucky win 10 games a season ago is an altogether different challenge.
Will Florida’s inexperienced offensive line get a push in the run game?
If there was a lingering football concern aside from the Henderson injury that emerged from Florida’s win over UT-Martin, it was the continued struggle of the offensive line to gain much leverage or push in the run game. The Gators’ numbers were good enough: 231 yards rushing at 6.1 yards per carry, but much of that came late, as an undersized and undermanned FCS defense tired.
In the first half, Florida managed only 17 points and the Gators continually struggled to execute on the edges in Mullen’s zone blocking run schemes. Of particular concern for Florida was tight end blocking. Florida has sorely missed the run game leverage of C’yontai Lewis and Moral Stephens this season, and while the Gators have a host of tight ends who are dangerous in the pass game (Kyle Pitts, Kenmore Gamble), they don’t have a guy as of yet who can help seal the edge or execute Mullen’s system of pulling tight ends or “read engagement” (tight end ask to decide whether to help another lineman or engage a free defender shortly after the snap).
Tight end blocking in zone schemes is critical because running backs have to wait for the block, slowing the play done and allowing free defenders to chase or engaged defenders more time to get off blocks, or they have to alter their angle to avoid free linebackers left to pursue or fit run gaps. In either case, it limits the effectiveness of the run game.
But it isn’t just the tight ends. Stone Forsythe remains the lone Florida tackle getting consistent push and leverage to turn defenders in the run game; this has to improve as the season continues or Florida’s run game will become directionally predictable, a problem that can tip off plays and force Florida to be creative regardless of down and distance.
The Gators couldn’t do much in the run game against Miami, and while the Wildcats lack the talent up front (especially at linebacker, with the exception of Kash Daniel) that the Hurricanes have, they are a solid fundamental unit that will be playing fast at home. If Florida can’t establish the run game and Lamical Perine, it will place the pressure on Feleipe Franks to do something he’s not done much: win a road game with his arm.
If Florida can’t run the ball effectively, can Feleipe Franks win the game with his arm?
Let’s start with this: Feleipe Franks was marvelous Saturday night. His 25-for-27 performance set a school record for completion percentage (minimum 20 attempts) and he did against a defense dropping 7 or 8 into coverage a good deal of the evening. He also showed improved deep ball accuracy, a point of emphasis for Franks over the summer after finishing near the bottom off the Power 5 on throws of 20 yards or more a year ago, per Stats Solutions.
For the season, Franks is now completing 77.8% of his passes, easily a career best, and his 9.7 yards per attempt is also a career-high, albeit it is only through two games.
The next step?
Winning a big time road game. In fairness, Franks won 4 road games last season, capturing wins at Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Florida State and Miss State. That said, the signature road win in that group — and in Franks’ 2-plus seasons as Florida’s starter — was at No. 23 Mississippi State, and that game was a 13-6 slog where Franks completed a high percentage of passes (71%), but mostly was a game manager, avoiding big mistakes so his defense could win the football game.
What happens if Franks has to win the game with his arm, not simply manage it? Is he ready to do that?
The talk around campus this summer was that Franks was ready for that step. The proof might be needed Saturday night.
If Kentucky slows Florida’s run game, the Gators will rely heavily on Franks, not just to make downfield throws and create explosive plays, but to deliver crisp, accurate short throws on wide receiver and running back screens that slow Kentucky down and function as a makeshift run game.
Without Kadarius Toney, who appears set to miss the game with a wrist/arm injury, Franks will lack the team’s best explosive improvising playmaker to bail the offense out as well. That means no Wildcat concepts, fewer jet sleeps, no wide receiver pass concepts similar to the one Florida needed to win in Starkville a season ago. Jacob Copeland could fill that role, but to do it on the road as a redshirt freshman is a big ask.
That leaves Franks and that big arm, ready to prove the doubters wrong yet again. He’s good enough. But it’s a relatively new ask.