Florida football: 5 things to watch in Saturday's Orange and Blue game
Gators fans couldn’t have scripted Year 1 of the Dan Mullen era much better.
Mullen took a 4-win culture and transformed it into a team that won 10 games, with a Swamp-reclaiming win over LSU, a state-reclaiming victory over FSU, and a demon-exorcising rout of Michigan in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. Florida’s offense came to life down the stretch, finishing in the top 20 nationally in S &P+ offense for the first time since 2009, largely thanks to a dominant power running game and the development of quarterback Feleipe Franks, who accounted for 31 TDs and shared Peach Bowl MVP honors.
Florida capped its rapid 2018 turnaround by inking the program’s first top 10 recruiting class since 2014, giving a fan base in despair for much of a decade its first feel-good offseason in several years.
This is just my thought here, but I think there is some confidence from Mullen in this year's team and program.
— David Waters – Gators Breakdown (@GatorDave_SEC) April 4, 2019
The stage is now set for a 2019 season that will feature the most-talented Gators team in nearly a decade and a quarterback in Franks who might just be scratching the surface of what he’s capable of under Mullen.
With great success and better talent, of course, comes greater expectations, and such is the case in Gainesville ahead of Saturday’s Orange and Blue game.
The Gators aren’t without questions.
The offensive line is a work in progress. Florida is still figuring out who the best options are beyond David Reese at linebacker. The interior of the defensive line has better talent, but none of it is battle-tested. There are leadership questions with Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Martez Ivey and Cece Jefferson off to NFL.
But there’s also a swagger in Gainesville — from the coach and the players — we haven’t seen in a while. That’s different, and it’s cause for excitement as the Gators chase Kirby Smart and Georgia.
Here are five things Gators fans should watch for in Saturday’s spring game.
Watch Feleipe Franks, y’all
One of the strangest narratives in the college football universe this offseason has been the suggestion there is somehow a QB controversy in Gainesville.
— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) February 28, 2019
There is no situation or controversy. There is, however, an established starter for the first time since Tim Tebow departed, which certainly is a different kind of “situation.”
Franks turned the corner after a dismal performance against Missouri last November, keying a huge comeback win over South Carolina and lighting up a very good Florida State defense in Tallahassee to close the season. Franks put a bow on his turnaround with an MVP performance in the Peach Bowl, and he’s looked the part of a confident quarterback all spring.
Franks has especially improved his deep ball accuracy (a serious weakness in 2018), and Gators fans should look for him to throw the ball downfield early and often Saturday.
Smith at Utah, Tebow at Florida (first year as starter), Prescott at Mississippi State
As the chart above demonstrates, quarterbacks have a proven history of marked improvement in year Year 2 under Mullen’s tutelage. Florida fans should be excited to watch Franks grow in 2019.
2. The Kyle Pitts show
Pitts, a sophomore, gives Mullen a pass-catching mismatch nightmare, whether he lines up the 6-6, 245 pound athlete at tight end or as a slot receiver. His size and athleticism make him a brutal matchup even for a talented safety and his speed makes him too much for most linebackers.
Pitts has been one of the best players in spring practice and his ability to run a variety of routes and win almost every 50/50 ball gives the Gators the type of 3rd down and red-zone difference-maker they’ve lacked for many years.
3. Florida’s wide receivers are marvelous
It isn’t just players like Pitts who will potentially make Florida a handful for defensive coordinators next fall.
Florida has very quietly built a blue-chip laden receiver core that has excelled under the mindful eye of receivers coach Billy Gonzales. The Gators return Van Jefferson, who remains Franks’ favorite target, but Freddie Swain, Trevon Grimes and Tyrie Cleveland have all had their moments this spring.
The return of Cleveland, who missed the bulk of 2018 with an injury, is especially intriguing because it gives the Gators the type of electric speed they need to consistently threaten defenses with the vertical passing game.
4. A revamped front seven, but one that still has questions
In terms of how Todd Grantham wants to attack on defense, the Gators’ largest personnel losses came up front. Vosean Joseph keyed Grantham’s blitz packages with his speed, ability to move around and get downhill at the quarterback.
The Gators have a host of linebackers who have played good football this spring, led by Amari Burney, who has moved over from safety and been everywhere this spring. His speed and athleticism put him in the driver’s seat for first swing at the Joseph role, but don’t be surprised if freshman early enrollee Mohamoud Diabate plays early and often. He’s strong (despite being undersized) and has a nose for the football.
Finally, one Florida assistant told me this week that Ventrell Miller has blossomed into one of the program’s most well-rounded linebackers. He’s tough and can fit gaps and hold the edge in the run game and appears far more comfortable in pass coverage than Joseph, who typically commanded help from a safety or nickel.
Florida entered 2018 with immense questions at linebacker. The position could be one of strength in 2019.
Still, there are questions up front.
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.
Florida got very little from the 3-technique last season and while Tedarrell Slaton is talented, he’s inexperienced and was inconsistent as a freshmen. Kyree Campbell is a good depth piece, but hasn’t shown that he’s a plus player at the SEC level.
Jefferson wasn’t just the best edge setter on a defensive line that sometimes struggled against power running games in 2018; he was the only consistent edge setter. Finding a replacement for him will likely be more of a search by committee and that appears to be the case this spring.
Finally, Jachai Polite gave Florida’s defense a swagger and playmaker at end that always had to be accounted for pre-snap. There are a host of candidates to fill that role, including Jonathan Greenard, the All-ACC transfer from Louisville who has been marvelous this spring, and the relentless and physical Jabari Zuniga. Finding the best options and rotations will be vital to Florida’s defensive success this season.
5. The offensive line
The good vibes and excitement surrounding the program won’t last if Florida doesn’t come together up front.
Mullen’s run-dominant spread depends on staying on schedule in the run game, and the offensive line, particularly the second-unit, has struggled this spring.
The line returns only two players with proven experience in Nick Buchanan and Brett Heggie, and offensive line coach John Hevesy has been frustrated with their consistency this spring. Second-year players like Chris Bleich and the highly-coveted Richard Gouraige have also struggled.
The fact a few of the highly-recruited freshman up front were on campus this spring helps, but early reports indicate only Michael Tarquin and Kingsley Eguakun look like they’ll play much in the fall.
This unit is a work in progress, and Florida has four and a half months to figure it out before a season-opener against a talented Miami Hurricanes front seven looms.