Florida football: Opening up the mailbag ahead of Florida's Swamp showdown with LSU
The Florida Gators are 4-2 and given the September schedule was the toughest in college football, that’s not such a bad way to begin the Billy Napier era in Gainesville.
Of course, you are only as good as your next big game in the SEC, and Napier’s Gators have a big one Saturday when LSU comes to town (7 pm, ESPN) for the 69th meeting in what has become one of the SEC’s premier rivalry games.
Ahead of the LSU game, Saturday Down South thought we’d open up the mailbag and answer reader questions that have hit my inbox since Florida’s Sept. 24 loss at then-No. 11 Tennessee. We’ll try to do a mailbag at least bi-weekly until the close of the season. Here are five of the questions received, in no particular order.
1. Will the Gators ever get Nay’Quan Wright involved in the passing game? It seems like a missed opportunity by Rob Sale and Billy Napier? — Damon, Fort Lauderdale
Damon, That’s a great question and one we’ve asked here at SDS as recently as 3 weeks ago. While Wright is Florida’s 3rd-best pure runner, a Florida staffer told me that Wright continues to play frequently because he is Florida’s “most complete back, in terms of blocking, running, and receiving.”
Wright is, on film review, definitely the best blocker of the trio of backs that play (Trevor Etienne, Montrell Johnson Jr.) What he isn’t is an explosive between-the-tackles runner. That makes Florida’s decision to rarely target him in the passing game curious. Wright has been targeted only 3 times this season in the passing game, and has just 1 catch for 14 yards. On one of the targets, Wright ran a slug concept and was going to be wide open, but Anthony Richardson threw to the stop spot instead, resulting in a pick-6 against Kentucky.
KENTUCKY PICK 6!!!! pic.twitter.com/YSt9ka0QAg
— Unnecessary Roughness (@UnnecRoughness) September 11, 2022
Florida has targeted Wright just once in the pass game since that play. Considering Wright led all SEC running backs with 33 receptions over the past 2 seasons, that’s a mistake — and one Florida should remedy soon. It’s especially strange the Gators haven’t attacked with Wright in the passing game on wheel concepts, where he was devastatingly effective as a freshman in 2020 and where his downfield playmaking ability would seem to fill a void the Florida receivers cannot, at least at present.
2. Is it just me, or is Amari Burney having a special senior season? — John, Ocala
“Special” might be a stretch, but he sure has been really good, with the exception of the first 3 quarters of the Utah game, where he was absolutely torched by Utah’s NFL-bound tight ends. Then Burney made this play.
THE DEAL IS SEALED
AMARI BURNEY GETS THE INT AND FLORIDA THE W OVER #7 UTAH ? pic.twitter.com/BkVKwU9Zf9
— The Transfer Portal CFB (@TPortalCFB) September 4, 2022
The senior has been terrific since. He leads Florida in sacks with 4, ranks 2nd on the team in tackles for loss with 5, and has forced a fumble. Burney still has his problems: his coverage rating, for example, grades out in the bottom third of SEC linebackers. But he’s had a good season, defined by a penchant to make the big play.
3. Will Florida have 2 first-team All-Americans? Ventrell Miller is that dude. — Terrence, Pensacola
O’Cyrus Torrence is going to be a first-team All-American. The question is whether Miller is on a team good enough to grab the honor he likely deserves. At present, Miller grades out as the top linebacker in the SEC and the Power 5, per Pro Football Focus. Miller ranks 3rd on the Gators in tackles, 4th in tackles for loss and 2nd in quarterback hurries (5), all despite missing a game and a half of action.
Miller is also doing this with limited practice reps, because he’s playing through a bad foot injury that requires numbing injections to keep him on the field. He just had 11 tackles, including 2 for loss, in Florida’s win over Missouri, which was secured due to great defense. And while this doesn’t matter for All-American consideration, Miller has used his NIL platform to start a foundation to raise money for Hurricane Ian victims.
Ventrell Miller isn’t only 1 of the best players in college football, he’s also a great human being.
He’s using his #NIL as a vehicle to raise money for victims of Hurricane Ian in Southwest Florida.
A winner on and off the field. #GoGators
— Darren Heitner (@DarrenHeitner) October 8, 2022
Miller should be an All-American, and right now, a first-team All-American. But it’s hard to know what impact Florida being a merely good, not great, football team will have on his pursuit of that honor. A big win and performance against LSU would certainly help.
4. Why is Xzavier Henderson not a downfield threat? Wasn’t he a track champion from Miami? — Christina, Orlando
Xzavier Henderson was, in fact, a state champion in track. He won the 400 meters as a senior at Columbus High. He’s also the brother of CJ Henderson, one of the fastest corners in the NFL. All of this makes Christina’s question: Why hasn’t Henderson emerged as a bona fide deep threat– a really good one. It’s a surprise, first of all, that he isn’t a deep threat. As a high 4-star recruit, he was expected to be a guy who could take the top off SEC defenses when he signed with Florida, shunning Georgia and Alabama.
Whether due to added bulk, or due to a discrepancy between football speed in pads and track speed in the 400 meters, it hasn’t worked that way.
Henderson’s long career reception came as a freshman — 43 yards. This season, his long catch has been 28 yards, and Florida primarily uses him in screen and hitch concepts where they try to let him make plays in space after the catch.
Averaging under 10 yards per catch despite high targets and receptions, it’s clear that Henderson has simply not developed into the vertical threat Florida (and Alabama and Georgia) believed it was recruiting. That’s hurt the Gators who, despite a roster full of blue-chip receivers, have missed on the deep threat they need to really make this offense multiple.
5. Any reason to be concerned about Florida’s defensive scheme? The defensive improvement hasn’t been what I expected. — Taylor, Atlanta
Questions about Florida’s defense are fair, despite the heroics of Miller and the productivity of Burney (above). The Gators rank 99th in total defense through 6 games, per CFB Stats. Last year’s unit finished 51st under Todd Grantham. They are 49th in SP+ defensive efficiency. Last year’s group finished 39th.
Yes, Florida has played 2 tremendous offenses: Utah (20th) and Tennessee (No. 1). But Florida has also played some bad offenses: Kentucky (99th), Missouri (86th) and USF (102nd). The Gators should be better than 86th in yards allowed per play against that schedule.
Patrick Toney’s unit has struggled most against the run. The Gators rank 110th in that category, far worse than any year in the Grantham era. Florida is thin at linebacker, and younger players, like Shemar James, Scooby Williams and Derek Wingo, while talented, have not proven ready to play SEC football. That has resulted in a lot of missed tackles, and too many explosive runs (Florida ranks 13th in the SEC in explosive run plays allowed, ahead of only South Carolina).
Still, for all the grief Florida’s defensive staff took a year ago, it’s been an ignominious beginning for Toney, considered one of the nation’s brightest young defensive minds when Napier brought him along from Louisiana. Florida won’t change directions yet, but if there’s one legitimate fan gripe about the Gators in Year 1 under Napier — it’s the lack of noticeable improvement from this defense.