Florida football: Handing out midseason superlatives
Seven weeks down. Seven weeks to go. Halfway home in this college football season, which, if you’re anything like me, is bittersweet. There’s so much to come, but the thought of another endless offseason lurking around the corner is always tough to swallow.
For the Gators, the midpoint of the season sees Florida at 6-1 and already bowl eligible, already an upgrade over the entirety of last year’s bowl-less 4-win campaign.
The Gators are legitimate contenders for the program’s first New Year’s Six Bowl invite (their last “major” bowl was a Sugar Bowl invite after the 2012 season and before the Playoff format was adopted) and will enter the Cocktail Party next weekend with a chance to put themselves in a great position in the SEC East.
What a difference a year makes.
Here’s some midseason awards for what has been a very successful first half of the 2018 season in Gainesville.
Top True Freshman: Evan McPherson, K
The reigning SEC Freshman of the Week has made the transition from NFL-bound kicker Eddy Piñeiro seamless for the Gators.
Dan Mullen flipped McPherson, the consensus No. 1 kicker in the country in the 2018 recruiting class, from Mississippi State last December, and the Fort Payne, Ala., product has rewarded Mullen by connecting on 11-of-12 field goals.
In truth, McPherson is 12-for-12—it’s just that this kick against Kentucky, which clearly slips inside the upright—was mystifyingly called no good.
In what country is this a missed field goal?
I'll wait pic.twitter.com/q0vEWFIUE2
— Ben Murphy (@BenMurphyTV) September 9, 2018
McPherson’s accuracy has been immensely helpful for a Florida offense that still struggles at times to sustain lengthy drives, and his continued success gives Florida confidence that they won’t leave points on the field in the kicking game.
Most Pleasant Surprise: Brad Stewart, S
Stewart was a blue-chip recruit out of New Orleans who signed with the Gators largely because home state LSU backed off.
The safety had a mostly quiet freshman campaign and spring, however, and wasn’t even a surefire starter entering fall camp.
All he’s done since is help anchor a secondary that suffered a terrible blow when All-SEC corner Marco Wilson was lost for the season on the first defensive series against Kentucky. Stewart has collected 29 tackles, 2 pass breakups, 2 interceptions and a forced fumble and has made big play after big play, including his pick-6 against LSU, which is the signature play of the first half of Florida’s surprising season.
The roar heard 'round Gainesvillepic.twitter.com/kdziMnRBxt
— Gators Football (@GatorsFB) October 6, 2018
Stewart’s performances have helped him earn 1st Team Mid-Season All-American honors from SI and Pro Football Focus, which has graded him out as one of the two best safeties in America (Alabama’s Deionte Thompson) through half the season.
Given the low expectations, Stewart handily wins the “most pleasant surprise” midseason superlative.
Most Improved Player: Feleipe Franks, QB
This award should be shared with quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, who is quietly becoming one of the brightest young coaches in the country, and Dan Mullen, who has taken a highly-touted kid with shattered confidence and turned him into a capable game manager in under a year.
But most the credit should go to Franks, who has gone from the biggest question mark on an offense loaded with playmakers to a guy who isn’t even among the team’s five biggest question marks entering the second half of the season.
The Gators haven’t been an electric passing offense (90th nationally), but buoyed by a still-improving power running game, they haven’t had to be. What they’ve needed is poise and consistency, and Franks has offered both.
His performance against Mississippi State exemplified why he’s a different player this season.
Franks didn’t throw a touchdown pass, but in a frenzied environment, despite the cowbells and the Mullen angst and anger and seven false starts from his offensive line, Franks took what the defense gave him all night, going 22-for-31 for 219 yards and picking up two vital first downs with his legs when asked.
Franks has also shown the ability to bounce back when he does make a mistake, whether it’s a critical red-zone interception against LSU at home or an early red-zone interception against Vanderbilt.
Ideally, the Gators would like him to not make those mistakes. But for now, they’re happy to settle for a performance like Saturday at Vanderbilt, where their sophomore quarterback responded to two turnovers by going 19-for-29 for 284 yards and 2 touchdowns in a huge comeback win.
Offensive MVP: Lamical Perine, RB
Perine’s carries were limited through the first four games, despite a “success rate” of over 80 percent on his touches.
An injury to Malik Davis changed the nature of Florida’s running backs rotation over the past month, however, and the junior from Mobile, Ala., has taken full advantage.
Perine has tallied nearly 300 yards on 50 carries in Florida’s wins at Miss State, vs. LSU and at Vanderbilt, and has proven to be an effective receiver as well, with 8 receptions for 142 yards on the season. His success rate of 53.4% leads all Florida running backs through 7 games and his PFF rating of 76.2 also leads the Gators. Perine has a team-high 21 first downs gained and a team-high 10 explosive runs, and his ability as a pass-blocker has helped settle an offensive line that struggled early in the season.
He’s one of two future NFL running backs on Florida’s roster and appears to be hitting his stride as the Gators head into the second half.
Defensive MVP: Jachai Polite, DE
The junior from Daytona Beach has been a force all season, and with 7 sacks through 7 games, has a legitimate chance at breaking Alex Brown’s longstanding program sack record in the season’s second half. His opening half has earned SI midseason and PFF All-American honors and makes him a no-brainer choice for Florida’s midseason defensive MVP.
As SDS chronicled last week, Polite has dominated games despite facing an increasing number of double teams and running back and tight end help.
The same LSU offensive line that manhandled Georgia couldn’t touch Polite, who collected 6 tackles, 3 for loss, 2 sacks and a forced fumble in Florida’s win over the Bayou Bengals.
Jachai Polite is good at football. pic.twitter.com/poGbmewyVz
— Greg McElroy (@GregMcElroy) October 8, 2018
As more defenses key on Polite, the other talented members of Florida’s defensive line, including NFL prospects Jabari Zuniga and Cece Jefferson, have found more room to operate and thrive. In other words, Polite makes everyone around him better, which is what MVPs do.
Polite’s combination of power, speed and finesse has seen him shoot up NFL draft boards, and is a primary reason a Florida front seven that struggled mightily in an early-season loss to Kentucky has become a strength of the football team and an object lesson in the team’s buy-in to the physical, tough brand of football Dan Mullen wants to make Florida’s identity.