It was just a spring game, but Saturday’s Orange and Blue game in Gainesville felt like the beginning of a new era. The mood was light, the crowd of 53,000-plus was lively, players were smiling and having fun, and the sideline was dotted with Gator greats, from Percy Harvin to Lawrence Wright.
All across a sun-splashed Swamp, there were reminders of what Florida’s program was only a decade ago, and what it again could be.
In the end, the Orange beat the Blue 35-30, but as is always the case at spring games, the victor didn’t matter. What mattered was the feeling in the building and outside of it, as optimistic fans set up tailgates early and a palpable buzz surrounded the program, from the long lines to enter to the long list of elite recruits in the building.
Here are 5 takeaways from Dan Mullen’s inaugural spring game as the HBC in Gainesville.
Most important, the fun was back.
Fans were thrilled to a 52-point first half, which included former Thorpe award winner and All-American Lawrence Wright catching an early touchdown pass from Kyle Trask, and Feleipe Franks finding former All-SEC wide receiver Travis McGriff for another touchdown minutes later.
There were other big plays- like when Feleipe Franks galloped — Bambi on Ice style — for a 60-yard touchdown on a well-executed zone read.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) April 14, 2018
And there were big-time celebrations, from a game of “duck, duck, goose” to Franks punting a ball into the stands to Kenmore Gamble’s Scarface impression.
You can’t often take much schematically from spring games, which are at best a test of technique and football IQ. But you can learn about a culture, and Florida’s, toxic when Mullen arrived last November, is healing and laying a foundation for the future.
Kyle Trask took advantage of his opportunity and should be the quarterback to beat in fall camp.
Trask, a lightly-recruited but prototypically sized (6-4, 235 pounds) redshirt sophomore from Manvel, Texas, had battled Franks to what was essentially a draw this spring, with Dan Mullen telling the media last week there was “essentially no separation between the two.”
There should be a bit of separation after the spring game.
Trask was the more accurate thrower down the field, hitting several intermediate throws after a nervy start, and he looked comfortable in Dan Mullen’s spread offense, which shares many of the principles he ran in high school in Texas, where he backed up Houston Cougar QB D’Eriq King.
Trask finished with over 200 yards passing and led easily Florida’s 2 most impressive drives of the day, which both featured elite throws: a dart of a seam route to Kadarius Toney and a beauty of a back shoulder ball to Tyrie Cleveland.
Florida fans had to be perplexed at what Kyle Trask just did. It’s called a “back-shoulder throw.” All the cool kids are doing it these days.
— Connor O'Gara (@cjogara) April 14, 2018
Saturday was a chance for Trask to show Gator nation what the coaching staff has seen this spring, and he delivered.
Florida’s offensive line needs work.
The Gators missed Brett Heggie, who was their best offensive lineman a season ago, and missed the spring due to a leg injury he suffered last November. But the depth behind Heggie wasn’t great.
T.J. McCoy made a few nice blocks for Jordan Scarlett in the run game, and Martez Ivey was the All-SEC candidate version of Martez Ivey for the orange team, but the remainder of the starting offensive line- at least on Florida’s depth chart- played for the blue team, and struggled. Jawaan Taylor jumped offside and missed second level run blocks, and collectively, the unit surrendered multiple sacks and too often failed to hold simple blocks in the passing game that stalled drives or forced Trask to hurry throws.
It’s a testament to Trask and some hard-running from Jordan Scarlett and true freshman Iverson Clement that the Blue team had the 2 best drives of the day, given the lack of quality line play. Florida will need to be much better up front come fall camp.
Jordan Scarlett looks poised for a huge season
Lamical Perine had a great run early, where he waited on his crease with high leg turnover before bouncing it outside hard for a first down. It was a run that shows why he’s a great fit for Mullen’s zone run schemes.
— Neil W. Blackmon (@nwblackmon) April 14, 2018
But the story of the day was easily Jordan Scarlett, who tallied 58 yards on 10 carries and collected 2 touchdowns with some hard-running despite less-than-sufficient line play.
A year after letting the team and program down when he was implicated in the Credit Card Nine, Scarlett has impressed coaches and teammates with his work ethic and leadership this spring. Saturday’s performance was a perfect way to cap that effort, and sets the stage for a season of redemption this autumn.
Antonneus Clayton shines on defense.
Clayton arrived at Florida the lone five-star in McElwain’s second recruiting class, a defensive gem and a rare big name head-to-head win over other elite SEC programs from the prior staff. He struggled to live up to the hype in two years under McElwain, however, battling size and strength issues and seeing his role limited to that of a jet end pass-rusher in Randy Shannon’s 4-3.
Enter a new staff, and perhaps most critically, a new strength coach in Nick Savage. Clayton has added muscle in the offseason, to help him deal with the rugged tackles in the SEC. He’s shown his great talent in flashes, even as coaches hammer away at him for a lack of consistency.
It was good to see him beat players inside and outside Saturday, and his two sacks of Kyle Trask- the latter a strip sack where he worked Jawaan Taylor- snuffed out a late Blue drive in the first half of Saturday’s game.
If he produces consistently in Grantham’s 3-4 as an outside option, Florida will have All-American Cece Jefferson and Clayton, a pairing that gives the Gators depth and could give defenses headaches.