Florida's post-spring report card: What the Gators do well and what questions remain
Coming off a 10-win season in Year 1 that included a convincing New Year’s 6 bowl victory over Michigan, expectations are heightened for Year 2 of the Dan Mullen era. That Mullen and Florida signed the program’s first top 10 recruiting class in 5 seasons and appear poised to sign an even better class in 2020 only adds to the hype around the program.
Adding to Florida’s good fortune, Florida State is floundering and Miami is in transition, giving the Gators a chance to run the state for the first time since the Tebow era. At a minimum, the Gators enter the summer with momentum for the first time since an 11-win campaign in 2012.
Of course, that 2012 to 2013 transition also demonstrates how precarious momentum can be in college football.
The 2013 Gators were a season removed from a blowout win over FSU in Tallahassee and a Sugar Bowl when they lost a tightly-contested early season game against Miami. That loss, coupled with some critical injuries and poor quarterback play, sent a once-promising season down a death spiral. The Gators followed an 11-win campaign with a 4-win one, missed a bowl for the first time in three decades and sent a hot young coach from the catbird seat to the hot seat in one season.
No one is anticipating that type of collapse in 2019, but once again, an early tilt with the Hurricanes looms large, as do questions on both the offensive and defensive line.
Here is a post-spring progress report to help paint a clearer picture of where Florida stands ahead of that Week Zero clash with Miami in Orlando.
When’s the last time this position hasn’t been the program’s most significant question mark headed into the summer? The answer is the Tebow era, which, as it happens, is the last time the Gators won the SEC.
Feleipe Franks made great strides in 2018, finishing the year with Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl MVP honors, but there is more room for him to grow. He needs to improve on secondary reads, become more accurate down the field, and add touch to his intermediate throws. Franks became a willing runner in 2018, but only occasionally showed he was capable of changing the play at the line of scrimmage or calling his own number when defenses were set up to stop the primary option. Franks made strides in all those areas this spring, and continues to play with a chip on his shoulder. A summer of film study and individual workouts could make this a special season for a player suddenly on 2020 NFL Draft radars.
The Gators also appear confident in what’s behind him. Kyle Trask and Emory Jones give Florida competent backups and both has their moments this spring, even if Jones, a special athlete, continued to struggle with consistency on intermediate throws and reads during the spring.
Passing game (including WRs/TEs): A
Florida has an embarrassment of riches at wide receiver and tight end, with most of it high-end blue-chip talent.
It starts with Van Jefferson, the Ole Miss transfer and Franks’ favorite target, who runs polished routes, is largely bump-coverage proof and has splendid hands.
Tyrie Cleveland, back from a collarbone injury that cost him most of 2018, gives Florida a vertical element they’ve lacked in recent seasons.
Freddie “7-11” Swain is always open, no matter the opponent.
A perfect strike!
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) October 27, 2018
Josh Hammond has a knack for the big play at a critical time, as Gators fans saw in the Peach Bowl when he caught a critical third-down ball in the second half with the game still hanging in the balance.
Kadarius Toney averaged a first down every time he touched the football in 2018 and showed a better grasp of the offense — meaning more touches — this spring.
Trevon Grimes and Kyle Pitts are mismatch nightmares. Kenmore Gamble gives Florida another blue-chip tight end and was one of Florida’s most improved players on offense in the spring.
Other coveted recruits, including Jacob Copeland, who picked Florida over Alabama, wait in the wings. It’s been at least a decade since the Gators had a position group on offense this good. It could be really fun to watch.
Running game: B+
Lamical Perine will likely be 1st-team preseason All-SEC, and should be. He’s a complete back: elusive with a good burst, able to break tackles, capable as a pass catcher and terrific in protection. Scouts sometimes say he’s slow but he doesn’t much look like it:
Perine will have a chance to be the workhorse a year after sharing primary carries with NFL-bound Jordan Scarlett.
But the stable doesn’t stop there. Malik Davis, on the All-SEC Freshmen team in 2017, returned from a knee injury to show a good burst this spring, showing few lingering effects of the injury which derailed his sophomore campaign.
Dameon Pierce gives the Gators a bruiser with the ability to breakaway from defenses if he gets second-level. Iverson Clement is a capable pass-catcher. And the coaches are excited to see what blue-chip Nay’Quan Wright, out of Miami, can do when he arrives this fall.
This position group would be an A if not for the huge questions on Florida’s …
Offensive line: D+
A grade of “incomplete” might be more fair, but my editors asked for a grade through the spring, so that’s what I’ll do.
Nick Buchanan is the only starter who “has played winning football,” per Mullen. Brett Heggie has some starting experience, but has yet to hammer down a full time gig under Mullen and well-regarded offensive line coach John Hevesy. Jean Delance and Stone Forsythe were decent at times this spring, but weren’t exposed to the types of exotic pressures and aggressive stunts they’ll see during the SEC schedule. They had scrimmages where there was little push in the run game too, a concern for a run-dominant spread offense.
This unit has to become functional if Florida is going to compete for the SEC championship. They also need to build depth. Too often this spring, the starting unit looked good but beyond them it was a mess. Injuries happen, and Florida needs more than five reliable linemen.
Mullen knows this, which is why after the spring game he publicly acknowledged the team was shopping for a grad transfer offensive lineman. If they don’t land one, they’ll have to develop what’s behind the first unit quickly, ore even the highly-anticipated opener against Miami may leave a sour taste in fans mouths.
Run defense: C+
Florida’s biggest questions on defense are at the 3-technique and traditional tackle spots.
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.
Zachary Carter, a blue-chip originally recruited as a defensive end, rotated between the three-technique and end this spring, and showed he was capable in either spot. That was a positive sign.
Tedarrell Slaton is the most talented nose tackle on the roster, but Kyree Campbell continued to practice better and play better late in the season and is the likely incumbent starter.
Slaton had his moments this spring, but often it came against the aforementioned “twos” on the offensive line. Physical run games often bullied the Gators in 2019, they can again if the Gators don’t get a better push up front.
Fortunately, the team appears better at linebacker, with Ventrell Miller, James Houston and freshman Mohamoud Diabate among the players who had nice springs in run fits to help out the vacuum cleaner in the middle that is David Reese.
Pass defense: A-
Let’s start with the good.
The starting corners are among the best in America. C.J. Henderson is Florida’s best football player and will likely be a first-round draft pick. Marco Wilson, back from an ACL injury, is an elite cover guy. Early enrollee Chris Steele, one of the nation’s most coveted corners, appears set to be Florida’s next star and adds needed high-level depth.
The nickel situation is a question, but there’s cause for optimism.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson was one of the more underrated players in college football (one of the nation’s top 5 pass defenders, per Pro Football Focus) and a key leadership voice in the locker room. Florida will try to replace him by committee, with the talented Trey Dean and John Huggins, who was electric all spring. Neither player is proven, but both appear poised for breakout seasons.
At safety, there’s no Keanu Neal or Marcus Maye NFL type, but there are plenty of good players.
Brad Stewart isn’t the All-American caliber safety people thought he was after his pick-6 of Joe Burrow sealed Florida’s win over LSU last season. He’s also still a strong SEC safety and not as bad as he looked trying to cover Trevon Grimes over the top in Saturday’s spring game. Donovan Stiner is strong in run support but demands coverage help. Shawn Davis was roasted on a corner route by Toney in the spring game, but he’s been a consistent performer for Florida. Finding the right combination will be a challenge, but the Gators have options.
Special teams: A
Evan McPherson missed only two field goals as a freshman, with his 89.5% make rate leading all freshman nationally. He’s as accurate a kicker as Florida’s had in the program.
Tommy Townsend averaged 45.4 yards per boot, earning second-team All-SEC honors. He’s not quite as good as his brother, who punts for the Raiders, but that’s a high bar.
Florida has multiple kickoff and punt return options in Freddie Swain, Toney and Cleveland, among others. It’s a strong group.
As noted above, the Gators OL is a work in progress. Replacing Martez Ivey, a 4-year starter at LT, will be the biggest challenge, but the guards struggled all spring as well. If Florida can’t get a consistent push, the best set of skill talent on campus in a decade won’t matter.