Rapid Reaction: Florida's opening night rout of Charleston Southern
Florida opened the Dan Mullen era in style with a dominant 53-6 win over Charleston Southern on Saturday night in The Swamp.
Feleipe Franks became the first Gators quarterback since Tim Tebow to produce five touchdowns in a game and Van Jefferson caught two touchdown passes in his debut to lead the Gators.
There will be stiffer competition and adversity in the coming months, but it was an impressive debut for a Florida program that managed only four nondescript wins a year ago.
Most of all, it was fun to spend a Saturday night in The Swamp again, as 89,000-plus Gators headed home happy and excited about the season to come.
Here are four things that impressed me and one thing that stood out as needing improvement as Florida heads into SEC play next week at home against Kentucky.
QB Feleipe Franks
The battle to be Dan Mullen’s starting quarterback extended into game week for Florida, but it always felt like the rocket arm and natural talent of Franks, a high-level 4-star recruit out of high school, would win the job.
You saw why Saturday night.
Franks was a little rusty on Florida’s opening drive, and a batted ball that was nearly intercepted probably gave more than a few fans flashbacks to Franks’s frustrating freshman season.
But Franks gathered himself quickly and made accurate throws — and, more vitally, secondary reads — throughout the first half. He dropped a dime of a throw to Freddie Swain on a deep flag to set up one of his five first-half touchdown passes, and his final throw, a rope of a slant to Van Jefferson, was an NFL-caliber throw.
It was a great opening night for Franks. It was also smart of Dan Mullen to replace him with Kyle Trask in the second half, to let Franks finish on a high note.
The Gators wide receivers
By the middle of the second quarter, four Florida receivers had caught a touchdown pass. That never happened in the Jim McElwain era (there were only two games where three different Florida receivers had touchdown catches). Even accounting for the opponent, it’s a sign of the confidence this Florida staff has in the unit’s depth.
Jefferson received the most targets. That was expected. What was great to see for Florida was that Swain and Grimes got separation and ran clean routes. The group also had good effort blocking downfield in the running game, a point of emphasis for the coaches throughout fall camp.
Linebacker Rayshad Jackson
After playing only sparingly last season, the Miami Norland product was tremendous throughout fall camp, opening the eyes of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham with his instincts and ability to find the ball.
A good camp translated into a fine football game Saturday night. Jackson filled in admirably for injured starter David Reese, collecting a handful of tackles, two of which were one on one, run gap fits on short third-down conversions.
Florida has depth questions at linebacker, and Jackson might go a long way to assuage some of those concerns.
Florida ended its self-imposed ban on trying to block kicks on the final play of the first half, when Zachary Carter sent the crowd into raptures by blocking Tyler Tekac’s short field goal attempt. It was pure effort, which is part of the Mullen mantra and deserves every plaudit given that it came in a 38-0 game.
Florida later blocked another kick, a Charleston Southern extra point. Jeremiah Moon split a double team and put his hands on the kick, which walk-on Austin Perry promptly took to the house.
A quiet question mark heading into fall camp was how Florida would replace its two departing All-American caliber specialists, punter Johnny Townsend and kicker and fan favorite Eddy Piñeiro.
Early returns are positive.
Evan McPherson, a coveted prep kicker Mullen flipped from Mississippi State, was 2-for-2 on field goals and senior Jorge Powell added a 39 yarder late in the third quarter.
Townsend’s replacement, his brother Tommy, only punted once, but the ball had good hangtime and there was no return.
What to improve: Offensive line on runs
The Gators ended up with 6.1 yards a carry through three quarters, but their inability to establish the run early was a concern. Jordan Scarlett and Malik Davis combined for only 21 yards on 7 carries on Florida’s first three possessions, a miserable number that won’t cut it when SEC play begins next week.
Yes, Florida is adjusting to a new zone-dominant run blocking scheme. But even accounting for the schematic change, this was a game where a veteran Florida offensive line was playing a defensive line that averages 225 pounds. Florida should have imposed its will. That it did not is a concern as the Gators ready for Kentucky and SEC football.