1. Overall, what was the vibe of spring practice after a very strong year one under Dan Mullen?
The biggest takeaway is that the team knows what it’s doing a lot better this year. The local Gainesville newspaper guys talked about how watching the team practice was like watching a professional team with how quickly and efficiently they were getting through drills.
It’s almost weird to say it, but there was very little drama because most everything went as expected. Florida didn’t lose a ton of players from last year, and the ones who moved up to the starting lineup were basically the ones everyone had guessed.
Some of it I think is that Florida, for once, doesn’t have a quarterback controversy. Some is also that Dan Mullen weighs experience and practice time heavily, so it’s hard, though not impossible, for someone to cut in line so to speak. The strengths and weaknesses largely were what we thought they’d be.
2. Offensively, the Gators return some strong skill talent but had some losses along the offensive line. Is that a concern, and how was that addressed this spring?
The offensive line is the biggest area of concern on the team. Only one starter is back: center Nick Buchanan, who is fine but won’t compete for the All-SEC team. Left guard Brett Heggie started some in 2017 before injuries relegated him to a backup role last year. Beyond that there are left tackle Stone Forsythe and right tackle Jean Delance, a pair of redshirt junior career backups who’ve waited their turns, and a redshirt freshman Chris Bleich at right guard. Together, that top line can be good enough.
The second string line in the spring was a redshirt freshman and four early enrollees. That went about as well as you’d guess. The redshirt is tackle Richard Gouraige, a blue chip signee who isn’t as far along as they’d like.
There are other options who missed spring. Senior 2018 JUCO transfer Noah Banks, who’s basically the first backup for everywhere but center, was out because he experienced vertigo at a couple bowl practices and has no timetable for a return. Redshirt freshman Griffin McDowell was out due to a scooter accident. If they can come back ready for the fall, that’ll add much-needed depth. As it is, Mullen is talking publicly about wanting a graduate transfer. They really need one, especially if Banks can’t go.
3. Feliepe Franks broke out in a big way, but still struggled against the tougher defenses on the schedule. Any ideas on his progress?
Franks’s biggest problems the last couple years were wrapped up in two things. One, he too often waited to see a receiver get open rather than throw a guy open or throw to a spot. Two, he trusted his rocket arm too much. I would bet some of the first factor was related to the second, that he wasn’t confident to throw to someone who wasn’t visibly open and tried to compensate for his lateness by throwing 100 MPH.
Confidence is not an issue this year. He has much better command of the offense and is trusting his receivers to get open and hit their spots. His touch on deep balls is improved too, whereas last year he often overthrew them. I wondered if any of the backups could push him, but they really didn’t. He’s clearly QB1 because he’s taken the needed step forward and not because the others all stink (because they don’t).
4. Any surprises on offense? Breakout players?
The offense is so deep everywhere but it’s going to be tough to have a real breakout player. I’ve written this offseason about how it’s going to be hard to have enough balls to go around both in the rushing and receiving ranks.
That said, the two breakout candidates are receiver Trevon Grimes and tight end Kyle Pitts. Grimes is a big, physical guy at 6-5 and 210 pounds, but he didn’t have a full grasp on the offense until late last year. This year he does, and he adds a new dimension to the pass game with all the other receivers being no taller than 6-2.
Pitts is listed at 6-6 and 246 pounds, and he mostly plays out wide. If you had a dollar for every time someone said “matchup nightmare” about him this spring, you’d have enough for a couple car payments. He really is one of those guys who’s as big as a tight end but can run like a receiver. He should cause a lot of problems for defenses.
5. Defensively, the Gators lost some big names, but still return the guts of a strong unit. Expectations on that side of the ball?
Most expect the defense not to fall off at worst and more likely improve in the second year of the new scheme. Louisville grad transfer Jonathan Greenard plugs a big hole up front in Jachai Polite’s vacated Buck position, and Amari Burney is a high ceiling replacement for Vosean Joseph at linebacker. Burney was a defensive back last year but is as big as Joseph physically, so he can step forward a level and actually provide competent pass defense at the linebacker spot for the first time in years.
Defensive tackle still looks merely adequate unless a couple of guys who looked good as freshman start doing more than looking good for a freshman. Safety is something of a concern, though right now it’s way overblown because they were handcuffed in the spring game and therefore performed far below their actual level. This won’t be a return to the vintage 2006 or 2008 defenses, but it probably will be a little better than last year.
6. What are the expectations for this club with another difficult schedule incoming?
The expectations remind me of LSU’s last year: the team should improve but the record might not reflect it.
The non-conference trades Colorado State for Miami (FL), which is the biggest change. The Hurricanes have a loaded defensive line that’ll cause trouble for the new UF offensive line, especially since it’s the first game of the year. Fans are pretty sanguine about swapping a road game at last year’s Mississippi State for a home game against Auburn, figuring it won’t be any worse.
The only games anyone seems to be worried about are Miami, Auburn, LSU, and Georgia. Win one of those and sweep the rest, and that’s another 9-3 year. Split them, and that’s 10-2. That’s where most fans are. You can find a few who think Georgia is a make-or-break game for the season, but that’s more about the rivalry than thinking UF is a true national title-caliber team.
I think the 9-3 to 10-2 range is about right. It’ll be a disappointment if they only hit 8-4, and 11-1 would be a true surprise.