Florida’s Orange and Blue spring game is on Saturday, and to a degree, marks the official start of the Jim McElwain era in Gainesville. There’s going to be a ton of things to look at and for this weekend, so I’ve chosen five things that seem to be the most important issues on offense and listed them (for the defensive preview, click here).
So let’s get to it.
#1: QB Battle
Obviously, this has been the hot button issue all spring, and really since last year when Jeff Driskel struggled against Tennessee and calls to replace him began, and then the next question- who will replace him- arose. Is there a clear leader? The answer right now is Will Grier, but he’s not so far ahead that a bad showing in the spring game combined with a strong performance by Treon Harris wouldn’t make McElwain think twice before naming him the starter.
Harris has the experience going for him, but when you think about it, that has negligible value. Yes, he quarterbacked Florida to a gigantic upset over Georgia, but he only threw six passes, and completed half of them, while Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor went off for over 400 yards of rushing. Yes, he quarterbacked Florida to an ugly win over Tennessee, but that was more due to Matt Jones getting hot late and the whole offense suddenly playing with fire… and granted, that speaks well about Harris’s ability to lead a team, but that was only something he proved he could do better than Driskel, as we don’t know that Grier wouldn’t have a similar effect.
Meanwhile, Grier has a phenomenal arm in terms of both strength and accuracy, and is a more natural fit for the kind of pro-style offense Doug Nussmeier and Jim McElwain want to run. He’s athletic enough to make plays with his legs, but he’s a strictly pass-first quarterback, and that’s what makes him more favorable to start than Harris, who admittedly makes for a solid dual threat option. But then, neither have played in a live game under Jim McElwain… even if it’s just a glorified scrimmage.
#2: Offensive line play and strategy
Honestly, I have no idea what the hell McElwain’s going to do here. He’s left with six offensive linemen on scholarship. How do you run a spring game when you barely have enough bodies to form a first team offensive line? McElwain said the lack of depth up front (thank you for that, Will Muschamp, now please learn to shut your mouth) would essentially reduce the Orange and Blue game to a scrimmage. OK, but what kind of scrimmage? 7 on 7 skeleton drives seem most appropriate, because that’s basically what this offensive has been reduced to, but hey, that’s not my call. Your guess as to how McElwain’s going to play this is as good as mine.
Now the question becomes, who among those six offensive linemen will step up? The spotlight is sure to be trained squarely on them due to the scarcity of linemen available; how will they perform? Sophomore David Sharpe is the only available lineman who’s ever started a college football game. So if the line plays well as a whole (in whatever capacity McElwain allows them to), that means that someone who’s never been given that much attention will have stepped up and played well. Antonio Riles, Travaris Dorsey, Cameron Dillard and Andrew Mike: time to show us what you’ve got. Of course the offensive line will get reinforcements in the fall with Trip Thurman and Rod Johnson returning from injury, and with the arrival of freshman Martez Ivey and Tyler Jordan, but it’d be nice to get some depth at that position now.
#3: Which receiver other than DeMarcus Robinson will step up?
Good question. The departure of Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose leaves Florida with just one receiver with over 400 career receiving yards, and that’s D-Rob with 823… and then it really drops off. Ahmad Fulwood is next with 326, and 86 of those came on a simple catch and run on a screen pass in the Birmingham Bowl that ECU was badly out of position for. OK, so part of this is due to the putrid brand of offense Will Muschamp was responsible for. But in any case, it’s time to find some playmakers.
LaTroy Pittman could be one. To date, his most impressive play was on a 34 yard reception against Missouri. Unfortunately, that came with the Gators down 42-7 with about 12 minutes to go. Not particularly useful. But now he figures to be targeted in much more meaningful situations, and I’d even argue that the spring game is more meaningful than that disaster of a game, so keep your eye out for him. The only other receiver who’s really done anything so far is Fulwood, who showed tremendous speed on that 86 yard run to put the game against ECU out of reach. The 6’4 Fulwood was pretty much buried on the depth chart under Muschamp, but now, with a competent coach, let’s find out if his freakish athletic ability will pay any real dividends.
Then there’s the rest of the receivers. For the Gators to have an adequate offense, somebody new is going to have to step up. That somebody could be CJ Worton, another solid talent who hasn’t been given much of a chance to do anything so far. Or it could be Brandon Powell, the former running back with outstanding hands who moved over to the slot receiver position in hopes of giving the WR unit a spark. Or maybe even Valdez Showers, who kicked off the season with a huge kick return against Idaho that was ultimately wiped out due to the game being canceled, caught a lob from Driskel for a touchdown against Alabama, and then completely disappeared. Somebody’s got to step up and make some plays for Florida in the passing game. The spring game will give us a better indication of who’s likely to do that.
#4: Red zone offense
Again, this won’t be easy to judge because of the scarcity of offensive linemen, and thus the limited ability to run a real spring game, but I’m very interested in seeing how the Gators’ offense functions inside the 20. Under Muschamp, Florida was so bad in the red zone that I sometimes had to change the channel when they got inside the other team’s 20 because my heart couldn’t take it. And sure enough, I missed Tevin Westbrook’s pick six against FSU this way (yes, I’m attributing that to Westbrook and not Harris). I never did that with any previous Gator coach, or the New York Giants (my favorite NFL team), and I pray that I will never have to do that again with Florida, either.
All there is to look for here is a new complement of plays rolled out for the new offense, and then see the offense execute them. Simple, but crucial. The Florida defense is a very good one, of course, but I would love to see some diversity in both the play-calling and personnel used inside the 20, and see what happens.
Florida’s got a great running back in Kelvin Taylor, and a solid backup in Adam Lane, but without too much depth there, I’m thinking McElwain is going to give his QBs some freedom to throw the ball. If either team (or both teams) gets their running game going, I’d love to see some play-action passes once the team gets to the red zone, mainly because Florida has been largely unsuccessful at executing these throughout Muschamp’s tenure. Maybe we’ll even get to see some run-pass options, rolling out Harris and Grier with the clear instruction to throw first, but take off if they see room to do so.
#5: New faces
Throughout spring practice, every Gator news outlet, website and fan blog has thrown out dozens of names of players who could break out this year. That includes some guys many of us have never heard of.
Jacob Guy is as good a bet as any to be one of those. He’s a walk-on QB who’s drawn praise from McElwain for his performance thus far, and may even find himself at third on the depth chart ahead of Skylar Mornhinweg. He took lots of reps in place of Harris when he missed practice dealing with a family situation, and did very well. Another new face to keep an eye out for is freshman tight end DeAndre Goolsby. Highly touted Virginia transfer Jake McGee certainly won’t be ignored, but Goolsby has earned himself plenty of reps with the first team as he enrolled early and got off to a great start. A big game on Saturday and we may see him battle McGee for playing time in the fall.
And finally- who else will come out of nowhere and break out on Saturday? That’s the fun with these spring games, as it gives everybody on the active roster at least some chance to emerge as a potential key to the team in the fall.