Florida Gators spring practice news and notes (through April 6)

 

Florida Gators spring practice
Photo credit: Florida Gators athletics association

The Florida Gators’ spring practice season still has one week left in it before the spring game one week from today, but I feel as though enough time has elapsed for the offseason rust to have worn off and players to have gotten comfortable enough with the new staff to merit a running list of news and notes from these spring practices.

Full transparency: although I’m not physically in Gainesville, I’ve spoken with a variety of people on the ground there who are┬ápresent at the practices in order to compile these pieces of news and notes. No observation that I’ve written here was written without at least two different people voicing the same observations to me; if there’s a slight discrepancy between their observations, it’s noted as such.

Additionally, these tidbits are general observations that were formulated by the totality of the Florida Gators’ spring practice season thus far. No one practice session or scrimmage fueled anything I’ve written. These are themes that have been noticed by the people I’ve talked to, and summaries of performances throughout the past month.

Diwun Black is a rising star on defense

To the surprise of absolutely nobody on that practice field, Diwun Black is becoming a real problem for the offense in scrimmages.

The athleticism he displays has variously been described to me as, “ridiculous,” “crazy,” and “off the damn charts.” He’s a strong tackler, has great range, and has elite ball instincts for a linebacker, and most importantly, he’s demonstrating all of this on a very consistent basis. Teammates and coaches alike can’t stop gushing about how impressed they are with them, and the general theme seems to be “proud, but not surprised.”

Like everybody will under a new coach, Black will have some plays where he’s not quite in the right position or takes a bad angle to the ball carrier, but those plays are growing more rare now as he develops more comfort with the scheme. I’d be stunned if Black isn’t starting or at least logging heavy minutes against Utah on September 3rd.

Jason Marshall looks like that next elite Gator corner

Few teams felt bold enough to test Kaiir Elam last fall, which resulted in a very nice freshman season for Marshall. But this spring, the Miami Palmetto product has taken it to the next level.

Marshall is everywhere. More than once in scrimmages, Marshall has locked down his man enough to force throws to go elsewhere, and then gotten over to a completely different part of the field to make the tackle or lure the ball carrier out of bounds. When QB’s do test him and throw in his direction, he’s making plays on the ball more often than not. He’s quick with both his hands and his feet, and his instincts for the ball have been labeled “All-American worthy in 2022” by multiple people.

Now, how much of this is positive news for Marshall or negative news about Florida’s receivers corps is still TBD. We won’t know until September. But either way, Marshall has emerged as a clear cut CB1 for the Gators- and that suggests that Florida’s real work in the secondary will be finding a reliable CB2 alongside him.

Anthony Richardson is learning

I know everybody wants to hear all about how Anthony Richardson is lighting the world on fire at the Florida Gators’ spring practice sessions. He’s not. But he’s getting there.

We all know how talented Richardson is, but we all saw Richardson try too hard to make things happen against Georgia last year, too, and that led to disaster. That’s still happening at times in spring ball, but sources have indicated to me that “there are clear signs of learning” going on with him and he is decreasing the frequency with which this happens. What’s more, though he does still lock onto his primary target sometimes, that also is happening less with the passage of time as he becomes more familiar with the playbook, and receivers’ particular routes.

Consistency is the key with Richardson. He’s Florida’s obvious game one starter barring injury. But he does have some days that are better than others, and as he continues to go through the growing pains that any first-year starter would be expected to go through, the most important thing for him will be doing all the little things right on a consistent basis.

Jack Miller emerges as QB2

Florida was always going to need depth at quarterback even without Emory Jones leaving, and it looks like they found some great depth in Ohio State transfer Jack Miller.

Needless to say, Miller is not the same type of QB as Richardson. He’s not going to be breaking off 80 yard touchdown runs featuring Heisman-pose hurdles or breakaway speed. But he throws a very pretty ball, he’s nimble enough in the pocket that one missed block doesn’t necessarily mean certain death for the play, and he’s developing some pretty nice timing with his receivers for a newbie in the system.

To be very clear, this is still Anthony Richardson’s team. He’s as firmly entrenched in the QB1 slot as one can be. But due to either struggles or injury at the QB position, Florida has been forced to go to its backup quarterback for at least one full drive in non-mop-up duty every year since 2009 with the lone exception of 2020. So if history is any indication, Miller will need to be ready.

Questions remain at OL, WR and TE

I’m a big proponent of “don’t let spring ball struggles fool you.” For one thing, there are still several weeks of practice lying ahead this summer. For another thing, it could always be a case of elite talent going up against the struggling position. But let’s just keep a somewhat positive attitude and say that Florida has some questions to answer at these positions.

Jordan Pouncey appears to be in the midst of a strong spring at wide receiver, Keon Zipperer seems solidly penciled into the TE1 slot, and my contacts frequently make points to tell me how high they are on Richard Gouraige’s performance. Behind those guys, though, there are problems. Josh Braun usually holds his own, but by and large, Gervon Dexter, Antwaun Powell, Diwun Black, and Derek Wingo “are abusing this line,” one source told me. I asked a second source if that description was accurate, and received the following response: “yeah, pretty much. Those guys (on the defense) are looking really good, but this OL has to step up at some point.”

Furthermore, Corey Collier, Avery Helm, and Jason Marshall are winning “a suspiciously high volume of reps against receivers,” with Pouncey and Zipperer being noted as the exceptions. Dante Zander, a former DE who’s been moved to TE due to a lack of bodies, is also earning praise for being willing to make the move and has done as well as coaches could have reasonably hoped. But by and large, these three units have work to do this next week and over the summer.

Lorenzo Lingard and Demarkcus Bowman do, in fact, exist!

For reasons that will never be clear to me, Dan Mullen took the effort to land former five-star running back recruits Lorenzo Lingard and Demarkcus Bowman out of the transfer portal… and then never used them. But for all the ire Mullen has drawn for his decisions with personnel, Gator fans should be grateful that he did- because if anything from the Florida Gators’ spring practice sessions holds any weight, Florida now has two truly fearsome runners to use.

Of the two, Lingard has been the more dominant this spring, my contacts unanimously told me. He’s “remarkably elusive” in the open field, frequently making defenders miss and beating them to the sideline with pure speed. He’s also bulked up a good bit, and now seems perfectly comfortable lowering his shoulder to try to get the tough yards whereas in the past he would’ve looked to bounce it outside quicker.

But Bowman is coming along nicely, too. His footwork is said to have improved dramatically since the start of spring ball- he even slipped, fell, and lost the ball a few times- and he’s showing out in the passing game, too. That footwork is making him dangerous as a route runner, and his pure speed makes him difficult for the defense to contain.