Photo credit: Florida Gators
Almost three weeks have elapsed since the last time I posted spring practice updates from Gainesville, so I figured it was time to generate some new observations and post what I’ve been hearing.
Two quick disclaimers.
Number one, as was the case with the first set of notes I posted earlier this month, and will be the case with every additional set of updates I post moving forward, nothing I write is written without multiple people telling me the same thing (or close to it); this is to eliminate outlier opinions and not-the-best vantage points.
Two, someone is almost always going to look bad at the same time someone looks good at spring practice, as this is what happens when Florida Gators go against Florida Gators; I do my best, and ask my people on the ground in Gainesville to do their best, to cobble together themes, and common occurrences, to formulate objective takeaways, but this is not a 100% foolproof science.
So, what’s gone on these past few weeks in the Florida Gators’ spring practices?
Florida Gators may have something special in Austin Barber
Austin Barber played a small role on the Gators’ 2021 team, which he told me frustrated him greatly (not like that would come off as a surprise to anyone who reads that). So he decided to double down and become the best version of himself that he could be. While we saw flashes of this in 2022- Barber more than held his own- he’s risen to a new level so far this spring.
The physical part of his game is already there. He’s 6’6, 310 of pure muscle, and 2022 tape shows him doing a very good job with his fundamentals far more often than not. The pad level is good, the initial punches off the snap are strong and he rarely got beaten off the ball. Obviously, no college lineman is going to be a finished product there- not even O’Cyrus Torrence was, and he didn’t even give up a single sack in 2022- but while this will forever be a work in progress to stay in that condition, Barber gets a check there.
The newsworthy piece here is the intelligence. Barber was never one to be mistaken for an imbecile, but this offseason he seems to have grown a knack for detecting defensive assignments pre-snap and communicating them to his teammates if the offensive play-call is set to be countered by the right defensive look. More than once, this has led to audibles being called in scrimmages. Obviously this will be hard to do with opponents in the fall than his own teammates in the spring, but with some good film study, the Gators have a strong chess player of an offensive lineman at their disposal.
The Graham Mertz/Florida Gators QB dilemma
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how it was too early to tell with Graham Mertz in terms of what he could be for Florida. Well… there’s still no decisive conclusion on that, and that’s led to a fairly enigmatic situation at QB.
It’s not as though Graham Mertz has been doing a bad job. He hasn’t. On some days, though, he looks better than others. He has thrown some pretty back-shoulder balls and looks good on slant and flare routes, leading the recipient of the pass well. He’s also earned praise from Napier both publicly and privately for how he’s come in and attacked the task of earning the job- and people I speak to say that’s not just lip service, he’s shown great leadership skills- especially for a newcomer. Teammates and coaches like him, and respect him. He’s got a lot of the intangibles needed to play QB, which counts for something.
That said, he also has not clearly separated himself from the pack as a pure quarterback, and the lack of consistency from him on his throws and decisions has created something of a vacuum at the position. It’s reached the point where Jack Miller leads the first-team offense on a fairly frequent basis, because this is officially an open competition for the job as the calendar prepares to flip to April. Miller, after all, has an extra year of reps at Florida, and though neither has indistinguishably separated himself from the competition, Miller has been very consistent and has that familiarity with the offense on his side.
There’s also the curious case of Max Brown. Once considered an afterthought, desperation, last-hour take just to fill a roster spot, Brown has grown admirably since his arrival and announced himself as a legitimate contender for the job. He’s looked good throwing deep balls, and even went semi-viral for hitting Aidan Mizell on a 60 yard touchdown pass in a scrimmage. So until further notice, the QB position remains up for grabs.
Ja’Keem Jackson impressing at corner
Much groaning and moaning was done when Florida lost out on Cormani McClain; the most unfortunate part of that was that the hoopla around that recruitment process diminished the quality of cornerback that Florida does have in the class. You know, in fans’ minds. Where it matters most. (Insert eye-roll emoji here.) Like, for example, with Ja’Keem Jackson.
Jackson has been everywhere this spring. He’s a super-fast corner with no problem getting dirty and delivering the kind of tackle that turns his jersey into the color of the earth. He makes up a lot of ground very quickly, which has helped in the run game as well as the pass game. On the rare occasions he does get beat, he’s fast enough to make up the difference with pure speed.
One example of the make-up speed that was given to me was on a stutter-and-go route by fellow true freshman Aidan Mizell- who, to be clear, is no slowpoke himself. Mizell beat Jackson on the move and had a full two steps on him. About 15 yards later, Jackson had caught up with Mizell and the two were running stride for stride on a ball that turned out to be over all of their heads anyway, i.e. neither of them had a prayer at catching it anyway. Look for Jackson to play immediately as a true freshman.
(Side note: I’m piecing together that Mizell has had a nice spring himself, but going with disclaimer number one at the top: I haven’t collected enough testimonials and anecdotes on him to merit his own section yet. He keeps this up, and that’s coming.)
Billy Napier gives an update on Micah Mazzccua
For those of you who haven’t seen or heard, this was what Billy Napier said about Mazzccua on Tuesday night:
“Tough dynamic, right? I think a lot is going on there behind the scenes. Micah was injured, ended up running an MRI. It is a prior injury that was kind of uncovered, something that has happened in the past. I think nowadays, with these players, there’s a ton of expectations but on them. Injuries are a challenge, and it puts you in a bad place. Micah’s a guy who certainly had big ambitions here, so this will set him back a little bit. He had surgery just a few days ago, and he will be in return to play protocol, and we will hopefully get him back in training camp.
Mazzccua, if you remember, mysteriously tweeted that he was re-entering the transfer portal after a week of practice; he subsequently deleted that tweet, which I was told “blindsided” the Florida Gators staff, members of which immediately sat down with him and began to try to work out his issue.
As of now, early Wednesday evening, March 29, 2023, that remains the goal. Mazzccua cannot in fact enter the portal because it is not even technically open yet, and won’t be until April 15. People close to the program reiterate to me that both Mazzccua and Florida are making a “good-faith effort” to resolve everything to Mazzccua’s satisfaction and hope Mazzccua will be a part of training camp in the summer.