(Photo credit: Florida Gators athletics)
Thanks to some new contacts I’ve made in Gainesville recently, I’ve got the eyes and ears on the ground I’ve needed to provide updates, insight, and observations from the Florida Gators spring practice sessions.
As was the case when I did these in previous years, nothing I write is written without it being a common theme from at least two people. Every observation I notate is something that two or more different people have said in different conversations.
So, spring practice is officially one week old. What’s stood out so far?
WR Andy Jean has hit the ground running
Good thing that Billy Napier believes in playing true freshman, because wide receiver Andy Jean has been highly problematic for defensive backs. And that statement holds in pretty much every drill.
All the traits are there for Jean to see immediate playing time. His feet are good for straight-line burner speed, but they’re also good for running some crisp, sharp routes. Corners have had issues staying with him, even those who have been in the program for a couple of years. And when the ball is in his catch radius, he’s shown tremendous hands and an ability to reel in passes away from the defender.
His blocking has also made some strides. He apparently struggled in this department a little bit (not too much, but it was identified as something that could use work) at first, but just throughout one week, people I’ve spoken to on those practice fields seem pleased with his progress there. If Jean keeps making strides as a blocker, there won’t be any objective reason to keep him off the field as a true freshman in 2023.
The Florida Gators will have a massive offensive line in 2023
The consensus sentiment among people I’ve talked to seems to be this: Ethan White, Michael Tarquin, and O’Cyrus Torrence will all be dearly missed, but the offensive line shouldn’t skip a beat in 2023. Especially if it stays healthy.
As of today, the offensive line appears to be as follows, from left to right: Austin Barber (6’6, 311), LG Micah Mazzccua (6’5, 329), Kingsley Eguakun (6’3, 301), Richie Leonard (6’2, 317), and Damieon George (6’6, 369). Should the injury bug strike on the outside, offensive tackle Kiyaunta Goodwin (6’8, 351) is capable of stepping right into action. That is more than 1,600 pounds of pure muscle on the Gators’ offensive line.
And it’s more than just the sheer numbers. This line has held its own in most drills throughout the first week, although Tuesday was a bit more hit-or-miss as Chris McClellan had a big day on the other side of the trenches. Still, Billy Napier puts a big emphasis on size with his offensive linemen, and it’s clear that those pounds are mostly muscle after watching them move.
The Florida Gators might suddenly have two tight ends
Insert all the standard disclaimers here. It’s been one week, it’s spring practice, don’t make too much out of spring ball, etc. But for the Florida Gators, two tight ends have been impressing so far. Look for these two names more as the spring progresses.
The word that I received from three different people about Arlis Boardingham is “fluid.” He’s not Kyle Pitts or Jordan Reed, but he seems to have seen an opportunity at tight end and seized it through this first week. He’s a good route-runner, has those strong-but-soft hands you want from tight ends, and can accelerate as a runner very nicely.
Then there’s Dante Zanders, formerly Dante Lang, and formerly a defensive lineman. He seems to have made the transition over to tight end very nicely, displaying great hands and much better feet. Multiple people I spoke to seem to think he looks like a completely different player from last spring, and even from last fall, and though each acknowledged he still had room to improve, if both he and Boardingham can take steps forward from here, the Gators might have two bona fide pass-catching tight ends.
TBD on Graham Mertz
I know that all that most people want to know about is Graham Mertz. He’s the QB that the Florida Gators took via the transfer portal, after all, and he’s all but assumed to be the Gators’ starting QB. So, about that.
The truth is, at least from the folks I’ve spoken to, that there’s no solid consensus on Mertz one way or another as a passer. Mertz, to be very clear, has not done anything to dissuade people who are high on him to keep talking him up. He’s hitting on most of his swing and flare passes, which is a good start, but his accuracy on intermediate and deep routes has been… well, impressive on some throws, and not impressive on others.
And this isn’t a knock on Mertz. He’s in his first week as a quarterback in a new system after being in a Wisconsin system that was not very friendly to QB’s. A learning curve was always to be expected. But in the interest of being positive (because that feels like all spring ball notes are supposed to be), there’s this: Mertz is, according to everybody I talked to, highly intelligent. Coaches have raved about his IQ publicly, and the people I’ve talked to rave about his IQ privately.