5 unanswered questions for Florida coming out of spring practice
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida very publicly answered 1 question coming out of spring, leaving no doubt that Feleipe Franks is clearly ahead of fellow redshirt freshman Kyle Trask on the quarterback depth chart.
But plenty of other questions remain heading into the offseason.
When the Gators open preseason camp in August, there will be plenty to sort through leading up to their much-anticipated Sept. 2 season opener against Michigan at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Here are a few:
5. Finding the best starting 5
Coach Jim McElwain acknowledged he wasn’t entirely pleased with the offensive line’s performance in the spring game last week.
The talk all spring was about the unit finding another level of physicality, aggression and intensity under new offensive line coach Brad Davis, and it wasn’t totally apparent in that showcase as the first-team linemen looked less than dominant against Florida’s second-team defensive line.
But a spring game is different from playing Michigan, meaning there is still plenty of reason to believe the group up front — whatever that ends up being — will be the best it’s been in McElwain’s 3 seasons.
Junior left tackle Martez Ivey and sophomore right tackle Jawaan Taylor are strong bookends, and redshirt sophomore T.J. McCoy should be a steady center. That leaves just a couple decisions left.
From the looks of the spring game, it would seem redshirt freshman Brett Heggie has positioned himself as the favorite to start at left guard.
That would leave juniors Tyler Jordan and Fred Johnson to compete at right guard, where they split time last season. McElwain had personally challenged Jordan prior to the spring to elevate his play. Look for McElwain and Davis to continue pushing that group right up to the opener.
4. Linebacker rotation
For a team losing 2 star linebackers to the NFL, the Gators actually bring plenty of talent back to the position. But it will be interesting to see how the depth chart shakes out by the end of August.
Redshirt freshman Jeremiah Moon made a strong impression during the spring game after missing last season with a thumb injury that required surgery. The Gators have sophomore David Reese, who sat out the spring recovering from wrist surgery, back at middle linebacker. Redshirt sophomore Kylan Johnson emerged as a starter down the stretch last season and sophomore Vosean Joseph finished strong as well.
Moon wasn’t in the mix then because of his injury, but he will be this summer and he gives the Gators an interesting puzzle piece. As he described after the spring game, the coaches are comfortable using him in coverage in 3-linebacker sets instead of using a fifth defensive back, as they relied on last season.
With Randy Shannon now putting his stamp on the Florida defense, those 3-linebacker sets could become more of a norm. That’s something to monitor in the summer, as well as how the Gators divide playing time between those top 4 linebackers with Moon now available.
3. Applying pressure
That’s not the only question on the defense, though. Or the most pressing.
The coaches have emphasized the need to develop a strong pass rush from the defensive end position, and that means getting increased production from some young players.
Jabari Zuniga was a revelation early last season as a redshirt freshman and ended up leading the team with 5 sacks, but most of that production came in the first half of the schedule. The Gators need to see if he can build on that this summer and position himself to be a true force.
Antonneous Clayton, meanwhile, never really found his footing despite coming in as a hyped 5-star prospect. He’s spoken this spring of his motivation to have a breakout year, which would be an obvious boost. The Gators still need to see it when it matters, though, and he has to first earn that opportunity in August.
Senior defensive end Jordan Sherit (3.5 sacks in 2016), who might not be ready for the start of fall camp while recovering from a knee injury, and junior Keivonnis Davis (1.5 sacks) also will be part of that group. Also, the Gators ultimately have to decide whether junior Cece Jefferson is needed more inside or on the edge.
2. Sorting out the secondary
The secondary puzzle will get a bunch of new pieces this summer when 6 freshmen defensive backs arrive on campus.
The Gators filled the void of star cornerbacks Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson this spring with senior Duke Dawson and sophomore Chauncey Gardner Jr.
And that may be how it stays. Dawson is locked in at corner, while Gardner played safety last year and boasts versatility to move around the secondary, but he’s a very intriguing option at corner. He grabbed 3 interceptions and returned 1 for a touchdown over the final 3 games of the 2016 season.
With fifth-year seniors Marcell Harris and Nick Washington back at safety, the secondary puzzle may not change much from the spring. But those 6 incoming DBs will aim to make an immediate impact and could yet cause some shuffling in the back of the defense.
Also, even if Florida ends up utilizing more 3-linebacker sets, there will be situations that call for a fifth defensive back, and it’s not clear yet who that would be.
The competition in the secondary will be one of the most intriguing August story lines.
1. Another QB still to come?
Feleipe Franks comes out of the spring as the clear No. 1 quarterback, but coach Jim McElwain wasn’t ready to anoint him the starter for the season opener.
One, he wants to keep the pressure on the unproven Franks through the offseason. The quarterback spot will be deeper in August as well with the expected return of 2016 starter Luke Del Rio, who missed the spring recovering from a pair of shoulder procedures.
But the biggest wild card still looms in the form of a potential graduate transfer, namely former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire.
The Gators are currently prohibited from taking a grad transfer because of an SEC restriction stemming from 2 previous Florida grad transfers falling short of academic requirements.
The SEC could yet soften that rule, though no change is expected before the SEC spring meetings in a month and a half.
In the meantime, Zaire is busy following Florida players on social media, stoking the perception of mutual interest between the sides.