GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Dan Mullen is strategic, and he coordinated Florida’s Orange & Blue game Saturday as effectively as he has the rest of his short tenure so far as Gators coach.
Some fans have griped on social media about the laid-back nature of the spring game, with former players catching uncontested “touchdown passes,” etc.
Rewatching the broadcast and listening to Mullen mic’d up on the field as he persuaded the officials to grant first downs on close plays, as the refs swallowed their whistles on Feleipe Franks’ 60-yard scamper into the end zone while not ruling him touched down at any point, it was clear what Mullen wanted out of the day.
The intent was to have fun and give a fan base starved for offensive production a little taste of what he hopes Saturdays in The Swamp will look like again.
If that took a little engineering, well, that was all part of the plan.
Mullen has worked the last four and a half months to reinvigorate interest in Florida football, and as reflected by the announced crowd of 53,000-plus on Saturday, he’s done a great job at that.
And even if the Orange & Blue game wasn’t a true “game,” there were takeaways to be had. Here are some thoughts from both Saturday and the spring as a whole.
I’ve been impressed with Kyle Trask all spring, and especially Saturday. And I’m not alone.
Here’s what SEC Network analyst Jordan Rodgers said during the broadcast, after Trask’s final completion on a 23-yard back-shoulder strike to Tyrie Cleveland: “Kyle Trask is playing a heck of a game. He’s been accurate, he’s pushing the ball downfield. … Really impressed with how Kyle Trask has thrown the ball from the pocket today.”
I didn’t know what to expect from Trask entering this spring. To be honest, I thought he was a long shot again. No more.
He has the combination of zip and accuracy on his throws that an SEC quarterback must possess, and he showed it time and again Saturday. More than that, though, he looked comfortable in the pocket and confident attacking the middle of the field.
Here are a handful of throws that stood out:
- Facing a third-and-5 on the opening drive, the pocket collapsed quickly from both edges, but Trask stayed poised and hit Kadarius Toney for a slip screen that became a first down.
- In the middle of the second quarter, he threw a missile on a crossing route to Rick Wells for a 19-yard gain. Those plays down the middle were sorely lacking last season, and he showed no hesitation attacking the defense in that way all day.
- He had an impressive back-to-back sequence late in the second quarter, starting with a sideline strike to Freddie Swain. It was a simple 9-yard gain, but it again showed off Trask’s arm strength as he threw a rope from the far hash to Swain with cornerback Brian Edwards nearby. Then on the very next play, he again worked down the seam to hit Toney for a 13-yard pickup. Trask had a pass rusher charging straight at him as he stayed calm and delivered a tight pass.
- Then, of course, there was the back-shoulder completion to Cleveland down the left sideline for a 23-yard gain down to the 2.
The majority opinion seems to be that Franks is still the favorite for the job, but I believe Trask has put himself right in the mix with the spring he’s had.
Talking to a member of the program last week, I asked him who has impressed him this spring in general, and the first name he offered was Trask.
For his part, Mullen has given no indication about where the depth chart stands and noted during the broadcast that both QBs have been inconsistent. “I’ve seen both guys be very up and down all spring long. I keep talking to them about consistency of performance.”
I don’t dismiss Franks’ upside. He proved last season he’s always a threat for a big play downfield. He tried for a couple Saturday but couldn’t connect, relying mostly on short screens and check-downs. His most impressive pass came when he showed good poise as nothing materialized downfield and he rolled out to hit Van Jefferson for a 17-yard gain.
Franks also has shown that he can make plays with his legs. That’s not a surprise. He had the big 79-yard run against Texas A&M last fall and is an elite athlete in general. So there’s still plenty of potential there.
But two things have me leaving the spring feeling Trask was Florida’s best QB.
1) While Franks can hit the deep bomb downfield, he doesn’t make enough plays in the second level. It’s usually either the deep shot or short passes. Trask has looked more proficient attacking the middle of the field, which again, was an element of the passing game that was glaringly lacking last fall.
2) There is some benefit of the unknown with Trask. It may not be fair, but it’s hard to ignore the experience of watching Franks struggle from start to finish last fall and expect he’ll be dramatically different on Saturdays a year later while learning a new offense.
Some fans on social media have strongly disagreed with my perspective, especially when it comes to Franks, but this is what I’ve seen.
I think everyone is on the same page that watching better offensive football in 2018 is the preferred outcome — from whichever QB the coaches decide is best equipped to deliver that.
Expect that position battle to continue most of the summer, but also don’t discount freshman Emory Jones.
I believe he’ll play this fall and get eased into the action, perhaps in the same way Tim Tebow was as a freshman behind Chris Leak. Jones threw some nice passes Saturday when he got his chance, including the dart to R.J. Raymond that went for a long touchdown.
His upside is obvious, and while he may need some more time to fully show it, I think he gets his chances this fall.
Other thoughts on the offense
- Having wide receiver transfers Van Jefferson and Trevon Grimes eligible would change the complexion of the passing game. Jefferson, with two years of SEC experience from his time at Ole Miss, is ready to step in and be a focal point for this offense. Grimes is a big-play threat who will only keep getting better. Here’s what Rodgers said during the broadcast on those two: “Both of those guys are NFL prototypical WR bodies. … Van Jefferson is a first-round talent. If those guys are able to play this fall and they figure out the QB position, whether it’s Franks or Trask, anybody, this offense has a lot of firepower.” Agreed.
- Running back Jordan Scarlett looks to be back in top form, and Florida has some interesting decisions to make at the position. As much as everybody is eager to see 2017 breakout star Malik Davis return from his knee injury, the Gators have every reason to be as cautious and careful with Davis as possible. Scarlett needs a large share of the carries, Lamical Perine will get his touches and the coaches have to decide how they’ll sprinkle in the young running backs. Adarius Lemons was held out of the spring game because of an ankle injury, but he’s too talented to keep on the bench. The coaches have made it clear he has to become more consistent in all facets to earn a larger role, but he has big-play potential.
- The offensive line still has some work to do, and it looks like center will be a real position battle in fall camp. Incumbent starter T.J. McCoy is getting pushed by redshirt junior Nick Buchanan. The announcers for the spring game, Tom Hart and Rodgers, kept making reference to Brett Heggie getting in the mix at center when he returns as well. It’s not clear if that is something they heard from the coaches or not, but it would seem Heggie would be most valuable returning to his left guard role when healthy.
Thoughts on the defense
- I think Florida will make a lot of plays in the opposing backfield with the combination of their defensive line talent and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s variety of blitzes. “Coach has a lot of blitzes in it, so we’re going to get a lot of sacks this year. A lot of sacks,” redshirt junior Jabari Zuniga said.
- Zuniga told me last week that he was not happy at all with his 2017 season, in which he tallied 8 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. “It was honestly a disappointment. I feel like I left a lot of stuff on the table,” he said. He noted that Grantham has him playing all over the line, even at the nose.
- Zuniga notched a nice sack in the spring game Saturday, rush end Jachai Polite had an impressive play to disrupt Toney’s wide receiver reverse and Antonneous Clayton had back-to-back sacks against Trask late in the first half Saturday. “The first half I was like, ‘Man, wait, what’s going on? This ain’t me.’ And then I was like, ‘OK, time to turn it on.’ Back to back sacks,” Clayton said. The Gators’ highest-ranked defensive recruit in the Class of 2016, Clayton remains an intriguing player to watch entering his third year, if he’s able to “turn it on” when it counts.
- Having a pair of cornerbacks such as Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson should only help Grantham be more aggressive in his play calls. It will be fun to see if those two can find another level as sophomores. Henderson was terrific in the spring game, nearly picking off Trask on the opening drive and later breaking up a well thrown deep sideline pass from Trask to Grimes with air-tight coverage.
- The linebackers and young safeties will be the wild cards for this defense. Redshirt junior Rayshad Jackson worked as a first-team inside linebacker along with returning starter David Reese throughout the spring, but we didn’t hear much about him from the coaching staff. It will be interesting to see the competition there in fall camp.