DALLAS — Welcome to the first installment of the weekly Gators football mailbag.
Not only do we encourage your questions — tweet them to beat writer Ryan Young (@RyanYoungSEC) — but we’re open to a catchier name for this column so suggestions are welcomed.
We’ll start with the best questions that have come in via Twitter and Facebook this week as the No. 17 Gators prepare for their season opener with No. 11 Michigan on Saturday.
The spate of Florida suspensions, now numbering 10 and including star running back Jordan Scarlett and wide receiver Antonio Callaway, has not diminished the build-up and excitement for this game.
On my flight from Orlando to Dallas today, the Spirit Airlines attendant took to the microphone to lead a quick rendition of the Gators fight song with a strong response from the crowd.
On the shuttle to pick up the rental car, a pair of strangers struck up a conversation about the game with a man in Notre Dame attire commenting that “Gator Nation is taking over Dallas.”
“It’s starting to,” the Florida fan replied.
You don’t have to be in Dallas, though, to get the latest insight into the Gators and this matchup. Without further ado …
Are the suspensions done? Or are there rumblings of possibly a few more?
— Robert Cousino (@B_Cousy3) August 31, 2017
There are rumblings, but I have not heard anything definitive. I believe Jim McElwain was surprised to learn Wednesday that Scarlett was caught up in the ordeal. Florida had made Scarlett available to reporters after practice the day before, which it wouldn’t have done if it knew or thought this was a possibility. Nor would McElwain have praised him on the SEC coaches teleconference Wednesday morning as he did. So if it could be blindsided by the involvement of one of their biggest stars then anything is possible. With the police looking into this, it would not be a surprise to see more names trickle out and the scope of this situation grow. There are more questions than answers, but I’d be surprised if this blows over quickly.
How short or long of a leash is Franks on to perform. Who would be his replacement if he didn’t
— Preston Fuller (@3H_Life) August 31, 2017
I understand the decision to start Feleipe Franks. I also would have understood the decision not to start him this week and not have him make his collegiate debut against a ferocious Michigan defensive line on a massive stage with all eyes on him to perform right away. The coaches have done a good job building up his confidence over the last year, having him lead the first-team offense against the second-team defense in the spring game and taking him out soon after he made some big throws. They’ve built him up to this point, and the reports out of camp were glowing with teammates saying he looked like a totally different quarterback. But we don’t know how he’s going to do against an actual opponent with a massive crowd and a national television audience watching at home. All of that is to say I think they risk setting back that confidence he’s built if he struggles early and they yank him quickly. Now that they’ve committed to him as the starter — for this game at least — I think they have to show patience.
That said, I fully believe Malik Zaire is going to play in this game regardless. I expect him to have his own packages or maybe take over for a series or two by design. I don’t get the sense from people I’ve talked to that the coaches are down on Zaire — more so that he jumped into the offense a month and a half ago and didn’t show he was ready to lead it by this point. Franks may well remain the guy the rest of the way, and that would be good news for Florida to have found and developed a high-upside young quarterback who proves ready for the job. But Zaire is going to keep pushing, and I believe he continues to get opportunities on Saturdays.
I don’t know what the upside would be to bringing in Luke Del Rio, though. Don’t take that the wrong way. I actually thought Del Rio had a chance to start this game and would not have been surprised if the coaches felt he was the safest choice. Maybe at some point he’s needed to start a game, and I think now healthy he is plenty capable. But with him not starting Saturday, I don’t see the value in taking snaps away from Franks to bring him into the game. Zaire is a different story with the dual-threat dynamic he can add.
Also, I’ve heard a lot about UM’s DL against our OL. But their OL is young – how do you think our defensive front performs against their OL?
— Ron Noel (@NoelRon) August 29, 2017
Great question. I do think this is the underrated storyline of the game. I agree with McElwain when he says the game is going to come down to Florida’s ability to win battles on the offensive line, but the dynamics aren’t much different the other way around.
Michigan lost three starters from its offensive line and is moving center Mason Cole to left tackle, where he played prior to last season. A couple unproven sophomores could be in the mix to fill the other spots, though the Wolverines haven’t released a depth chart.
Meanwhile, Florida returns a wealth of talent along the defensive line. Junior defensive end CeCe Jefferson could become the next star on the Gators defense, while redshirt sophomore end Jabari Zuniga was the popular pick among teammates to have a breakout season after teasing his potential with a team-high 5 sacks last year.
And as I’ve been writing, I believe redshirt junior defensive tackle Taven Bryan is the most underrated player on Florida’s defense. Maybe that’s changing now that Bleacher Report has likened him to NFL star J.J. Watt in a national feature story, but nobody has more untapped potential than Bryan. Physically, he could be a matchup nightmare for opponents if he can harness his abilities.
None of those players have the national profile of Michigan defensive end Rashan Gary or defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, but I do think the challenge for the Wolverines’ offensive line is as significant to the tenor of this game.
And finally, some quick-hitters from our readers on the Florida Gators – SEC Country Facebook page:
Brian Fox Jr. asks: “Do you think Thompson could take over as the feature back with Scarlett’s suspension? He seems to be more of a North-South runner with Perine as the East-West complement.”
Answer: I don’t think so. I could be wrong, but I didn’t expect Mark Thompson to have a significant role in the game plan before Scarlett’s suspension. I think he does now as the No. 2 behind Lamical Perine. The Gators need his experience in there to mix in with freshman Malik Davis (and maybe fellow freshman Adarius Lemons). But I think this is Perine’s showcase now, his opportunity to show what the position might look like in 2018 for Florida. I expect both Thompson and Davis, the impressive newcomer, to rotate in behind him as I don’t think Perine will get the same workload Scarlett would have if active.
Austin Taylor asks: “Do you think that they will go back to the four-headed monster in the backfield this season like last year or let Scarlett and the second-string handle the carries for the season?”
Answer: I hope they don’t revert back to the committee approach. It never made sense to me, especially early in the season when Scarlett would carry the team downfield one series and then not play the rest of the quarter. I think Scarlett returns to the lead-back role we all expected for him, Perine works in as the clear No. 2 and Davis or Thompson get a few plays here and there.
Simon Wheeler asks: “Do you think Malik Zaire will get in the game or future games for some wildcat plays? I could see a Feleipe-Malik combo like Leak-Tebow back in ’06.”
Answer: Yes, I think Zaire is going to play this week and moving forward. I think he’s going to keep the pressure on Franks while in the meantime working in for some designed packages or a series here or there. The fact remains this guy started three games at Notre Dame and two of them were impressive. The talent is still there. He just didn’t convince the coaches he had total command of the offense yet.
Mark Phillips asks: “What’s the team vibe going to be with all of this off-the-field nonsense?”
Answer: That is THE question. We won’t know until Saturday, but I don’t expect the dark cloud of the suspensions to have any further impact on the players who will be on the field. The impact is the Gators not having their two best offensive playmakers, and that might be all it takes to swing this game to Michigan’s favor. But there are so many guys with something to prove — be it Franks, Perine, freshman cornerback Marco Wilson, etc. — that I don’t see motivation being affected.
CJ Stafford asks: “What chance do you give Franks to have a massive game against an unknown defense?”
Answer: That’s up to the coaches. With Michigan returning just one defensive starter and replacing its entire secondary, there will no doubt be enticing matchups in the passing game. But I’m not sure how many chances the coaches are going to allow Franks to take. As we covered earlier, I think it’s important they continue to build his confidence. I expect a conservative passing game plan, but it would certainly be a lot more fun to see him put that big arm to use.
Great questions on both Twitter and our Facebook page. We try to answer as many as we can during our Facebook Live chats after McElwain’s press conferences, but I’ll continue to pull some of the better questions for this mailbag each week as well. We’ll do this every Thursday.