GAINESVILLE, Fla. — While Florida coach Jim McElwain has yet to provide any concrete answers on certain positional matters, opinions pour in every day on sports talk radio and throughout the fan base.
In a five-minute stretch of airtime, somebody will make a case why Feleipe Franks has earned the opportunity to be the Gators quarterback; why Malik Zaire’s versatility is what the offense really needs; and why the coaches might prefer Luke Del Rio’s command of the playbook and experience.
Only McElwain knows — or at some point will know — how that competition shakes out.
In the meantime, SEC Country Florida beat writers Ryan Young and Jordan McPherson weigh in with their thoughts on that and several other topics from fall camp.
Q: Who starts at quarterback vs. Michigan and why?
Young: Going into camp, I thought Malik Zaire was the heavy favorite. I still think he ends up as the guy on Sept. 2, but I don’t think the decision is going to be easy. By all accounts and from the limited windows of practice open to the media, Feleipe Franks has had an impressive preseason and is doing everything he can to put himself in position for the job.
I still believe Zaire prevails because of what he brings to the offense. His versatility and running ability add a valuable dynamic, and he started big games against teams such as LSU and Texas while at Notre Dame. While his track record isn’t extensive, it’s mostly impressive. I like the way the ball comes out of his hand and the timing he’s showed with receivers most days in camp. Unlike two weeks ago, I wouldn’t be surprised if Franks prevailed — he’s looked good — but I still expect Zaire to get the first snaps.
McPherson: I’ve been adamant for some time now that Malik Zaire is going to wind up being Florida’s starter this season. However, after talking with players over the last week, I have the feeling the job is Feleipe Franks’ to lose. All three candidates — McElwain and players all still believe Luke Del Rio is a contender — have had highs and lows during camp, but none have flashed enough to separate from the pack. If it continues to be that way through the rest of camp and into game week, I think Franks will get the call.
Q: Which camp storyline are you not ready to totally buy in to yet?
Young: I want to believe in the offensive line. I hear how strongly McElwain has talked about the group being a strength this fall. I can see why the unit might be much better this season. Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor are great bookends at tackle who could each be in line for career-best seasons. Ivey is back at his natural position and Taylor has a year of SEC experience. I like T.J. McCoy at center, the way his linemates seem to feed off his energy. Brett Heggie looks like he is physically ready to be a force at left guard. Fred Johnson and Tyler Jordan are experienced options at right guard.
I like new offensive line coach Brad Davis and believe the quotes emphasizing how well he has connected with his players and how he is delivering the mindset McElwain wants from the group. But ultimately, I still have to see it. I’ve got to see it against Michigan and in other big games before I totally buy in on the OL.
McPherson: McElwain on multiple occasions this offseason has said the offensive line is going to be the team’s strength this season. I just haven’t seen it so far in camp. Has the group improved from last year? Without a doubt. Is it the team’s strength? Absolutely not. I like Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor at the tackle spots, and I like T.J. McCoy at center. I’m still doubtful about the guard spots with Brett Heggie and Fred Johnson. On top of that, depth is lacking. Outside of the starters, the Gators have versatile Tyler Jordan, a rehabbing Antonio Riles and a slew of underclassmen. One or two injuries to the starters could spell trouble.
Q: Who has been the biggest riser in camp?
McPherson: For me, it has to be freshman defensive back Shawn Davis. Heading into fall camp, I expected him to be in the middle of the pack among the Gators’ six freshmen defensive backs and that he would make his early mark on special teams. Instead, he’s taking first-team reps at safety over redshirt senior Nick Washington and has looked pretty good. He should play early and often this season.
Young: Totally agree. It’s Shawn Davis. I’m not as surprised, though. After spending time in Miami profiling him this offseason, I was struck immediately by his confidence, focus and drive. Those are intangible qualities, but sometimes you just have a sense for a guy. I was then swayed further by the words of one of his high school coaches, who was compelling while discussing Davis’ potential and how he felt he was a future NFL safety. But the freshman has exceeded even my expectations this preseason. I think he plays a major role this fall.
Q: Who is the most under-the-radar key player on the roster?
McPherson: T.J. McCoy. If the offensive line — and a new quarterback, for that matter — is going to be successful, it’s going to start with the center. He came on strong late last season, starting the final four games after Cam Dillard suffered a season-ending knee injury. McCoy’s teammates trust him, too. Not bad for a guy who began last season as the third-string center.
Young: I like that answer. I’m going to go to the other side of the ball, though. As I wrote last weekend, I feel that junior defensive tackle Taven Bryan is the most important player on the defense who is not getting talked about a lot. Caleb Brantley was so key for the Gators last fall, disrupting the middle of the line and setting up teammates for big plays, if not making them himself. Bryan is physically capable of being that kind of presence if he puts it all together.
Q: How will Antonio Callaway’s suspension affect the Michigan game?
Young: The biggest loss here, I feel, is the potentially game-changing play Callaway is capable of making each week. And in a game I expect to be low-scoring and close, that is a significant void. That said, I do really believe in Florida’s depth at receiver and think Brandon Powell, Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain are plenty capable of producing big stats if targeted. This is assuming Tyrie Cleveland becomes the top outside target in Callaway’s absence. So aside from Cleveland, I expect Hammond to be the guy who steps up the most Week 1. Remember that long touchdown pass he hauled in from Feleipe Franks during the spring game?
McPherson: Callaway was Florida’s most proven playmaker returning for the offense, and he’s usually in line for at least one or two big plays a game. But the Gators have depth at receiver, and they will need that depth to show up against Michigan. The sophomore trio of Tyrie Cleveland, Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond will have to step up. Senior Brandon Powell will be relied on more. A couple extra plays could go to versatile playmakers Dre Massey and Kadarius Toney. Someone should be able to step up.