GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Sunday morning’s conversation centered on a fundamental question: who are the 70 players the Gators would take on the road if they opened in Utah rather than at home against the Utes?
These types of questions are flying fast and furiously around Heavener Football Training Center these days. Less than two weeks before the No. 7-ranked Utes visit The Swamp, the Gators’ freshman head coach Billy Napier and its staff are immersed in the process of discovery.
After reviewing Saturday’s scrimmage at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, the second of the preseason camp, they got closer to some of the answers.
“I think we’re making progress in terms of, ‘ok, who’s the deep two on the offensive line versus how we’re going to train players?’ Napier said Sunday, offering an example of the lingering questions. “Who are the players who will definitely be on the big court? Who are the rotational players? The players who can be on the search team taking reps with the job takers? Then they can go- returns. I think both sides there, we have a bit of a dialogue to make decisions.”
As for specific positional battles, Napier shed some light on some of them on Sunday during his first press conference inside the team’s new $85 million stand-alone facility:
- Kickers Trey Smack and Adam Mihalek are in a close battle at a position that proved unstable a season ago. Smack and Mihalek are newcomers to the job. Napier said there are multiple possibilities at this stage of camp. “We’ll assess that as we get closer to the opener,” Napier said. “I could see two guys doing two different jobs, and I could also see things going the other way. The good thing is I don’t think we have a problem. I think we have two guys who are very capable. There’s healthy competition there. I have faith in both players.”
- Napier declared replacement quarterback Jack Miller III suffered a thumb injury last week and was diagnosed with an avulsion fracture of the thumb. “The same operation as Drew Bree had just a few years ago,” Napier said. Jalen Kitna and Kyle Engel divide reps for backup work. Meanwhile, real freshman Max Brown also works with the fourth team. “I think we’re really a competition there for the substitute spot,” Napier said. “Obviously we have time. Both of these guys are very smart and have a good understanding of what we’re doing and get the team moving. This scrum showed they have the ability to get the team moving.”
- With offensive lineman Ethan White sidelined with an undisclosed injury, Richie Leonard IV and Josh Brown take most of the shots on the right guard. White started seven games at left guard last season. Veteran O’Cyrus Torrence, an All-Sun Belt Conference transfer from Louisiana, can play either side on the inside line. As for the wounded white freshman David Conner, another inside lineman slowed by injury, Napier said their statuses are different now. “Ethan had a little setback and had a little surgery. He’s been out for a little while. He’ll be back,” Napier said. “by David Conner is a bit more extensive. I think a lot of that needs to be determined in the future. Nothing major there with Ethan, but I think with David it’s TBD.”
- The defensive line remains one of the big question marks at the start of the season. The group is young and has several inexperienced players who should take pictures in the first match. Napier is waiting to define more precise roles. “There are players like [Tyreak] SAP, [Justus] boonAs Princely [Umanmielen], Antwuan Powell. We have a number of players who may not have played college football who can play an important role, who I think have the ability to affect our team. They will have their very first opportunity in a few weeks. We have made progress. I think we have work to do there.”
SPACE TO RUN
The Gators took a hit with starts from Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis at running back after last season. But they got a notable transfer when Montrell Johnson Jr. decides to follow Napier from Louisiana.
Johnson instantly became Florida’s most accomplished runner. He led the Ragin’ Cajuns with 838 yards a season ago and 12 rushing touchdowns. Johnson is in a backfield group that includes Nay’Quan Wright, Laurent Lingard and real freshman Trevor Etienne.
Johnson said not to sleep in the Gators running stable.
“I think it’s going to be a monster similar to what it was in Louisiana,” Johnson said of the rotation.
Wright, Johnson and Lingard should all get some playing time, and Etienne has been impressive in preseason camp and is part of the mix in the backfield and on special teams.
Napier praised the unit’s performance at camp on Sunday. The Florida running backs didn’t get much love from preseason magazines, which ranked the group among the team’s weakest position groups.
“I think we’re getting better,” Napier said. “I think we have guys in this room who can play winning football. I think even the young freshman showed flashes. We have four players that we trust. I think all of these guys are smart. I think they’re all reliable.”
NOTE QUOTE I
“If I answered that question, I think they might fine me here.” – Napier on how many quarterbacks by Anthony Richardson running will be part of the attack
NOTE QUOTE II
“No, not this time. I don’t think you can replicate that. It’s different.” – Defensive back Jordan Young on reports that Utah is turning on the heat in its indoor facility to prepare for the opening
CITATION OF NOTE III
“I think I can do anything. I think I can run outside, make moves, be a killer sometimes. I think I’m going to surprise a lot of people.” – Johnson on what he brings to the Gators
Napier says receiver Ricky Persall (foot) and cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. (hamstrings) are expected to return to training this week. Both players missed time in camp due to injuries… A team of Southeastern Conference officials traveled over the weekend and worked on the Gators scrimmage on Saturday. “We had a sort of instruction session, an educational session with them as our team speaker on Friday. They were in practice all day on Friday, they attended meetings on Friday, and then they refereed the scrimmage for us and called it what they would call it game day. I think we took advantage of that two-day window, and we’re certainly grateful to the league for creating that opportunity. … Napier said the Gators played football without turnover Saturday until the last game when the team worked on a two-minute drill streak.
As the Gators faced off Saturday at Florida Field, three of the program’s most notable alumni watched from the stands: Steve Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel and Shane Matthews. The weekend on campus had a double meaning for Wuerffel…
— Danny Wuerffel (@DannyWuerffel) August 21, 2022