Gators notebook: Unavailable list shrinks ahead of UK game

Graham Hall
Special to The Sun
Florida quarterback Kyle Trask is hit in the face by Kentucky linebacker J.J. Weaver during Saturday's game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Weaver drew a personal foul penalty.

For the first time all season, Florida’s pregame list of unavailable players didn’t include any unexpected additions. If anything, the list signified the return of several key figures.

The Gators welcomed back tight end Kyle Pitts, offensive lineman Stewart Reese and linebacker James Houston after the trio missed last week’s 38-17 victory at Vanderbilt. Houston would tie his career-high for the third time with eight tackles, including a team-high 2.5 tackles for loss in the win over Kentucky.

The Gators were still without defensive back David Reese and linebacker Jeremiah Moon, however, in addition to Kahleil Jackson, Ethan Pouncey, Lamar Goods, Hayden Knighton, Jaelin Humphries, Trent Whittemore and Lucas Alonso. 

As for the Wildcats, their availability situation was vastly different considering the program continues to deal with a COVID-19 situation. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops announced Wednesday the team would be without 18 players and 10 assistants for the upcoming trip to Gainesville, and the list grew longer just prior to kickoff. 

The Wildcats’ leading rusher this season, Chris Rodriguez Jr., was ruled out just prior to warm-ups — not a promising sign for an offense that couldn’t find the end zone in last week’s matchup with Alabama. 

Surprisingly enough, it didn’t seem to hinder Kentucky’s rushing attack, as the Wildcats registered 126 rushing yards in the first half. 

Pitts returns in fine form

Pitts’ return to the field after two weeks away was much anticipated, and it didn’t take long for the junior tight end to validate the hype once again.

After a fake punt gave Florida the first down, Pitts put a move on sophomore defensive back Kelvin Joseph, a former five-star prospect, and began streaking downfield. Trask found him, as he’s done so often this season, and the result was a 56-yard touchdown by Pitts to give UF the early 7-0 lead. 

It wasn’t a surprise to see Florida go to Pitts from the jump, but the Wildcats didn’t exactly help themselves in the buildup to kickoff. Kentucky linebacker J.J. Weaver stopped short of saying the Wildcats would lock up Pitts, proclaiming the tight end had yet to face a player of his caliber this season. 

“Kyle Pitts is most definitely going to see me this week,” Weaver said. “We’ve just got to be more physical than him. He is a great player. He’s going to get up and jump, but he’s just never had J.J. Weaver on him before."

Much to the disappointment of the Wildcats, Pitts was only just getting started as he’d finish the game with three touchdowns and a game-high 99 receiving yards on just five receptions.

Caught on camera

The public criticism of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham continued in the first half Saturday — only this time it was from his employer. 

After the Gators defense allowed the Wildcats to get deep into Florida territory in the second quarter despite beginning the drive at the 8-yard line, cameras caught head coach Dan Mullen engaged in a heated sideline exchange with Grantham. 

Neither coach appeared particularly happy during the exchange, as UF players could only look onward. 

While Mullen hasn’t necessarily publicly pinned the blame for Florida’s defensive woes on Grantham, it was the strongest sign thus far that Mullen isn’t satisfied, to say the least, with all aspects of UF’s defense in 2020.

Mullen was pressed on the matter after the game, and he at first responded humorously with a reference to last weekend’s postgame media session comments regarding Christmas decorations. 

"I got home Thanksgiving dinner and we're neighbors,” Mullen said. “He had his Christmas lights up before dark and I said, 'We don't put Christmas lights up until after Thanksgiving,' and he said adamantly, 'Yes we do,' and I said, 'No you don't.' So we agreed to disagree.”

Florida’s head coach did proceed to acknowledge the heated moment was relevant to the product on the field rather than just an unrelated, if not trivial, matter.

“I think you get after it just having the different discussions, competitive people. But I think if you look at the job, that they came in at halftime, and looking at how Kentucky was trying to attack us, we came in and really kind of shut them down early,” he said. “We were able to get a lead and then that gets Kentucky out of their whole game plan of trying to really slow everything down and milk the clock."

Message: Received?

Whether it was something Mullen or Grantham said, it seemed to work when it came to righting Florida’s defense in the second half. 

The Gators held Kentucky scoreless and allowed the Wildcats to register just 46 yards on offense in the second half after UF fell into an early hole and allowed 175 first-half yards. Interceptions by Mohamoud Diabate, Shawn Davis and Tre’Vez Johnson gave the Gators a trio of picks for just the second time this season, and UF’s third-down defense — which has received criticism early in the season — didn’t allow a conversion in the second half after allowing two in the first half.