Gators ready to unveil new-look offense, improved defense against Owls

Zach Abolverdi
Gator Sports

Following months of closed practices and sneak peeks on Instagram Live, it’s time to draw the curtain on the 2021 Florida football team

The No. 11 Gators and defending SEC East champs open their season today at 7:30 p.m. against Florida Atlantic and second-year coach Willie Taggart. UF’s Dan Mullen, who’s entering his fourth season, wants to see how his team handles performing under the lights with a full home crowd for the first time in 21 months. 

“We’ve been practicing for so long, I mean ... I'm excited to see these guys go out,” Mullen said. “All the hard work they’ve put in, to get to see them go play and go play in front of a packed stadium and go play in front of fans, just can't wait. I know these guys are excited to get out there to go.”

Perhaps no player is more excited than quarterback Emory Jones, who will make his first career start vs. the Owls. He’s expecting eight family members to make the trip for the game from LaGrange, Ga.

“It’ll definitely be exciting for those people,” Jones said. “They’ve been contacting me already, just telling me how excited they are for me, how proud they are of me for just sticking through this and just waiting my turn. Now it’s about to be that time for me to show the world what I can do. So, I’m excited.”

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His family members aren’t the only ones reaching out to root him on and praise his patience. Since taking over for Kyle Trask as the starter, Jones has heard from former Florida quarterbacks and Heisman Trophy winners Danny Wuerffel and Tim Tebow.

“[Wuerffel] hit me up a lot. Tim Tebow, he texts me sometimes. It’s definitely a fraternity for sure,” Jones said. “Just basically telling me to embrace it. And making sure I be my best every day, come into the building with energy and lead the guys around me. I mean, just telling me they’re proud of me for sticking around and waiting it out.

“Those guys, they always are looking back to give back to us or whoever is in that position. It’s definitely exciting, and I'm taking full responsibility for everything that goes on with this position.”

Florida quarterback Emory Jones has huge cleats to fill in Gainesville and will get a chance to shine against Florida Atlantic.

The position will also feature backup QB Anthony Richardson, who is going to be used as Jones was in years past. In addition to Trask, UF lost first-round picks Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney from the nation’s top-ranked passing offense last season, as well as senior Trevon Grimes.

With receivers, the Gators are reloading, not rebuilding

The Gators appear primed to reload in their receiving corps with Jacob Copeland, Kemore Gamble, Xzavier Henderson, Justin Shorter, Trent Whittemore, Rick Wells and Keon Zipperer. However, this year’s offense is expected to be more run-heavy with top returners Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis and Nay’Quan Wright, along with five-star transfers Demarkcus Bowman and Lorenzo Lingard. 

“Those guys have been a huge add-on to the running back room,” Wright said of Bowman and Lingard. “Everyone understands their role and everyone is ready. No matter who’s first, second, third, fourth, fifth, however you want to put it, coach preps us and we all get reps, live and practice. So, we all just understand our role and when our numbers get called we’re all gonna take advantage of it.”

Florida’s defense, looking to bounce back from last season’s struggles, could take advantage of an FAU offense that is going through a coordinator and quarterback change. Michael Johnson, a former NFL assistant who was on Taggart’s staff at Oregon, has reunited with him as his co-OC and quarterbacks coach. 

Last week the Owls named Miami transfer and Ocala native N’Kosi Perry their starting quarterback. Perry had a 6-3 record as the Hurricanes starter and appeared in 24 total games, finishing his UM career with 2,484 passing yards, 24 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 52.4 completion percentage, while adding three more scores on the ground and 217 rushing yards. 

“I think he’s got some athletic ability and obviously he has some great size, but a really good passer on top of it,” Mullen said of Perry. “They’re going to put him in position to do different things, so you have to respect his arm talent and his size as a pocket guy to be able to see and have that height and that length. But you also have to be aware of his athletic ability and his ability to create outside the play.”

Todd Grantham has seen FAU's quarterback before

This isn’t the first time UF defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has scouted Perry. He was competing with Jarren Williams prior to Miami’s 2019 opener against the Gators, so Grantham had to prepare for both quarterbacks. 

“We had already done a little work on him and understood his strengths and the things that he brings to the table,” Grantham said of Perry. “The guys that were there last year, they were very involved in the quarterback-run game because they’re athletic. This guy probably brings a little more dimension from a passing standpoint, so you will have to account for that. 

“But we were aware of him, transferring from Miami and we had scouted him when we had played those guys. When you watch their offense, we feel like it will still be pretty much the same, but you will have a little bit more of a passing element to it with him in there.”

Grantham’s defenses have led the SEC in sacks the past two seasons, and this year’s unit could do it again with the talent Florida returns in the front seven — led by preseason first-team All-SEC selection Zachary Carter — and the addition of graduate transfer defensive tackles Daquan Newkirk, Antonio Valentino and Tyrone Truesdell. 

After ranking 100th nationally in pass defense last year, Florida will debut its retooled secondary Saturday night with new starters at cornerback (Avery Helm), nickel (Tre’Vez Johnson) and safety (Trey Dean, Rashad Torrence II) and new position coaches Wesley McGriff and Jules Montinar.

“I’m looking forward to watching these guys play. They’ve really busted their tails since January,” Grantham said. “It’s about us playing to our identity, which has always been fast, physical and aggressive. I feel like the players have bought into that. It’s really about playing as a unit. 

“Because if we play as a unit and everybody brings their individual talents, we can create synergy which allows the unit to play better than maybe the individual parts. As we go through the season, if we can progress that way, then I think we can be the kind of team we certainly want to be. So it’s just a matter of being able to get on the field and go play.”

Season opener

Who: Florida Atlantic vs. No. 11 Florida

When: 7:30 p.m. today

Where: Steve Spurrier-Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

TV: SEC Network

Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM, 103.7-FM