Who starts on the Florida Gators offense? Five questions entering spring football camp

Graham Hall
Gator Sports
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The Florida football team, led by new coach Billy Napier, is looking to rebound from last season’s 6-7 finish, including a 2-6 mark in Southeastern Conference play — starting with spring practice beginning Tuesday in UF’s indoor facility. 

Aside from five transfers and three early-enrollee freshmen, much of Florida’s roster remains the same from last season, although there are plenty of question marks at positions of need.

If the Gators hope to make strides under Napier in 2022, what will UF need to address in spring practice? Here are five questions. 

Spring forward:Five newcomers to watch ahead of Florida Gators football spring practice

Back for UF:5 returning Florida Gators football players to watch this spring

Practice plan:Florida Gators football coach Billy Napier talks team preparations 

Gators quarterback Emory Jones (5) throws a pass against the Missouri Tigers during the first half Nov. 20, 2021, at Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium.

Who gets the most reps at quarterback?

Emory Jones remains enrolled at UF, and all indications are he’ll head into spring practice as the primary starting quarterback. He may be ahead of schedule when it comes to his recovery, but sophomore Anthony Richardson remains limited in spring as a result of offseason knee surgery. It’s uncertain just how much he’ll participate across Florida’s 15 spring practices.

Aside from Jones and Richardson, the only two quarterbacks who saw the field for UF in 2021, the Gators have a pair of highly regarded yet inexperienced redshirt freshmen in Jalen Kitna and Carlos Del Rio-Wilson, as well as Ohio State transfer Jack Miller III.

One would think Jones would be a shoo-in to start at signal-caller when spring kicks off, but Jones’ status after spring is another question; does Jones, having wavered on transferring from Florida, intend to play his fifth season in Gainesville? There are no guarantees, but having Jones take the majority of the snaps without a strong belief he’ll remain at UF wouldn’t be the wisest decision. 

Florida Gators running back Lorenzo Lingard (21) runs with the ball during warm ups before the SEC Championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Ga. Dec. 19, 2020.

Who starts at running back?

There’s no question the Gators haven’t had desirable production from the backfield as of late. Dameon Pierce, despite rushing for 13 touchdowns, had only 100 carries in his final season at Florida. Pierce has impressed at the NFL Scouting Combine, raising the question once again of why then-coach Dan Mullen didn’t feed him the ball at a more consistent rate.

With Pierce, as well as redshirt senior Malik Davis, no longer available to pound the rock, Nay’Quan Wright is the most experienced running back on Florida’s roster, but he remains out after suffering a devastating knee injury in the regular-season finale against Florida State. That means Florida will split carries in spring practice between a trio of transfers in Demarkcus Bowman, Lorenzo Lingard and Montrell Johnson. 

Johnson is the most recent arrival, having followed Napier — as well as a few teammates — from Louisiana Lafayette to Gainesville after rushing for 838 yards and 12 touchdowns as a true freshman with the Ragin’ Cajuns. Lingard has the most collegiate experience. And then there’s Bowman, who has played in just seven games across two seasons between Clemson and UF.

Bowman rushed for more than 5,000 yards across three seasons at Lakeland High, earning him a consensus five-star designation as a prospect. Expectations are high, though Johnson may have the inside track based on his familiarity with Napier’s methods and offense. Will the Gators go with the newcomer in the backfield? Will Bowman take the next step that many are expecting him to take? Will Lingard’s leadership win out? Only spring will tell. 

Florida wide receiver Justin Shorter (4) scores a touchdown against LSU safety Jay Ward (5) in the first half of their game in Baton Rouge, La., Oct. 16, 2021.

Who is Florida’s primary pass-catcher?

Florida’s receiving corps is another huge question mark. The team’s leading receiver in 2021, Jacob Copeland, opted to transfer to Maryland after the 2021 regular season. Another former five-star, Justin Shorter, returns in 2022 after finishing second on the team in receiving last season with 550 yards and three touchdowns. After Shorter, there are plenty of unknowns, and it’s not just at wide receiver. Kemore Gamble, the team’s top tight end last season, is now at UCF.

As it stands, Florida has just three of its top nine receiving targets from last season back in the fold. Alongside Shorter, Trent Whittemore, Xzavier Henderson and Marcus Burke should see the majority of reps at wide receiver in spring; who comes after them in the pecking order remains to be seen. 

Florida defensive lineman Jalen Lee (92) tackles Vanderbilt Commodores running back Patrick Smith (42) during their game Oct. 9, 2021, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville.

Who plays inside on the defensive line?

The Gators addressed the interior of the defensive line last season, bringing in Antonio Valentino, Tyrone Truesdell and Daquan Newkirk via the NCAA’s transfer portal. It was a wise move considering Florida’s relative lack of experience at the tackle position but only a short-term fix.

UF has several highly regarded defensive tackles on the roster who lack playing time, such as Jaelin Humphries, Jalen Lee and Lamar Goods, to name a few, though junior Gervon Dexter and sophomore Desmond Watson saw the field the most in 2021. Princely Umanmielen, Tyreak Sapp and Chris Thomas Jr. are also names to watch, but it’s no secret the Gators don’t exactly have an abundance of veterans on the defensive line. 

Florida defensive back Kaiir Elam (5) intercepts the ball from Virginia wide receiver Hasise Dubois (8) during the second half of the Orange Bowl Dec. 30, 2019, in Miami Gardens. Florida won 36-28.

Who replaces Kaiir Elam?

If he’s not a first-round NFL draft pick, Kaiir Elam, the UF cornerback, is expected to be one of the top 50 players selected April 28-30. It’s undoubtedly cause for celebration — unless you’re the team tasked with replacing Elam in the secondary. 

Redshirt sophomore Jaydon Hill was in line to start opposite Elam in the secondary last season before he suffered an ACL tear in the first week of fall camp. That was only seven months ago, meaning he’s unlikely to be fully recovered and ready to go in spring.

Without Hill to rely on, Avery Helm and Jason Marshall Jr. saw the field the most last season alongside Elam, and both should see a significant amount of snaps in spring camp. The Gators also are high on the potential of Ethan Pouncey, a former top 10 cornerback in the class of 2020, as well as transfer Jalen Kimber from Georgia. One thing’s for certain: whoever lines up at defensive back will have big shoes to fill. 

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