Florida TE coach William Peagler focused on gradual improvement amid unit's depth concerns

Graham Hall
Gator Sports

Much has been made of Florida’s injury woes at the tight end position throughout spring camp. The Gators lost three scholarship tight ends due to injury early into spring practice in Nick Elksnis, Jonathan Odom and Gage Wilcox, leading the team to move defensive linemen Griffin McDowell and Dante Zanders, as well as walk-on outside linebacker Noah Keeter, to tight end. Help is on the horizon in the form of three freshman tight ends, but the current situation isn’t desirable, at least on paper. 

Regardless, UF tight ends coach William Peagler isn’t looking at the current situation with pessimism.

“It's football, you're gonna have some guys getting nicked up. But I've been proud of the guys that we have,” he said, “and the guys that have stepped over and made plays for us.”

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Depth concerns can often affect the installation process in spring camp, and the Gators have certainly dealt with that undesirable aspect of the game throughout coach Billy Napier’s tenure. 

At the conclusion of UF’s first closed scrimmage on March 31, Napier said the Gators “probably didn’t do 25 to 30 plays that we typically would do” as a result of the team’s depth issues, adding Florida presently doesn’t have a third-string unit. 

The tight end position, considering Napier’s usage of two-tight end sets at Louisiana, may sound as if it’s a likely culprit for a unit that has been held back due to injuries, but Peagler insists that’s not the case. 

Defenders McDowell, Zanders and Keeter helping tight end room

Thanks to the additions of McDowell, Zanders and Keeter, the Gators have hardly missed a beat in the room.

“The good news for us is even though we've had some injuries and things of that nature, we've been able to get other guys from the other side of the ball,” Peagler said. “It might not be the exact guy that we want in that spot, but we've been able to still have the same type of practice and all that stuff throughout spring ball.”

Florida Gators assistant coach William Peagler instructs tight end Gage Wilcox (80) during the first day of spring practice on March 15 at the Indoor Practice Facility on the University of Florida Campus in Gainesville. [Matt Pendleton/Special to The Sun]

Keon Zipperer enters fourth season with UF

The tight end group also hasn’t lost its presumed starter, Keon Zipperer. Formerly a four-star prospect coming out of Lakeland, Zipperer enters his fourth season with the UF program with an opportunity to earn the starting job for the first time in his career. Through his first three seasons in Gainesville, Zipperer has seen the field in the majority of contests, albeit sparingly, hauling in 25 passes for 309 yards and three touchdowns.

Zipperer, like many adjusting to the changes unfolding around him in Gainesville, has been progressing throughout camp, though Peagler said Zipperer’s beginning to impress as he puts it all together on the field.

At the conclusion of Florida’s 11th spring practice session, Peagler praised Zipperer’s performance throughout the day, saying it was his most impressive yet.

“I thought he had his best day of the spring today. I've seen him get incrementally a little bit better,” Peagler said. “I think anytime you're in a new system, there's a little bit of a learning curve, but I really liked the way he attacked today. I thought today was his best day.”

Considering the position is used in many different ways, players have to be well-rounded if they want to see the field consistently. In Florida’s offense in 2022, tight ends have to be capable of both blocking and making a catch in traffic at the high point of the football. 

Peagler pushed back on the insinuation that Zipperer can only do the latter. 

“I think there's this narrative out there that he's only a receiving tight end. He's actually got a little power in his hips,” Peagler said, “and he can really move people off the ball, but he's got to continue to get better at that.”

Unfair for players to compare themselves to Kyle Pitts

Zipperer may have unrealistic standards for how he should perform in the open field, considering he played alongside Kyle Pitts for two seasons in Gainesville prior to Pitts’ ascension to the No. 4 overall pick in the NFL Draft. 

Anyone hoping to follow in Pitts’ footsteps will more than likely see their dreams end in despair, however; those are simply the odds. 

“Ninety-eight percent of the players in college football, 99 percent,” Napier said Saturday, “heck, they’re not going to play in the National Football League.”

Let alone become a unanimous All-American and a top-5 NFL draft pick.

It’s unfair for players to compare themselves to Pitts as much as it is for the public to expect Zipperer or his teammates to perform to his standards. 

“You have to realize Kyle Pitts is a pretty special athlete. There's maybe one of those that's ever existed on Earth,” Peagler said. “But I'm hoping to find the next one, I can tell you that.”

Until he does, he’ll have to make do with who UF has in the room, as well as who they’ve moved over to the position in the interim. 

Rather than pressure anyone to become Pitts or place lofty expectations on a banged-up tight end group, Peagler is preaching patience. 

“This thing doesn't happen overnight. It's a hard game, and it's hard for freshmen to come in and play right away. Everybody wants that. I think the perception, the public says, ‘hey, if you're a freshman, if you're a five-star player, whatever, come in and play now’, but it takes time,” he said. “It's a developmental game. I don't care what talent level you have, it takes time.”