Orange and Blue game takeaways: Florida's first-team offense shines, injuries appear to be low
In Florida head coach Billy Napier’s first Orange and Blue game, the format was ultimately more competitive than the contest.
Led by quarterback Anthony Richardson and the first-team Florida offense, the Blue team jumped all over the Orange team in Thursday’s Orange and Blue game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, securing a 34-0 victory in the intrasquad scrimmage.
Richardson finished 15-for-20 passing for 191 yards and a pair of passing touchdowns while, most importantly, looking like the clear-cut starter at signal-caller. The redshirt sophomore consistently looked confident in the pocket, showing little sign of the hesitance he displayed at times during his injury-riddled 2021 campaign.
He flashed his speed in the open field, too; adding a rushing touchdown from 12 yards out that further extended the Blue team’s commanding lead.
The Jack Miller-led Orange team struggled to string together consistent drives against the defense’s second unit, though the Ohio State transfer did complete 13-of-23 passes for 121 yards before Jalen Kitna entered in relief of Miller in the final minute of the third quarter.
The Orange team struggled when it came to taking care of the football, including a pair of fumbles, as well as an interception by safety Donovan McMillon on an underthrown pass from Kitna.
Walk-on linebacker-turned-tight end Noah Keeter, a Gainesville native, led the Blue team in receiving with three receptions for 53 yards and a touchdown. Keeter, who transferred from UCLA to UF, hauled in the longest reception of the night, a 29-yard grab down the sideline in the second quarter.
“I can't compliment the players’ work ethic enough, their competitive spirit," Napier said. "One thing about this group now, when you put the ball down, they're gonna compete. And I think tonight you can see them competing."
Here are takeaways from Thursday’s Orange and Blue game.
Special teams don’t initially live up to name
During pre-game warm-ups with the Orange team, redshirt sophomore running back Demarkcus Bowman was seen fielding punts — an enticing sign for a unit that as of late has lacked explosive plays in the return game.
Bowman was deep nearly half an hour later to receive the open kickoff, though it didn’t go nearly according to plan. After catching the kick low at the 12-yard line, Bowman made it 13 yards upfield before fumbling the ball away, and Derek Wingo on the Blue team appeared to come up with the football. Being a scrimmage, the Orange team retained possession, but it was hardly a convincing start, especially for a group designated as “gamechangers” by Napier.
It didn’t get much better for the special teams unit as kicker Chris Howard missed a 32-yard field-goal attempt that would have opened the scoring.
Less than four minutes into the second half, Bowman fumbled again, and defensive tackle Jalen Lee proceeded to recover the football at the 12-yard line, setting up a touchdown run by Richardson that pushed the Blue team’s lead to 28-0 following the successful extra point attempt.
"The Blue team took care of the ball and played with poise and discipline. We're going to look at this tape and it's going to be a microcosm of every football game we play next Fall. So you've got to take care of the ball and you've got to play the situations really well," Napier said. "Fundamentally, you've got to be sound in what you do. Blue team made some explosive plays. They were aggressive, and they finished possessions, which the Orange team didn't. We missed a field goal, and then a turnover in the red area. So, that game's different if the Orange team executes and scores touchdowns in the red area, doesn't turn the ball over. These are simple things, but they're hard to do consistently."
A bright spot in the kicking game would come, however.
With 1:29 remaining in the third quarter, the Blue team extended its lead to 31-0 on a 52-yard field goal that just narrowly cleared the crossbar by walk-on kicker Adam Mihalek. The Tampa native’s kick tied the longest successful field-goal in Orange and Blue game history. Chris Hetland and Eddy Pineiro each notched 52-yarders in previous spring contests, in 2006 and 2016, respectively. He wasn’t done either. Mihalek would add a 47-yarder on the ensuing possession to continue his impressive performance at a position of need.
Late scratches for the Gators
As expected, tight ends Nick Elksnis and Jonathan Odom missed the Orange and Blue game due to injuries suffered in spring camp, as did safety Jadarrius Perkins.
But Florida’s list of sidelined players grew in the build-up to the contest with the additions of Avery Helm, Dakota Mitchell, Antwaun Powell-Ryland Jr. and Tre’Vez Johnson.
Powell-Ryland Jr. was seen practicing Tuesday in an orange non-contact jersey, and the redshirt sophomore appeared to be moving gingerly while trying to battle through whatever ailment he’d suffered.
Unexpected returns to the field
Bowman and Montrell Johnson spent the final two weeks of spring camp in orange non-contact jerseys, putting their availability in doubt for the spring camp. Ultimately, both players competed Thursday without issue. Bowman rushed 17 times for 61 yards, while Johnson had 13 carries for 55 yards and a touchdown.
"Montrell’s extremely bright, picks things up quickly. He certainly was a very productive back for us last year. I think rushed for 800 or 900 yards and was the conference player the year. He belongs out there," Napier said of Johnson, who transferred from Louisiana to Florida. "He’s got a big lower half. He’s got contact balance. He can protect. He can catch."
Johnson's play also served as a reminder of just how beneficial the transfer portal has been for the Florida program.
"At a point right there at the end, we had two running backs get injured. (Lorenzo) Lingard had a hamstring, (Gabriel) Ortiz had a knee, and we’re sitting out there. What if we didn't have Montrell Johnson out there, right?" Napier said. "I think that's where we were able to take advantage of the portal: bring in a player that allowed us to practice. We’ll be excited to get Nay’Quan (Wright) back. He’s certainly going to bring something to our team, but Montrell is what the doctor ordered. He’s certainly going to provide depth and production for our team.”
In a bit of a surprise, Jalen Kimber and Jaydon Hill, a pair of cornerbacks working their way back from injuries sustained in the fall, each participated in Thursday’s scrimmage after going through camp in non-contact jerseys.
Kimber, who missed most of the 2021 season with a shoulder injury that required surgery, saw the field quite a bit for the Blue team and finished with six tackles, including a game-high four solo tackles, to go along with a pair of pass break-ups of which were solo. Kimber capped his active night by intercepting Kitna on a deep throw as the fourth quarter waned, one of two interceptions by the Blue team defense. Competing in the Orange’s defensive backfield, Hill recorded one solo tackle.
"Kimber’s really good, he’s going to be a really good player for us," Miller said of his fellow transfer. "I see it everyday. All these guys you saw play tonight, how they did, you see it everyday in practice.”
Gators appear to come out without major injuries
With 3:09 remaining in the second quarter, junior defensive tackle Gervon Dexter came up limping following a four-yard run by Richardson. Dexter walked to the nearby sideline and, in a promising sign, proceeded to stand with his teammates rather than get examined in the medical tent by UF’s training staff.
Dexter returned to the game with 33 seconds remaining in the first half, alleviating any concerns the standout defensive lineman had picked up anything severe.
Amari Burney, who led all players in tackles with 11, appeared to injure his shoulder late in the fourth quarter, though it’s unclear how significant the injury was, as Burney didn’t have a chance to return to the game due to the result.
Aside from the initial concern for Dexter and the uncertainty surrounding Burney’s shoulder, the Gators appeared to come out of Thursday’s scrimmage relatively healthy as no other UF players appeared to suffer any noticeable injuries.