Takeaways, tidbits from Florida's spring all-access show

Zach Abolverdi
The Gainesville Sun
Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen

Florida’s spring all-access show aired Monday night on SEC Network, providing a behind-the-scenes look at the football program. 

The show featured footage from practices and team meetings, tours of the football facilities and in-depth interviews with players, coaches and staff, including director of strength and conditioning Nick Savage. Segments from Kyle Pitts' Mackey Award ceremony and Florida's Pro Day were also included. 

Fans undoubtedly would have preferred watching the Orange & Blue Game, and  this two-hour special didn’t measure up to the 'This is ... The Swamp' series produced by UF creative video director Randy Mickens. Nonetheless, exclusive exposure on national television is certainly beneficial for recruiting purposes. 

Here are some takeaways and tidbits: 

• The special opened with Gators coach Dan Mullen addressing his team on the first day of camp. After missing out on spring last year, the players were pumped to hit the practice field. “The energy level that the team had during the first meeting that I had was definitely exciting for me,” quarterback Emory Jones said. “I saw a lot of guys ready to get to work. When we first got on the grass for spring, it was definitely just exciting.” 

• Jones replaces Heisman Trophy finalist Kyle Trask as the starter, though he had to compete for the job this spring with Anthony Richardson. Jones established himself as QB1 heading into the offseason, but both quarterbacks will play this year. “He’s the veteran guy. He knows a lot. He’s basically like my big brother,” Richardson said of Jones. “He pushes me, I push him. And we plan on doing amazing things for Gator Nation.”

• SEC Network caught a funny exchange at practice between Jones and new position coach Garrick McGee, who was explaining how he wanted him to drop a deep ball in the back of the end zone. “You got it? Do you need me to do it first to show you?” McGee asked Jones. McGee, a former quarterback at Oklahoma, then demonstrated the throw before closely monitoring Jones’ ensuing rep. “It still has some height on it, it’s just firm. Like that! That’s the one,” McGee said. 

• The show had a whole segment showcasing Mackey Award winner Kyle Pitts, who projects as a top-10 pick on Thursday night. He leaves an enormous void to fill at tight end, but Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer both produced with Pitts out of the lineup last season. Gamble had 160 yards and three touchdowns on 10 catches, while Zipperer finished with 145 yards and two scores on 11 receptions. “If you combine their catches, I think they were second in the SEC behind Pitts last year,” Mullen said of Gamble and Zipperer. “So those guys have played in games and have a lot of experience.”

• The Gators were the only team with three receivers selected in the 2020 NFL draft, and they’ll have three more pass catchers drafted this weekend. Despite a half dozen departures in two years, Mullen expressed confidence in a WR corps that brings back Jacob Copeland, Justin Shorter, Xzavier Henderson, Trent Whittemore and Rick Wells. “A lot of new faces at the receiver spot for us,” Mullen said. “We rotate and play a lot of guys at that position. Over the last two years, I don’t know if anybody has put more receivers into the NFL than we have. But you get that by creating depth and giving guys experience. Even though over each of the last two years we’ve lost several guys moving on to the NFL, those next guys have game experience and they’re ready to go.”

• Mullen also touted the experience at running back, where UF returns Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis and Nay’Quan Wright. The backfield also includes five-star transfers Demarkcus Bowman and Lorenzo Lingard, who had a breakout spring. That group could be the strength of Florida’s offense, which will take on a new identity this year. “Really excited about the depth and experience those guys have,” Mullen said of his tailbacks. “Our ability to roll them through in games and keep us healthy and fresh and wear people down is gonna be a big part of this year’s team.”

• Much of that will depend on the Gators offensive line, which lost starters at center (Brett Heggie) and left tackle (Stone Forsythe). Mullen called developing OL depth one of the most critical aspects of spring ball. At the conclusion of camp, he said the staff was still working to determine the top eight linemen. Mullen hopes to have 10 ready to play in the fall, and juniors Richard Gouraige (LT) and Ethan White (LG) are the two he's most comfortable with. Stewart Reese moved to center in spring, and the projected starters on the right side are sixth-year senior Jean Delance (RT) and sophomore Josh Braun (RG). Jones said the O-line has shown a “top-tier” work ethic this offseason. “After workouts I have the whole offensive line come together as a unit, wanting me to get extra snaps and having to make calls with nobody in front of us, just to get familiar with everything,” Jones said. “I just love the chemistry between us.”

• The chemistry of Florida’s defensive line wasn't disrupted with the addition of grad transfers Daquan Newkirk and Antonio Shelton. “They’re really high-quality guys,” coordinator Todd Grantham said, who expects them to have a Jonathan Greenard-like effect on the unit. Grantham and defensive end Zachary Carter both echoed earlier comments about Newkirk and Shelton having an immediate impact in spring with their veteran leadership. Sophomore nose tackle Gervon Dexter also made his presence known during the show, tackling Wright for a goal-line stop that drew a celebration from his teammates. 

• At linebacker, Grantham said Jeremiah Moon’s decision to return for a sixth season was huge for the unit. “He had the choice to go to the National Football League or stay.” The Gators also brought back three of their top four tacklers in linebackers Ventrell Miller (88), Mohamoud Diabate (69) and Amari Burney (52), while redshirt sophomore Ty’Ron Hopper was another breakout player in spring. “I believe we’ve got a special group of guys,” Miller said. “We’ve got an older room, so everybody pretty much knows what they’re doing. We’re the quarterbacks of the defense and I hold everybody to a high standard.” 

• Florida didn’t meet its DBU standard in the secondary last season, ranking 100th nationally in pass defense. Grantham believes the combination of new defensive back coaches and different personnel will yield better results. Rashad Torrence II now becomes a full-time starter at safety with Trey Dean III, and Tre’Vez Johnson takes over the STAR position. “When you look at [Torrence], you can really see the difference from being able to have played a full year with us. Last year he was basically thrown into the line of fire and actually played the most snaps of any of the safeties. So his return is critical. Trey Dean, he did not get a spring at safety last year, so he got that spring work and really has become a vocal leader for us back there. Tre’Vez, another guy that had to play for us as a true freshman, has done a good job of understanding the little things to be the kind of player we want to be.”

• Grantham said welcoming secondary coach Wesley McGriff was “transition free” because of his NFL experience and understanding of Florida’s defense. New cornerbacks coach Jules Montinar is also well-versed in the system, according to Grantham, because of his time as a graduate assistant at Alabama with Nick Saban. Grantham coached under Saban at Michigan State. “One thing that really impressed me with Coach Jules was we would meet like two-three times a week, working on the small things,” cornerback Kaiir Elam said of Montinar. “Just meeting with the corners and making sure they’re stepping their game up. I appreciate that a lot. … With the chemistry and communication and being on the same page, I feel like we’ve gotten a lot better.”

• Grantham said the defensive backs who enrolled early are competing for spots this fall. “We’re excited about them.” Five-star cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. is expected to push for playing time, and Grantham singled out two young safeties who made strides in spring. “Kamar Wilcoxson, [Donovan] McMillon, really those guys have done a good job for us. Really excited about what they can bring to the table.”