Florida football: Defense shows progress, WR Xzavier Henderson stands out in second scrimmage

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun

With a week to go before the Orange and Blue Game, Florida football held its second spring scrimmage on Thursday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Florida coach Billy Napier said the defense showed progress in its communication, while wide receiver Xzavier Henderson stood out on offense.

"Xzavier Henderson had an exceptional day, made a ton of plays and got a ton of production," Napier said. "The ball went his way and he made some really good plays today."

Henderson, one of two starting receivers returning, had 38 catches for 410 yards and 2 TDs in 11 games last season. The speedy Henderson is being counted on for more big plays and consistency at receiver this season.

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"For the most part, Xzavier, I thought, every time I turned around he was making a play," Napier said.

Napier said Montrell Johnson Jr. and Trevor Etienne both ran the ball well in the scrimmage. On defense, the Gators were able to get to the quarterback and create some negative plays.

"They did a good job mixing the pressures in today," Napier said. "I thought they made it hard at times. I think that, overall, just communicated really well. (They were) on the same page. Thought they created some negatives, some TFLs, some pressure, quarterback hits/sacks. We were a little banged up on the offensive line today and they took advantage of that."

Florida coach Billy Napier talks to tight end Hayden Hansen, who is getting more opportunities this spring due to all the injuries at the tight end position.

Here are more takeaways from the scrimmage:

Napier not tipping hand at quarterback

Napier didn't tip his hand on whether Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz or redshirt sophomore Jack Miller will work with the first team in next week's spring game and doesn't intend to declare a starter after the game is over.

Mertz and Miller have both worked with the first team during spring camp.

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"Graham Mertz has been impressive to watch," Napier said. "You know, just his maturity, his ability to learn a new system in a very quick manner. He did two-a-days basically since the day he got here. He's been grinding away behind the scenes, and he's hit the ground running. I mean, he operates like a guy who's been around here. So, the most important thing here is that he has forced the other players to rise to the occasion."

Napier said Miller has made "drastic improvement" since making his first career start in the Las Vegas Bowl last December. Miller was sidelined for close to three months last season after suffering a broken thumb in fall camp.

"You know, he's out for basically the entire season and then we throw him to the wolves in the bowl game," Napier said. "But he has really impressed me with his response to the competition."

Knijeah Harris stepping up on OL

With Baylor transfer Micah Mazzccua out indefinitely with a shoulder issue, Florida has done some offensive line reshuffling. True freshman early enrollee Knijeah Harris (6-foot-3, 322 pounds) worked with the first team at left guard prior to the scrimmage and is a player Napier mentioned as making strides in camp.

"Knijeah Harris has become a factor," Napier said.

Napier said Richie Leonard IV has taken advantage of his opportunity replacing O'Cyrus Torrence at right guard.

"Then obviously Kingsley (Eguakun) and Austin (Barber) and our veteran players," Napier said. "And then the other tackles, Kiyaunta (Goodwin) and Damieon (George) have done nice job. (Jake) Slaughter has stepped up. I think that group is … we got a chance to have a good unit. We just got to put five out there."

TE Dante Zanders out with shoulder injury

Napier confirmed tight end Dante Zanders is dealing with a sprained AC joint in his shoulder. Zanders has been spotted on the sidelines in a sling at recent practices. Zanders likely won't play in the spring game but should be recovered in time for the start of fall camp.

With Keon Zipperer and Jonathan Odom both out for spring camp with knee injuries, that leaves Florida's tight end room thin entering the Orange and Blue Game next week. It should open up opportunities for tight ends Arlis Boardingham, Tony Livingston and Hayden Hansen, who all played well in UF's first spring scrimmage.

Napier said Odom is working hard to return by the start of fall camp.

"One thing about Odom, he’s very smart," Napier said. "I think he, when forced into playing time last year at the end of the year he really emerged. There’s something to be said for that experience. I think he’s bright enough."