Florida football: 5 storylines entering Thursday's spring game

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun

Florida football is gearing up for its annual Orange and Blue game on Thursday night at The Swamp (7:30, SEC Network Plus).

The last of the 15 spring practices will give Florida coaches a chance to gauge the progress of the team in a game-like setting. Florida has already held two spring scrimmages, but this will be the first one fans will get a chance to watch.

"Certainly, excited about all of the Gator Nation showing up," Florida coach Billy Napier said. "Really great opportunity, free admission, 7:30 under the lights, great weather, hopefully, and looking forward to watching what I think is a team that has worked extremely hard."

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Here are five storylines to watch for Thursday night's game:

How will quarterbacks Graham Mertz and Jack Miller perform and will it impact starting QB decision?

Mertz and Miller are battling to replace former Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, who will likely get picked in the first round of the NFL Draft at the end of the month.

Mertz brings experience with 32 career starts in three seasons at Wisconsin. He was sacked 32 times last year but still is coming off the best of his three seasons at quarterback, passing for 2,136 yards with 19 TDs to 10 interceptions.

Miller made his first career start in the Las Vegas Bowl against Oregon State and passed for 180 yards on 13 of 22 completions. He was sacked four times in the loss.

Napier said Mertz and Miller have been effective in camp and that he doesn't intend to name a starter following the spring game.

"They're rallying around both guys because both guys have proven day in and day out that they can be effective," Napier said. "So, we've got a long ways to go before we play and a lot of reps. I mean, training camp is essentially two spring practices to some degree and we're going to have, you know, 18 OTAs this summer. A lot of throwing and catching, a lot of meetings. A lot of competition left here." 

Will any other new faces stand out during the spring?

While most eyes will be fixed on Mertz, the game will provide a chance for some other early enrollees and transfers to make an impact in a live-game setting.

Freshman enrollees Andy Jean and Aidan Mizell have stood out at receiver at times during the spring, while Tulane transfer Cam Carroll could give the Gators a pass-catching option at running back it lacked last season. At the tight end position, redshirt freshman Arlis Boardingham and redshirt freshman Hayden Hansen have taken advantage of increased reps due to injuries to Keon Zipperer and Dante Zanders and have performed well.

On defense, defensive tackle Cam'Ron Jackson (Memphis), defensive tackle Caleb Banks (Louisville) and linebacker Teradja Miller (Ohio State) could get extensive snaps. Freshman enrollee Ja'Keem Jackson also has stood out in the secondary this spring.

How will the defense perform under new coordinator Austin Armstrong?

Florida's defense created turnovers last season under former defensive coordinator Patrick Toney, but was woeful on third down (129th nationally, 47.1 percent) and getting pressure on the quarterback (10th in the SEC in sacks at 1.77 per game).

Florida will run the same 4-2-5 scheme under Armstrong than it did under Toney. The question is whether Armstrong can add wrinkles that will result in more pressure and better results on third down.

Napier said Florida's defense showed strides in communication in its second scrimmage last week, making it hard for the offense to operate. The defense will get a chance to show more growth on Thursday night.

How will the new-look offensive line perform in run blocking and protecting the quarterback?

Florida's offensive line suffered a blow this offseason when Baylor transfer Micah Mazzccua had a shoulder issue that required surgery and cut short his spring. But the Gators will look for others to step up on the offensive line in the spring game.

Redshirt sophomore Austin Barber is taking over as the starter at left tackle and transfers Kiuyaunta Goodwin (Kentucky) and Damieon George Jr. (Alabama) are both capable of starting at the right tackle spot. Inside, Jake Slaughter is pushing returning starter Kingsley Eguakun at center, while Richie Leonard IV has solidified himself at right guard. At left guard, true freshman early enrollee Knijeah Harris and redshirt freshman Christian Williams have worked with the first team in place of Mazzccua, who Florida hopes will return for the start of fall drills.

"We know we can do what we need to do to be successful," Leonard said. "It’s just about having the mental toughness to be able to come and do it every day even when you don’t feel like it.”

What will playing the game on a Thursday night mean for recruiting?

Florida will get its own stage for exposure and recruiting playing on a Thursday night instead of holding a traditional Saturday game. Among teams playing spring games this Saturday are Ohio State, Clemson, Penn State, Ole Miss, Georgia, Mississippi State, Tennessee and South Carolina, teams that Florida often competes with directly for recruits.

"You look at the calendar and OK, we got nine spring games that day right here just in our footprint," Napier said. "We knew we were going to have to compete to get people here. So we moved it to Thursday and thought it went over well. Something about that place under the lights. We got a lot of people off work Friday, so make it a long weekend and come watch the Gators play. Definitely some recruiting strategy that comes with it for sure.” 

Florida landed the sixth commitment of its 2024 class this week, getting four-star running back Kahnen Daniels from West Point, Miss., to pledge to the Gators. More commitments could come following Thursday's spring game.