4 thoughts from Florida Gators spring game, DJ Lagway’s debut

GAINESVILLE — The Florida Gators’ spring game didn’t create a quarterback competition between incumbent Graham Mertz and five-star freshman DJ Lagway. It did, however, highlight their strengths on an idyllic afternoon in front of an announced crowd of 48,000 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Mertz’s Blue team defeated Lagway’s Orange squad 19-17. The Orange team started with a 3-0 lead after winning the overtime segment in Thursday’s practice.

Here are four thoughts on the exhibition at the end of Billy Napier’s third spring.

DJ Lagway looked like a five-star freshman (in every sense)

Lagway played like an early enrollee in the opening minutes. On his first snap, he overthrew a pass downfield that Ja’Keem Jackson batted away. Lagway then took a sack — a relative term, given the routine ban on hitting quarterbacks in exhibitions — and overthrew Marcus Burke for a three-and-out.

Lagway rebounded by splitting defenders for a 22-yard touchdown pass to Aidan Mizell, and the Texas native finished off a two-minute drill at the end of the half with a 5-yard touchdown to Taylor Spierto. In the second half, Lagway was intercepted by Mannie Nunnery and missed on five of his 11 throws.

Lagway’s final numbers: 12 of 21 for 173 yards, 12 carries for minus-1 yard.

“I think he’s showed he’s a competitor...” Napier said. “It wasn’t too big for him.”

As accomplished as Lagway was in high school, the jump to the SEC is still big. Lagway isn’t expected to challenge Mertz for the starting job but will likely see action in specialty packages. His showing Saturday suggests he’ll be ready for those limited roles in Year 1.

Graham Mertz, Tre Wilson keep connecting

Wilson, the Gaither High alumnus, was one of the brightest spots last year as a freshman. On Saturday, he showed why he’ll likely be the Gators’ top offensive skill player this season.

He caught all six of his first-half targets (including a pair of third-down conversions). His 60-yard touchdown was one of the day’s best plays. Wilson was responsible for six of Mertz’s eight first-half completions and finished with a game-high 128 yards.

“We’re going to get our money’s worth out of Tre Wilson,” Napier said.

The Gators’ hope for a better fall rest, in part, on the continuity and experience of Mertz at quarterback, plus the development of the receiving corps. Some questions remain unanswered, but the Mertz-Wilson connection is something Florida can highlight.

The defense has some new names to know

After years of substandard performances, the Gators’ defense must improve if Florida is going to make a bowl game. Napier said he was encouraged by his defense’s growth in the pass rush and in coverage.

Jackson, a former top-100 national recruit, flashed with two breakups. Another blue-chip signee from 2023, Sharif Denson, intercepted Mertz and leveled a receiver on another play. Napier said the moment wasn’t too big for five-star edge rusher LJ McCray.

Defensive back Asa Turner (a transfer who started 28 games at Washington) had a highlight-worthy diving deflection, and no one had more tackles than another transfer (South Carolina’s Grayson Howard).

It’s risky to take too much away from turnovers in a spring game — what’s good for one side is inherently bad for the other. But the Gators’ 2023 defense ranked second-to-last nationally by forcing only seven turnovers. The fact that Florida’s defensive backs made some promising plays, then, was a positive.

The Gators’ backfield is in good shape

Florida lost its best offensive player in the offseason when Trevor Etienne transferred to rival Georgia. Even without him, Florida’s backfield remains a strength.

Four-star freshman Jadan Baugh racked up 77 yards on 12 carries, and juco transfer Ja’Kobi Jackson rushed for 60 yards. Montrell Johnson didn’t have a major role but is proven (more than 1,600 yards through two seasons at UF).

Napier and his staff punched above their weight at Louisiana in finding, recruiting and developing NFL running backs (including Raymond Calais, one of the Bucs’ seventh-round picks in 2020). The Gators will miss Etienne, but the unit will be (at least) solid without him.

• • •

Sign up for the Sports Today newsletter to get daily updates on the Bucs, Rays, Lightning and college football across Florida.

Never miss out on the latest with your favorite Tampa Bay sports teams. Follow our coverage on Instagram, X and Facebook.