5 takeways from Florida’s season-opening victory over Utah

·7 min read

The first game of the Billy Napier era in Gainesville ended in dramatic fashion as linebacker Amari Burney picked off Utah’s Cameron Rising with 17 seconds left on the clock to secure a 29-26 Florida victory.

The interception came from the most unlikely source after Burney had struggled all night with the tough assignment of covering tight end Brant Kuithe. But Kuithe wasn’t in on that play, and Burney was ready for the ball when it came his way. Made even more dramatic by a dropped interception a few plays earlier by linebacker Ventrell Miller, the turnover quite literally saved the game.

Utah was driving down the field and Rising’s mobility was becoming a problem for the defense. Up until that point, he hadn’t thrown a pick or come close to giving the ball away. Things looked bad, but Burney made the play of his career and the Gators sit 1-0 after week one and have victory over a top-10 to show for it. It’s pretty great to be a Florida Gator right now.

Coming into the night, the Gators were a bit of a question mark. With a new head coach and abysmal returns a season ago, no one quite knew just how good this Florida team would be. Anthony Richardson and Co. delivered emphatically, though, and UF should have a few more votes in the upcoming AP poll.

Here are five takeaways from the first game of the Napier era.

Anthony Richardson might be as good as advertised

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Richardson was every bit the quarterback Gators fans had hoped for against Utah. He accounted for 274 yards of total offense, 168 through the air on 17-of-24 passing and 106 rushing yards on 11 carries. He scored thrice for the Gators on the ground, including a big 45-yard run that put Florida ahead going into the half.

Whenever Florida needed him to come up big, Richardson delivered. You need a two-point conversion? Fine, he’ll pump fake the defenders and use his speed to find separation before ultimately hitting a man standing wide open in the end zone to get the job done. That’s a real thing that happened in a competitive football game. Richardson has first-round potential, and the hype doesn’t appear to be overblown.

[autotag]Xzavier Henderson[/autotag] (4/5, 29) and [autotag]Ricky Pearsall[/autotag] (3/4, 51 yards) seemed to be his two favorite targets, but he did start to find [autotag]Justin Shorter[/autotag] more in the second half. Connecting with the tight ends was a big tougher. [autotag]Keon Zipperer[/autotag] hauled in one catch for seven yards, and [autotag]Dante Zanders[/autotag] didn’t get a good ball on his lone target of the night.

Richardson also made his share of bad decisions, most notably a crossbody throw in the third quarter that should have been picked off but wasn’t. Of course, that willingness to try the impossible is what allows plays like the pump-fake two-point conversion to come to fruition.

The running back room is very deep

AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

[autotag]Nay’Quan Wright[/autotag] looked solid and received the most carries in the first half as the starter, but [autotag]Montrell Johnson[/autotag] and [autotag]Trevor Etienne[/autotag] each shined when they were on the field.

Well, Johnson’s Gators career got off to a rough start when he fumbled the ball and killed the first drive of the season, but he bounced back nicely after that. He’d finish the night as the team’s leading carrier with 12 attempts for 75 yards and a touchdown. Wright’s 10 carries for 39 yards were still plenty impactful, but Johnson sure looked like the No. 1 by the end of the night.

Etienne was explosive every time he was on the field and racked up 64 yards on just five carries. If that doesn’t warrant more snaps next week, it’s hard to tell what does.

The only problem with this trio right now is that Napier has to take carries away from one of them to feed the others. He’s probably not complaining, though.

The defense is legit... for now

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida’s defense under Patrick Toney and Sean Spencer was a bit of a mixed bag, but they showed up multiple times when they needed to and that’s a big difference from last season already.

The return of [autotag]Ventrell Miller[/autotag] is noticeable. He’s not afraid to make a tackle in open field and was tough against the run for most of the night, keeping in mind that Utah is a top-10 team with a potent rushing attack.

Safety [autotag]Trey Dean III[/autotag] led the team in total tackles with 12 (six solo) and a tackle for loss. [autotag]Brenton Cox Jr[/autotag]. didn’t record a sack but did help make one of the biggest tackles of the game during a goal-line stand that ended on Florida’s one-yard line. Defensive end [autotag]Princely Umanmielen[/autotag] was the other man in on the tackle.

Of course, Burney deserves a mention here. He made the biggest play of the game after a night of sub-par coverage. It’s encouraging to see that Napier has his players mentally tough enough to come up in a moment like that after such a long night.

This isn’t a top-10 defense or anything like that, but the unit looks better and more willing to adjust in-game under the new staff.

Flags are a problem once again for the Gators

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of the game, Billy Napier said that “it’s not going to be about emotion, it’s going to be about execution.” That proved to be true in the end, but Florida got off to a rough start early and drew three penalties in the first quarter alone. The seven penalties called throughout the game exceeds Napier’s self-imposed rate of one per 30 plays and it will no doubt be an area of focus in practice over the next week.

It was a bit surprising to see the Gators penalized on the very play of the game — Florida drew a flag on the opening kickoff for holding (Zanders). Napier has harped on limiting mistakes, and there wasn’t nearly as much discipline as one might expect with all the preseason talk. A false start in the third quarter killed a drive that was moving in the right direction and had the potential to help Florida void the late drama.

Cleaning things up against Kentucky should be priority No. 1 for the Gators in practice this week.

The depth chart will remain fluid

 

AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack

Five true freshmen saw action against Utah. Etienne might be the easiest to pick up on while he’s running the ball, but safety [autotag]Kamari Wilson[/autotag], linebacker [autotag]Shemar James[/autotag], cornerback [autotag]Devin Booker[/autotag] and defensive end [autotag]Chris McClellan[/autotag] all made their collegiate debuts tonight. Florida’s expected to continue using young players as rotational pieces as a more rigid depth chart is established through the season.

Many of the “second-string” players were instrumental in this victory, so consider the depth chart released each week as a suggestion more than a fact. Napier’s good at manipulating the playing pieces he has to get the best end product, and this was his first chance to see them in a real game. He should continue to make adjustments each week until he finds the correct recipe for success.

[listicle id=91044]

[listicle id=91046]

[listicle id=90996]

Follow us @GatorsWire on Twitter and like our page on Facebook to follow ongoing coverage of Florida Gators news, notes and opinions.

Let us know your thoughts and comment on this story below. Join the conversation today!

Story originally appeared on Gators Wire