Analysis: Questions for Gators entering visit from McNeese

Florida’s sloppy one-sided loss at Utah can be viewed as either a learning experience or a red flag.

Coach Billy Napier chooses to see the lessons provided by the Gators’ Week 1 loss. Yet questions persist about his play-calling and special-teams approach, along with the continued mental errors by his players.

Saturday night’s visit from FCS foe McNeese comes at a perfect time.

UF (0-1) aims to find some answers and a boost of confidence before its Sept. 16 SEC opener against No. 9 Tennessee (1-0) in the Swamp. The Cowboys (0-1) can use the $500,000 payday.

“We can’t waste a minute blaming or complaining or sulking, thinking about the past,” Napier said. “We have to learn. We have to change. We have to adapt. We have to grow.”

While victory is virtually a given, the Gators have individuals, position groups and even units on the spot against overmatched McNeese, a 52-34 loser to Tarleton State in Week 1.

Are the Gators’ offensive line problems fixable by the time Tennessee arrives?

The return of center Kingsley Eguakun is imperative.

No one will mistake Eguakun for former Gators standout Maurkice Pouncey. But the redshirt junior could be the glue of a unit that floundered at Utah while he sat out with a right foot injury.

A veteran of 26 starts, Eguakun might have settled an O-line with effectively four new starters; redshirt sophomore left tackle Austin Barber opened five games on the right side in 2022.

Instead, the Gators were overwhelmed facing the Utes’ defensive front (despite Utah missing two veteran starters) and one of the game’s best defensive staffs, led by head coach Kyle Whittingham.

Redshirt sophomore center Jake Slaughter yielded 2 of 5 sacks of quarterback Graham Mertz. The Gators averaged just 3.1 yards on called runs. In 2022, UF averaged 5.51 yards per rushing attempt.

Napier called it, “Not good enough.”

Not even close.

If the Gators’ offense expects to keep up with Tennessee and other top attacks, it will begin up front.

Where was Princely Umanmielen?

Perhaps no player entered the season with higher expectations than Umanmielen.

The veteran edge rusher closed 2022 on a high note, received the coveted No. 1 jersey during the offseason and seemed a perfect fit for the aggressive scheme of first-year defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong.

Umanmielen instead was the Gators’ biggest no-show in Salt Lake City. During 40 snaps, he recorded an assisted tackle and a quarterback hurry and drew a holding call.

Worse, he clearly failed to pursue Utah quarterback Nate Johnson during a 27-yard touchdown run. Umanmielen was in coverage toward the sideline, but chose to be a spectator when Johnson took off.

The poor performance followed a superlative offseason. Umanmielen recorded personal bests in the weight room, improved his speed and gained 10 pounds of lean muscle while shedding 7 pounds of fat mass.

Umanmielen certainly looks the part. He now needs to produce.

How does Eugene Wilson III become more involved?

The freshman from Tampa needs the football in his hands and more time on the field.

Wilson’s 23 snaps were fourth among UF receivers, but still not enough. None offers the explosiveness and big-play ability of the son of former NFL safety Eugene Wilson II, a two-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots.

On three touches from scrimmage, the younger Wilson totaled 33 yards. While the sample size is minuscule, consider Percy Harvin averaged 11.6 yards from scrimmage (327 touches) and Kadarius Toney 11.7 yards on 186 plays.

While such comparisons are wildly premature and surely unfair, the excitement around Wilson is understandable.

The Gators’ playmaking threats on the perimeter are limited beyond veteran Ricky Pearsall and 6-foot-3, 200-pound sophomore Caleb Douglas, who caught a 19-yard touchdown with authority.

Wilson and Pearsall, who played 63 of 70 snaps at Utah, both line up in the slot. Coaches will have to get creative with Wilson like previous staffs did with Harvin and Toney.

Putting him at punt returner was the right idea, just poor execution by Wilson. He fielded two punts inside the 10, a freshman faux pas he cannot repeat.

Speaking of special teams, what gives?

The third phase of the game was a comedy of errors.

The lowlights: a 31-yard missed field goal, a 21-yard shanked punt and Wilson’s adventures at punt returner.

The Gators also had eight men on the field during a missed 55-yard field goal.

But the creme de la creme? A penalty for having two players wearing No. 3, with Wilson and cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. on the field at the same time.

The 5-yard penalty extended Utah’s drive and led to Johnson’s touchdown run three plays later, pushing the Utes’ lead to 14-3.

Napier explained the Gators had three personnel groupings ready while awaiting the Utes’ decision on 4th-and-3 from the UF 49. Given the amount of activity on the sideline, confusion ultimately reigned.

UF’s head-scratching and inexcusable special-teams showing further spotlighted Napier’s staff makeup and methodology.

Going it alone with an offensive coordinator is one thing for a head coach with a play-calling background. On special teams, Napier relies on analyst Chris Couch, who isn’t on the field on game days.

The setup raised questions in 2022. After Thursday night, the approach might need to be reconsidered.

Edgar Thompson can be reached at