Five storylines to follow during the Orange & Blue Debut

Landon Watnick, Beat Writer
Inside the Gators
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The 2017 Orange & Blue Debut is finally upon us.

After participating in 14 practices, Florida will hold its annual spring game in The Swamp tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET. The contest consisting of four 12-minute quarters is set to air on the SEC Network.

Now, Inside the Gators takes a look at five storylines worth following throughout Friday night’s spring game.

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1. How will Feleipe Franks look in his second spring game? And will Kyle Trask have a strong-enough performance Friday to make the quarterback race more competitive this offseason?

Both quarterbacks will be in the spotlight Friday night – particularly Franks, who has gained recent separation on Trask in the quarterback battle, according to Jim McElwain. Franks has worked with the first-team offense for the majority of the time this spring and should roll out with the 1’s once again tonight.

McElwain didn’t share how much 1’s vs. 1’s as compared to 1’s vs. 2’s we’ll see in the spring game – considering last spring game 1’s vs. 2’s was commonplace – but regardless, this will be a big test for Franks. Especially after tossing three interceptions on his first four throws in last year’s O&B Debut, Franks will look to put that early chapter of his Florida career in the rearview mirror.

It was clear last year that as an early enrollee just a little more than three months out of high school, Franks was nervous and unsettled in the spring game. How comfortable will he look this year in a live-game atmosphere? Will we see much of the same improved footwork, throwing motion and accuracy from Franks that’s been on display this spring?

Then there’s Trask, who should work with the 2’s on Friday and face a big test as well. Trask looked much more polished than Franks in last year’s spring game, but ultimately Franks jumped ahead of him as the No. 2 option at quarterback once Luke Del Rio went down with injuries. Keep an eye on whether Trask has cut the time of his release working in the pocket and whether he now shows better vocal command of the huddle.

2. How will Florida’s red zone offense look in the spring game?

While the Gators defense was No. 4 nationally last year in red zone defense, on the other side of the ball Florida finished second-to-last in the country in red zone offense, scoring on just 30 of 42 red zone trips and logging touchdowns on just half of those trips. Florida was tied for the third-worst red zone conversion percentage in 2015, scoring on just 34 of 51 trips.

It’s an area where the Gators have aimed to improve drastically this offseason.

“The one area we’ve really got to address is the red area,” offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier said midway during the spring. “The red zone, we haven’t been good in both seasons. Need to improve on that. We spent a lot of time working on that and players are cognizant of it and we’ll continue to improve that.”

McElwain has seen progress in his redshirt freshmen quarterbacks in the red area in recent practices, but turnovers and drops seem to still be an issue from time to time in the red area. Will the Florida offense look more functional on these trips Friday night?

3. How much has the offensive line improved?

Another key storyline this spring has been the noteworthy praise for the offensive line’s progression given by coaches and players at other positions. With many of its key contributor now a year more experienced, Florida has been able to establish some depth at the position this spring.

Left tackle Martez Ivey, right tackle Jawaan Taylor, center T.J. McCoy, left guard/center Brett Heggie, right guard Fred Johnson and left guard/center Tyler Jordan appear to be the top six in the rotation at the moment, but players like freshman left tackle Kadeem Telfort and redshirt freshman right tackle Stone Forsythe are among those also pushing for playing time in 2017.

After the push up front in the run game was inconsistent last year, will the group show improvement on that end in the spring game? (In spring practices, the O-line has shown progress with that.) And, will the Gators manage to clean up some things in pass protection? We’ll truly get to see Friday night how much of an early impact new offensive line coach Brad Davis has made on his unit.

4. After losing three key veteran contributors in Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie and Bryan Cox Jr. – and seeing Jordan Sherit sidelined for the spring with a knee injury – which players along the defensive line will step up to the plate Friday night?

Of the 12 scholarship players along the defensive line available this spring, seven are true or redshirt freshmen or sophomores.

A number of those players will see significant snaps Friday night. Defensive end Jabari Zuniga, who jumped ahead of Keivonnis Davis for first-team reps mid-spring, has impressed Florida coaches with his ability to rush the passer. Will he look like the “dominant force” McElwain saw during one of the Gators’ scrimmages this spring? We’ll also get an opportunity to see how much young but talented defensive ends like Antonneous Clayton, Jachai Polite and Jordan Smith have progressed from last year to now.

While Florida is quite deep at defensive end, with a much-leaner CeCe Jefferson leading the pack, the Gators don’t have nearly as much depth established at defensive tackle. Taven Bryan and Khairi Clark have performed well in spring practices, but how will they look Friday night? Can early enrollee Kyree Campbell perform well enough Friday and moving forward to instill some more confidence in that position among the fan base? Can players like Luke Ancrum and Richerd Desir-Jones (who switched from offensive guard to defensive tackle this spring) provide a boost?

5. What will we see from Florida’s cornerbacks on Friday night?

Right now, the secondary is still a puzzle in progress – one that won’t be completed until at least fall camp. With six 2017 signees at defensive back not arriving until the summer, and three DBs held out of full-contact drills this spring due to injury, that’s just the hand the Gators have been dealt.

While Nick Washington and Marcell Harris return at both starting safety spots, Florida has tested out Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardner at both outside cornerback positions full-time this spring as replacements for Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson. Dawson has looked comfortable in his new role - making a number of plays on the ball in the process in practices - but it’s been more of a transition for Gardner, who has gotten better but still struggles at times in man coverage.

Gardner, who played mainly at safety and nickel last season, will face a test in the spring game going up against a talented but shorthanded core of wideouts.

Meanwhile, we should get a good glimpse of Joseph Putu and McArthur Burnett in action Friday night. While Burnett’s spring has been quieter, Putu has generated some buzz with his playmaking ability in practices as a second-stringer. He’s been quite disruptive, breaking up a number of passes and creating turnovers.

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