Seven things to know about the Florida Gators

Adam Luckett, Special to Cats Illustrated
Cats Illustrated

Jim McElwain is in year three in Gainesville and the Gators are the defending SEC East champions but it has been a rocky ride.

Each season has ended with a dud as the Gators have been smashed by both Florida State and Alabama to end each year and that does not make the Florida faithful very happy as they head into talking season.

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This is a program that has had two of the top 10 head coaches in college football history (Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer) who won national titles and multiple SEC crowns with cutting edge offenses. McElwain, the former offensive coordinator at Alabama, was suppose to be the guy to bring back high scoring offenses to The Swamp. That hasn’t happened yet, but McElwain has been able to live off the elite talent Will Muschamp left on the roster on the defensive side of the football. With that defensive talent running dry and an offense that has yet to average more than 24 points per game, the patience of the Florida fan base is beginning to become short.

Moving on to the 2017 Gators, it’s a club that some expected to again bring home a divisional crown and compete for the second best spot in the SEC. It’s been a rough start, but there is still plenty of football left to be played. Here is a scouting report and the essential things you need to know about McElwain’s club heading into the huge SEC East clash at Kroger Field.

Rushing Issues

When McElwain took the job in Gainesville, the offensive line was in really bad shape and could’ve been considered the worst in the SEC. Add in the fact that the Gators did not have many offensive linemen on scholarship and this became a point of emphasis in each of Jim McElwain’s recruiting classes.

This was a big reason that Florida has struggled in the ground game as they only averaged 3.5 and 3.7 yards per carry in 2015 and 2016. But the Gators rushing attack got rolling a little bit at the end of last season as Florida found a tailback in Jordan Scarlett and the offensive line was much improved when freshman T.J. McCoy became the starter at center. Heading into 2017, Florida had one of the best lines on paper as McCoy along with tackles Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor all have all-conference potential.

Unfortunately, the line play has not been great as Florida was punked by Michigan and then only put up 169 yards on the ground against a Tennessee front seven that has allowed at least 300 rushing yards to four SEC teams to end 2016 and was gashed in the opener against Georgia Tech for 535 yards on the ground. The offensive line play has been mediocre under first year line coach Brad Davis. Davis and Kentucky defensive line coach Derrick LeBlanc were both on the staff at North Texas last season and that coaching battle will be something to keep an eye on this Saturday.

Defensive Regression

In the last two seasons, Florida had one of the best defenses in the country as the advanced statistical S&P+ system had the Gators as fourth best unit in 2016 and the seventh best group in 2015. A lot of this had to do with the talent Will Muschamp brought in. The Gators had multiple high draft picks at each level of the defense the past two years as the Gators had tremendous depth. It appears Florida has moved to a bit of a youth movement on the front seven and the loaded depth chart is now thin for first year defensive coordinator Randy Shannon. The Gators are starting two sophomores and a redshirt freshman at linebacker and this is a really inexperienced group. The team’s rush defense has taken a dip as opponents are averaging 4.9 yards per carry this year after only giving 3.5 and 3.7 the last two seasons. Both Tennessee and Michigan have posted over 180 yards on the ground this year and have done most of the damage in the second half as the Gators become tired. Florida’s offense has been unable to possess the ball and the Gators have played over 70 snaps per game in each contest this year.

Kentucky has struggled to run the ball against Florida since Mark Stoops arrived in Lexington, but this will be UK’s best chance to put some numbers up in the stat sheet. Expect Florida to be stingy early, but Benny Snell has a chance to have a big performance late in the game on Saturday if UK can win the time of possession battle.

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Once again, the Gators lost a lot from the defensive backfield as corners Quincy Wilson and Teez Tabor were both high draft picks. Plus safety Marcus Maye was one of the better defensive backs in the SEC last season and he is also gone for the NFL. Then right before camp open, the Gators lost their leading returning tackler in safety Marcell Harris. Therefore, Florida would be breaking in a brand new secondary to start the season.

They haven’t skipped a beat. Duke Dawson is a senior who played mostly nickel last year and he has slid to an outside corner spot in 2017. He responded by recording a pick-six against Michigan. Senior safety Nick Washington received in 2016 and sophomore Chauncey Gardner, Jr. looked very good as a true frosh. They’re once again strong in the secondary. But the surprise has been another true freshman.

Each year it seems like Florida has a rookie defensive back step up and become an immediate contributor. This year it has been Miami native CJ Henderson who recorded a pick-six in both the Michigan and Tennessee contests. Fellow true freshman Marco Wilson hails from south Florida and has played very well to start the year with Henderson. Opponents are only completing 50.8% of their attempts and the Gators have posted five interceptions out of 65 attempts. Stephen Johnson will need to be very wise with his decisions in the passing game this week.

Quarterback Talent

For the first time since Will Grier was kicked off the team, Florida has a player that is a capable talent at this sport’s most important position. Since the departure of Grier, the trio of Treon Harris, Luke Del Rio, and Austin Appleby just did not have the skill to succeed and the offense really struggled. This year redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks has taken over behind center and he has the tools to be a top level quarterback.

The redshirt freshman has a cannon of an arm and probably throws the best deep ball in the SEC. As you saw in the game winning touchdown against Tennessee, the young gun can throw it a country mile. For the season, Franks is hitting on 62.2% of his passes and if this number holds it would be the best since Grier. McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier won’t ask him to do much, but the Gators are always a threat to go deep due to his arm strength. Expect Franks to take all of the snaps on Saturday.

Suspensions

The Gators suspended nine players prior to the opener against Michigan. Most of these players were young prospects not expected to contribute this season. However, Florida’s best two offensive playmakers were on this list and each is a significant loss for an offense that has some issues.

As mentioned above, the Florida rushing game was expected to be a strength this season with an experienced offensive line and junior running back Jordan Scarlett. Scarlett has averaged over five yards per carry in each of his first two seasons and has proven to be a capable workhorse. In games where the Fort Lauderdale native received more than 20 carries, he put up over 100 yards on the ground. Lamical Perine and Mark Thompson appeared to be solid backups but the two have only 106 yards on 30 carries so far in 2017.

The loss of Scarlett and the ineffectiveness of the reserves forced Florida to turn to true freshman Malik Davis against Tennessee. The Tampa native responded with 102 yards on five carries that gave the Florida offense a big play pop it was severely lacking. Kentucky will probably receive a heavy dose of the rookie this Saturday. If you take him out of the run game, the Gators are only averaging 2.4 yards per carry.

The other huge loss happened at receiver as Florida lost Antonio Callaway. Ever since he arrived on campus, the junior has been UF’s only proven big playmaker on the outside and he’s been dynamic in the kick return game. Last year he burned Derrick Baity in man coverage for a 78-yard touchdown. Florida has been reeling to find a replacement.

Outside of Tyrie Cleveland, there is no one to really stretch the defense in the Florida receiver room and the tight end play has been a disappointment to start the year. The Gators have made a concerted effort to get true freshman Kadarius Toney touches as he is name you need to remember. So far, he has seven touches for 72 yards on the year. Josh Hammond and Brandon Powell are good intermediate threats but they do not scare you. The biggest key for Kentucky will be preventing Cleveland from making a big impact in the vertical passing game.

Best Kicking Game in Nation

You will be hard pressed to find a better kicking/punting duo than Eddy Pineiro and Johnny Townsend as both have a legit shot to play in the NFL.

Pinerio has the biggest leg in the country as he’s hit for nine touchbacks on nine kickoffs after hitting on 72% in 2016. After knocking in 21 of 25 field goals last year, Pineiro is 3 of 4 this season and the junior is very comfortable with anything under 60 yards.

In the punting game, Johnny Townsend will get All-American consideration this fall. After averaging 48 yards per punt last year, Townsend is averaging over 50 yards per punt after 11 attempts this season.

The field position battle will be an absolute war on Saturday as two of the SEC’s better kicking games will be going at it on Saturday.

Bad History

It’s no secret to that Florida currently has won 30 straight against Kentucky and this is currently the longest streak in the FBS. However, outside of last season, Kentucky has played Florida pretty tough under Mark Stoops.

As a spread perspective goes, Kentucky is just 1-3 against the number against Florida under Stoops. In 2013, UK hung tough until the Gators pulled away at the end. The Wildcats were robbed of a victory in 2014 and lost by five as a three point home underdog in 2015. Currently, Kentucky is a 2.5 point underdog for Saturday night. In home games where UK is an underdog of a touchdown or less, the Wildcats are 2-5 against the spread under Stoops.

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