Miller report: Hope springs eternal for Florida Gators

Spring practice is over and the long summer wait for football begins. As great as it is to get a glimpse of the future in the spring game, it also heralds the end of football for months. The Gator Nation anxiously awaited this year’s Orange and Blue Debut mostly to see how the young quarterbacks have developed. We last saw Felipe Franks and Kyle Trask in action a year ago in the 2016 spring game.

I think it was clear that Felipe Franks is in the lead at this point in the quarterback battle. That was obvious when Franks got the luxury of playing with the number one offense. He made the most of that opportunity moving the offense with regularity and making some good decisions and great throws. He made some less than great throws as well and is undeniably still a work in progress. Franks is not ready to go out and beat a very good Michigan team in the season opener. But, he doesn’t have to play that game yet either. All of the quarterbacks will get more polishing between now and the kickoff of that game. All of them need it.

The most important thing Franks accomplished Friday night was getting the ball into the hands of playmakers. Instead of constantly looking downfield for the big play, he often checked down to the safer option and moved the chains allowing established guys make plays. That is an enormous step forward from what we saw from him a year ago in this game. It was not all perfection though. Franks missed some good opportunities with errant throws. He must learn when to showcase his strong arm and when to take a little off on a touch pass. He did a great job of exactly that after using his eyes to look off the defense on his touchdown pass to Antonio Callaway. That touchdown pass was a thing of beauty.

Felipe Franks looked like a leader on Friday. His demeanor was a portrait in confidence and command. He appeared to be a starting quarterback. Kyle Trask on the other hand looked like he was hoping things would go well rather than making things go well. In Trask’s defense, he was surrounded by the second team offense and facing the first team defense. That is quite a handicap. When he had his chance to run the first team offense, Kyle put together a much better looking drive. Trask appears to be a viable option at quarterback but he seems to be well behind Franks at this time. Furthermore, I would not rule out the possibility that Luke Del Rio is the starter against Michigan if he is healthy in August. Del Rio performed quite well when healthy last season.

And then there is true freshman Kadarius Toney. Toney was electrifying with the ball in his hands. Yes , he was facing third string or lower defensive players but there is no denying this young man’s playmaking abilities. While I do not think he is in serious contention to be the starting quarterback at Florida in 2017, I don’t think he will be redshirted either. Coach McElwain and OC Doug Nussmeier will have to find ways to get Toney the ball in the open field a least a few times per game. Simply having a wildcat package for the freshman will force opposing defenses to prepare for the possibility that they will face the read-option with Toney at the helm. That alone is an instant benefit.

And that is just the quarterback position. There are several other questions as well. The offensive line has been a concern for what seems like a decade now. There is more depth this season with four returning starters and several that have played substantial snaps. However, the first team o-line seemed to get little push once again in the running game Friday night. That is quite concerning. I do not think there is a lack of talent along the unit. It is time for these players to decide if they are determined enough to excel at this level. The one missing piece in this group appears to be in the realm of attitude. If the offensive line finds the heart to get the job done this offense could be fun to watch this season.

The offense does not lack playmakers. Callaway is ready to showcase his abilities this season with an eye on his future after finally getting to take part in a spring practice. Brandon Powell played the role of possession receiver well Friday. With the return of Dre Massey and the continued development of Tyrie Cleveland, Josh Hammond and Freddie Swain, the receivers are ready to be a strength instead of a liability for a change. Add in the possibility of Toney in the slot at times and the tight end production that should be there and the passing game will be greatly improved.

At running back, Jordan Scarlet has staked his claim to the starting spot but Lamical Perine is breathing down his neck. Mark Thompson again displayed his running ability but also displayed his issue with holding on to the football. If Thompson cannot correct that problem he will see precious little playing time come fall. You cannot play in close games if you are a turnover risk.

The question on defense will not be whether the Gators can field a capable defense again with the starters returning but whether there will be enough depth to handle the injuries that will inevitably emerge playing in the brutal SEC. There should be a suitable pass rush with Jabari Zuniga and CeCe Jefferson as well as the return of Jordan Sherit. Linebacker will be a little scary with depth but there is clearly talent available. Vosean Joseph appears poised to become a star.

The secondary has a lot of talent. There is still some sorting out to be done on who will play where and when but the talent level is without question and there is even more set to arrive over the summer. While the defense might not be quite as dominant as it has been the last few years, there is every reason to believe that it will still be one of the best defenses in the SEC which means the country.

Spring games must be taken with a grain of salt because they are designed to make the team look good. We have all seen the guys who have great springs only to disappear the following fall. That said, I believe this team is in position to be the best overall team since McElwain’s arrival. A third straight SEC East title is very realistic. And if a solid quarterback emerges this could be the team that not only makes the trip to Atlanta but wins the game as well. For now, Gator fans need to hope for no off-field issues over the summer and a light season on the injury front. If that happens, this could be a special season in 2017.