Day 7 spring practice: defense dominates

It should come as no surprise that the defense is ahead of the offense as the Florida Gators near the midway point of spring football practice. Saturday’s 90-minute scrimmage saw the defense dominate an offensive unit that was playing without some of its key elements.

Urban Meyer gave center Mike Pouncey the day off, which meant the offensive line was playing without three starters (Carl Johnson hasn’t done contact all spring and Marcus Gilbert has been out all week). Nick Alajajian, who was a tackle until earlier in the week when he got a battlefield promotion to center, handled all the snaps for an offensive line that never got into a good rhythm and it showed in both the running and passing games.

Quarterback John Brantley was 13-31 for 132 yards with a red zone touchdown pass of 25 yards to Jordan Reed and a goal line touchdown pass of three yards to Chris Rainey. He also telegraphed a pass out in the flat at the goal line which freshman safety Matt Elam jumped for an easy interception and five-yard jaunt into the end zone.

Timing was the critical issue for Brantley the entire day. Much of that had to do with the offensive line, which struggled to hold off an aggressive and consistent pass rush. Brantley rarely had time to look downfield. His longest completion of the day was the touchdown pass to Reed. That was one of four completions that went for more than 10 yards and one of just two — there was a 13-yard completion to Omarius Hines — that actually went more than 10 yards in the air.

Brantley also had five passes dropped.

Backup quarterback Trey Burton had the longest completion of the day, a 32-yard hookup with freshman Solomon Patton when he scrambled to avoid the pass rush and hit Patton deep downfield while on the run. Burton also had a nice 22-yard pass to Frankie Hammond earlier in the scrimmage. On the day, Burton was 9-18 for 96 yards with one touchdown on a three-yard pass to Hammond during the goal line drills and one interception when his pass to Jordan Reed bounced off Reed’s hands and was snagged on the fly by freshman Jaylen Watkins.

Burton had one of the two best runs of the day on a 30-yard scramble but he also had a couple of fumbles.

Mike Gillislee got all the carries at tailback with the first unit offense, finishing with eight carries for 32 yards. His best run went for 10 yards in which he made a nice cutback and broke a tackle to get three extra yards.

Walk-on junior Ean McQuay led all rushers with 12 carries for 74 yards. He had the longest play of the day when he broke for 46 yards when he hit the hole quickly and then made a nice move to get past the linebackers and in to the secondary.

Omarius Hines led the first unit receivers with five catches for 45 yards while Carl Moore had four catches for 22 yards and Chris Rainey had two for 15 yards and one touchdown.

Stephen Alli led the second unit offense with five catches for 33 yards while Hammond had two catches for 25 yards and one touchdown. 

On the offensive line, Xavier Nixon had a very good day at left tackle. The first unit line Saturday included Alajajian at center, James Wilson and Mo Hurt at the guard with Nixon and Young at the tackles.

When the Gators line up in the I-formation, Steve Wilks is usually the fullback. He had a terrific block that cut down Neiron Ball on a goal line play and a great lead block for Gillislee on a five-yard gain.

DEFENSIVE GEMS: In addition to his interception, Elam had a couple of nice tackles and spent the day finding his way to the football. He has exceptional instincts and the ability to maneuver in traffic to get to the football.

Defensive line coach Dan McCarney seemed to stay on Omar Hunter’s case all day but it paid off because Hunter consistently created problems in the middle. He didn’t get to the quarterback a single time but he forced a double team and help from the fullback on several occasions. Jaye Howard looked very good against the run. He seems to be stronger in the upper body which might have something to do with him winning most of the hand fighting with the offensive linemen.

Duke Lemmens had a sack and a couple of nice quarterback pressures while William Green and freshman Neiron Ball consistently gave David Young fits at right tackle. Young is a very good run blocker but he has struggled throughout the past week handling speed rushers off the edge.

It was a very good day for Florida’s linebackers. Brendan Beal played middle linebacker with the first unit defense much of the day and had a very productive scrimmage which included a sack and a forced fumble. Jon Bostic spent most of the day playing middle linebacker with the second unit but he also had a productive day that included a couple of nice hits that caused incomplete passes.

The first unit linebackers for much of the day were Beal in the middle with A.J. Jones on the strong side and Brandon Hicks on the weak side. Jelani Jenkins got some reps with the first unit and made two players which brought Urban Meyer into the defensive huddle to tap Jenkins on the helmet to say good job.

Neiron Ball did most of his damage as a rush end but he also played in space some at linebacker where he seems to have no problems locating the ball and running in traffic without getting picked off by a blocker. There were also a couple of nice plays against the run by Lorenzo Edwards.

Safeties Ahmad Black and Will Hill took the scrimmage off which gave Elam and Jordan Haden plenty of snaps with the first unit.

Moses Jenkins continued to play well at the corner opposite Janoris Jenkins. Moses Jenkins has been one of the spring’s more pleasant surprises.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Chas Henry got off five punts in a row that all had plenty of hang time but his 53-yarder was so high it might have come down wet. Caleb Sturgis was 5-7 on field goal attempts with his longest a 47-yarder. On both the misses, there were snap and hold issues, which cause him to pull the ball sharply to the left.

A SIGN OF THINGS TO COME?: Earl Okine had a decent day at defensive end but late in the scrimmage he was moved over to the offensive side where he handled himself very well at tight end. The Gators have some very good looking young guys who can catch and run but neither Jordan Reed or Gerald Christian has the ideal size for a tight end in the running game. At 6-7, 275, Okine is an imposing figure. He looked very good as a blocker in a two-minute drill with the second unit offense toward the end of the scrimmage.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.