Spring practice has come and gone. The Orange and Blue game was entertaining but probably did not reveal as much as many think because spring games are usually orchestrated to showcase certain players and units to get fans buzzing. As we enter the summer doldrums, we look toward September with hope and anticipation. There are questions with this team as there are questions with every college football team every year. Fans can live with that. But, what do we KNOW about this Gator team? We know this much for certain, the area that must improve for there to be any real goals in 2016 is the offense so let’s start there.
If you are looking for areas you can count on being solid or at least improved for 2016, here are two.
The kicking game. It is hard to believe that the kicking game could be as bad in 2016 as it was in 2015 even if the names were the same. Austin Hardin would almost certainly be better than he was last season. He’d have to be, right? Thankfully, Gator fans will not have to find out. The addition of Eddy Pineiro appears to be a significant upgrade in placekicking. This could do more for the Gator offense than ANY other addition to the roster. Far too often in 2015 offensive play selection was being dictated by fear of the kicking game. With Pineiro that should change allowing head coach Jim McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier to utilize the entire playbook at any point on the field. The difference a competent kicking game can make for the overall offense cannot be overstated.
The offensive line. For the first time since….well since I can remember, the Florida Gators will not enter a season just one or two injuries along the offensive line away from disaster. Gone are the days of not even having enough linemen to hold a real spring game. The Gators will enter the fall with seventeen offensive linemen on the roster. The goal will be to have nine or ten the staff feels confident putting in with the game on the line. Offensive line coach Mike Summers must feel like a kid on Christmas morning. The two biggest factors feeding the offensive ineptitude of recent seasons has been poor offensive line play and poor quarterback play. The first rather begets the second. If the line can run block, the offense can take some of the pressure off of the quarterback. Likewise, if the line can protect the quarterback and produce a downfield passing game, the opposing defense will be forced to back off of the line of scrimmage allowing room for the running game to develop. It just takes pass protection and a quarterback that can hit a deep pass occasionally.
Speaking of quarterbacks, the Gator Nation has to feel better about this position going into 2016. Fans finally got to see why two different staffs chose two different quarterbacks over Treon Harris. Treon certainly seems to have given it all he had but it became brutally clear by the end of last season that he is not capable of playing quarterback in the SEC. Neither am I, so I am not knocking Treon here at all. It is simply time to move on at this position. Transfer Luke Del Rio looked extremely good in the Orange and Blue game, but again spring games are not always indicative of autumnal success. Having watched the game again, what stands out is Del Rio’s decision making and accuracy in that game. Harris’ struggles came mostly from not making decisions fast enough as the play progressed. Luke appears to have that problem mastered and with reasonable accuracy that should be all it takes to make the passing game efficient in Mac and Nussmeier’s offense. This will not be an offense that asks the quarterback to be a star just not a liablilty.
In 2015, the offense began to come together around Will Grier only to crash and burn when Grier blundered his way out of eligibility. In 2016, the Gators have what seem to be options at backup quarterback. Fellow transfer Austin Appleby has experience at the collegiate level. Appleby might not be talented enough to carry the team but it is unlikely that the offense will become inept with him taking snaps. Incoming freshmen Felipe Franks and Kyle Trask give the Gators’ staff more options but neither appears ready to take the helm in SEC play. It is my opinion that Trask is closer to ready than Franks but that Franks has the higher upside. Best case scenario is that at least one of the two, hopefully Franks, gets the benefit of redshirting. The bottom line is this, if Del Rio stays healthy I believe that the Gators offense will finally be an asset rather than an embarrassment in 2016. If Del Rio is unavailable for any length of time for any reason, I believe the offense will take a step backward but not to the level of impotence fans have witnessed down the stretch the last two seasons.
There is now depth at both receiver and tight end providing targets and playmakers that should make things easier for whoever is taking the snaps come game day. It appears that Antonio Callaway will be available in the fall. Brandon Powell returns from injury. Ahmad Fullwood, CJ Worton, Alvin Bailey and Chris Thompson all have experience. I realize that many have grown tired of waiting for some of these to finally have their breakout season but it is possible that with an adequate offensive line and competent quarterback play they might actually contribute. Incoming freshmen Dre Massey, Freddie Swain and Josh Hammond promise to add playmaking ability instantly making it possible for McElwain to spread out the field and open up the offense. DeAndre Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis both have shown flashes of big play ability at tight end. All indications are that the Gators will have an array of weapons at their disposal in 2016 for the first time in years.
A wide open passing attack can only help the running game. Gator backs have caught a lot of criticism lately for lack of production. In all fairness, they have faced defenses that were stacked at the line of scrimmage daring them to run the ball. Opposing defenses had zero respect for the passing game. We all saw Matt Jones excel in the NFL after struggling in Florida’s offense. I expect we will see the same out of Kelvin Taylor. While the Gators have real depth at running back, the big three will likely be Jordan Scarlett, Jordan Cronkrite and Mark Thompson. Thompson, with his size and speed, could be the star of the backfield if he can only learn to hold onto the ball. We heard about this issue as spring practices wore on and then it reared its ugly head for Thompson in the spring game. If Mark cannot protect the ball he cannot get carries. It really is a simple as that. Best case scenario is a three headed attack that keeps fresh legs coming at the defense for four quarters.
The Florida Gators are getting very little respect going into the 2016 season not even appearing in some of the preseason top 25 lists. That is based entirely on a recent history of pathetic offense. I firmly believe that the offense will not only be much better this season but will be able to withstand a few casualties that would have derailed things the past few years. If I am correct about the offense, the Gators will return to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game for the second straight year. There is little doubt that the defense is capable of holding up its end of the bargain.