Exiting the 2015 season the questions continued to surround the Florida Gators offense. What we saw during the 2016 Orange and Blue Debut is far different than the last time the Gators took the field against the Michigan Wolverines in Orlando. During the off-season the Florida staff needed to infuse some new faces on the roster to give Florida any chance of returning to Atlanta.
The first priority had to be resolving the glaring weakness under center, and Florida seems to have solidified that position with the additions of Luke Del Rio (who sat out 2015 due to NCAA transfer rules) and graduate transfer Austin Appleby. Del Rio finished the spring game 10-11 for 176 yards and 2 touchdowns, while Appleby put together a solid night finishing 8-11 for 99 yards.
Del Rio looks to be the clear leader coming out of spring, but McElwain will continue to keep the competition going up until the first snap and maybe further than that.
With the departure of Will Grier and the uncertain status of Treon Harris, the Gators will once again be deciding on a quarterback come fall practice. The Florida faithful had to feel better after the performance of Del Rio and Appleby, which is far and away a better feeling coming out of the bowl game in January.
Quarterback was not the only area of need and potentially it may not have been the biggest need. The kicking woes for the Gators were widely known and at times last year was scarier than a horror movie to behold. Outside of the additions under center the addition of kicker Eddy Pineiro brought the most relief. After making his first extra point in the game. The crowd gave a cheer of relief and the burden of the kicking game was removed.
On the night Pineiro was good on kicks from 56, 52 and 46; there is still room for growth as he missed two kicks from 53 and 52. I believe he gets a pass on that considering this was his first time kicking in any sort of live game. In his post-game interview Pineiro says he feels comfortable kicking from 60 and the staff and teammates feel confident in his ability to be consistent come fall. The jury is still out on if he can make those kicks with the real lights and pressure on but one thing is for sure, the talent to kick the ball is there and it is a beautiful thing to behold.
Florida’s needs were not just at the critical position but they also needed to find some additional playmakers. With Callaway out at receiver the Gators needed to have someone step and prove to be a big play threat. Enter JUCO transfer Dre Massey. Massey finished with 2 catches on the night for 29 yards and a touchdown but in the brief moments we saw him, we could see the ability to make plays. Massey looks like the ball belongs in his hands and this spring he proved he deserved it. He will challenge Brandon Powell for reps in the slot and will be a utility player coming out of the backfield and on special teams.
At running back the one many were anxious to see was another JUCO transfer Mark Thompson. He is a beastly type running back who showed what we already knew that a man his size will not be easy to bring down. What we didn’t know is if he got in the open field what would he do, well, on his touchdown run he showed that he can get to the end zone if given some room. Thompson finished with 46 yards on 5 carries and a touchdown, he also added 3 catches for 25 yards. Thompson’s night was not perfect, he fumbled inside the 10 but was bailed out by CJ Worton, who picked up and ran it into the end zone. Mark Thompson hopes to take the reins at running back but returning running mates Jordan Cronkrite and Jordan Scarlett will not make it easy on him.
One of the enlightening developments during the spring was that of the two freshman quarterback early enrollees. On the night Feleipe Franks struggled throwing 3 interceptions but according to McElwain he had a solid spring overall. The unknown coming into this class was Kyle Trask; he didn’t play like he was a backup in high school. Trask showed good presence on the night and put the ball in the pocket multiple times finishing 4-7 for 63 yards.
In three months McElwain has had to integrate these new faces along with other early enrollees like Freddie Swain, Joshua Hammond and Chauncey Gardner who all showed flashes during the debut of what has been talked about all spring. Come August these new faces could be the difference between repeating as SEC East champs or waiting another off season to answer what has seemingly become annual questions concerning the Florida team.
This is by no means a resolve to the concerns and questions surrounding this team, but for one night in the Swamp we can walk away feeling that the staff has added some talent to progress this team and program forward.