By: Nicole Boyett
After weeks of unpredictable weather in Gainesville, it’s as if someone was notified that there was football to be played on Saturday. Maybe it wasn’t the traditional Orange and Blue Debut we’ve all come to know and love, but come 1 o’clock on a gorgeous Saturday afternoon in Gainesville, the sun was beaming down on fans in The Swamp, football was back. Ben Hill Griffin Stadium was full of families happy to be in orange and blue again and nobody seemed to care that the traditional scrimmage had turned into a glorified practice.
The alumni flag football game was a great way to get fans excited and into the stands early. We learned that Keiwan Ratliff still has moves, Brandon Siler and Earl Everett are still some of Florida’s best linebackers, and struggling to run north and south seems to have always been a tradition in Gainesville; one that has already started to come to an end with Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor in the backfield.
My favorite part of the Orange and Blue Debut was Fred Taylor’s interview. You’d think a father whose son dons his number and followed in his footsteps to his alma mater would be nothing but full of praise, but Fred Taylor showed us why Kelvin Taylor is such an impressive football player – he never lets up. When asked about his son, Fred Taylor didn’t hesitate to say he was faster than Kelvin as an incoming freshman, drawing a few laughs from the crowd, but credited Kelvin with having quicker feet. He joked about how hard it’ll be for his son to wake up and get to the weight room and the classroom. I felt like I was a fly on the wall of the Taylor home learning how the past few years of conversations between Fred and Kelvin have gone. With a dad who knows how good he was and how hard it is to be good now, Fred will not let Kelvin be anything but great. And the way he went about it on Saturday just shows the competitive spirit of the family name that will hopefully power Florida’s running game for years to come.
Saturday solidified my faith in the Gator defense and reservations about how productive Florida’s offense will be passing the ball. Jeff Driskel didn’t have much of an offensive line to work with (and he couldn’t be touched), yet I still didn’t see any major strides from the disaster that was the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.
Despite their lack of production, I have a lot of fond memories of our receiving corps over the past few seasons. I remember Dunbar’s touchdown catches in the back of the end zone against Furman and FSU in 2011. Despite getting rave reviews for his route running during spring practices, Dunbar struggled to get open Saturday in the Swamp.
No Gator can forget the kickoffs Debose returned for touchdowns against South Carolina and LSU in 2010 or Florida’s only touchdowns against Alabama and LSU in 2011. Unfortunately, Debose disappeared both last year and during Saturday’s practice. Debose had a great catch in the corner of the end zone during drills but failed to make a play during scrimmages. We all know what Debose can do, but his inconsistencies allowed freshman Demarcus Robinson to shine instead. Robinson seemed determined to showcase his talents on Saturday and proved he is worthy of becoming Driskel’s favorite target this fall. Robinson appeared to be the most consistent receiver during drills and scrimmages despite walking with a limp due to an ankle injury.
Replacing Jordan Reed’s production has been a concern of mine since he led the Gators in receptions last year but with the coaches’ reports of improvement at WR through spring practices, Kent Taylor could very well become a vital piece of the Gator offense without having to be Jordan Reed. At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, no defense can ignore his size. If his hands improve, I could see him trucking a few guys for first downs and becoming a fan favorite this season.
As for our defense, Saturday’s performance (combined with how good I know Florida’s injured players are) solidifies my confidence for the fall, despite losing seven starters. This defense is relentless and full of talent. On Saturday, Damien Jacobs proved he is a force to be reckoned with, Leon Orr was able to run Driskel down and Joey Ivie shut Kelvin Taylor down on a play that made everyone ask “Who is that?” and quickly look down at their rosters only to find out he is a freshman.
Another freshman, Daniel McMillian, almost intercepted Driskel thanks to pressure from Dante Fowler Jr. Right as the fans seemed to be buzzing about defensive underclassmen, including Brian Poole and Marcus Maye, I looked down and saw that Easley, Powell, Bullard, Watkins, and Riggs weren’t even on the field. The Gators are going to be good. They’ll be stronger up front and have a young secondary, but there are a lot of options and talent to explore. I only hope the lack of experience doesn’t result in more of those pesky yellow flags.
We may see a lot of Brad Phillips and Austin Hardin this fall, as Florida is still far from finding a replacement for Caleb Sturgis. Both made important field goals Saturday as the others hit the uprights. Austin Hardin seemed more comfortable at longer distances but Phillips was better under pressure, making a 30-yarder at the end of the one-minute drill to win the simulated game.
Walking away from Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday, I felt rejuvenated despite not witnessing the Orange and Blue Debut I have for years. Everyone hustled, everyone tried to make a play and everyone seemed determined to make an impression on coaches and fans. But even more promising than the team’s performance on the field Saturday, was how quickly news came of two big commits after the game – 23-year old QB Chris Wilkes, who will walk on the team this year, and RB Dalvin Cook, who flipped from Clemson to Florida. Florida’s coaching staff continues to create a seemingly endless supply of talent on the sidelines. All more the reason to make me even more confident that this team is doing the right things to be ready for the start of the season come August 31st in Gainesville.