Five big picture takeaways from the 2024 Orange and Blue Game


Any time a team plays itself, you have the classic circular reasoning conundrum. If someone breaks off a long run, is it because the offensive line is good or the defensive front is bad? If a receiver gets a touchdown, was it a good route or bad coverage? If an edge rusher gets a sack, is it from good execution up front or from bad line play? And because all sacks are touch-sacks, was it even valid at all?

With all of that stipulated, I got a general sense of balance from the game. There were times when the offense had the upper hand, and there were times when the defense did. It was not a replay of last year’s unwatchable Orange and Blue Game when the defense had the offense’s number basically the whole way.

It may mean something, or nothing. Last year the defense won the spring game, but the offense was easily the better unit in the fall. Everything could be a mirage, but at least there wasn’t a glaring problem with either the offense or defense for one afternoon.


Back in 2017, I somewhat randomly ended up covering Alabama in addition to Florida for a site that’s now defunct. As part of that gig, I watched the Crimson Tide’s spring game very closely.

That happened to be Tua Tagovailoa’s first public appearance as an early enrollee freshman. It was clear from the jump that the dude was going to be special. Probably better than the then-starter, Jalen Hurts. His day wasn’t perfect — he had a heinous pick-six on a swing pass and increasingly took sacks as the defense was allowed to take advantage of his inexperience — but overall it was an amazing performance for a true freshman in a spring game. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

I bring this up because all eyes were on early enrollee quarterback DJ Lagway on Saturday. He impressed in most ways, looking wise beyond his years much like Tagovailoa did.

Still, I don’t think it was quite up to a Tua-level outing. Lagway, of course, didn’t get to pick up some highlights by throwing to the likes of Jerry Jeudy — or even Tre Wilson — and the Gators’ current backup O-line isn’t made up of a bunch of future pros waiting in the wings like vintage Saban-era Bama backup lines were.

There also is the matter of Lagway not getting to use his full skills, which essentially eliminated the possibility of matching Tua before the game even began. Lagway uses his size and speed well in the rushing game. Tua was a nimble improvisor in the pocket, but he wasn’t a runner. Therefore, a big chunk of his game wasn’t missing in that legendary performance. We won’t see the full Lagway experience until he can make defenses have to account for his rushing ability.

To be clear, it is a major credit to Lagway that he even can be compared to a figure such as Tua this early. There hasn’t been a Gator quarterback meriting this kind of talk in nearly 20 years when an early enrollee Tim Tebow racked up better stats than Chris Leak did in the 2006 spring game.

But just like how I spent the ’17 offseason telling folks to stop trying to put Tua ahead of Hurts, the same applies now. Graham Mertz’s experience and high floor make him the starter for this year, just like those attributes worked for Hurts for Bama in 2017 and Leak for UF in 2006. The backup in all these cases had a visibly higher ceiling but was rough around the edges due to being a true freshman.

Mertz’s steady hand on the wheel means, barring injury, Lagway won’t be forced to play early. That’s where you want to be with a precocious true freshman. DJ should get some spot duty, but also he shouldn’t have to carry the full weight of the program yet. We got some glimpses of what Lagway can be, but as should’ve been expected, he needs some polish before he’s ready for prime time.


One of the frequent complaints about Florida’s offense the past two years from the more schematically inclined was about the passing attack’s use of space. Or rather, it’s inadequate use of space. There would be too many plays where multiple receivers ended up in the same area or that essentially only used half the field. Both of those situations make it easier on the defense.

To my eye, there were fewer of those plays on Saturday. The passing play selection appeared to use spacing better on average, with targets much more rarely within five-to-ten yards of each other when quarterback released the ball.

There even appeared to be some plays that tried to scheme guys open. Tre Wilson’s long touchdown pass was one such play. The offense had previously run a high-low combo on both sidelines with a safety valve in the middle. This time the play began similarly, but Wilson faked one of the longer corner routes before switching to a post. The middle was wide open due to there not being anyone else running to that area. Scheming the middle of the field open appeared to be a new point of emphasis, in fact, but we’re working with a small sample size of plays.

It’s tempting to attribute any noticeable changes to Russ Callaway since Billy Napier has been forthcoming about his new co-OC having a bigger influence in the offense. Maybe the better use of spacing is a Callaway thing, maybe it isn’t. The attack is definitely still the Napier offense through and through, but I think we saw a modification.

Whatever the provenance of the better spacing, it was a welcome change that one hopes will carry through to the fall.


Florida used to have a consistently high level of linebacker play. That consistency ended when the last of Will Muschamp’s linebacker signees graduated. The position hasn’t been the same since for a variety of reasons, like Jim McElwain not signing enough blue chip prospects there or Dan Mullen not signing enough of them, period.

But if one position sparked some hope on Saturday, linebacker might be it.

The headlining performance was from Grayson Howard, a 4-star who barely got away to South Carolina in 2023 before transferring to UF this winter. He had a great pass breakup early and generally could be found anywhere the ball was. The best-case scenario for 2024 has always been that Howard and Shemar James, who was out hurt, will restore past excellence. Howard at least looked capable of such on Saturday.

There were better performances from returners as well. Mannie Nunnery stood out the most thanks to his interception, which is good since the book on him transferring from Houston last year was that he would be an upgrade in pass coverage. The difference could have been as simple as the linebackers coach now being Ron Roberts, the architect of the scheme UF runs, instead of a guy in Jay Bateman who didn’t have a long history with it.

If Florida can employ a core of James, Howard, an improved Nunnery, and borderline 5-star freshman Myles Graham (also out injured), the position should be one of the most improved on the team.

Addendum, 4/17: Nunnery has entered the transfer portal and doesn’t look likely to withdraw his name and return.


I won’t dwell on this point to avoid beating a dead horse. The good news is that Trey Smack made all of his field goal attempts in the game. That’s always good to see.

The bad is that the Blue team had only ten players out on extra point defense after the Orange team’s first touchdown. If you find copies of the telecast on YouTube (there are multiple), you can count for yourself. The camera angle is decently wide, so there can’t be an eleventh Blue player out there unless he’s so close to the sideline as to be useless on the try.

According to the rosters the team released, the special teams coach for the Blue team was Joe Houston. He is the new analyst that Napier hired from the New England Patriots to help improve special teams.

I don’t know what, if any, changes have been implemented to improve organization. Whatever is the case, the problem of being occasionally undermanned on special teams is not fixed. We know it’s not fixed, because it just happened again. More work here needs to happen.

David Wunderlich
David Wunderlich is a born-and-raised Gator and a proud Florida alum. He has been writing about Florida and SEC football since 2006. He currently lives in Naples Italy, at least until the Navy stations his wife elsewhere. You can follow him on Twitter @Year2