Five things we learned from spring practice

On Saturday, the Gators concluded spring practice with a closed scrimmage inside the Swamp.

While this spring was different and a bit more challenging to follow due to the lack of access provided, it wasn’t a total waste. We were still able to glean some valuable insight into what the 2021 team might look like.

Here are five things we learned about the Gators this spring:

1.The quarterback transition might not be as smooth as anticipated.

Because Emory Jones has been in the program for three years and is a better schematic fit for Dan Mullen’s offense, the outside expectation was that Jones would take the reigns of the offense from Kyle Trask and the offense wouldn’t skip a beat.

That hasn’t been the case so far. Jones had some accuracy issues on intermediate routes this spring, and Mullen and quarterbacks coach Garrick McGee could frequently be heard coaching him up on his balance and how to lead his receivers. It’s slightly alarming that he doesn’t have a better understanding of those things by now.

Mullen has even said that Jones needs to be more consistent, which is interesting because Mullen doesn’t usually disclose much information about the position.

Of course, how he performed in the spring isn’t necessarily indicative of how he’ll play in the fall. He probably threw to some receivers this spring that won’t be in the rotation in the fall, and he didn’t get to use his legs to extend plays in a non-contact setting, which is his biggest strength. And, of course, some guys just perform better under the bright lights than they do in practices.

Still, there were enough warning signs this spring to make you feel a little nervous.

2. The wide receivers will be fine.

“How will the Gators overcome the loss of their top receivers?” That has become an annual talking point during spring practice. Each year, coach Billy Gonzales proves the doubters wrong.

They lost four senior receivers from the 2019 team. Kadarius Toney then put together one of the best seasons in school history in 2020, and Trevon Grimes finally figured out how to use his large frame to make contested catches more consistently.

Gonzales appears well on his way to working his same magic in 2021. Toney and Grimes are gone, but Jacob Copeland seems to have taken his game to another level. Copeland has always had the natural ability that it takes, but injuries, poor routes, drops and simply having better players ahead of him on the depth chart have held him back.

He seemed to run much sharper routes this spring, even putting a couple of defenders on their butts. Copeland caught 45 passes for 724 yards and five touchdowns in his first three seasons combined. It wouldn’t be a total shock to see him match those numbers this season.

Xzavier Henderson and Justin Shorter have also been mentioned as players who have taken a big step forward this spring. Mullen said Ja’Markis Weston “took huge steps.” Rick Wells, Trent Whittemore and Daejon Reynolds should also be in the mix this fall.

They might not have a near 1,000-yard receiver on the roster this year, but they should have a group of four or five highly productive receivers like 2018-19.

3. The offensive line on the other hand …

One of the biggest things to watch for this offseason is the progress of the offensive line. With Mullen shifting back to a more run-oriented attack, they won’t be able to hide a poor offensive line by throwing the ball quickly 40 times per game anymore.

Unfortunately, the beleaguered unit didn’t look any better this spring. There was no push in the interior of the line in the running game, which made the running backs have to bounce plays outside to have a chance at a productive run. The 11-on-11 session we got to see on Instagram Live last week was a sack fest. Jones and Anthony Richardson were running for their lives back there.

Mullen said he feels comfortable with left tackle Richard Gouraige, left guard Ethan White and center Stewart Reese and that they’re still searching for the final two members of the starting lineup and the three other members of the rotation off the bench.

Mullen may have undersold the offensive line’s struggles. This group has a lot of work to do between now and Sept. 4.

4. This defensive line could be elite.

Yes, they went against UF’s offensive line, which seems to make this point contradict item No. 3. However, they’ve got a chance to dominate a bunch of offensive lines this season.

It all starts in the middle. Antonio Shelton and Daquan Newkirk both weigh 318 pounds and bring a veteran savvy with them from Penn State and Auburn, respectively. They’ve drawn rave reviews from teammates and coaches both for their play and the way they’ve taken on a leadership role despite being newcomers. Gervon Dexter has also taken a big step forward this spring, with teammates and coaches commenting that he has a better understanding of what he’s doing now.

If they’re able to shore up the run defense, that’ll force opponents into obvious passing situations, which is where defensive coordinator Todd Grantham thrives with his array of blitzes of coverages.

Zachary Carter is back at strongside end. He has a chance to be one of the best players in the conference at his position. He should be more productive this season after he split time last season between end and tackle, a position that he wasn’t as well-suited for. He shed 13 pounds since the end of the season, presumably to make himself quicker and more agile now that he’s playing end full time.

Then, of course, the Gators have plenty of options at BUCK, including Brenton Cox, Khris Bogle, Jeremiah Moon and Andrew Chatfield. You can question Grantham about many things, but there’s no denying that he knows how to generate a pass rush.

The Gators should be able to win some games because of their defensive line this season instead of despite them.

5. They’re going to be much more aggressive in the secondary.

This is a very encouraging sign for Gators fans. Too often over the past couple of years, you’d see the Gators’ cornerbacks give a receiver a 7-yard cushion on third-and-4. Of course, the opponent would run a slant and pick up an easy first down.

That likely won’t be the case this season. New cornerbacks coach Jules Montinar spent extensive time with the group this spring on the techniques and fundamentals of playing press coverage and using the sideline as an extra defender. They were times in 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 when the cornerbacks would start to line up way off the ball and Montinar yelled at them to get on the line.

Cornerback Kaiir Elam said he likes the philosophy shift and thinks it fits his skillset better. He hopes that playing more aggressive will lead to more turnovers.

With more aggressive play in the secondary and a more physical defensive line, the Gators should be among the most improved defenses in the country this season.

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.