With SEC Media Days in the rearview mirror, it’s time to hit the gas on preview season.
It’s helpful to separate what we know and don’t know. We know the running back room is stacked again, if less proven than last year. The offensive line should be good again too with plenty of returning experience and preseason first team All-SEC selection O’Cyrus Torrence transferring in. The specialists are well locked in with Trey Smack kicking and Jeremy Crawshaw punting, and Arizona State Ricky Pearsall is the top shifty slot guy on account of being the only one on the roster.
But we all know there are questions every year, and here are the three biggest ones whose answers will swing the season.
How good can Anthony Richardson be?
We got tantalizing glimpses of Richardson’s potential a year ago. His second-half performance against LSU was the clear highlight, as his extended play led a series of scoring drives to get the Gators back in the game. His big play ability in the first couple of games was electrifying.
But even as great as he could be, he clearly was not ready for prime time yet. How much that was on him and how much of that was on Dan Mullen’s choices in quarterback development and management has been a subject for debate among fans. For what it’s worth, former quarterbacks coach Garrick McGee recounted a conversation with Richardson’s mother just last November in which she said her son needed to grow up.
Richardson has shown this offseason, including at SEC Media Days, that he at least knows how to sound like he is ready to be the leader UF needs. Even that has been a process, though.
Ultimately, Richardson has the tools to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country this year. If he can use those tools wisely in the new-look offense, it greatly raises the ceiling for the entire team. In the new scheme as with the last, a top tier quarterback can dominate games.
If Richardson is unable to perform consistently, or if his health issues crop up again, that ceiling comes crashing back down again. Jack Miller is OK as a backup, but I don’t see him as more than a stopgap option for short periods.
No one else on the team comes close to the potential to affect games like Richardson can. Florida having its best season possible is entirely on his shoulders.
Who else will step up at defensive tackle?
Florida has been merely okay at defensive tackle for a few years now. It has shown on the field.
With Kyree Campbell temporarily out in 2020, UF couldn’t get a run stop to save its life in a close loss to Texas A&M. With better options in the middle, the Gators win that one. Then last year, Florida had to take several graduate transfers to fill the hole left by Mullen’s lack of DT signings in his first two classes. They performed well enough, but tellingly none of them came close to the All-SEC team or is currently on an NFL roster.
Billy Napier tried to address the persistent weakness there in the transfer market, but the only inside lineman he judged worth pursuing went elsewhere.
We know Gervon Dexter is going to be a standout. It’s almost an insult that he only ended up third team preseason All-SEC.
The dream season scenario for UF, in fact, is that Richardson plays like Cam Newton and Dexter like Nick Fairley and the Gators resemble 2010 Auburn. The top teams of this year, Alabama and Ohio State in particular, are likely to be far better than the best teams of that season, so bringing home the title would require even more luck than those Tigers had. Still, the team can go a long way with a dominant QB and DT, especially since the ’22 Gators have more future NFL talent than ’10 Auburn did.
Having said that, they can go ever farther if Dexter doesn’t have to do things all on his own. Spring practice had some signs of life here, with Jalen Lee following up his promising spot play in the past with good performance and early enrollee Chris McClellan appearing to already be SEC-ready. As always, the trick is converting good spring appearances into real results in the fall.
The run defense will get a boost from Ventrell Miller’s return (more on that later) and the pass defense should continue to be great. All three preseason All-SEC quarterback selections — first team Bryce Young, second team Hendon Hooker, and third team Will Levis — had some of their worst performances against the same two foes: Georgia’s historically good defense and Florida. Jason Marshall should step up to replace Kaiir Elam, and the scheme will be more sound without a certain former defensive coordinator around.
Which means, the defense will go as far as its run defense will take it. If the non-Dexter options in the middle are again a bunch of fine-but-not-great dudes, then the defense will again let the team down at times. If Lee, McClellan, Desmond Watson, and the rest can be noticeably above replacement-level players, then the 2022 defense could turn downright nasty.
Who else is there at middle linebacker with Ventrell Miller?
It’s not a coincidence that Miller is the clear leader at middle linebacker while also being a former Jim McElwain recruit. The Mullen staff did not prioritize signing many inside linebackers, instead doing things like moving Amari Burney up from the secondary or bringing Mohamoud Diabate and, last year, Jeremiah Moon back from the edge. The lack of inside linebacker instincts has been easy for anyone to see, which made Miller’s absence last year such a big deal.
Miller’s return is huge, then, considering his absence was a major factor in last year’s underwhelming run defense. The real question is about how literally anyone else has been coming along.
While Mullen’s staff didn’t sign many ILBs, the ones they did land were ranked quite highly. Derek Wingo (2020) and Scooby Williams (2021) were top-100 recruits in the 247 Sports Consensus, and former Mullen commit/decommit/2022 Napier signee Shemar James was a top 100 guy too. Diwun Black has also settled in at the position too after his versatility led the prior staff to try him out in multiple places.
The raw pieces would seem to be there, but they now have to live up to their billing. Black especially is a key piece since his coverage skills may lead him to be the first Gator inside linebacker to be good in pass coverage since the Muschamp days.
Miller is the anchor and probably will lead the team in tackles if he stays healthy all year. But he can’t do it all himself, and he’ll be in the NFL next year. If the untested guys don’t show signs of progress, it’ll not only weaken the 2022 defense but leave a massive hole for the future.