By Will Miles
Sporting News All American Gators
The Sporting News had two Gators listed as preseason All Americans.
The first was Kyle Pitts, which is to be expected. Pitts was unbelievable in 2019 and we should expect more of the same in 2020. I’ve mentioned in this space before that Pitts may have lesser numbers in 2020 just because of the focus that comes his way, but that shouldn’t be mistaken for a reduced impact.
You don’t have to look any further than the LSU game to see that in action. Much like Stephen Curry for the Warriors draws multiple defenders and opens up space for his teammates, so it was with Pitts against the Tigers.
When I went back and looked at the film, LSU started bracketing Pitts and shaded the safety towards his side coming out of the locker room in the second half, all in an attempt to slow him down. Instead of trying to force the ball in to Pitts, Kyle Trask simply identified Van Jefferson in one-on-one coverage against true freshman Derek Stingley.
The Gators used that drive to pull ahead 28-21 and set the tone that they were going to hang with LSU until the end. A lot was made of Trask’s poise during that game – and rightfully so – but the MVP of that game had Florida pulled it out would have been Pitts.
The second Gator on the Sporting News All American list wasn’t Kadarius Toney or Kyle Trask or Trevon Grimes. No, it was Tedarrell Slaton.
Just looking at his statistics, that might be a surprise. After all, this is a player with just 29 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. But 19 of those tackles, 2.5 of the TFL and 1.5 of the sacks came in the last five games of the season. This shift came after a lackluster performance against South Carolina.
Here’s the deal. Todd Grantham runs a 3-4 defense and that defense can really be effective when the man in the middle can occupy two defenders and get pressure up the middle. Just think of Vince Wilfork with the Patriots all those years.
Florida has had decent play from its defensive tackles the last two years, but has not had anyone with the ability or strength to really collapse a pocket from the inside-out. With Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard both leaving, a strong performance from Slaton in the middle could free up Zach Carter, Brenton Cox and Mohamoud Diabate in one-on-one match-ups.
His performance is likely the difference between Florida’s defense being very good, and being elite.
Recruiting not what it seems (in a bad way)
I’ve talked about Tennessee’s recruiting being a mirage in this space quite a bit. But Florida’s is looking a bit like that too these days.
That doesn’t mean Florida isn’t going to get a bunch of good players in the 2021 class. But the Gators currently have the 8th ranked class nationally with 20 commits, but with an 89.32 average player rating. That means that a bunch of other teams are poised to go flying by the Gators as they fill out their classes.
LSU (9th) has an average playing ranking of 93.61 and with 12 commits is nipping at the Gators heels. The same is true of Texas (91.65). Notre Dame (91.41, 11 commits) has a chance to finish in front of Florida, and Georgia (94.08, 9 commits) and Alabama (93.70, 9 commits) are sure to pass the Gators as they close.
This shouldn’t be a huge surprise, as Dan Mullen hasn’t been an elite recruiter in his time at Florida. But it is disappointing given how he started out with this class and how he is coming off of a 21-5 start.
It’s highly likely Florida is going to finish somewhere around 13th nationally and 7th in the SEC (if Auburn and Texas A&M can maintain their average player ratings). That’s a little bit worse than the past two seasons and indicates that winning – at least winning second in the SEC East – isn’t going to move the recruiting needle.
Three things that have to happen for an SEC Championship
Kyle Trask takes a big step forward
It’s no secret that Trask needs to play well. But the recruiting numbers outlined above indicate that he needs to be special for Florida to make a run to the championship. Clemson is often cited as an example of a team that has made it to a championship level without elite recruiting classes. Well, those teams had Tajh Boyd and Deshawn Watson keeping them afloat and covering their deficiencies.
Florida is going to have some holes and there will come a time when Trask has to win a game by himself. He showed he is capable of doing just that against Kentucky and nearly against LSU last season. But to take the next step as a team, he’s going to have to do it against the big boys when it counts.
Stop letting guys run free in the secondary – Stop letting guys run free in the secondary – There were two daggers last year that really hurt Florida: the TD pass from Joe Burrow to Ja’Marr Chase and the long touchdown on the busted coverage to Lawrence Cager against Georgia. But these weren’t the only times a defender got behind the defense. Jarrett Guarantano missed a wide open tight end over the middle early in the Tennessee game that might have changed the complexion of that game. And Bo Nix hit a wide open receiver but laid the ball out too far in front, forcing him to dive and preventing a touchdown. Grantham’s defenses have been solid for the past two years, but until they stop giving up huge plays due to miscommunication, the Gators aren’t going to be championship worthy.
Improve in pass protection – A lot has been made of the Gators running game, and rightly so. The offensive line struggled and Lamical Perine and Dameon Pierce struggled to get much going. But lost in the run-game performance is that Kyle Trask averaged 2.28 seconds before throwing the ball every time he dropped back to throw. By comparison, Joe Burrow averaged 2.51.
One of the big knocks on Trask last year was his inability to go downfield all that often. Some of that is arm strength. But a lot of it is that he never had time to stretch the defense. Florida isn’t going to be able to beat an elite defense like Georgia just dinking and dunking the ball down the field. It isn’t a coincidence that Florida’s drives were somewhat effective but petered out in Georgia territory last year.
Without big plays, an elite defense will be able to frustrate just about any offense. If Florida can protect Trask just a little bit more, it’ll give him the opportunity to make the leap I talked about earlier.
COVID-19 Cases at Florida
Late last week, reports surfaced of 11 positive COVID-19 cases on Florida sports teams. This is just the reality that we live in now.
The virus isn’t going away. If colleges are going to go forward with the football season, then players are going to come down with the coronavirus. Though you could say the exact same thing about students coming back to campus for their studies or people returning to work as states open up.
Coaches are going to have to manage this the same way they’d manage any other injury. The issue is that it may take out an entire unit if appropriate distancing protocols aren’t in place to prevent it.
But I don’t view the 11 positive tests as a negative thing. Obviously, I’d like for nobody to have COVID-19. But I do think that in many cases, these positive tests were probably for players who didn’t know that they even had the disease. Thus, by being on campus preparing for the season, these players were prevented from spreading the disease further.
We shouldn’t ever be happy when we hear that someone has contracted the disease. But it’s part of the “new normal” we’re all going to have to get used to.
Fate of Football in July?
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said last week that the decision to go forward with the season as planned is likely coming in July.
Let’s just get to brass tacks. The season is going to start on-time. It may not end on-time. It may not end with a champion at all. But there is no way that these schools are going to forgo a full year of revenue from a football season unless the outbreak is so untenable that the public relations hit is just too much to overcome.
But here’s the thing. The NCAA and its member institutions have never seemed to care about public relations before. It took state legislators getting involved to finally get them to cave on name and image compensation. You might also have noticed how transfer waivers seem to get granted to players who happen to have good lawyers.
The NBA and MLB have given their players freedom to decide to opt out of the season if they so desire. I seriously doubt that colleges will give their players that choice. The only way that happens is if players rise up against starting play the way they have against Mike Gundy and the Mississippi state flag.
They have the power. I just doubt they’ll use it in this particular case. And if they don’t, then we’re definitely getting football come September.
Would I go to a game?
So that brings up the question of whether I would go to a game.
The answer is absolutely, I would. I say this because all data suggests that if you space appropriately (assuming half-full stadiums), wear a mask and bring hand sanitizer, you’re likely going to be fine. Additionally, there just isn’t a ton of risk for someone my age who does contract the virus.
The reality is that I’ve been going to work for the past three months. I’ve been interacting with people at the grocery store and gas station. And now that Pennsylvania has opened up, we’ve been interacting with friends again as we’ve become more comfortable emerging from our houses.
I probably wouldn’t go with my father. I probably wouldn’t stay with my parents when I come down for a game.
But would I go? Absolutely.
Life is more than just staying alive. At some point, you have to think about quality of life. Avoiding experiences that you enjoy because of fear isn’t something I’m willing to do. That doesn’t mean that I won’t take proper precautions. It also doesn’t mean that you are wrong if you feel differently.
But this is part of why we all have different opinions about the disease. We all have different risk tolerances. We all have different comfort levels with interacting with others. We all have different definitions of quality of life.
My definition just happens to involve Thunderstruck, both at the tailgate and at the opening kickoff.
The Gator Bait Cheer?
A lot has been made of President Fuchs banning the Gator Bait cheer at Florida games. I wrote about it over at my website but thought it useful to expand here.
As a society, we have to balance respecting traditions and also respecting that some traditions are offensive to some people. But I worry that while we used to make determinations based on reasonableness and intent, we now just make determinations based on reasonableness only, which is a moving target.
As an example, I don’t care much for Jemele Hill’s opinions. But her calling Manny Ramirez “Tranny Manny” in 2009 after Ramirez was caught using a female fertility drug clearly wasn’t intended to offend trans people. It certainly may have offended those people, and I think they are reasonable for being offended, but the intent wasn’t to offend and I do think that matters.
I think the same argument can be made about the Gator Bait cheer except that I think it’s much more reasonable to be offended by “Tranny Manny” than it is by “Gator Bait”. Regardless of whether it is reasonable or not, I don’t think anyone believes there is any intent to offend, including President Fuchs, as he said in his statement that he wasn’t aware of anyone using the cheer in any sort of racist fashion. Again, I think the intent matters.
Do I think it is reasonable to be offended by the cheer? I think honest and good people can disagree. But until we get back to trying to understand what another person’s intent was, we’re going to keep having these disagreements.
Can that be difficult? Yes, it is. Can it be messy? Absolutely. Is there always a definitive answer? No, there isn’t.
But I’m not sure just relying on reasonableness is working either.