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The Florida Gators have now completed their first two fall scrimmages under head coach Billy Napier, and while the team has clearly made strides, it is far from ready for Week 1. Speaking each of the last two Sundays about how his team performed in mock game scenarios, Napier was consistent noting areas in which he believes the Gators need to improve.
Though both sides of the ball have stepped forward and put forth cleaner film, more consistency is needed across the board. Last Saturday, the first-team offense was the only unit that did not meet the day’s goal from a discipline standpoint as it committed multiple turnovers and penalties. That was cleaned up this week (the offense didn’t turn the ball over until the final series in the 2-minute drill), though Napier noted that it needs to improve its level of detail, particularly in the red zone where numerous opportunities have been missed in consecutive scrimmages.
The defense outplayed the offense last week, creating havoc with numerous turnovers. Seven days later, Napier was displeased to see lacking effort in tackling and issues with both gap integrity and alignment past the first level. While there was “nothing alarming” from either scrimmage, it’s clear he wishes the program was a bit further along with less than two weeks until the start of the season.
Still, Napier noted that it is not uncommon for play to solidify when game week preparation begins as it allows a team to narrow its focus and not worry so much about the big picture. Preparation for No. 7 Utah begins this Thursday.
“The number of variables out there is really high right now,” Napier said. ” … We definitely have improved, but we’re going to have a lot of players on our team that make significant strides throughout this season. … This is the first time we’ve done everything with a new group of players at a new place with a new staff. And heck, we learn something about this building every day. Just in general here, we’re learning a little bit every day. But we have a better understanding of our systems. We’ve improved fundamentally.
“We’re much more of a close-knit group. We know each other; we actually have got true connection. … One of the things we’ve taken great pride of in the past is we were a group that was together. I’m hopeful we can have that type of team here.”
Injury updates: Junior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall (foot) and sophomore cornerback Jason Marshall Jr. (hamstring) remain on the mend, but two of Florida’s key difference-makers entering the season are both nearing clearance to return to the field this week. “We feel really good about their progress,” Napier said. “… Both are very common injuries and things that just take a little time. We’re just waiting on the performance team and the training room and the strength & conditioning [coaches] to make a decision that they’re ready to go. They’ve been doing quite a bit of work but in a controlled setting. We anticipate getting both of those guys back here shortly.”
Meanwhile, offensive linemen junior Ethan White (starting left guard) and freshman David Connor (undisclosed) remain on the mend. Napier said White needed a small procedure following a minor setback but will return in due time despite missing both scrimmages, while Connor’s injury is more extensive with further evaluation needed. Connor was not expected to be part of the depth chart or travel roster this season.
Stars in The Swamp: Some of the most talented Gators in program history visited practice on Friday as Napier extended an invitation to a number of players to not only watch the team but get a glimpse of the new Heavener Football Training Center. Among the players in attendance were Kevin Carter, Brandon Siler, Trey Burton, Josh Evans and Chris Rainey.
Still an offensive line? The Gators this season badly need to improve at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, but particularly on offense. Napier has stressed throughout the offseason that completing the two-deep at the position will be paramount, but while Florida is now comfortable with up to eight players, it is still searching for two more to solidify its depth chart. “I’m very comfortable with that group. There’s competition there,” he said last week. “… We’re looking for who’s nine, who’s 10? Who’s going to get reps in a game week? Who’s not? Who are rotational players? We’ve got probably eight players who would deserve to play if we had a game today.” Unfortunately, Napier provided a nearly identical evaluation after the second scrimmage, though there are still two weeks until kickoff.
SEC officials keep Gators in line: “Discipline” has been the mantra of the offseason for a team that tied for 122nd nationally (out of 130 teams!) in penalties last season with 105. While it is not possible to be a penalty-free football team, Napier wants Florida’s miscues to be technical in nature as opposed to undisciplined, which has been an unfortunate hallmark the program has been unable to shake recently.
“More games are lost than won, right? One of the things you do as a staff is teach players what winning football looks like. We’ve always taken tremendous pride in not giving the other team anything. Undisciplined penalties are things you can eliminate,” he said after the first scrimmage. “You start there … and you start with turnovers, mental errors, lack of effort plays, fundamental and technique flaws. We want to eliminate the chinks in the armor — make the other team beat you. … We’re going to have some penalties in the game. Our goal is to have one in every 30 plays; our goal is to have those be technical penalties and not undisciplined penalties. We’re making progress there. We won’t know until we get into competitive opportunities and venues.”
To aid the Gators along, Napier brought a full SEC officiating crew into Gainesville, Florida, for 48 hours. A member of that screw spoke to the team Friday while the crew participated in practice that day and called penalties throughout the second scrimmage. The Gators only committed four penalties on Saturday with just one being of the undisciplined variety. Napier believes Florida has definitely taken multiple steps forward in playing cleaner, citing that it has a consistent improvement since the spring with the presence of the SEC crew playing a crucial role this week. “We benefited from that 2-day period,” he said, “and we’re certainly very thankful for the league to create that opportunity.”
Never too much of a good thing: One position which appears not to concern Napier at all is running back where he believes there are “four players that we trust” and multiple players consistently improving with the group as a whole playing “winning football.” For a team that has not had a bell-cow back in years, it seems like there may not be a dominant ball carrier once again for the Gators, though of course, that remains to be seen once the season begins.
“All those guys are smart. They’re all dependable. They’ve got maturity. Coach [Jabbar] Juluke is doing what he does; he’s getting that room ready to play,” Napier said. “Those guys have been productive on a consistent basis. Running back sometimes gets overlooked — all that they do for the team in protection, catching the ball and certainly rushing the ball. That’s a good room. We’ll find out how good when we get to a game setting, but I do think we’ve got some proven players in Nay’Quan [Wright] and Montrell [Johnson Jr.], and then we got Lorenzo [Lingard] who brings something to the table. And the freshman [Trevor Etienne] is a good player, too. Time will tell.”
Specialists still a work in progress: Napier appeared mostly dissatisfied that special teams is not where it should be with the season approaching. Last week, he cited the entire unit as needing to get “game-ready” while also praising the competition throughout the return, coverage and kicking aspects of the gamechangers. While sophomore Jeremy Crawshaw has a firm hold on the punting gig, it’s clear that Napier is trying to light a fire under freshman kicker Trey Smack as the competition for that job continues.
“We’re going to be evaluating that as we approach the opener. I can see two guys doing two different jobs [field goals and kickoffs]. I could see it going the other way, too,” he said. “The good thing is I don’t think we have a problem. We have two guys who are very capable. There’s healthy competition there, but I’ve got confidence in both players.”
Young defensive players stepping up: Though he did not offer much in the way of detail, Napier called out a handful of young defensive standouts. Sophomore linebacker Antwaun Powell-Ryland Jr. as well as defensive linemen sophomore Princely Umanmielen and redshirt freshmen Justus Boone and Tyreak Sapp have caught his eye of late. Napier believes all will be able to positively affect the team as soon as Week 1.
Last week, redshirt senior linebacker Ventrell Miller said redshirt freshman cornerback Jordan Young has been particularly impressive. “He’s just been flying around and making plays,” Miller said. “When there are plays to be made, he shows up and makes the plays. That’s all we can ask.” Miller also likes what he’s seen from freshman LB Shemar James from a potential and coachability standpoint, though he wants the youngster to continue learning and getting “a little faster in his call recognitions.”
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