You can call 2015 Year Zero for Jim McElwain at Florida. He didn’t have any real expectations, and though he did well with the team he was given, it isn’t fair to judge him one way or another, by the success and the failure alike that his Gators experienced.
That would make 2016 Year One, the real first year for Mac that fans can judge him by. The spring game tonight will give us the first, albeit incomplete look at what that Year One team will look like. So with that said, here are five things to watch for this evening:
5) Return of DBU
For all the talk about the Gators’ secondary last year, it was underwhelming at times and downright horrible at others. Their path to redemption begins tonight.
Vernon Hargreaves is gone, but Jalen Tabor has an even higher upside than Hargreaves did and will take over as the leader of the unit. There’s a reason Tabor, not VH3, was put on LaQuon Treadwell last year, and it’s simply that he’s bigger, faster and stronger than Hargreaves ever was. It’s arguably his unit now, and I’d love to see him play as the full time CB1.
There are other returning stars, too; Marcus Maye returns at safety, and Quincy Wilson figures to slide into the CB2 spot. They all remember how last year ended (a specific reference to Florida giving up big plays in the air) and I’d love to see those three guys do as leaders in perhaps the team’s strongest unit. It may be hard to find any such instances tonight- or it may not be. That’s why we’re all going to watch!
4) Offensive line
Aside from one solid game against Mississippi and a few bright moments against Tennessee, Florida’s offensive line was really… well, bad last year. Granted, they were young, but you can’t just tell defensive linemen, “excuse me sir, I’m young, please don’t decapitate my team’s quarterback.” It’s certainly a talented group of youngsters, between David Sharpe, Tyler Jordan, Martez Ivey (who missed the entire spring), Cam Dillard and Fred Johnson, but now they’re a year older, smarter, faster, stronger, and hopefully better.
It’s not going to be easy to determine how much the offensive line has developed based on one spring game; however, there are some little things to keep an eye out for. I’m interested to see how comfortable Dillard looks taking over at center full time, and I’ll be watching the line as a whole for mechanical things such as pad level and footwork more than how much (or little) pressure the quarterback faces.
3) Eddy Pineiro
This one’s pretty self explanatory. Florida’s kicking game has been extremely inconsistent for the last few years, and now they’ve finally got themselves a stud kicker in Eddy Pineiro. But while his rocket leg is capable of making 77 yard field goals, he’s also never attempted a field goal in a live game before. Ever.
How will he do with real pressure on him as opposed to doing it for YouTube? How will he fare with a real live rush coming at him? And if he misses, how will he respond to it?
Jordan Cronkrite has gotten some reps in the Wildcat this spring. Antonio Callaway hasn’t been with the team all spring. Florida’s got two real playmakers at tight end position in DeAndre Goolsby and C’yontai Lewis. The Gators will be breaking in a new quarterback. How will all these variables affect the way the offensive play-calling goes?
Hopefully, Doug Nussmeier will dial up some deep balls with Del Rio, even though that’s not really his strength. For one thing, players need to be forced out of their comfort zones sometimes in order to succeed, and for another, it gives everybody else valuable reps- the offensive line gets to try to hold off the defense for five seconds and the receivers and defensive backs get to go for jump balls all in one play. And if Del Rio can learn to put perfect touch on deep throws, that’s always a plus.
But I’m more curious to see the number of passing plays compared to the number of running plays. It probably won’t be an indication of what we’ll see in September, but it will be an indication of what McElwain thinks of his team’s passing game.
1) Backup quarterback battle
Luke Del Rio hasn’t wrapped up the starting QB job quite yet, but it’s nearly a certainty that he’ll eventually win it. He’s been by far the Gators’ most polished passer this spring, exhibiting great care with the football and not making the mistakes that first year starters make. The question is with his understudies. The last time Florida started the same quarterback in every game of the season was 2009- and even then, John Brantley was forced to come in and take some snaps against Kentucky after Tim Tebow suffered a concussion. So don’t fool yourself: having an adequate backup quarterback is an absolute necessity, as last year proved for about the millionth time.
Kyle Trask has looked solid at times, but has made some awful decisions at others, and is just generally way too inconsistent to trust right now. Similarly, Austin Appleby brings experience and positive play capabilities… but sometimes those “plays” are positive for the other team, like the eight interceptions he threw in five games last year at Purdue. And while Feleipe Franks brings an incredible upside, he proved this spring that he is indeed extremely raw; the rocket arm he brings is rendered useless without proper mechanics and good decision making.
All four will get some playing time tonight. I’m interested to see what kind of game plan Mac calls for each of them, and I’d love to see how each of them handles the bright spotlights of the Swamp. Ideally, I’d like to come away from the game feeling confident about two of them.