Florida’s 24-7 win over Massachusetts in its season opener didn’t provide a whole lot of information to take as gospel about these Gators. We’re dealing with a small sample size, and even in a sport defined by them, I hesitate to make sweeping conclusions about anything based on just a handful of data points.
That said: What we can take away from a game like that is a slew of hunches, and feelings now backed up by more than scrying the tone of practice reports and divining which walk-on’s parents are providing insiders with information.
So here is our first Stock Picks for the 2016 season, with the Gators (and concepts) we’re buying, selling, and holding after one week.
Steady Eddy Piñeiro
Florida, you may recall, had some issues kicking field goals in 2015. The Gators finished 127th nationally, second to last, in field goal accuracy, and Austin Hardin all but got himself benched more than once for a pre-dental student — remember the ballyhooed open tryout? — despite eventually making a game-winning field goal against Vanderbilt.
After one week, those issues appear to be a thing of the past. Freshman Eddy Piñeiro made all three field goals he attempted against the Minutemen, banging kicks between the pipes from 49, 48, and 40 yards. Piñeiro also made a shorter kick from about 30 yards out that would be waved off after Jim McElwain chose to accept a penalty and attempt a fourth down conversion.
Piñeiro also acquitted himself well on kickoffs, with just one kick narrowly avoiding going out of bounds. He appears to be what fans and coaches alike were hoping for: A reliable kicker who can salvage stalled drives with points and keep Florida from losing games on the margins.
Brandon Powell, receiver
Over the last seven games of the 2015 season, Brandon Powell had nine catches for 96 yards. On Saturday against Massachusetts, he had a career-high seven receptions for 73 yards and a touchdown.
The fully healthy Powell looks like he might only be narrowly behind Antonio Callaway as Florida’s best wide receiver, and he made plays in a variety of ways for the Gators on Saturday, making fine catches on throws over the middle and shaking a defender for the catch-and-run score that finally put the Minutemen away.
If he can complement Callaway (who had a career-high eight catches for 72 yards and a touchdown of his own) like that going forward, Luke Del Rio should have two consistent targets to throw to on the edges.
Antonio Callaway, returner
As good as Powell can be as a receiver, he’s been a disaster as a return man for Florida. His career average on kick returns is almost exactly 21 yards; given that Florida could probably net 20 yards per return simply by kneeling for touchbacks and letting balls roll into or out of the end zone, that’s a miserable number.
And Powell’s average isn’t buoyed by many big returns. He broke 37- and 39-yard returns against East Carolina in the 2015 Birmingham Bowl and a 2015 regular-season game, respectively, and a 71-yarder against Vanderbilt last year — but those are the rare, aberrational returns in his career.
For Antonio Callaway, those might be far more common.
Callaway sprinted 32 yards with his only kick return on Saturday, darting into a small hole opened by rather poor blocking to set Florida up at its own 36 after UMass scored to tie the game. It was his second return of more than 30 yards on the fourth attempt of his collegiate career.
Powell has three such returns over 29 attempts.
Keeping both Callaway and Powell healthy appears as if it will be very important for the Gators in 2016, and having Dre Massey return kicks was one way to reduce the amount of violence done to the dynamic duo. But if keeping Callaway healthy were truly more important to Florida coaches than getting the yardage he can accrue on returns, he wouldn’t be returning punts.
More than a season of evidence bears out that Powell probably shouldn’t be returning kicks. Over a small sample size, we’ve seen that Callaway is far better at that. I’d like to see much more of him back deep on kickoffs.
Jabari Zuniga, pass-rusher
Zuniga, a redshirt freshman, had two sacks of Ross Comis on Saturday. His second one was the more impressive of the two: Zuniga pushed his tackle back on a bull rush, then rocked him off his feet with a push to the chest, then peeled off into the hole created by his push to stop and bring down Comis.
WATCH: @JabariZuniga had himself a game @FloridaGators #Gators pic.twitter.com/hllSMghMLo— Ryan Nelson (@TheRyanNelson_) September 5, 2016
Florida probably needs a pass-rusher to complement what looks like a rather stout line of run defenders at the moment, even though its secondary, when healthy, might just blanket receivers. After one game, Zuniga looks like the most likely lineman to fit the bill.
Quincy Wilson, silent as snow
Y’all remember Wilson being targeted on Saturday? Neither do I.
Wilson recorded two tackles (one for loss) on the evening, and probably got robbed of a third by a Massachusetts receiver diving to avoid taking a lick from him on a crossing route. He didn’t have any passes broken up, but those are hard to record when no one will throw at you.
Wilson’s quiet night probably hinged on Teez Tabor being out and the smart move for UMass thus being throwing anywhere but at him; it’s unlikely that he’ll get as little work as he did when Tabor is back.
But no one wanting to test Wilson seems telling to me.
Luke Del Rio, game-changer
What we saw from Luke Del Rio on Saturday confirmed only one thing: It would be a surprise if he turns into a great quarterback.
Del Rio didn’t badly miss many throws, and only had one throw I can recall that could have been intercepted. He also made some sound decisions with the ball when under pressure. But he didn’t throw ropes when he needed to, and missed a few throws just incrementally, including one to the flats to Mark Thompson that probably should have been a touchdown.
I’m willing to chalk up some of Del Rio’s occasionally skittish performance — which was still leaps and bounds better than what we saw from Treon Harris at the end of the 2015 season — to first-start nerves, and I suspect he will improve. Any faint hopes I had of him being much more than good to very good, though? Those are gone for now.
Chris Williamson, able backup
Redshirt freshman cornerback Chris Williamson was notably toasted twice on Saturday, most egregiously getting turned around on a double move and continuing to peek into the backfield instead of turning and recovering on what would become the longest Minutemen play of the night.
Williamson was advertised as a fast-rising corner prospect when he committed to Florida in early 2015, but he was also as raw as steak tartare as a defender, having played wide receiver for much of his high school career. I think we saw why on Saturday, and might not need to ask why he isn’t seeing the field for the rest of the fall so long as the corners ahead of him stay healthy.
Florida’s truly offensive line
Yikes. Yikes, man.
Florida’s offensive line wasn’t supposed to be instantly great after a season of being interminably awful, but it should absolutely have been better than it was against a Massachusetts front seven that it outweighed but rarely outplayed. David Sharpe and Martez Ivey are Florida’s two most talented linemen, and each notably missed crucial assignments, with Ivey’s failure to find a man on the aforementioned fourth down attempt helping to scuttle the play.
The Gators mustered 3.7 yards per carry against a team that gave up 4.4 per carry in 2015, and while Del Rio was only sacked once, that had far more to do with him than his protectors.
Perhaps Jawaan Taylor, fine in his limited snaps, can work into the rotation. Maybe Sharpe and Ivey will improve. Maybe this was a blip.
But the line looked bad.
Florida’s bugaboo on defense for much of the last decade has been discipline. The Gators have routinely flown to the ball since even Charlie Strong’s time in town, but there have been missed tackles on potential backfield stops and big plays yielded after overpursuits in virtually every game in recent memory.
Oh, and penalties for undisciplined play have hurt the defense a lot.
Saturday was no different: The lone UMass touchdown came when Comis evaded a sack by Jordan Sherit and a tackle attempt by Jarrad Davis, and on a drive that was extended by two personal fouls, one from Davis and another from Taven Bryan. Another 15-yarder by Joey Ivie allowed the Minutemen to cross midfield.
All told, a third of UMass’s 12 first downs came via penalty. And while the Minutemen gained only 187 yards of total offense, Florida’s defense gave them another 55 on three personal fouls and two offsides calls.
Whether that gets cleaned up or not remains to be seen; I won’t hold my breath. Whether it matters, given what Florida’s defense can do despite a propensity for flag-marred football, is also up for debate. But no one’s going to be able to argue that this defense is disciplined with a straight face for at least a little while.
Luke Del Rio, good enough
He may not be a game-changer in the positive sense, but Del Rio was certainly no loose cannon in what we saw on Saturday. His only truly interceptable throw hit a Florida receiver’s hands in the end zone. He made a few very good throws over the middle at a juncture when Florida desperately needed to move the ball. He didn’t get sacked unnecessarily, didn’t make bad decisions on the run, and didn’t throw passes into traffic when he should have thrown them away.
These are generally elementary principles of quarterback play, and yet even Florida’s best QBs in the post-Tebow era have struggled with them, whether that has meant Jeff Driskel taking sacks or John Brantley and Will Grier throwing dangerous passes.
If Del Rio can simply avoid bad mistakes, as Driskel largely did in 2012, I think Florida is good enough in most other respects to win close games even without an explosive offense. Hell, Florida won close games in 2015 with Treon Harris throwing jump balls and fumbling on the run.
One game in, I have cautious optimism that he can.
Riverboat Jim McElwain
Despite one strident objection, I think Riverboat Jim is going to stick as a McElwain nickname. It’s fitting for his gambling ways.
Florida didn’t have the perfect run of success it had early in 2015 on fourth downs against UMass, biffing the fourth and one in the red zone mentioned above. But Del Rio fell forward behind a strong push from the line for four yards to convert a separate fourth and one, and Florida converted a two-point conversion that was absolutely the right call up 12 in the fourth quarter.
And, furthermore, the idea of taking points off the board for a fourth and one try in the red zone is a good one, the conventional wisdom about “taking points off the board” being a bad thing — citation always needed — aside. Florida’s process was fine on that play: UMass stuffing Mark Thompson at the line on a fourth and one from the UMass 5 did not give the Minutemen a sudden surge of momentum, and the big play (on Williamson’s bust) they hit on the next drive still didn’t help them get any further into Florida territory than the 40.
Playing aggressively for touchdowns when the most logical consequence of failure is forcing the other team to drive the full length of the field on an excellent defense is just sound thinking. It may backfire, sure, but settling for three points instead of six or seven (or eight!) against a better opponent can backfire, too — and I’d rather Florida swash buckles and play to the river than wave white flags and fold on the flop.
Okay, so maybe this Riverboat Jim thing isn’t the best for metaphors.
Florida, decent football team
After spending hundreds of words advising the Florida fan base to enjoy what should have been a blowout, then watching what turned out to be not a blowout, I realized one error of my ways: I failed to factor in how Florida fans being acutely aware of Steve Spurrier’s presence at the game might backfire if the game didn’t turn out to be a Spurrier-era blast.
It has felt to me like the air has all but been let out of the balloon for Gators in the past several days, with all the old fears of flailing seasons and frustrations with “bad” offense rushing back in a hurry to take up the spaces once occupied by hope and wonder.
These are overreactions.
Florida might have been a bit overrated by being slotted at No. 25 in both preseason polls — but the Gators are still No. 20 in S&P+, which takes more data into account than just one perfunctory win over UMass, even though S&P+ thinks very little of the now-No. 124 Minutemen.
Florida also absolutely deserved to win this game, and did so by more than last year’s SEC East champions did games against East Carolina, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, and Florida Atlantic, hardly a lineup of shining stars.
Florida and UMass played one of the five FBS games featuring no turnovers over the weekend. In three of the other four, Maryland thumped Howard, 52-13, Boise State trampled Louisiana, 45-10, and East Carolina routed Western Carolina, 52-7, establishing a firm claim to dominion of North Carolina.
The fourth other one? South Alabama’s 21-20 upset of Mississippi State, in which the lack of a turnover helped keep things even enough for the Jaguars to win a game between two teams that couldn’t break away from each other.
It’s a cliched notion, to be sure, but the most important thing about a win over a team like UMass is the win itself. Florida wouldn’t have scored that many more style points with a 70-7 win; recruits aren’t going to care about this game if Florida blows out Tennessee or is blown out by LSU; whatever embarrassment Florida fans feel about their team this week is probably better blamed on our expectations than the Gators’ play, given how little we actually know about any team heading into a season.
I think Florida’s still got a pretty good shot to be decent, and that’s not far removed from how I felt prior to this weekend. Maybe you do, too — or maybe you don’t. But I don’t think this game should have changed many minds.
Note: Partly because I really did not want to write my typical 2,000-word post about that opener this weekend (and then ended up a bit under the weather), I’m going to try a few formats for detailed postgame posts for the first three games of this season ... like this 2,500-word post. Let me know which ones you like?