You may well know, if you have been around Alligator Army for, oh, six months, that I have a particular antipathy for questions-based reporting that shifts the onus of answering questions from writer to reader.
But when it comes to something like the Florida Gators opening their slate of spring football practices, as they are did on Tuesday, that format is obviously irresistible. Never mind that these “storylines” and “narratives” are going to be developed through the evaluation of the second-hand information Jim McElwain chooses to impart in press conferences and the eyes-on evaluation of a spring game that has led us to improper conclusions before, and quite recently: It is important to at least present the semblance of reporting to readers, and ginning up narratives to have something to talk about is one handy way of doing so.
It’s not something I intend to do here. I won’t be in attendance at any practice to see the 15 to 20 percent of practice media members are allowed to witness — traditionally, the first three periods of a practice that usually runs 15 or more periods — with my own eyes, can only parse McElwain’s pressers so effectively, and know that even the things I get told by trusted sources — for example, that Mark Thompson was Florida’s best running back in practice early last fall — might not bear out as truth on the field on Saturdays, when all of the hype and storylines fall away.
And they always do, remember: The supposed revolt of Florida’s star-studded freshman class in 2010 was but a blip, John Brantley being a “real” quarterback didn’t matter in the fall of 2011, and Latroy Pittman’s seemingly annual step forward in practices never materialized between the lines in an actual game. What matters most in sports journalism, I think, is understanding what will matter most on the field, and explaining it as well as we can.
So here’s an attempt to do that, by identifying what should be Florida’s spring practice priorities.
1. Finding the quarterback(s)
At the moment, Florida has three realistic candidates to start at quarterback against Michigan in Cowboys Stadium on September 3: Redshirt freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, and redshirt junior Luke Del Rio. True freshman Kadarius Toney is presumably going to get a shot to make himself a viable option this spring, especially with Del Rio out due to a shoulder surgery, but Franks and Trask are going to take the majority of the available snaps this spring, and Del Rio is the only QB on Florida’s roster with a collegiate start to his name.
Florida could also add a transfer quarterback, though it seems unlikely that such a player could be the starter in September, given the program’s reported — though never officially acknowledged — inability to bring in grad transfers thanks to NCAA rules, and its failure to land Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham. At this point, it’s far more likely that a hypothetical transfer would sit in 2017, then be eligible to play in 2018 and beyond — but Florida’s lack of an established quarterback would make it somewhat appealing to transfer candidates, especially those who could play right away.
Even if Florida can actually get around whatever prohibitions on it bringing in grad transfers seemingly exist, the list of candidates who could show up on campus is rather short. Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire is considering Florida, but waiting until April — likely after Florida’s spring practices conclude — to make his decision, and LSU transfer Brandon Harris does not seem like a plausible addition. Duke transfer Thomas Sirk might make the most sense of all: The Florida native attended the same high school as Florida’s CeCe Jefferson, though he and Jefferson only would have overlapped for three semesters, and is more accomplished than either Zaire or Harris.
But between Florida having to navigate whatever restrictions it may face and those QBs facing the prospect of a three- or four-person competition at the position, I would be somewhat surprised if the Gators actually land a grad transfer this season. And so Florida probably has to work with what it has at QB.
What it has is either largely unproven or promising, depending on your perspective.
Del Rio is probably third — if not fourth — on most fans’ lists of preferred starters, given his dismal end to the 2016 season, but he is, at minimum, a better-known quantity than Franks and Trask. What we have seen from Del Rio suggests that he’s capable of being an adequate starter when fully healthy, but also significantly limited by a relatively weak arm and a lack of mobility.
His play tailing off dramatically after suffering a knee injury against North Texas has colored perceptions of both his 2016 season and his future prospects, but Del Rio did carve up those three teams he saw before going down, completing more than 60 percent of his passes, throwing for more than 250 yards per game, and tossing six touchdowns against two picks.
And if Florida were opening against Central Michigan, and not Michigan, that might be enough for some fans to be okay with Del Rio starting. But that’s not the case, and fans are poised to revolt if Del Rio is still Florida’s starter come the fall.
To ultimately quell that rebellion, Florida is going to have to groom either Franks or Trask — two big-armed, relatively mobile throwers who had wildly different profiles in high school and wildly divergent showings in the Gators’ 2016 spring game — into a starter. When asked, McElwain said in a press conference last week that he is looking for one of the two to step up and assume the reins as a leader, and such assertiveness will probably matter this spring — but fans will be looking for one or both to shine under the lights in this year’s spring game on April 7, and any assertiveness in spring practices or player-run practices in the summer will be largely invisible.
If Florida can engineer at least one of those two quarterbacks showing out in the spring game — something it arguably did with a lesser player in Del Rio last year — it will go a long way toward making fans confident.
But whether that will help make Franks or Trask into the QB who will help Florida beat Michigan is less certain — and so is whether Franks or Trask will individually win the job before the fall. McElwain did use both Will Grier and Treon Harris as starters early in 2015, drawing out a competition that Grier won, and McElwain now has a panoply of options — using both Franks and Trask with or without Toney as a change-up and/or redeploying Del Rio — that he simply did not have in 2015, when Joshua Grady was Florida’s third-stringer.
Quarterback remains far and away the most important position in football, and what Florida does with its quarterbacks will always be of grand importance to the fan base that takes pictures in front of three statues of Heisman-winning QBs. Figuring out the future of quarterback is really more like 1A, 1B, and 2-4 on Florida’s priorities list.
2. Securing the secondary
After two years of loudly claiming the title of DBU with as many as four first-round picks sharing duties in the secondary, Florida will have what amounts to almost a full makeover in the defensive backfield in 2017. Safeties Nick Washington and Marcell Harris — only made a full-time starter by injury in 2016 — are the only starters likely to return at their positions, with the Gators seemingly angling to try replacing Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson with Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardner at first, and thus replace Dawson in the nickel corner role.
That arrangement might last only through the spring, as Florida’s recruiting class will bring an infusion of defensive back talent in the summer. But Dawson and Gardner will clearly get first shots at locking up jobs at outside corner, and Harris and Washington — especially with sophomore-to-be safeties Quincy Lenton and Jeawon Taylor out with injury — can ink themselves in at safety.
Chris (C.J.) Henderson, Brad Stewart, Marco Wilson, and the rest of Florida’s true freshman DBU enrollees might be too far behind to catch up this fall.
The other important thing to pay attention to when observing Florida’s secondary is how now fully-fledged defensive coordinator Randy Shannon and new defensive backs coach Corey Bell divide the duties. Shannon worked with safeties prior to Florida’s Outback Bowl triumph — in which safeties Gardner and Harris starred — and could well continue that work this spring, with Tim Skipper sliding over to linebackers coach. That would, in theory, give corners to Bell.
3. Who steps up on offense?
Florida may have flux at quarterback and at some levels of defense, but it will boast stability on offense. The Gators’ top three rushers and top seven receivers will all return, and four of five starters from the Outback Bowl will be back on the offensive line.
Florida would also seem to have two trusted go-to options at both running back (Jordan Scarlett and Lamical Perine) and three at wide receiver (Antonio Callaway, Tyrie Cleveland, and Brandon Powell), with DeAndre Goolsby serving as the likely starter at tight end.
That all might be enough to make Florida’s offense genuinely potent if paired with good quarterback play. But Florida will also hope that some of the unproven or inconsistent players behind those presumptive stars — Thompson, or Cleveland’s fellow sophomore-to-be Josh Hammond, or non-contact participant Dre Massey — reveal themselves as potential reliable contributors. And any such revelations coming before reinforcements — running backs Malik Davis and Adarius Lemons, and wide receiver James Robinson — arrive in the fall would be especially welcome.
4. Follow what leader?
Florida has been led by its defense in McElwain’s first two years, and it has had obvious team leaders — Vernon Hargreaves III, Jonathan Bullard, Jarrad Davis, Tabor — on that side of the ball. It’s a bit harder to single out a player like that this season, though CeCe Jefferson and Harris might be candidates for the role.
But Florida might also hope that, in Franks or Trask, it has the sort of personality who could lead the offense and the program.
Regardless of which players assume the roles of public face of and private driving force behind this team, the program will presumably be centered on not the last lions recruited by Will Muschamp, but the players whose Florida careers are entirely coincident with McElwain’s tenure. And that change could be dramatic as easily as it could be utterly unsuspenseful.
5. Paving the way for progress
McElwain tossed yet a few new not-entirely-laudatory comments about Florida’s athletic department and its commitment to the football program into last week’s presser. And even though Florida’s stand-alone football facility is now both announced and awarded, it is also not yet funded.
It is very clear that athletic director Scott Stricklin’s most challenging task when it comes to football is going to be keeping McElwain satisfied, and fund-raising to take this project — probably the largest one the department will undertake under Stricklin until or unless a full-scale renovation of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium occurs — from proof of concept to poured concrete will be one of Stricklin’s duties in the coming months.
If Florida can position itself this spring for a showy win over Michigan in the fall, it will go a long, long way toward convincing boosters to reopen checkbooks — especially since those boosters will be in Gainesville quite often during what promises to be one of the best home schedules Florida has ever had.