This Friday night, we get a little taste — just a very small spoonful — of Florida Gators football.
That is, as much as anything, the point of the Orange and Blue, Florida’s spring football game (7:30 p.m., SEC Network or WatchESPN): Giving fans like us a chance to see the Gators again before their nearly five-month hibernation. And that part of the spring game will be fun, even if Florida looks sloppy or impotent or what have you.
But there is plenty to watch for this year, as the Gators enter a pivotal third year under Jim McElwain with a chance to make good on their head coach’s heady guarantee and continue an upward trajectory, or to stagnate or fall from their perch atop the SEC East.
The primary thing to watch all year — and especially in this Orange and Blue Debut — is the play of freshman quarterbacks Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask. Franks and Trask each enrolled early at Florida last January, and both have been through two spring practices and a full fall redshirt season at this point, so they can fairly be — and are —expected to compete for the starter’s job that does not seem securely in the hands of either underclassman or redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio, kept off the field this spring by a shoulder surgery and his subsequent rehabilitation.
Former four-star signee Franks has always had a greater share of the recruiting services’ esteem than two-star signee Trask, but Trask outplayed Franks dramatically in last year’s spring game, competently moving Florida’s offense while Franks appeared skittish and threw multiple interceptions. The buzz around the program has suggested that Franks has come into his own since the late fall, and most expect Franks to ultimately start in 2017 — at some point, anyway — but if this year’s Orange and Blue Debut is a reprise of last year’s, in which Trask shines while Franks struggles, there will plenty of fodder for coaches and observers to chew on this summer.
Beyond that most important position battle, the other foci for the discerning Florida fan will likely be the offensive line and secondary, where new position coaches Brad Davis and Corey Bell are tasked with helping the Gators go from improving to impressive and preventing the Gators from going from impenetrable to porous. Davis has plenty of returning talent up front, with bookend tackles Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor appearing to be the foundation for an excellent line, but Bell is dealing with a shallower pool of players at defensive back, with many potential contributors still waiting to enroll in Gainesville.
And if McElwain pits most of his first-teamers against second-teamers — as he did in 2016 — it may be hard to declare where both units stand after spring football with any certainty.
Elsewhere, Florida’s objectives for this spring game are probably limited to putting on a show and maintaining the health of all involved. The Gators have a growing stable of playmakers on offense, but Antonio Callaway, Tyrie Cleveland, and Brandon Powell have all dealt with injuries in their Florida careers, and might only cameo under the lights in The Swamp. Similarly, I wouldn’t expect presumed starting halfback Jordan Scarlett to play extensively, with reps in the spring game likely better allocated to Mark Thompson and Lamical Perine, the likely competitors to back Scarlett up this fall.
And as far as sleepers who could make a major impression go, the list is short. Quarterback/athlete Kadarius Toney might make plays either under center or in different facets of Florida’s offense, and tight end Kemore Gamble has earned some hype as a possible challenger to a disappointing status quo at the position, but those are the only early enrollees who seem likely to have flashy moments, and there are few sleepers remaining from Florida’s 2016 recruiting class, which has already seen many of its likely major contributors, like Cleveland and defensive back Chauncey Gardner, make some of those contributions.