Dan Mullen remains cautious about QBs
After another disappointing outing from Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks against Missouri in the Gators’ loss on Saturday, Florida fans got to see his backup, Kyle Trask, for the first time in a regulation game. But while Trask was received rapturously by those fans — his first completions, and the touchdown at the end of his first possessions, were honored with loud cheers from many of the same fans who booed Franks and Florida’s offense in the first half — it is clear that Florida coach Dan Mullen’s preference at QB is a lot harder to figure, and seems likely that it differs from Gator Nation’s.
Mullen strayed from definitive statements about who would start for the Gators against South Carolina this weekend in both his post-game press conference and his weekly Monday meeting with the media.
In the former, he gave a noncommittal answer — “We’ll see,” basically — when pressed on who he would start against the Gamecocks. In the latter, he noted that both Franks, who was largely ineffective outside of one drive, and Trask, who did not follow up his first drive with another scoring possession, graded at “70, 71 percent” in coaches’ post-game analysis, and provided enough explanation of both players’ talents — Franks, per Mullen, has a better arm and is a better athlete, but Trask may be a more physical runner — to justify either one being Florida’s starter on Saturday. And in both sessions, he went out of his way to frame Trask being inserted for Franks as part of a larger wave of inserting backups, rather than as a benching of Franks.
Personally, I think that sounds like laying the groundwork for Franks to be Florida’s starter yet again on Saturday. I suspect Mullen has a preference for Franks’s considerable athletic talents over Trask’s less impressive arm and legs — one I share, and one which was actually reinforced by Trask twice needing to leave his feet to attempt throws that Franks airmails regularly — and that that preference is also now firewalled by Franks having more in-game experience than Trask and both players performing similarly in practice and in games, at least per Florida’s criteria.
And I still think those athletic gifts give Franks an inside track to QB1 at Florida that Trask just can’t take. It’s easier for me to envision Franks ultimately reining in his arm and developing touch and/or buckling down to run hard than to envision Trask improving his arm strength and speed — and my hunch is that Mullen feels the same, and sees the possibility of getting Franks to a ceiling that Trask cannot reach as worth the risk of Franks performing at a level below Trask’s floor.
What Florida ultimately does this weekend is to be determined, but I’d be surprised if Franks doesn’t start — and, if he doesn’t perform very well, I would be similarly surprised to not be in a similar situation next week, before a game against Idaho that should be lopsided enough for Florida to play multiple quarterbacks as it wishes without risking a loss.
Until then, or until one QB separates himself, expect Mullen to keep his cards close to the vest — and for Florida fans to be upset that 6-5 and 6-4 aren’t great hands in the first place.
Stats show Lock shredded Florida’s blitzes, Gators struggling on third down of late
Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s blitz-heavy scheme is known far and wide, especially in the SEC, and it’s a high-risk, high-reward approach that tends to produce plays worth fire emojis when it works — like Donovan Stiner’s game-sealing sack at Mississippi State or Brad Stewart’s pressure-induced pick-six against LSU — and play more worth that comic panel of the dog believing everything is fine in a room on fire when it doesn’t.
Against Missouri, it really, really didn’t work. David Morrison, writing for Rock M Nation, has the numbers that show Drew Lock’s proficiency against Florida’s pressure:
Florida sent extra rushers on 11 of 32 pass attempts. On those 11 attempts, Lock completed eight passes for 124 yards and all three of his scores, or a rating of 257.42 against the blitz. That’s what we in the business like to call “extremely good.”
Credit, too, to Missouri’s offensive line for keeping him clean against the extra blitzers. And, as Tom Hart and Jordan Rodgers astutely pointed out during the telecast, credit to Lock for identifying where the blitz was coming from and getting the ball out quickly to the vacated zone, sometimes with some funky arm angles. He was just extremely on against Florida.
Lock is, I think, an excellent quarterback, and one whose miserable first two games against Florida being rife with struggles helped Florida fans believe he isn’t near the level of player he is — which is, to be clear, the level of a potential All-SEC performer who has an NFL future. But Lock also benefited from a Florida defense that is suddenly incapable of competently generating pressure either with or without added blitzers having to try to do things with multiple defensive backs banged up and no good coverage linebackers.
I still think Grantham’s scheme can produce a lot of success, and being able to remember results from more than two weeks ago makes it possible for me to point to that approach having success at Florida with the same personnel as he has on hand now. But while Georgia and Missouri were (clearly) the two best offenses Florida was going to face after its bye this regular season, both Jake Fromm and Lock had reps for getting antsy when pressured, and Florida ... just ... couldn’t ... pressure ... them, recording just one sack in each game after averaging three sacks per contest over its first seven games this year and rarely seeming to genuinely hurry throws or perplex either passer.
And Florida’s performance on third down has nose-dived, too: Georgia and Missouri combined to convert 19 of 32 third downs on the Gators, with both programs converting more than half of their attempts; Florida had allowed its previous three opponents to convert just nine of 41 third downs, with none of those teams moving the chains on more than a quarter of their third downs.
Prior to the Georgia game, Florida had been allowing conversions on just under 35 percent of third downs, a rate that would sit inside the national top 50 in the category. The 59 percent rate Florida’s given up in these last two games would be worst nationally in a walk. For the season, which includes nine and not two games, the Gators are allowing conversions on just over 40 percent of third downs — which sits at No. 82, sure, but also means the Gators are literally two or three conversions from being 20 spots higher or lower.
Unless Florida starts playing worse teams — which, I dunno, that might be scheduled or something? — than Georgia or Missouri, or Florida starts playing better, it seems possible that Grantham’s approach may produce more risk than reward in the near term.
But it is also true that the same approach producing rewards got lauded earlier this year. And it’s likely that the defensive talent on hand under Mullen is likely to be at its nadir this year, as the Gators deal with the last year of the Jim McElwain era’s diminishing returns on the recruiting trail when it came to defense.
A pair of lopsided losses featuring copious third-down failures is frustrating, yes.
It’s also a small sample size.