With another spring practice cycle successfully put behind us without mention — I’m sure I missed some of the best action that’s ever happened during the series of practices that the players care even less about than the fall camp that they cannot wait to have end because of the sweltering Gainesville heat and humidity — it is, of course, time for a spring game exhibition that will serve as much of the basis for the hyperbole, anxiety, and outright lying that marks off-season discourse in college football fandom.
Here are seven predictions — some educated, some entertaining — that I have for Florida’s Orange and Blue Debut, set to kick this Thursday night, and for the months to come.
It’ll be fun
There are spring games that are meant to be competitive affairs that solve quandaries for the coaches of their teams. There are spring games that are meant to be fan service and little more. And in between those two poles is a wide spectrum that just reads “fun.”
I have a hard time thinking that Florida is likely to screw up that “fun” part with a night game on a weekday, which seems like most of the setting for a simulation of the cool night games that will happen in the fall, barring inclement weather. With rain from the late morning set to be gone well before an evening kickoff — and probably keeping temperatures in the 70s — I think that the Gators are going to get rather good weather, in fact.
So it should be fun — regardless of what actually transpires. That’s most of the point.
The QBs will be fine, not outstanding…
We have seen Jack Miller III in a spring game before; he was not particularly impressive. He was also bad — do you remember that, of his 13-for-22, 180-yard line in the Las Vegas Bowl, five of the completions and 108 of the yards came on Florida’s final two drives, with the Gators down 30-0? — in a forgettable, forgivable bowl game loss. We — college football fans, if not Florida fans — have also seen plenty of Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz, whose Badgers career could be fairly described as largely unspectacular or uneven.
Their chances of producing performances in this spring game that change our perceptions of them would seem small. Maybe very small.
But I think that they could also acquit themselves nicely, do things that provide hope for down-to-down competence that might actually exceed the high-variance brilliance and bafflement that Anthony Richardson generated, and still not end up standing out. In fact, I think that’s the most likely outcome.
…which will allow for worry, and maybe a transfer
And if that outcome is what we get, I think that there is a very good chance that the narrative of Florida’s season has a “Are these really the QBs?” preface that gets written all summer.
Mertz — whom I think is likely to win the QB1 role … if no additions are made — and Miller are not just not as exciting as Richardson; they are also not as exciting as Emory Jones or Kyle Trask or Feleipe Franks all were as prospective Florida helmsmen.
If you count Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire as a more enticing and/or endearing prospect at QB than Mertz and Miller, I think we have to reach all the way back to 2016 and the immortal battery of Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby for a Florida QB situation that inspired more genuine worry than good feeling and wonder. And back then, fans were still optimistic for Del Rio and Appleby because, well, they were not Treon Harris, whose play approximated Richardson’s — in the senses that he would often have days as bad as Richardson’s worst and occasionally have plays as good as Richardson’s worst miscues on his good days.
To my mind, that means that Florida is still in the market for another QB who could play in 2023 — or should still be, anyway. And I don’t think it is that outrageous to believe that the Gators will have their ears to the ground, listening for the thump of a QB falling out of a completion elsewhere, or that there won’t be such players entering or re-entering the transfer portal at the conclusion of spring semesters.
Who, exactly, fits this bill as a potential stalking horse? I don’t know. My pet theory is that someone of Jaxson Dart, Walker Howard, and Spencer Sanders won’t actually want to be the third-stringer at Ole Miss this fall, no matter how fun riding the bench in Oxford during a 7-5 season occluded by speculation about whether Lane Kiffin should have bolted for Auburn might (not) be, but that’s really just conjecture.
But Florida’s personnel division is paid to figure out if such a player might exist and to recruit that hypothetical player to Gainesville. And its head coach is paid handsomely to win games, a task that would perhaps be easier if those games featured a quarterback whose ceiling exceeds what we can reasonably expect of Mertz and Miller.
Unless one or both of them is surprisingly sharp on this night, I will be entirely unsurprised if Florida is still looking for another QB in the portal late this spring and all summer.
The standout will be a skill player
If there were bingo cards for spring games, “a skill position player on offense does something cool” would be the free center square.
Most recently and memorably, that was Kadarius Toney showing a glimpse as a freshman of the terror he would become as an upperclassman. But I would bet that the most memorable part of many, many spring games at Florida and elsewhere is one ooh-eliciting big play from a running back or wide receiver — whether it happens organically or is orchestrated by the coaches as a treat for the player and/or the fans.
Tonight’s prime candidate for such a showy play or performance has to be Trevor Etienne, the most electrifying returnee from last fall’s offense, and Ricky Pearsall has to be close behind. But Xzavier Henderson purportedly had a big day during one of Florida’s scrimmages, and true freshman Andy Jean’s name has been mentioned far too often in practice reports for me not to think that he’s got a legitimate chance to shine brightest under the lights.
In any case: Someone’s going to win the hearts of those paying attention.
The offense will stay ahead of the defense
Bluntly: Florida’s offense was often good and frequently explosive in 2022, continuing a trend begun under Dan Mullen that has transferred to the Napier years even if there were plenty of criticisms of that offense to be leveled … but Florida’s defense being execrable at its duties and excruciating to watch nullified much of the value and joy of the offensive excellence, also continuing a trend begun under Dan Mullen that has transferred to the Napier years.
I think that Florida’s building a strong foundation on defense, improving its talent at most positions and its depth on the line. I also think Patrick Toney was not really the problem last season, and that Austin Armstrong — the first coordinator-level coach younger than me that Florida has employed in my lifetime — strikes me as a sharp mind who will not really be the problem this fall. But most importantly, I think that Florida’s defense fell to a level that may take two or three years to fully fix — “fix”? — and I would count reducing the 40-point strafings to 31-point showings that allow for 35-31 wins as progress.
Florida’s offense may have two QBs I do not trust to be better than average more often than not, but it also has a deep and talented line, a slew of reliable running backs, and promising youth at pass-catching positions. It should be better than Florida’s defense even if we factor in the conventional wisdom that defenses are often ahead of offenses during spring and fall practices because of familiarity and shorter installation periods. If that isn’t the case, I’ll be surprised — pleasantly, perhaps.
We will not remember this game in six months
Quick: Who caught the touchdown passes that were thrown on those gimmick plays in the first couple of spring games under Mullen?
Oh, you didn’t know? You had to look it up? That’s what I thought.
The IDEA of a spring game may be that it’s a dress rehearsal for the fall. I think it’s more like homecoming before prom: Maybe you get asked out by your crush, and maybe you go to the dance and have a good time, but the REALevent is the bigger one later on. (In this metaphor, I think the inevitable 40-yard Etienne scamper is the DJ dropping Lil Uzi Vert’s “I Wanna Rock”?)
That’s not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t glean as much joy — and maybe even insight — from a spring game as possible. This is the closest thing to a real college football game featuring Florida that we get between the first days of January and the last of August.
But the significance of what happens in a spring game rarely lingers longer than a week, and the conclusions drawn can be foolhardy at best. And I cannot call out any spring game that mattered more in Florida history than the 2006 edition, in which Tim Tebow “outplayed” Chris Leak, fomenting a quarterback controversy that wasn’t prior to a season in which Leak started every game and Tebow cameoed extensively and effectively en route to a national title.
Extrapolating “Tebow might be better than Leak” from that game was easy. And it was arguably right, ultimately. But Leak was always going to be that team’s steady senior leader, Tebow was always going to be its fiery freshman spark plug, and Tebow having a better spring game than the cemented senior was not going to be a factor in a theoretical benching come the fall; Tebow being better on a day in the spring would not have even been fourth or fifth on the list of reasons that Urban Meyer and Mullen would have replaced Leak with him by October.
And I think that might be the MOST consequential spring game in program history.
So take this for what it is. Maybe don’t take it too seriously.
Desmond Watson will score a touchdown
All that said: Some things just need to happen.