Florida football spring game review: Gators offense still struggling in 2023 Orange & Blue Game

By OnlyGators.com Staff
April 13, 2023
Florida football spring game review: Gators offense still struggling in 2023 Orange & Blue Game

Image Credit: UAA

Drawing conclusions from a spring game is a difficult task, but as the Florida Gators concluded the 2023 Orange & Blue Game on Thursday night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, one takeaway could not be denied: the offense remains in dire straits. The Orange and Blue teams basically played to a 7-7 tie with no points scored in the first quarter and 505 yards of total offense in the contest. Technically, Orange won 10-7 on an untimed, walk-off 46-yard field goal from sophomore kicker Trey Smack.

Either way, it was the lowest-scoring spring game in program history.

“Could have been better on offense tonight,” head coach Billy Napier said. “… Gotta give the defense credit; they made it hard today.”

Redshirt junior transfer quarterback Graham Mertz, who led the starting Orange offense but saw action on both teams, completed 18 of 29 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked on two of his first three plays from scrimmage, threw numerous passes underneath receivers and got rattled when under pressure — just as the scouting report from Wisconsin indicated.

Redshirt sophomore QB Jack Miller III, who started for the second-string Blue team but also played across both sides, completed 10 of 20 passes for 144 yards with a touchdown. Redshirt freshman QB Max Brown threw just four passes, completing one for 15 yards.

All in all, it was an excruciating viewing experience given spring games are supposed to be offensive showcases with playmakers running all over the field with defenders told to generally ease up. The Gators’ last four spring games (since 2018) featured 65, 95, 49 and 34 points. Still, there were some positives coming out of the scrimmage.

“Lot of work left to do. Two summer sessions and a training camp,” Napier said. “… Very encouraged by what we see. We’re not there yet, but I like this team. I like this group of players. I like the attitude. I like the work ethic, the camaraderie.”

2023 Orange & Blue Game takeaways

This quarterback room is trouble for Florida: While Mertz has plenty of Power Five experience, he is simply not someone who is going to win important games for the Gators. This was known once he left the Badgers, of course, but a sliver of hope remained that new stomping grounds and new coaches would lead to a turnaround for Mertz, perhaps like Bo Nix experienced going from Auburn to Oregon. Don’t count on it.

“It all comes down to execution. I’m definitely not satisfied with it,” Mertz said.

That’s not to say Mertz did nothing right. He hooked up with sophomore wide receiver Caleb Douglas for a nice 28-yard catch (that was ultimately fumbled in a turnover) and hit senior WR Ricky Pearsall with a 41-yard strike to set up a score (Pearsall had to slow down a bit). Once he calmed down, he delivered the ball more efficiently and more accurately. Still, the lack of explosive plays (and scoring plays) was a concern.

Maybe the best news for Florida is that the transfer portal opens again Saturday, and it might be able to add another scholarship signal caller capable of pressing Mertz for the job this fall. Miller is hardly an improvement at the second-string spot, and given his limited snaps, Brown is clearly not seen as a legitimate option at the position this season. Napier claimed the pocket was “muddy” all night for the quarterbacks — suggesting plenty of pressure from the defensive line was getting through — but that does not excuse the level of play from the most important position on the field.

“[The transfer portal] process is underway to some degree. We’ll know more pretty soon. … Yes, we anticipate adding a player to our team at [quarterback],” Napier said.

First quarter from hell: The 0-0 score aside, Florida’s offense combined for 14 yards passing and 1.8 yards per play in the opening period. It was the first time a Gators spring game started with a scoreless quarter since 2012, a game that still ended with 41 points being scored.

Exchange problems: It was easy to lose count of the number of errant snaps and flubbed quarterback-center exchanges, but there were at least five on the evening. Redshirt junior starting center Kingsley Eguakun did not play with an injury, but it’s clear Florida has no one behind him who is trustworthy enough to have already claimed the backup job entering the season.

The Gators were down two starting offensive linemen — not counting the two others that transferred out of the program this offseason — but nevertheless saw the primary Orange unit get significantly pushed around early in the scrimmage.

“It wasn’t quite as clean on offense as what we’ve been seeing in the practice sessions, that’s for sure,” Napier said.

Smack … to the back of the head: Aside from the low-pressure kick at the end of the scrimmage, Smack went 0 for 2, missing field goal attempts from 24 yards and 47 yards out. He did nothing to put any pressure on redshirt sophomore K Adam Mihalek, who held down the starting job last season. This despite Smack being the much higher recruited and more highly touted player coming into college.

Three-headed monster: Running backs junior Montrell Johnson Jr. and sophomore Trevor Etienne did not lose a step from last year, combining to take 16 carries for 87 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per touch. They were decisive and explosive, hitting holes and bouncing the rock outside for long gains. Johnson also caught two passes for 51 yards with a long of 38 as Florida this offseason focused some of its offensive effort in feeding its rushers passes out of the backfield.

Joining the dynamic duo in impressing with the ball in his hands was freshman Treyaun Webb, who started for Blue and took 11 carries for 53 yards. With some back-of-the-depth-chart turnover at the position, Webb looks prepared to spell the Johnson-Etienne duo and perhaps serve as a change-of-pace back during the season.

Highlight of the night: A bit of luck was involved given the ball first careened off the defender’s shoulder pads, but redshirt sophomore WR Marcus Burke made the play of the game by pinning a 39-yard catch to the lower back of freshman cornerback Ja’Keem Jackson, who would have been called for pass interference on the play. Forget play of the game, there may not be a better play made in any spring game this offseason. Burke finished with the game’s first touchdown and 55 yards, second-most on the team behind Pearsall (62).

“I love Marcus. Marcus is a talented young man. He’s tall, he’s long, he’s fast. Marcus is learning how to be more consistent as a person,” Napier said. “I’m proud of him and the progress that he’s showed. He’s a guy that’s always been one of the more talented guys, and he’s grown up — this offseason in particular, he’s taken some steps forward just in terms of being dependable, being accountable, being a guy that not only the staff can respect but also his teammates.”

Just a taste: Freshman WR Andy Jean only got two touches in the scrimmage, but his speed, explosiveness and shiftiness was on full display with 14 of his 28 yards coming after the catch.

Getting defensive: It’s tough to analyze defensive play from a spring scrimmage given the limitations placed upon it — and in this case, the poor play of the Gators’ offense — but what was crystal clear from the opening snap onward is the unit was energized and motivated. Defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong oozed enthusiasm, and it was clear his players were shot out of a cannon in the game.

Sophomores safety Kamari Wilson and linebacker Shemar James — Florida’s top 2022 defensive recruits — combined for a fumble recovery on that aforementioned Burke reception. James finished with three solo tackles and a sack, while Wilson had four solo tackles and a quarterback hurry. Seeing the duo step up with difference-making plays should bring enthusiasm from the fan base in terms of the types of players that Florida is recruiting. There were nine combined sacks, 14 tackles for loss, five pass breakups and 11 quarterback hurries in the contest.

“Not as clean as you would like today,” Napier said, “but defense probably had a lot to do with that.”

Stars in attendance: Former Gators including quarterback Anthony Richardson, offensive linemen Maurkice and Mike Pouncey, and defensive end Carlos Dunlap were among a number of Florida players in The Swamp for the game.

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