Florida football notebook: QB uncertainty, Gators injury updates, hurricane impacts Week 1 at Utah

By OnlyGators.com Staff
August 30, 2023
Florida football notebook: QB uncertainty, Gators injury updates, hurricane impacts Week 1 at Utah

Image Credit: Ashley Ray, UAA

Expectations are low for the Florida Gators entering the 2023 college football season, but just like last year, all it takes is four quarters for a team’s temperature to change. Florida defended its turf with a thrilling 29-26 win over the Utah Utes to open the 2022 season, and suddenly, the Gators were seen as a national threat.

Perhaps they would provide real competition for the reigning champion Georgia Bulldogs, some thought. Clearly, quarterback Anthony Richardson emerged as the Heisman Trophy favorite after Week 1. In other words, most overreacted to a single result that ended up not ultimately serving as a telltale sign of what was to come over the ensuing three months.

Such will be the case again Thursday night as Florida visits No. 14 Utah to complete the teams’ scheduled home-and-home series. The Gators were once 10-point underdogs in the game, a line that fell to a touchdown last week and now sits at -4.5 for the Utes with one day until kickoff.

Florida is not expected to win Thursday, and it’s not even expected to have a winning season. The Gators’ win total projection sits at 5.5, which is almost certainly the lowest in the modern era. An upset win Thursday — particularly at Rice-Eccles Stadium, an extraordinarily tough environment — would certainly change the tune of national prognosticators. An expected loss may lead some to believe the season is headed for disaster.

More likely is that the reality of Florida’s 2023 season exists somewhere between the two extremes, regardless of Thursday’s result.

Uncertainty at quarterback

The top storyline entering Thursday’s matchup is the Utes’ quarterback situation. Utah star Cameron Rising — who went 22/32 for 216 yards with a touchdown, 91 yards rushing and a game-ending interception last season at Florida — is recovering from a torn ACL suffered in January. Rising was listed as the starter, but he was limited practicing this summer and has been called “doubtful” to play by ESPN’s Pete Thamel on Wednesday. An eight-month recovery timeline was always unlikely for Rising, particular if Utah wished to be careful with its best player. Why risk him in a nonconference game that does not ultimately matter in the Utes’ season-long goals?

Head coach Billy Napier and redshirt senior transfer linebacker Teradja Mitchell (Ohio State) said the Gators prepared for all of the Utes’ quarterbacks. The program began its specific preparation for Utah last Thursday with Friday serving as the annual “Monday” planning session given the early kickoff.

“I think Coach [Austin] Armstrong has put together a great plan for us, regardless of what quarterback we get,” Mitchell said. “We’re just confident in our game plan. Our focus is on us and what we do as a defense regardless of who we get out there as a quarterback. Our job is just to go out there and perform the plan that’s put forth.”

If Rising does not go, Utah will not be able to look to its backup as Brandon Rose suffered a lacerated liver in early August and is expected to miss another month. That leaves either Bryson Barnes — listed second on the depth chart — or Nate Johnson. Barnes, a former walk-on who served as Rising’s backup last season, is expected to start with Johnson likely playing a wildcat role.

As for Florida, fans will get their first look at redshirt junior transfer QB Graham Mertz (Wisconsin). Hardly the first choice of the Gators nor their supporters, Mertz gets a fresh start after leading a run-first Badgers offense that provided him with little protection the last few years. Will he emerge as a stop-gap game manager, or is it possible that a change of scenery leads to a breakout campaign for the former No. 65 prospect in the Class of 2019?`

Bo Nix (Auburn to Oregon) and Michael Penix Jr. (Indiana to Washington) proved a new stomping ground can be all one needs to see a career resurgence. If Mertz is somehow able to follow in their path, the pessimism around Florida this season may dissipate quickly.

“He keeps telling me each and every day how excited he is and how good this system is to him, and Napier has a lot of trust in him,” said senior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall of Mertz.

Attitude on altitude

Thursday marks the first time since 1983 that the Gators will play a regular-season game this far West. And given they will be traveling to Salt Lake City, suddenly, elevation comes into play. Whereas Gainesville, Florida’s average elevation is 177 feet above sea level, they will be playing Thursday at 4,265 feet in Salt Lake City. This is higher than most major cities in the United States (other than Denver and Albuquerque, New Mexico). Altitude sickness is common in Utah due to its mountainous areas, and there’s almost no recourse for Florida to practice for such circumstances.

Napier has said he’s far more concerned about the Utes’ talent than the altitude of their stadium, and he appreciates having a formidable opponent early in the season because it brings a sense of urgency to the end of training camp. Even beyond that, though, Rice-Eccles has a raucous atmosphere with which the Gators will need to contend.

“Their fans do a really good job of making a hostile environment. They’re loud,” said Pearsall, who played at Rice-Eccles when he was previously an Arizona State player. “They’re a really disciplined team. They actually haven’t lost in the last two years at home. We know that, but we’re getting ready to break that. We’re excited.”

Change of plans

Hurricane Idalia slammed into Florida late Tuesday, leading the Gators to change their travel plans to ensure they are able to play Thursday’s game without delay. Rather than leave early Wednesday direct for Salt Lake City, the team held a practice early Tuesday and left to stay overnight in Dallas. It is believed that Florida will get in at least a walkthrough Wednesday in Texas before they depart in the afternoon for Utah with a planned arrival of 5 p.m.

One might believe this chaotic travel schedule would bother Napier, but he thought it could be a blessing in disguise to get the team together, on the road and completely focused on the Utes a day earlier than planned. Whether that ultimately helps the Gators on the field Thursday night remains to be seen.

Injury updates

Redshirt junior center Kingsley Eguakun remains questionable with a knee injury. Napier reiterated Wednesday that he will be a game-time decision. Eguakun has started 26 straight games at center and appeared in 38 consecutive contests. If he is unable to go, redshirt sophomore Jake Slaughter, who mostly played special teams last season, will start in his place.

Redshirt sophomore QB Jack Miller III is questionable with a shoulder injury. Napier said last week that Miller is dealing with tendonitis that has kept him out of practice. Miller was out most of the 2022 season with a thumb injury and did not impress in spot action once cleared. If he is unable to go, redshirt freshman Max Brown will backup Mertz.

Sophomore defensive end Chris McClellan is questionable with a lower-body injury. McClellan was listed with an “OR” designation as starter alongside redshirt freshman Caleb Banks on the initial depth chart.

Notes & quotes

  • Asked to name his most consistent players entering Week 1, Napier on Wednesday first listed his starting wide receivers: Pearsall, sophomore Caleb Douglas and redshirt sophomore Kahleil Jackson (a former walk-on). He also named juniors EDGE Princely Umanmielen and cornerback Jason Marshall Jr., the latter of whom he said is “primed for an outstanding year.”
  • Regarding Jackson being listed as the third starting receiver, Napier said Monday that Jackson stood out from the first practice he attended in Year 1. While Florida does have a number of highly rated freshmen competing for playing time, Jackson in a starting spot should not be seen as a negative by fans: He earned the opportunity. (It’s also a job he may lose rather quickly once guys like freshman Eugene Wilson III get game reps and find comfort in the system.)
  • Speaking of freshman who have impressed, Jordan Castell earned a starting safety job based purely on his play in practice. “We reward what we see,” Napier said. Marshall pointed out that Castell adapted to the defense quickly and has an extremely high ceiling.
  • Another notable starter is redshirt sophomore linebacker Scooby Williams, who won the Week 1 job out of a “very competitive room,” per Napier.
  • Asked whether the Gators’ success as shown in “Swamp Kings” can be achieved again, Napier said that’s the exact reason he decided to take the Florida job. He called the documentary a motivating factor for the entire team.
  • Marshall is excited that the defensive backs get to play more man-to-man coverage in Armstrong’s defense this season.

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