A maximum scoring differential of 49 points gives some latitude for depth-development. The Florida Gators are familiar and appreciative of such circumstances, having utilized their 52-17 victory over the Eastern Washington Eagles on Sunday to filter 81 different players onto the field before the final whistle.
Emphasizing the need to improve depth over the course of the offseason and into the campaign, head coach Billy Napier was thrilled the Gators were able to "start fast" and build lead that allowed for such a rotation.
"It's a big deal, man," Napier said regarding UF's deep rotation after the win. "These are opportunities that you need. That's the good thing about today is we did what we needed to do so we can do that."
You could find an example of Florida's frequent lineup changes in every corner of the box score: Eight different offensive players posted one or more rushing attempts, 13 pass-catchers tallied at least one reception, 32 defenders recorded one if not multiple tackles, two kickers split kickoff and placekicking duties, and 12 of UF's 17 true freshmen took the field in total, including Kamari Wilson starting at safety.
The range of impact stretched from redshirt senior running back Lorenzo Lingard, who transferred to UF ahead of the 2020 season, posting his first touchdown as a Gator to true freshman safety Miguel Mitchell, a late find in Florida's 2022 signing class, forcing a second quarter fumble that was recovered by true freshman defensive lineman Chris McClellan. Florida scored its fifth touchdown of the day four plays later.
Mitchell and McClellan's early mark on the game was one of many instances where the increased workload for inexperienced players was beneficial. Redshirt freshman defensive end Tyreak Sapp — who only has five career appearances under his own belt — spoke to the importance of players like McClellan getting as many reps as possible in both game and practice settings.
"Man, Chris, he’s a work in progress but he’s accepted [being] a work in progress," said Sapp. "He understands that he is a work in progress so he takes that every day and he just tries to take another step.
"Even though I’m not truly an older guy but being an older guy than him I do the best I can to help him every day. We stay after and get extra, just try to help him get ahead because we’re going to need these guys later on in the season."
Nine players — freshman walk-on running back Carlson Joseph, freshman wide receiver Caleb Douglas, redshirt freshman walk-on receiver Taylor Spierto, sophomore offensive lineman Jordan Herman, freshmen offensive linemen Jalen Farmer and Christian Williams, sophomore walk-on defensive lineman Keenan Landry, freshman defensive end Jack Pyburn and freshman kicker Trey Smack — made their collegiate debuts. Herman and Landry previously played at the junior college level but not in Division 1, 2 or 3.
Additionally, redshirt senior walk-on running back Eddie Battle made his UF debut after spending the 2020-21 seasons at Southeast Missouri State and posting 16 rushing attempts along the way.
Napier often pointed to the minimal experience that made up "a big chunk" of Florida's roster during his first offseason in charge. Sunday allowed the Gators to add game reps to every layer of the roster, just what the doctor ordered before UF begins a six-game stretch of SEC competition beginning this Saturday against Missouri.
"A lot of young players out there and then some veteran players that have been around here for a while that got opportunities," Napier noted. "I think that's healthy for the locker room. It certainly will be beneficial in this coming week.”
One of the biggest beneficiaries of the snap share was quarterback Jalen Kitna, although the redshirt freshman entered the game a bit earlier than other reserves when starter Anthony Richardson briefly exited the contest early in the second quarter with a lower leg injury.
Kitna's first passing attempt went for 22 yards to receiver Ricky Pearsall on a roll-out to the right. Three plays later on 3rd and 8, Kitna found running back Nay'Quan Wright for a 14-yard gain to set up 1st and Goal from the four-yard line. Wright scored a rushing touchdown on the next play with Richardson back under center.
“He did a great job," Napier expressed about Kitna's showing in relief of Richardson.
But Kitna wasn't done at that point. He stepped back into action with just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter, while Richardson got the rest of the day off after UF built up a 38-3 lead. His next passing attempt was a 62-yard touchdown to Douglas, marking the first career reception for the freshman receiver known as "PayDay" inside the locker room.
Kitna finished the day with an 8-of-12 passing line for 152 yards and Douglas' score.
In Napier's eyes, the performance was a product of Kitna's steady improvements in practice as of late, displaying ample growth following a minor knee procedure in early August. He almost immediately ascended to UF's No. 2 quarterback role upon return after projected backup Jack Miller III underwent thumb surgery just before the season began.
"I’m going to tell you, the last probably two weeks, he’s really grown up a lot," Napier described of Kitna. "Since Jack's injury, he’s started getting those 2s, you’ve seen some growth there. All the guy does is thrown completions in practice. That’s what he did today.
"Two Thursdays ago he was 100-percent completion percentage in a practice. I don’t know that that’s ever been done. Guy’s a pretty smart player. He’s learned our system. For the most part the ball went where it’s supposed to go today.”
Kitna's confidence was boosted following his recent displays in practice, but he viewed his first game experience as a necessary hurdle to clear in his growth as the Gators' backup quarterback. The Eastern Washington matchup allowed him and players in similar situations to make that jump.
“I think it gets the first little step out of the way, the first little nerves," Kitna explained. "Going forward, I know what I need to get better at and how the pace of the game works and I think we do a pretty good job of recreating that in practice."
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