It is no question the type of presence Gators tight end Kyle Pitts brings to the No. 6 Florida Gators offense, especially this season. On Saturday, however, the team could be without its star player for the first time, and they'll have to come up with creative ways to replace his production as a result.
Pitts, a junior, has exceeded all expectations thus far this season, breaking school records and on pace to be one of the best Florida playmakers of all time. With 24 receptions for 414 yards and eight touchdowns through five games, he's become the safety net that quarterback Kyle Trask needs to make plays all over the gridiron.
Against the Arkansas Razorbacks, a defense coached by one of the best defensive minds in former Missouri head coach Barry Odom, Florida could struggle to find room without Pitts in the fold. Although the Gators have plenty of playmakers, from wide receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes to running backs Dameon Pierce, Nay'Quan Wright and Malik Davis, even tight ends Kemore Gamble and Keon Zipperer, it's been Pitts to get the offense going week in and week out.
According to Pro Football Focus, Pitts has been the team's highest-graded player with an overall offensive score of 95.4. Behind him are Trask (88.1) and Pierce (79.0). Thus far this season, Florida has been one of the more pass-heavy teams in the SEC, throwing the football 182 times with Trask, fifth-most in the conference while behind a game after postponing the LSU contest.
Against Arkansas, which features a tough pass defense, able to take away the football on a whim, Florida may want to lean on Pierce, a player Florida has yet to really feature in a game thus far this season.
This year, Pierce has run the football over nine times just once with 15 attempts against Georgia. He's run for an average of 4.5 yards-per-attempt, while never breaking over 54 yards rushing on the year. Florida has found ways to get other players the football such as Davis and Wright, but have yet to put pressure on opposing teams through its ground game.
Florida has shown what they can do with other players before. Last week against the Georgia Bulldogs, the Gators showcased its running backs, just not running the football with them. Between Davis, Pierce and Wright, Florida running backs accounted for 39 touches for 300 yards. Much of the production still came through the air.
"I think most people would have looked and said, hey, if the running backs are going to dominate this game that it would be the other way around, that it wouldn't be our running backs dominating the game and putting up those numbers," Gators head coach Dan Mullen said of the production on Monday. "But those were the matchups."
Florida has routinely featured a matchups-based offense, allowing its opponents to dictate exactly how it will run. Against Arkansas, and without a killer-instinct player like Pitts it may be a game that is looked at as a barometer, showcasing how efficient an offense it can be without its playmaker.
Pierce can be the player Florida leans on this weekend, however, it would mean doing something the team has seldom done: run the football. Thus far this season four SEC quarterbacks have run the football more times than Florida's leading rusher: Feleipe Franks (Arkansas): 72 attempts, Matt Corral (Ole Miss): 67, Bo Nix (Auburn): 62 and Terry Wilson (Kentucky): 61. Pierce has run the football just 49 times.
Without Pitts in the lineup, perhaps things will be different.