Photo: Billy Napier and the Florida Gators; Credit: Alex Shepherd
The Florida Gators suited up last night for their first Orange and Blue spring scrimmage since 2019, forced to cancel spring completely in 2020, and the team's spring game last year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It was the first time fans, media and other observers got a good look at the team led by new head coach Billy Napier. The team split off into two sides - Orange and Blue - with the first-team offense primarily playing with the Blue team with limited exceptions and the first-team defense in orange.
The estimated attendance for last night's spring game was 45,000, the program announced during the third quarter.
The scrimmage was presented as a typical game with four quarters and a 15-minute halftime, simulating a normal game with full contact, kickoffs, punts and field goals.
Prior to the contest, several players were unable to suit up, including multiple scholarship players, tight ends Jonathan Odom and Nick Elksnis, cornerback Avery Helm, defensive backs Dakota Mitchell, Jadarrius Perkins and Tre'Vez Johnson and outside linebacker Antwaun Powell.
One player, CB Jaydon Hill would play but sported a white non-contact jersey which would limit some of his action. Though RB Nay'Quan Wright was dressed out (blue team), he didn't play as he recovers from an injury suffered late last season.
Anthony Richardson looks sharp
Entering the scrimmage, there was one player on everyone's mind: QB Anthony Richardson coming off of knee and ankle injuries. There were plenty of questions heading into the game, including how limited he might be and whether or not he can look sharper than he did just a year ago.
Well, Richardson answered those questions and then some on Thursday, looking sharp on multiple drives, particularly during the first half of the contest, tossing two touchdowns, while leading the first-team offense on three-straight TD drives against the Florida first-team defense.
Richardson showed off his accuracy, movement skills and vision, able to exploit holes in the Florida defense with ease. Richardson finished the contest having completed 18-of-24 passes for 207 yards and two touchdowns — there were few, if any inaccurate passes from him, and just one tipped at the line of scrimmage.
"I think Anthony is a production of a lot of hard work," Napier said of Richardson's performance after the scrimmage. "I can’t say enough. His approach has been first class."
Though there was some concern with how long it might take him to fully recover from offseason knee surgery, there really weren't any limitations to his game as far as running around, consistently able to roll out to the left or right and make a play, including a TD toss near the end of the first half to converted-tight end, linebacker Noah Keeter.
Dante Zanders shines in new-ish role
Leading both of Florida's spring game rosters in receiving on Thursday, Dante Zanders proved that he belongs at tight end following a mid-camp position change from the defensive line.
Zanders operated as the blue team's (first-team offense) starting tight end while the only scholarship TE available, Keon Zipperer, was on the orange team (second-team offense). The high school tight end recruit-turned-Gators defensive lineman-turned-tight end once again hauled in five receptions for 56 yards across six targets, the second-most in the game.
Zanders made the move back to tight end following Odom, Elksnis and Gage Wilcox's injuries in spring and has been praised consistently ever since. Tight ends coach William Peagler said earlier in April that he could see Zanders making a full-time switch back to the offense, and Napier echoed that sentiment on Thursday night.
"First thing I would say is Dante Zanders, you can immediately see where he's got a future. I can't compliment him enough. I mean he's been the story of the spring," Napier said after the game.
"He did the extra. I saw him around the facility more than some of the coaches. He was in there grinding away. And he has ability. I mean the guy's 6-5 and a quarter, he's 260 pounds, he's loose, he can transition, he's got good ball skills. Most importantly he's smart and he's consistent. The guy is heavy-handed at the point of attack. I mean he's a God-send. Not only did he make the move, that guy running out there is going to make a lot of plays for us."
Young defensive standouts
With plenty of eyes on the team's starters, there were still plenty of other standouts, including a few of the young defenders vying for early playing time after very limited, or no action the year prior.
One of the defenders that stood out last night was linebacker Diwun Black, who has excelled during the spring thus far. He looked long, tall and fast in the middle of the Florida defense. A new position for Black, he looked natural in his role, able to stay with receiving targets downfield, while getting in position on run fits.
Black would also earn some first-team reps near the end of the contest as the clock was winding down with two minutes left to go in the game.
One play made early in the first quarter drew some cheers as Black nearly picked off QB Jack Miller III, who ran with the team's second-team offense last night. Black has a chance to earn early playing time as we head into the fall.
Another second-year player, redshirt freshman CB Jordan Young also stood out multiple times with the second-team defense. He would make several tackles, almost as if he was shot out of a cannon, showing off his speed and change of direction ability.
He's clearly a willing tackler and could prove important as Florida lacks some depth at the position due to injuries or otherwise. Midway through the third quarter, Young was able to get a pass breakup on Miller.
Finally, though they didn't have many standouts plays during the game, it's worth noting that redshirt freshman Corey Collier Jr. and freshman Kamari Wilson received some repetitions with the first-team defense at safety opposite of typical starter Rashad Torrence II.
One safety who did, however, was sophomore Donovan McMillon, who intercepted a redzone pass off of Miller late in the first quarter.
Early in the third quarter, another young defender would make a play with redshirt freshman defensive end Tyreak Sapp forcing a fumble on RB Demarckus Bowman. McMillion's interception may not have been possible if not for the pressure Sapp put on Miller off of the edge on that play. He's a player to watch as the team moves forward into the fall, especially because Florida lacks some depth at the position.
Who made up the first-team?
You can find the Gators' first-team offenses and defenses from the Orange and Blue game below, as compiled by AllGators. Some players rotated into the first-team lineup on both sides of the ball, but the players listed were seen on the first snap for each unit.
Offense: QB Anthony Richardson; RB Lorenzo Lingard; WRs Justin Shorter, Trent Whittemore and Xzavier Henderson; TE Dante Zanders; OL (left to right) Richard Gouraige, Ethan White, Kingsley Eguakun, O'Cyrus Torrence, Michael Tarquin
Defense: DE Princely Umanmielen; DTs Gervon Dexter and Desmond Watson; OLB Brenton Cox Jr.; ILBs Ventrell Miller and Amari Burney; CBs Jason Marshall Jr. and Jaydon Hill; STAR corner Kamar Wilcoxson; Safeties Trey Dean III and Rashad Torrence II
Of note, Richardson, Lingard, Zanders, Torrence [OL], Tarquin, Umanmielen, Watson, Burney, Hill, and Wilcoxson took the field as new starters compared to the 2021 season. Zanders and Wilcoxson, however, filled starting roles due to injuries throughout spring camp at their positions, although the two could fight to hold onto the gigs when fall camp rolls around.
"Game-changers" have an inconsistent night, but Adam Mihalek shows promise
The "game changers"— Napier's special teams unit — didn't have the best night on Thursday. Redshirt sophomore and Orange team running back Demarkcus Bowman fumbled the opening kickoff, although it was recovered, and redshirt senior kicker Chris Howard went on to miss a 32-yard field goal to finish that drive.
However, redshirt freshman walk-on kicker Adam Mihalek provided some hope in the second half with a couple of lengthy field goals from 52 and 49 yards out. Mihalek struggled with kickoff distance at times and put one out of bounds late in the third quarter, but made up for it with his 49-yard field goal on the following drive.
Florida anticipates the enrollment of kicker Trey Smack this summer who could immediately compete to start as a scholarship player, but Mihalek's performance could lead to a position battle between the two when fall camp rolls around.
Another positive: Two of redshirt sophomore Fenley Graham's five kick returns went over 25 yards, and another two were stretched to the 30-yard line as a result of short kicks.
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