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Six Storylines to Follow During Gators 2024 Spring Training Camp

Florida's 2024 spring training camp will kick off on March 7. Here are the six storylines All Gators will follow over five weeks of offseason practices.

Photo: Florida quarterback Graham Mertz and head coach Billy Napier; Credit: Zach Goodall

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Year three of the Billy Napier era of Florida football effectively begins Thursday, when the Gators return to the Sanders Practice Fields to kick off their 2024 spring training camp. 

Following a winter in which UF added 30 scholarship players, saw more than two dozen exit the program via transfer, graduation or pursuit of an NFL career, and replaced a plethora of on-and-off-field staffers, the 2024 Gators are expected to look a lot different this spring compared to the squad of 2023. 

There will be plenty of coverage to keep up with during the five weeks of practices, although it is worth noting media is limited to about 15 minutes of daily viewing. 

That being said, All Gators does its best to preview Florida's spring training camp by summarizing six storylines worth monitoring

New coaches and new roles 

Florida's coaching staff will feature four new on-field assistants in 2024 after the dismissals of secondary coach Corey Raymond and defensive line coach Sean Spencer, and the exits of linebackers coach Jay Bateman and co-offensive line coach Darnell Stapleton.

Additionally, one returning on-field assistant earned a promotion to a coordinating position this offseason, an analyst hire was made to aid in oversight of UF's special teams, and the leader of Florida's strength and conditioning department was reassigned and replaced.

Spring camp will serve as an initiation for these staffers in their new roles. 

  • Russ Callaway, co-offensive coordinator: Having received his second promotion with Florida in as many offseasons, Callaway will split offensive coordinator duties with offensive line coach Rob Sale, who has held a coordinating title for the past two years. Callaway will maintain his positional coaching duties at tight end in addition to his newest set of responsibilities. Those are not yet clear, however, considering Napier has operated as Florida's offensive play-caller since his hiring and expressed the desire to continue in the role as recently as February. 
  • Jonathan DeCoster, co-offensive line coach: This anticipated hiring has yet to be finalized, but Florida has zeroed in on DeCoster, who most recently spent three years in assistant and quality control positions with the Cleveland Browns, as its replacement for Darnell Stapleton at co-offensive line coach. Stapleton left the team and joined the Washington Commanders' staff in February. DeCoster will work alongside Sale in overseeing UF's front five, with previous on-field experience in such a role stemming from his 2015-16 stint at West Virginia State.
  • Gerald Chatman, defensive line coach: Brought in from Tulane where he oversaw First-Team All-American Conference defensive linemen Darius Hodges and Patrick Jenkins in 2023, Chatman has taken over Florida's interior defensive line coaching duties from Sean Spencer, who was let go by the program in November 2023. Chatman received a ringing endorsement from former Gators defensive lineman Carlos Dunlap upon his hiring, as the player and coach spent two years together with the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL.
  • Ron Roberts, inside linebackers coach/executive defensive head coach/co-defensive coordinator: Isn't that a mouthful? Jay Bateman's December 2023 bolt to Texas A&M opened Florida's inside linebacker coaching spot for Roberts to take, but Napier opted to hire Roberts in a multi-faceted mentorship role in addition to a positional coaching gig. He'll "oversee" UF's defense, per Napier, alongside coordinator Austin Armstong, who is expected to continue calling the unit's plays. Roberts has previously coordinated Power 5 defenses at Auburn, Baylor and Louisiana, under Napier at the latter school from 2018-19.
  • Will Harris, secondary coach: Florida's first on-field hiring this offseason, Harris joined the Gators in December 2023, a couple of weeks after UF fired former secondary coach Corey Raymond. His most recent stint was as an assistant cornerbacks coach with the Los Angeles Chargers. Before that, he coordinated Georgia State's defense in 2022 and found ample success as a defensive backs coach at Washington, first in an assistant role before a promotion to lead the unit in 2020. The Huskies ranked No. 1 in the FBS and the Pac-12 in passing defense with Harris in charge in 2021.
  • Tyler Miles, director of football performance: It took some time for Florida to solidify the top of its strength and conditioning department this offseason after the program's reassignment of its former leader, Mark Hocke, to a player development role. Craig Fitzgerald, formerly of the New York Giants, joined the squad as Director of Football Performance in December but left after nearly a month and a half on the job for a similar position at Boston College. Miles, who previously operated in a player development capacity, was promoted to replace Fitzgerald in February. He has one year of strength and conditioning coordinating experience, at Tennessee State in 2020, but operated in multiple assistant and intern S&C spots at Duke, Miami, Northwestern State, Tennessee, South Carolina and with the New York Jets.
  • Joe Houston, senior analyst — special teams: Following four years as an assistant special teams coach with the New England Patriots, Houston is returning to the college level with Florida, after previously spending four seasons at Iowa State, including one as the Cyclones' special teams coordinator in 2018. Houston will work in tandem with analyst Chris Couch in overseeing Florida's special teams, a unit that committed frequent blunders throughout the 2023 season, including but not limited to head-scratching penalties, multiple blocked kicks and blocks and occasional struggles to field a full, 11-player unit. 

Gators injury updates

The injury bug bit at Florida aplenty throughout the 2023 season, with starting quarterback Graham Mertz being the final domino known to fall. He went down in the penultimate game of the year at Missouri with a fractured collarbone. 

However, Florida anticipates Mertz being able to participate fully throughout spring training camp, according to Napier. 

Florida QB Graham Mertz

Florida QB Graham Mertz.

“Graham will definitely be ready to go," Napier said on Feb. 7. 

Following his transfer from Wisconsin last offseason, Mertz produced single-season career bests in nearly every important statistical category for quarterbacks. Completing an SEC-high 72.9% of his passing attempts, Mertz threw for 2,903 yards, 20 touchdowns and just three interceptions in the Gators' offense. 

As for other Florida players who nursed significant injuries in 2023, it is less clear who will and/or won't be available to start spring camp. 

Starting offensive tackle Austin Barber missed the final two games of the season with an upper-body injury that Napier said would not require surgery, making it likely but not certain that he'll be available.

Starting linebacker Shemar James (dislocated kneecap), tight end Keon Zipperer (torn ACL), running back Cam Carroll (torn ACL), and edge rushers Justus Boone (torn ACL) and Jack Pyburn (torn ACL) each suffered season-ending knee injuries at various points throughout the year. 

Notably, Zipperer suffered his injury during last year's spring camp, while Carroll and Boone went down during fall camp, meaning each player rehabbed their hurts throughout the entire 2023 campaign. Given it has been nearly a full year since Zipperer experienced his hurt, he could be close to a return to the field, likely closer than Carroll and Boone. 

Pyburn's ACL tear came in Week 10 of the season. Although he has encouragingly shed light on his recovery via social media this offseason, it would be shocking if he were able to strap up the pads and participate in the upcoming practices. 

Regarding James, Florida's leading tackler up until his injury against Georgia in Week 9, the starting linebacker underwent surgery for his kneecap dislocation on Nov. 1, 2023, and was given "about a four-month" recovery timeline by Napier. 

At first, Napier indicated that James would be ready to participate in spring camp. By early February, Napier did not appear as confident in the timeline as he once was.

"I think some of those others that you mentioned are to be determined," Napier said on Feb. 7, referencing James, Carroll and Boone specifically. "We’ll keep you updated but Graham will be ready.” 

Will there be any immediately noticeable improvement across Florida's defense?

As covered in the first storyline, Florida thoroughly shuffled its deck of defensive assistant coaches this offseason, starting with the firings of Raymond and Spencer. Bateman left the program nearly one month later, and UF finished filling those positions by January.

Can the additions of Roberts, Chatman and Harris, paired with an influx of talent via transfer portal and high school recruiting, turn the Gators' defense around after several years of disappointing play? 

Spring ball will offer the first indication.

Under Armstrong in 2023, the Gators' defense improved marginally in major statistical categories compared to the unit's output in 2022, under former coordinator Patrick Toney. Florida allowed 1.2 fewer points and 28.67 fewer total yards — 9.1 fewer passing and 19.6 fewer rushing — per game.

However, these averages remained among the worst in the SEC. Florida ranked No. 11 in scoring and total defense, No. 9 in passing defense and No. 12 in rushing defense in 2023. It also forced 1.2 fewer turnovers per game than the year before, plunging from the No. 1 spot in the conference to No. 14, the bottom.

2023 marked the fourth year in a row that Florida ranked in the bottom half of the conference in points and total yards allowed per game.

Accordingly, six multi-game starters from the unit of 2023 transferred elsewhere this offseason. The Gators will rely on both transfers and homegrown talent to supplant those players.

We'll highlight some transfers and early enrollees from high school who could help the defense in 2024 later in this story. Relative to homegrown talent, All Gators will be thoroughly monitoring sophomore edge rushers Kelby CollinsTJ Searcy and Kamran James, sophomore safeties Bryce Thornton and Sharif Denson, and cornerbacks, junior Devin Moore and sophomores Ja'Keem Jackson and Dijon Johnson.

Replacing Trevor Etienne, Ricky Pearsall and three offensive linemen

Although Mertz returns to lead the unit following his breakout 2023 season, he's lost significant support in the form of star running back Trevor Etienne, who transferred to Florida's archrival Georgia in December, and top pass-catcher Ricky Pearsall, who entered the 2024 NFL Draft upon exhausting his college eligibility.

Additionally, three members of UF's 2023 starting offensive line exited the program. Center Kingsley Eguakun, who started 26 consecutive games from 2021-22 but missed eight games in 2023 with a high-ankle sprain, entered the NFL Draft, and guards, Micah Mazzccua and Richie Leonard IV, respectively transferred to Nebraska and Florida State.

In order to build upon Florida's middle-of-the-SEC pack offense from 2023, which displayed promise in the passing game in particular, UF must urgently replace these contributors this offseason, ideally identifying new starters in spring and allowing them to gain comfort in the role during fall camp.

Florida Gators RB Montrell Johnson Jr.

Florida RB Montrell Johnson Jr.

Montrell Johnson Jr. returns as Florida's starting running back, but Etienne arguably performed better than the first-teamer in 2023, scoring three more touchdowns and averaging nearly half a yard more per carry.

Sophomore Treyaun Webb, who scored two touchdowns as a freshman, and Carroll, who was quite productive over five years with Tulane before transferring to UF in 2023, will be expected to step up. So will Johnson, as his 817 rushing yards and five touchdowns last year marked single-season career lows.

After his Freshman All-SEC and All-American showing in 2023, Eugene Wilson III is naturally viewed as the heir to Pearsall as Florida's wide receiver No. 1. Wilson led UF in touchdown receptions last year with six, and followed only Pearsall in receptions (61) and yards (538).

But considering Wilson was a starter as a rookie, another contributor will need to fill in. Kahleil Jackson, who caught 21 passes for 251 yards and one touchdown in 2023, is slated to occupy one of the two other starting roles after doing so in place of the injured Caleb Douglas for most of last year. Douglas has since transferred to Texas Tech.

Chimere Dike, an offseason transfer from Wisconsin and three-year starter with the Badgers, is the top candidate for the final open wide receiver position. He's hauled in 97 receptions, 1,478 yards and nine touchdowns in his career, most of which was with Mertz as his quarterback in the Big Ten.

On the offensive line, Jake Slaughter manned Eguakun's position when he was inactive and allowed only two sacks over 328 pass-blocking snaps. Slaughter is now the incumbent starting center.

At guard, Florida will try former tackle Damieon George Jr. following his offseason position change, as UF welcomed two transfers at offensive tackle. Rising sophomore Knijeah Harris appeared in seven games on the Gators' offensive line with one start in 2023, and is expected to start opposite George. 

DJ Lagway and UF's early enrollees

Of Florida's 18 class of 2024 signees, 15 have enrolled mid-year and will take part in spring camp. 

None are more intriguing than consensus five-star quarterback prospect, DJ Lagway.

Florida Gators QB commit DJ Lagway

Florida QB DJ Lagway at the 2023 Elite 11 Finals. 

The prize of Florida's most recent recruiting class, Lagway is the reigning MaxPreps and Gatorade National High School Player of the Year, among numerous other honors. He scored 74 total touchdowns, 58 passing and 16 rushing, as a senior at Willis (Texas) High School. 

Florida pitched Lagway on the likelihood of appearing in every game as a freshman, according to the quarterback, resulting in must-watch status every day throughout UF's training camps. Although it will be Mertz who starts this season, Lagway is considered the Gators' quarterback of the future and probable to start in 2025, making each practice along his development track crucial.

The 2024 signings of Kahnen Daniels and Jadan Baugh could aid Florida's aforementioned need for help at running back, and both could begin to make their mark this spring. 

Daniels averaged 9.9 yards per carry en route to 5,541 rushing yards and 58 touchdowns between 2021-23 at West Point (Miss.) High; after focusing on the wide receiver and safety positions previously, Baugh emerged as a dynamic running back during his senior year at Decatur (Ga.) Columbia, posting 1,583 rushing yards with 19 touchdowns.

Although his light, 5-foot-10, 160-pound frame could limit his early utilization, wide receiver Jerrae Hawkins Jr. is believed to be the fastest player on Florida's roster already, per Napier. 

Hawkins clocked a 4.25-second 40-yard dash result during an Ohio State recruiting camp in 2022, along with 6.69-second 60-meter, 10.37-second 100-meter and 21.48-second 200-meter results during his high school track and field career.

Such dynamic speed makes Hawkins a candidate for kick and punt return duties in practices this spring, and likely beyond.

On the defensive side of the ball, edge rusher/defensive lineman LJ McCray and linebacker Myles Graham carry significant hype into their orange-and-blue debuts this month. 

Joining Lagway in the consensus five-star echelon is McCray, the highest-rated defensive lineman Florida has signed since Gervon Dexter in the 2020 recruiting class. His 77 tackles, 13 sacks and 37 tackles for loss produced as a senior played a crucial part in Daytona Beach (Fla.) Mainland's 2023 state championship run.

Napier deemed McCray to be an "F" defensive end in projecting his role, although he expressed the potential for McCray to align at multiple spots across Florida's defensive line, His 6-foot-5, 280-pound frame lends credence to that idea.

The son of Florida's fifth all-time leading rusher, Earnest Graham, Myles Graham starred at local Gainesville (Fla.) Buchholz during his senior year, while committed to the Gators. 

A two-way star at the prep level, Graham will focus on playing inside linebacker at UF, after compiling 275 total tackles with 18 for loss, eight sacks, two interceptions, 16 pass breakups and four forced fumbles in high school. Prior to Buchholz, he played for Atlanta (Ga.) Woodward Academy and Naples (Fla.) Evangelical Christian.

Florida fielded one of the youngest teams in the FBS last season. The Gators ranked top-five in the FBS for the 2,603 offensive and defensive snaps it distributed to rookies in 2023, with 17 such players appearing in at least one game during the campaign and seven participating in every contest. 

With these top-rated recruits in mind, paired with the potential emergence of underrated players and three prospects scheduled to enroll this summer it is reasonable to expect the Gators to deploy their capable young talent similarly in 2024. 

Transfers All Gators is keeping tabs on 

Florida welcomed 12 players via the NCAA transfer portal this offseason. 

If you remove offensive tackle Kiyaunta Goodwin from last year's transfer class as he left the program before the season began, the 2024 haul becomes UF's largest transfer class of Napier's Florida head coaching tenure to date, even without the utilization of the spring transfer window.

Most of the acquired players are slated to occupy significant roles for Florida in 2024 following significant playing experience elsewhere and/or previous recruitments to the university from their high school days. 

Below are eight transfers All Gators plans to monitor thoroughly throughout spring camp, anticipating that each player will secure a spot on the first or second teams in practice and entering the 2024 season.

Click each player's name to access in-depth profiles on their college careers and projected roles with the Gators.

Stay tuned to All Gators for continuous coverage of Florida Gators football, basketball and recruiting. Follow along on social media at @AllGatorsOnFN on Twitter and All Gators on FanNation-Sports Illustrated on Facebook.