What We Want To See From the Florida Gators vs. Vanderbilt

There aren't many heated matchups that could decide Florida vs. Vanderbilt. Therefore, what would we like to see from the Gators on Saturday?
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Photo credit: University of Florida athletic association

Let’s be blunt: There isn’t a position or player on Vanderbilt’s roster that should give the Gators any cause for concern. 

Vanderbilt is relegated to probably the worst Power-Five team in the country, taking the honor from Rutgers, who is actually competent this season, and barely edging out Kansas for the title.

Jokes aside though, Florida will have their way with Vanderbilt. The Commodores are ranked 100th in total offense (346 yards per game), 116th in scoring offense (16.5 points per game), 101st in points allowed (35.8, which, side note, is actually better than Florida State at 36.1), and they’re 88th in total defense (443 yards per game).

However, this is an opportunity for the Gators to improve themselves, potentially try some different personnel groupings, and get a solid tune-up in before heading into the final three games of the regular season.

So, since there really isn’t a true matchup that the Gators must win if they want to escape vaunted Vanderbilt Stadium with a win, we’re going to look at aspects of the game where we could see Florida experiment a little bit. This comes in place of our usual, weekly story on key matchups that could decide the game.

QBs Emory Jones/Anthony Richardson in the second half

I can’t imagine that Kyle Trask will play much into the second half, especially if the score gets out of hand early. There is no need for UF to risk an injury to their QB1, considering the competition. The question then becomes: Who gets more second-half reps, Jones or Richardson?

Both have played sparingly, with Jones having been injured early in the season and only seeing extended playing time in the Gators' most recent win over Arkansas, and Richardson running a handful of quarterback powers versus Missouri and playing two very short drives against Arkansas.

Jones played significantly last year against Vanderbilt, playing the majority of the fourth quarter and rushing for three scores. With Trask having accepted his invitation to the Senior Bowl earlier in the week, it all but means Jones will helm the team in 2021.

This is the ideal game to get Jones valuable game reps, and build upon his showing and the touchdown drive he led against Arkansas last week. Jones went 4-of-7 for 29 yards and a touchdown, while also rushing for 37 yards and a score.

Richardson will more than likely see the field as well late in the game. Much like Jones last year, this is a chance for the freshman to get his feet wet and build some confidence. The question is, how early will Mullen pull Jones for Richardson? I’d guess Jones plays the majority of the third quarter and the first possession of the fourth before Richardson takes over.

“You want guys to try and gain as much experience as possible,” offensive coordinator Brian Johnson said. “Obviously you never know how the game is going to turn out or what’s going to dictate that. We talk a lot about controlling what you can control and making sure you’re practicing well and putting yourself in position when you do go in the game that you can operate at a high level.”

Florida's linebacker group rotations

Ventrell Miller, James Houston IV, Amari Burney and Mohamoud Diabate have been the four primary linebackers for the Gators this season. Miller has played well, and his ability in pass coverage has improved greatly.

However, there leaves a lot to be desired with this group. Houston is physical and incredibly quick, but he plays with a reckless abandon far too often and gets himself out of position frequently. Burney, who came in as a safety, has lacked the coverage skills that we saw in 2019 that made him a valuable MONEY linebacker and early down STAR. Diabate isn’t a natural linebacker, and it’s taken some time for him to adjust to playing off the ball so much. He’s improved greatly, and had a very strong game against Arkansas, recording seven tackles, three of which were solo.

"Just, working in space, making different plays in space, Diabate said. “That's really the difficult thing, coming from playing on the line to backing up, is like, you're going to have to learn how to deal with a lot of faster people in open space.”

There are some intriguing prospects though behind this quartet that, arguably, should see some more action. 

Most notably, redshirt-freshman Ty’Ron Hopper has been impressive when he’s come into games late, and played fantastic at the end of the Arkansas game, recording four tackles and half a sack. He moves laterally very well and is probably the fastest linebacker on the roster. He’s also incredibly instinctual and has the ability to read and knife through holes that the other linebackers lack at times.

The Vanderbilt game is also a great opportunity to see true freshman Derek Wingo more. Wingo has played sparingly this season, recording his first career tackle against Arkansas. 

Wingo was one of the most prized recruits of the Dan Mullen era, and is deemed the future at the MIKE linebacker spot. The staff raves about his football IQ and his understanding of the game, and the Commodores present the perfect situation for him to apply what he’s learned in a game where he can afford to make a few mistakes.

Gameplan without Kyle Pitts again

We saw last week that Florida has no issues moving the ball without Pitts. The gameplan featured a heavy dose of the run game and a thorough distribution of passing targets to multiple receivers and tight ends. Trevon Grimes had his best statistical game of the season, hauling in six catches for 109 yards and two touchdowns.

The question for this week is, will Florida stick with a similar game plan, or will they try a different approach and experiment with concepts some?

We saw Keon Zipperer fill in nicely in the passing game for Pitts Saturday, recording three catches and two scores while was stout in run blocking. Could we see an even bigger dose of targets for the highly-touted prospect, and get a glimpse of what his role will look like when he takes over a more full-time role in 2021?

"I felt real prepared because we talked about playing the game on Monday (before Arkansas) and throughout the week so that Saturday could be like a practice,” Zipperer said. “So, Monday and the rest of the days, we just had very good practices.”

This could also be an opportunity for the Gators to set plays up in the future. For example, why would Florida run a double-pass with Kadarius Toney up 21 points against Arkansas? The best explanations are either, one, to take heat off Toney when he does catch screens, or, two, to set up something in the future with the same look. Maybe Florida rolls out a multi-quarterback package like Mullen teased earlier in the season?

Regardless, Florida has proven the ability to adjust without their best offensive weapon, and they showed they can move the ball in multiple ways last week. How they continue to game-plan without Pitts could actually help the team when Pitts gets back, as it may create better matchup opportunities for Pitts down the road.

Energy levels and avoiding COVID-19

Aside from this being a noon game against a team Florida should route, it’s also the first game the Gators have traveled outside the state for since their COVID-19 outbreak.

“We're going to change our routine on gameday as it involves the locker room,” Mullen said. “Unfortunately I've been to Vanderbilt, so I know the visiting locker room situation. We're going to change our entire pregame routine to try to really limit the amount of time that we would ever spend in the locker room.”

How Florida goes about traveling, setting up in the locker rooms and making sure everyone is on the same page, while at the same time ensuring safety protocols are being met, are certainly a factor that could dictate how quickly the Gators get into the rhythm of the game. Of course, it could also play a domino affect across the rest of the season if not handled properly.

Routine is everything in football, and Florida has been spoiled for the most part over the past three weeks, playing two home games and playing in Jacksonville.

There will also be hardly anyone at this game. Vanderbilt played a game earlier in the year that had less than 300 people at it. The eerie quiet of a baron stadium might be odd for pregame warmups, but it won’t be any different from practice when there aren’t spectators either.