THOUGHTS OF THE DAY: MARCH 12, 2019
SPRING HAS SPRUNG; FOOTBALL IS HERE
Spring officially begins today. Forget what the scientists say about the equinox. What the heck do they know? Anyone worth his salt knows fully well that when spring has officially sprung there is college football once again. That awkward time after the national championship game, made bearable only for a national signing day that has lost its luster since they allowed early signings in December, is over and for another month we get football practice. No, it’s not football games and no, the spring football game isn’t actually a game, either. It’s not even a glorified scrimmage. It’s Gators dressing out in full uniform while an announced crowd of some 50,000 give or take 5-10,000 oohs and aahs at guys doing their best to avoid getting hurt.
But it’s football and it’s the last gasp of college football until August when we get about a month of practice before the games begin again and they actually count. So savor the next month. Read all the practice reports. Read between the lines every time Dan Mullen talks about what’s going on in practice although deep down you have to know he’s going to do his best to avoid saying anything someone in Athens or Knoxville or any of the other 11 SEC outposts could use as either bulletin board material or some nugget that might help game plan in case the Gators show up on the schedule.
Do your best to get your football fix because the preseason magazines won’t be available at Walmart or Publix until sometime around Memorial Day and after that we plunge into darkness until fall camp opens up.
Meanwhile here are five things I want to see this spring from the Gators:
(1) FELEIPE FRANKS NEEDS TO LEAVE NO DOUBT THIS IS HIS TEAM: In the last month of 2018 the Feleipe Franks we had been hoping for began to emerge, leading the Gators to four straight wins including a 41-15 beatdown of Michigan in the Peach Bowl. In those last four games, Franks completed 63-97 of his passes for 862 yards and 8 TDs (0 picks) while running for 177 yards and 4 more TDs. Now it’s time to build on the momentum of the least four games. When practice begins today, Franks will have competition from Kyle Franks and the Joneses – Emory and Jalon – but he will take the snaps as the #1 quarterback and it will be up to him to show that 2018 was just a stepping stone for bigger and better things. Every bit as important as showing he’s progressed as a passer, runner and decision maker, Franks needs to become the consummate leader. When spring football concludes, there should be no doubt whatsoever that he is the maximum supreme leader of the Florida Gators, that this is HIS team. If he does that, then you can figure 2019 is going to be a really good year for UF.
(2) EXPAND THE ROLE OF KADARIUS TONEY IN THE OFFENSE: We got some glimpses of just how explosive Kadarius Toney can be in a Dan Mullen offense last year when Toney caught 25 passes for 260 yards and a TD and ran 21 times for 240. He also threw a critical touchdown pass against Mississippi State the only time he was called on to throw the football. Toney’s role in the offense should be expanded in 2019. He needs to double the number of touches he had in 2018 and become that nightmare who gives opposing defensive coordinators sleepless nights trying to figure out how to defend him. It’s highly unlikely there will ever be another athlete as versatile or explosive as Percy Harvin, but Kadarius Toney could prove to be the closest thing to Percy if give chances to show what he can do with the football in the open field.
(3) FIND EIGHT GUYS WHO CAN FIT INTO AN O-LINE ROTATION: It might be too early to ask John Hevesy to find five starting linemen, but he needs to find eight this spring who he will be able to count on when fall camp begins in August. Hevesy took an underachieving O-line from 2017 and turned them into a highly productive unit in 2018 when they cut their sacks in half (37 in 2017; 18 in 2018); improved the yards per carry by nearly a full yard (4.30 in 2017; 5.27 in 2018) and gave Feleipe Franks enough time to throw that he improved his yards per pass attempt by more than 1 yard (6.3 per attempt in 2017; 7.6 in 2018). The task will be tougher this year because center Nick Buchanan is the only returning starter, but before we hit the panic button, consider this. Prior to 2018, Nick Buchanan had never played center. In 2017 he appeared in the UAB game for a handful of plays. In 2016 he saw mopup duty in two games. If Hev can turn a guy like Nick Buchanan, who has never before played center, into a consistent blocker who doesn’t miss assignments and reads defenses well enough to make the right line calls 90% of the time, then you can count on him finding seven other functional linemen who he can mold into a unit that will get the job done quite well in 2019.
(4) TEDARRELL SLATON FINALLY PUTS IT ALL TOGETHER: Remember how great that Alabama defense was with Terrence “Mount” Cody in the middle? Well, Tedarrell Slaton is 6-5, 343 and only a couple of biscuits lighter than Mount Cody and probably a darn sight more mobile. We tend to forget that Cody had to spend a couple of years in juco and not only because of grades. He needed to get on the field and learn how to get the most out of his considerable (6-5, 365) bulk and physical strength. When he arrived at Alabama in 2009 he occupied the gap on either side of the center and forced double and triple teams on every snap. Alabama went unbeaten that year, won the national championship and allowed only 79.36 yards rushing per game in large part because Cody was such a presence it freed everybody else up to make tackles. Maybe Slaton will never develop into a player who dominates the way Cody did in 2009, but if he can become enough of a consistent force in the middle that he has to be doubled on every single play, then someone else is going to have a clear path to a runner or quarterback.
(5) FIND A REPLACEMENT FOR VOSEAN JOSEPH: Last season, Joseph (93 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 5 pass breakups) and David Reese (77 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss) were one of the better 1-2 inside linebacker tandems in the Southeastern Conference. Reese will be back for his senior season but the Gators have to find a running mate for him. Reese was the stay at home guy last year, so steady that Joseph could use his considerable speed and athleticism to make plays all over the field. Probably more will be expected from Reese this year, but no matter, someone has to emerge as the complement, the Robin to his Batman. There was talk that senior Kylan Johnson was going to transfer out and perhaps he still will, but he’s listed on the spring roster and has 83 career tackles to his credit. Rayshad Jackson backed up Reese last year so he’s probably going to get a shot at one of the starting inside spots. The guy that might be the best combination of size (6-1, 233), speed and athletic ability is James Houston IV, who was in on 28 tackles as a backup as a redshirt freshman last year. The Gators have plenty of speedy disruptors of the edge so the critical replacement at linebacker will be that guy who takes Vosean Joseph’s spot in the lineup.
GATORS PLAY HOST TO FSU TONIGHT
Probably the biggest task for the 5th-ranked (13-5) Gators tonight when the face 10th-ranked Florida State (13-1) at McKethan Stadium (6:30 p.m., SEC Network) will be keeping the ball in the yard. The Seminoles come into this game ranked third nationally with 26 home runs and they’ll be facing a collection of freshmen and sophomore Florida pitchers. As of Monday night, Florida coach Kevin O’Sullivan hadn’t named a starter but it’s likely to be one of three freshmen – Justin Alintoff (0-0, 1.38 ERA), David Leuthje (0-1, 1.93 ERA) or Christian Scott (1-1, 2.08 ERA). The Seminoles will send out Conor Grady, 2-0 with a 1.54 ERA this year (4-3 last season).
This might be the youngest Florida team O’Sullivan has sent out to face the Seminoles in years. Besides going with kids on the mound tonight, Florida will have one senior (DH Nelson Maldonado) and two juniors (RF Wil Dalton and LF Austin Langworthy) in the lineup. The Gators will start two sophomores (SS Brady McConnell and C Brandon Smith) and four freshmen (2B Jacob Young, 1B Kendrick Calilao, 3B Cory Acton and CF Jud Fabian). Young is hitting .429 while McConnell is hitting .388 with a 12-game hitting streak. Calilao leads the team with 19 RBI while Fabian is the team leader in home runs with 5. Seven freshmen pitchers have pitched 62 innings with a 3.48 ERA.
Unless the Gators and Seminoles meet in the postseason, this will be the final McKethan Stadium appearance for FSU coach Mike Martin, the NCAA’s all-time leader with 2,000 wins in 40 seasons.
SEC BASKETBALL STUFF
In their latest brackets released Monday, both Joe Lunardi of ESPN and Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com have the Florida Gators (17-14) on their first four out line. That leaves no doubt the Gators have to find a way to beat Arkansas (17-14) Thursday night in the second round of the SEC Tournament in Nashville. Even a win over Arkansas might not get the Gators into the NCAA Tournament, but if they fall to the Razorbacks, the best they will be able to hope for is an invitation to the NIT.
LSU interim coach Tony Benford expects a status update on suspended Javonte Smart and injured Naz Reid sometime today. Smart was implicated in the FBI wiretap that resulted in the indefinite suspension of HBC Will Wade. Reid missed Saturday’s SEC championship-clinching win over Vanderbilt. LSU (26-5) got a double bye and won’t play in the SEC Tournament until Friday … Kentucky (26-5) coach John Calipari said Monday evening that if injured power forward Reid Travis plays in the SEC Tournament it will be in small stretches. Travis is coming back from a sprained knee. Kentucky doesn’t play until Friday in the SEC Tournament … Auburn (22-9), which saw former assistant Chuck Person arrested last year as part of the college basketball corruption scandal, saw another assistant implicated in a corruption scandal Monday. From his days when he was an assistant at Penn, Ira Bowman has been implicated in a bribery scheme for accepting money to have a wealthy man’s son attend Penn to play basketball … Speaking about suspended LSU coach Will Wade, Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes said Monday, “I believe your innocent until you’re proven guilty, but if you’re proven guilty there is a price to pay and you have to pay it” … Writing about the Tennessee women’s basketball program, Knoxville News-Sentinel columnist said it’s time for UT to fire HBC Holly Warlick, whose seven years on the job have seen the Lady Vols dip to places never dreamed of when the legendary Pat Summitt was alive.
RANDOM THOUGHTS: Former Gator Trent Brown is going to sign a 4-year contract with the New England Patriots for $66 million with $36.75 million guaranteed. That will make him the highest paid offensive lineman in NFL history. He started five game as a junior at UF when Tim Davis was the O-line coach. As a senior in 2014, he started six games when Mike Summers was the O-line coach. I’m still trying to figure out how it is that four years later Trent Brown is one of the most dominating tackles in the NFL and yet neither of UF’s esteemed O-line coaches could figure out a way to start him a full season … Nick Foles is now the QB of the Jacksonville Jaguars. His 4-year free agent deal is worth $88 million with $50 million guaranteed. Once the contract is officially signed, expect the Jags to release Blake Bortles … The Tampa Bay Bucs need to find a new deep threat wide receiver now that they’ve dealt Desean Jackson to the Philadeelphia Eagles. Jackson is expected to get a 3-year deal worth $27 million with the Eagles, $13 million of which will be guaranteed … Former Gator Pete Alonso had a double for the New York Mets Monday, raising his spring training batting average to .406 … Former Gator Mike Zinino had a single Monday for the Tampa Bay Rays, raising his average to a respectable .280 … Former Florida and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer will be a studio analyst for Fox Sports college football in the fall, joining Brady Quinn, Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart on the set.