Ask the Expert: All you need to know about Florida
Here's everything you need to know about Kentucky's opponent on Saturday.
As part of our weekly Ask the Expert series we enlisted the help of Landon Watnick, a reporter who covers the Florida program for InsideTheGators.com, part of the Rivals.com/Yahoo! Sports network.
For great coverage of Kentucky's opponent on Saturday be sure to follow our guest expert on Twitter @LandonWatnick.
Cats Illustrated: What were your biggest takeaways, positive or negative, from Florida's 24-7 win against UMass?
Landon Watnick: Although the Gators couldn’t hang a ton of points on the scoreboard against a lowly team like UMass, offensively there were certainly some bright spots. Quarterback Luke Del Rio was effective in his first career start, running back Jordan Scarlett had the best performance of Florida’s running backs and now has a slight edge in the tailback competition, and Antonio Callaway and Brandon Powell each proved to be reliable playmakers at receiver. However, Florida couldn’t establish the deep passing game, due to a lack of a big target as a deep threat and the offensive line not giving Del Rio much time to drop back in the pocket. Still, having tight end C’yontai Lewis back in the fold from suspension should helped significantly in Florida’s hopes of stretching the field vertically.
As far as the offensive line, it was a pretty discouraging performance, considering that was one of the biggest weaknesses on the roster last season and many figured the only direction to head was up. The group couldn’t get much of a push up front Saturday night in the run game. Although Florida allowed just one sack, Del Rio was constantly pressured and flushed out of the pocket. He did a great job though of delivering the ball quickly and standing up against the rush in those situations. Other times, he was flushed out of the pocket and in some scenarios forced to dump it out of bounds.
On defense, Florida pieced together a solid performance. Penalties were an issue though, as three of them for 35 yards helped UMass to its lone scoring drive of the contest. However, a lot of that could perhaps be contributed to first-game jitters. As a starter, sophomore cornerback Chris Williamson was burned on two deep passes for a combined 77 yards, but he shouldn’t see as prominent of a role this weekend with star cornerback Jalen Tabor now returning from a one-game suspension.
Cats Illustrated: What's your evaluation up to this point of Gators quarterback Luke Del Rio?
Watnick: I know the phrase “game manager” has a negative connotation to it, but Del Rio is definitely reminiscent of Greg McElroy when he operated in McElwain’s offense back at Alabama. Del Rio’s greatest attribute is his ability to anticipate and read defenses before the snap. As the son of Oakland Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio, he’s grown up around the game and is extremely intelligent. While he’s not the most athletic signal-caller and his arm strength is average, he’s incredibly comfortable in Florida’s offense and it showed Saturday. Sure, the season-opener was his first college start, but after four seasons at the collegiate level at Alabama (2013), Oregon State (2014) and now Florida (2015-present), Del Rio can be considered in some aspects a veteran.
He was pretty solid against UMass, as I detailed here in this free in-depth analysis.
Cats Illustrated: What are the Florida offense's greatest strengths? Weaknesses?
Watnick: Running back figures to be a strength, although Florida soon needs to tighten up the rotation there. Scarlett, who rushed for 70 yards on 13 carries in the opener, looked like he has turned the corner since a disappointing freshman season. He’s a strong, athletic back who does a good job of gaining extra yards after contact. As far as the Gators’ other contributors in the backfield, Jordan Cronkrite adds an element in the passing game while 6-foot-2, 237-pound JUCO transfer Mark Thompson could end up helping out in short-yardage situations.
Florida’s top two tight ends in Goolsby and Lewis figure to be a dynamic pair for Del Rio and the Florida offense. Obviously, the average SEC fan witnessed what Callaway is capable of last season, but Powell looks like he’s on the right track in his return from a foot injury that sidelined him for the spring. Freshmen wideouts Joshua Hammond and Freddie Swain have also been reliable targets on short-to-intermediate throws.
As far as weaknesses, I’d point to the offensive line and just the overall youth of the offense. Florida has a lot of young but promising players serving in starting roles currently. That sort of inexperience could end up hurting the Gators down the road with some of the contributors this year.
Cats Illustrated: What are the Florida defense's greatest strengths? Weaknesses?
Watnick: The defense is pretty solid from top to bottom. Florida’s defensive line may be its greatest strength on the roster, despite losing Jonathan Bullard and Alex McCalister. A core of Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie, Bryan Cox, Jordan Sherit, CeCe Jefferson, Keivonnis Davis, Jabari Zuniga and Khairi Clark is up there with one of the best units in the conference. The Gators could end up going 8-10 deep there on most nights.
At linebacker, Florida has two dynamic talents in Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone, who made a triumphant return in the opener after missing the majority of 2015 with a shoulder injury. There are a number of young faces though after those two, as five of Florida’s eight scholarship linebackers are true or redshirt freshmen.
The starting lineup in the secondary remains strong despite losing Vernon Hargreaves and Keanu Neal to the NFL draft. Tabor and Quincy Wilson make for one of the best cornerback tandems in the conference, while Marcus Maye is a key cog at safety alongside Nick Washington. Duke Dawson has also displayed some nice things at the cornerback and nickel spots. The depth among the defensive backs though after the starting lineup still remains a question mark. Guys like Marcell Harris, Chauncey Gardner, Chris Williamson and Joseph Putu are going to need to step it up in order for the Gators to achieve elite status in the secondary this season.
Cats Illustrated: Give us a few more names on offense and defense we should look out for.
Watnick: I mentioned them briefly before, but Hammond and Swain have been pretty involved as freshmen in the wide receiver rotation. Hammond caught five balls for 38 yards in his Florida debut, proving to be a reliable short-yardage option who showed a knack for finding space against coverages. Swain, who scored on a two-point conversion against UMass, put his agility and athleticism on display. Both of those receivers should see a good number of snaps against the Wildcats.
On defense, look out for Zuniga. The redshirt freshman currently serves as a backup at defensive end but emerged in a big way against UMass, recording two sacks in his collegiate debut. Zuniga is a powerful, disruptive lineman off the edge who plays with an excellent motor. He should see a good amount of playing time this weekend.
Florida defensive line coach Chris Rumph delivered a golden quote about Zuniga on Wednesday.
“He's up to 250 pounds, but if you go back to the spring, he got all the way down to 230 pounds,” Rumph said. “I actually said 'Man, you're losing weight. You've got to get this weight on.' He said 'Coach, I want to take the fat off and I want to build my body up.' But if you've ever seen this guy with his shirt off, I have a rule: He cannot take his shirt off in front of my wife. I mean this guy is yoked up. My wife's around, his shirt is on."
Cats Illustrated: What's the latest injury report on the Gators?
Florida should have a bunch of guys returning to the mix against Kentucky who weren’t available against UMass. While starting receiver Dre Massey suffered a torn ACL on the opening kickoff return in the opener, wideout C.J. Worton (high ankle sprain) has been practicing this week and looks likely to contribute this weekend. He was been working with the 1’s in Wednesday’s practice along with receivers Antonio Callaway and Brandon Powell.
At this point, senior linebacker Daniel McMillian (high ankle sprain), who suffered his injury in the season-opener, looks more probable than questionable, considering he’s been a participant this week in practice. If he’s available, he’ll continue to serve as Florida’s first-string strongside linebacker when it rolls out a 4-3 defense. Dawson (shoulder) will be available Saturday and should serve in a starting role at nickelback.
On the suspension front, the Gators get two key pieces back in Tabor and Lewis, who miss the opener because of their notorious practice altercation. Freshmen wideouts Tyrie Cleveland and Rick Wells, who were suspended against UMass because of their summer arrests for property damage and criminal mischief involving an incident with BB guns on campus, are back in the fold. However, they aren’t likely to play big roles against Kentucky this weekend, as Florida should heavily utilize its top six wideouts in Callaway, Powell, Worton, Ahmad Fulwood, Hammond and Swain.
Cats Illustrated: If you were a Kentucky offensive or defensive coordinator, how would you attack/defend Florida, and what areas would you specifically try to avoid?
Watnick: Even though Del Rio did a good job of standing in the pocket against pressure and delivering some decent short-to-intermediate throws in the UMass contest, I wouldn’t be afraid to blitz often against the Gators’ offensive line. Pass protection was an area where Florida lagged last Saturday, as left guard Martez Ivey struggled with picking up blitzing linebackers while Fred Johnson was a liability at right tackle as a pass-blocker. I would draw up a number of blitz packages to exploit those guys’ weaknesses in pass protection.
It’s going to be hard to game plan against the Florida defense, which is pretty strong in all three phases. Running the ball successfully is going to be a tough task against the Gators' crop of defensive linemen and linebackers. If McMillian happens to see action Saturday he’s by far the weakest link along Florida’s front seven. I wouldn’t be afraid either to test Florida’s starting safeties in coverage, as both Maye and Washington are just OK in that regard.