After Further Review: Gators Season Opener, The Good, Bad, and Ugly

  
By all accounts, Jim McElwain’s debut as head coach of the Florida Gators was a rousing success with a 61-13 victory, the most points ever scored by a Florida team in the opener for a new coach. 

As is always the case there’s some good things and some bad things in every game. Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly from Saturday’s season opener.

The Good

The staff got a good look at a lot of players particularly young players who are the program’s future.

According to Chris Harry of Gatorzone, the Gators played 63 players on Saturday including 12 redshirt freshman and 9 true freshman.

And they weren’t just scrub minutes either. 

When Muschamp left he famously said to not let the incoming coach tell you that the cupboard is bare. 

He was right. 

Somewhat. 

He did leave behind a talented roster. However, most of the talent was young and inexperienced. 

So it’s important to get these young guys some solid game experience.

Mission accomplished.

Offensively, true freshman running backs Jordan Scarlett and Jordan Cronkite, receiver Antonio Callaway, and offensive lineman Tyler Jordan and Fred Johnson all played significant minutes. They played in the regular rotation (Callaway actually started) and all played very well.

While it was only lowly New Mexico State, a far cry from what these young guys will face during the SEC schedule, it’s important that they played meaningful minutes and received a taste of playing in front of a raucous crowd.

True freshman defensive end CeCe Jefferson showed a glimpse of why he was a five star recruit. 

From the start, Jefferson displayed power and quickness. He was quick off the ball and showed advanced technique for a true freshman. 

With some solid coaching this guy has the skills to be another in a long line of Gator defensive line first round picks.

Again, we can’t go overboard here with praise as the competition is nowhere near what he’ll see further on in the season, but considering he’s just a true freshman he showed enough to make fans excited for the future with this guy coming off the edge. 

Kelvin Taylor appears to have stepped up his game.

Saddled with high expectations coming in as a top talent and son of Gator great and NFL veteran Fred Taylor, Kelvin had yet to live up to those expectations prior to this season. 

He generally has played tentatively particularly on inside rushes, often trying to bounce outside rather than trust his skills and his blockers, his execution as a blocker has famously left a lot to be desired, and he’s been largely inconsistent as a receiver out of the backfield often displaying poor concentration.

In fall camp, however, there had been a lot of talk that he had bulked up, gained a step, and that the light had finally come on so to speak for him.

Against New Mexico State, he showcased this. He was the decisive, north-south one-cut back everyone expected hitting the hole hard and making plays.

In the passing game he graded well in blitz pickup and the fact that he was the third down back shows the staff trust his blocking skills and IQ as well as his hands in the passing game.

This is important moving forward as he is the feature back and the Gators’ best all around running back and will be a great influence on the two freshman backs.

Speaking of freshman backs, the two Jordan’s were everything they were advertised when they committed to Florida.

Jordan Scarlett has a good combination of size, speed, and agility. He’s a physical specimen who looks NFL ready coming in. 

He has the strength to run over people, a quick burst to blow through the hole, the ability to make quick, sharp cuts, and the speed to get past the first two levels of the defense with ease.

Jordan Cronkite, while not quite possessing either the size or speed of Scarlett, is a tough north-south runner who plays with physicality. 

He showcased this perfectly on his touchdown run when he met the linebacker at the line of scrimmage, lowered his shoulder and put a lick on the backer, and then continued to drive his legs until he crossed the goal line. 

Coach Mac wasn’t lying when he praised the tight end corps.

Mac and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have made a career out of getting the most out of the tight end position. 

At Florida, they’ve got three good ones in Jake McGee, C’yontai Lewis, and DeAndre Goolsby. All three played against the Aggies and they combined for 7 catches, 100 yards, and 2 td’s (by Lewis).

Considering the Gators got almost no production out of the position the last two seasons, these stats are huge. Since Mac took over he has repeatedly praised this unit and it’s apparent he wasn’t blowing smoke.

If they can continue to get this type of production, it will help with both the running game and the vertical passing game.

Defensive coordinators will have to game plan to get their best linebackers and safeties on the tight ends which will prevent them from loading the box against the run.

Also, defenses will face a conundrum deciding who to double. Can’t just protect the outside because the athletic tight ends will eat their lunch on seam routes.

Zone blitzing and blitzing in general will leave defenses vulnerable as we saw on the first of Lewis’ td’s when Grier hit him on a seam in the vacated area.

This may very well turn out to be the best offensive unit on the team and they’ll get plenty of opportunities to prove that this season.

While the two-quarterback rotation continues for another week, it was obvious to everyone but the most die-hard Treon Harris fans that Will Grier is the more polished, decisive passer and is most likely to win the job permanently.

Treon got the start on Saturday, presumably as a nod to him being the incumbent from last season but it was obvious he’s still not nearly as polished either in arm strength or in decision making as Grier.

Statistically Treon was dead even with Grier (14-19, 215, 2 td’s, 97.0 passer rating to Grier’s 15-17, 164, 2 td’s, 97.9 passer rating). However, most of what he accomplished was outside of the pocket on scrambles or bootlegs. 

In the pocket he was slow to read his progressions, indecisive, and often late on his throws. While he throws well on the run, against better defenses he’ll likely struggle. 

Grier, on the other hand, appeared very polished, quick on his reads, and on-time, in-rhythm on his throws. His passes were crisper than Treon’s and he appeared to have a better command of the offense when the ball was snapped.

It’s not to say that Treon won’t have a role after this weekend’s game against East Carolina, but expect Grier to be named the permanent starter barring a total collapse against the Pirates.

Finally, middle linebacker Alex Anzalone looks like the five star talent he was expected to be coming out of high school. 

Prior to this season he was just another backup linebacker. However with starting MLB and defensive captain Antonio Morrison out with a horrible knee injury, Anzalone knew he would be counted upon to step and up become the defensive leader.

The word out of camp was that he did just that and it showed on Saturday. He was a vocal leader and put the athleticism and agility that made him a highly sought after recruit on display Saturday night. 

He flew sideline to sideline and showed a knack for getting to the ball carrier as well as strength in fighting through blocks.

Coming out of last season, the linebacker spot appeared to be the weak link of the defense with Morrison thought to be out into this season and the unit suffering from a lack of depth and experience. 

Anzalone’s play was a bright spot Saturday night and along with Morrison’s surprising return and improved play from others shows the Gators could be fine in the middle of the defense.

The Bad

The Gators first half defense was inexplicably porous giving up 201 yards (119 passing, 82 rushing). 

Perhaps you can chalk it up to first game anxiousness, but with the defense being the strength of the team and considered to be one of the best in the nation, it was inexplicable and maddening to fans watching the Aggies move the ball pretty successfully in the first half.

Typically for a season opener with a young defensive line there are issues in gap containment and setting the edge as young guys try too hard to make plays. It leaves them vulnerable to play fakes, read options, and quick pitches. 

That was the case early for the gators before settling down and making halftime adjustments. 

It wasn’t simply line mistakes either as the backfield had numerous breakdowns early likely due to players playing out of position due to suspensions and injuries.

It was certainly encouraging, however, that they made proper adjustments and pretty much shut them down in the second half giving up -11 rushing yards and only 5 yards passing.

They’ll certainly have to come out of the locker room more disciplined moving forward or they could find themselves in a deep hole early against the better teams on the schedule.

The Ugly 

The offensive line had a somewhat shaky inconsistent start to the season.

Coming in it was obvious that the inexperienced offensive line could likely be the Gators Achilles heel this season. Having only one player (Trip Thurman) who had even started a game for the Gators the staff knew it would be a work in progress this season seeking the right combination to be effective.

It was obvious in the opener that they’re still looking.

Poor shotgun snaps, missed blitz pickups, free rushers created problems for the offense. Gator quarterbacks were forced to leave the pocket on numerous occasions and were hurried often unable to go through their progressions. 

They were lucky to be able to get the ball to their check downs on most occasions giving up only the one sack-fumble by Will Grier.

The good news, however, was that Harris was able to use his athleticism to scramble outside of the pocket and make plays while Grier was quick with his decisions and quick with his throws.

They’ll certainly need to work to shore up these snap and protection problems before hitting the SEC schedule with defensive line rotations which are unforgiving and backfields which will take advantage of hurried throws.

Overall, however, it was a good debut for coach Mac and a good performance for a lot of first year players. There was more good than bad and far more good than ugly.

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