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Five non-pandemic questions as UF, FSU, USF and Miami prepare for next football practice phase

Who is the starter at USF? How will James Blackman progress under Mike Norvell? And can the Gators finally catch Georgia?
Kadarius Toney might need to step up even more this year for the Florida Gators.
Kadarius Toney might need to step up even more this year for the Florida Gators. [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jul. 23, 2020

Although we still don’t know what the college football season will look like or if it will even exist, teams continue to prepare for their traditional openers on Labor Day Weekend.

The next step happens Friday, when teams can add modified walk-throughs in the next phase of practice, which includes 20 hours of coach-player interaction per week (USF begins this phase Monday).

For now, let’s ignore the biggest question of all — will there be a season this fall? — and look at some of the other football-specific questions swirling around the state.

Related: Fate of college football won’t only be decided in conference offices

1. Who will play quarterback for USF?

Incumbent USF quarterback Jordan McCloud remains one of the top contenders to take the first snaps of the Jeff Scott era.
Incumbent USF quarterback Jordan McCloud remains one of the top contenders to take the first snaps of the Jeff Scott era. [ Times ]

Before the COVID-19 crisis, new Bulls coach Jeff Scott presumed he’d have 15 spring workouts to divvy up reps among his quarterback candidates and assess them in live scrimmages.

Now, he has to condense his quarterback derby into one tenuous month — or less.

Conventional thinking is, at some point in early August, Scott has to settle on one guy who can then get the requisite first-team reps before the Bulls venture to Texas (Sept. 5). Incumbent Jordan McCloud, North Carolina transfer Cade Fortin and Alcorn State grad transfer Noah Johnson are the top three candidates.

2. Can Miami’s new offense make the ‘Canes contenders in the Coastal?

D'Eriq King dazzled at Houston. Can he do the same at Miami?
D'Eriq King dazzled at Houston. Can he do the same at Miami? [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Few teams were hit as hard by the spring shutdown as the Hurricanes. Not only do they have a new spread offense thanks to first-year coordinator Rhett Lashlee, but they’re breaking in a new, dynamic quarterback — Houston grad transfer D’Eriq King.

Related: Miami Hurricanes add D’Eriq King, Quincy Roche to remain portal kings. Will it work this time?

If King and Lashlee mesh well and the offensive line improves — a lot of ifs — the ‘Canes could challenge North Carolina and Virginia Tech in the ACC’s Coastal Division. If not? Things could get ugly early, starting with a Sept. 5 opener against the Temple team coach Manny Diaz ditched after two and a half weeks.

3. Which receivers emerge at Florida?

Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes will likely be two of Kyle Trask's top targets this year.
Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes will likely be two of Kyle Trask's top targets this year. [ Times ]

The Gators led the nation with three receivers drafted this spring and saw a fourth, Josh Hammond, sign with the Jaguars as a free agent. Add in running back Lamical Perine (drafted by the Jets), and five of Kyle Trask’s top eight pass catchers are gone.

The Gators do have some returning talent, including Trevon Grimes, standout tight end Kyle Pitts, do-it-all athlete Kadarius Toney and Jacob Copeland, UF’s top signee from Dan Mullen’s first recruiting class.

Trask deserves credit for his breakout 2019 season, but some of the praise also belongs to one of the best receiving corps in the nation. To continue progressing in 2020, Trask will need help from unproven teammates, like fifth-year senior Rick Wells and four-star freshman Xzavier Henderson.

4. How does James Blackman progress at Florida State?

James Blackman's wild ride at FSU continues with a new coaching staff, again.
James Blackman's wild ride at FSU continues with a new coaching staff, again. [ Tampa Bay Times ]

Blackman has had a wild ride at quarterback for the Seminoles. He was thrust into the starting job as a true freshman after Deondre Francois’ injury before being replaced by Francois in 2018. He began last year as the starter, was benched for Alex Hornibrook in the middle and ended the season with four interceptions in a Sun Bowl loss to Arizona State.

The abbreviated spring probably gives the experienced Blackman the edge in FSU’s quarterback competition, but it also cut short his developmental time as he tries to learn from his sixth different play caller. How well Blackman adapts to another new system will be a major factor in how well coach Mike Norvell fares in his first season.

Related: How FSU could still open against West Virginia in Atlanta

5. Can Mullen’s Gators top Georgia?

After two unimpressive showings against Georgia, it's time for Dan Mullen's Gators to start challenging Kirby Smart's Bulldogs.
After two unimpressive showings against Georgia, it's time for Dan Mullen's Gators to start challenging Kirby Smart's Bulldogs. [ Times ]

The SEC East figures to be a two-team race (again) between Florida and Georgia. Because the Bulldogs’ schedule includes Alabama and Auburn, UF could win the division even with a loss in Jacksonville. But after two unimpressive showings in the rivalry, it’s time to expect Mullen’s Gators to seriously challenge Kirby Smart’s club.

Related: Laura Rutledge: Florida Gators ‘closest that they’ve been’ to beating Georgia

Besides, the Gators believe they have legitimate College Football Playoff potential. They can prove it by gearing up to beat Georgia.