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Gators’ spring practice is over. Here are 5 things we learned

Florida’s defense took strides this spring from its historically bad 2020 season.
The Gators are optimistic that their defense improved this spring from where it was after the blowout loss to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
The Gators are optimistic that their defense improved this spring from where it was after the blowout loss to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. [ RON JENKINS | Associated Press (2020) ]
Published Mar. 23
Updated Mar. 23

The Gators ended spring football Saturday with a closed scrimmage instead of a traditional exhibition game. Here are five takeaways from Florida’s spring:

1. Emory Jones looks like the starting quarterback

Dan Mullen said Emory Jones enters the offseason as the Gators' starting quarterback.
Dan Mullen said Emory Jones enters the offseason as the Gators' starting quarterback. [ JOHN RAOUX | Associated Press (2019) ]

It is not a surprise that Jones enters the offseason as UF’s first-string option. But it is a surprise that coach Dan Mullen admitted as much Saturday, even though he usually keeps his quarterback competitions open as long as possible.

Related: What will Gators’ 2021 offense look like under Emory Jones?

Blue-chip redshirt freshman Anthony Richardson will play, too, as Mullen wants to groom two potential starters. But after Jones waited behind Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask, this spring cemented the fact that his time has finally arrived.

2. The defense took a step forward

After a rough 2020 season, Florida's defense showed signs of improvement this spring.
After a rough 2020 season, Florida's defense showed signs of improvement this spring. [ JOHN RAOUX | Associated Press (2020) ]

Mullen said Saturday that the defense “won pretty much all the scrimmages that we had.” Considering that UF’s offense was historically great last season while its defense was historically bad, that assessment is noteworthy.

Related: Why the Gators think their historically bad defense will improve

Specifically, Mullen said new assistants Jules Montinar and Wesley McGriff have improved the communication in the secondary — one of last year’s recurring problems. The additions of grad transfer defensive linemen Daquan Newkirk (Auburn) and Antonio Shelton (Penn State) have helped, too. We’ll see whether a strong spring translates to on-field progress this fall.

3. Three Tampa Bay products will be crucial to the Gators’ success

Cambridge Christian product Richard Gouraige is expected to start at left tackle for the Gators this fall.
Cambridge Christian product Richard Gouraige is expected to start at left tackle for the Gators this fall. [ JOHN RAOUX | Associated Press (2019) ]

The Gators expect Zachary Carter (Hillsborough High) to continue to develop as a versatile player on the defensive line as well as a leader in the program. On the offensive line, Richard Gouraige (Cambridge Christian) and Ethan White (Calvary Christian) look like UF’s top options at left tackle and left guard.

Related: Can Zachary Carter be another Dante Fowler for Gators?

Mullen said after the SEC title game that Florida’s lines were two of the factors separating the Gators from College Football Playoff teams like Alabama. If UF can take that next step this season, the Tampa Bay trio will have to lead.

4. Don’t expect a lot of star power this season

The 2021 Gators probably won't have a superstar like Kyle Pitts. They'll have to win differently.
The 2021 Gators probably won't have a superstar like Kyle Pitts. They'll have to win differently. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2020) ]

Last year’s team featured a Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback (Trask), the best tight end in the country (Kyle Pitts) and one of the nation’s most versatile players (Kadarius Toney). Unless Clemson five-star transfer Demarkcus Bowman becomes an immediate superstar, this season’s Gators won’t have as many household names.

“We’re going to be a great team, because we’re going to have some depth on the team,” Mullen said.

An optimistic comparison is UF’s 2019 receiving corps. Those Gators didn’t have a true headliner but had eight different players catch between 21 and 54 balls on a top-20 passing attack. UF will look for similar spread-the-ball results with its throwing and run games this year.

5. Ja’Markis Weston is a breakout candidate

Ja'Markis Weston only has one career catch (in the Cotton Bowl) but might be headed for a breakout season.
Ja'Markis Weston only has one career catch (in the Cotton Bowl) but might be headed for a breakout season. [ MICHAEL AINSWORTH | Associated Press (2020) ]

The former three-star recruit has only one career catch (a 13-yarder in the Cotton Bowl) but will have the opportunity for much more this season. The 6-foot-3 redshirt sophomore is one of the fastest players on the team, and Mullen singled him out for the progress he made during the 15 practices.

“Ja’Markis Weston, I thought, took huge steps this spring,” Mullen said.

Related: Why Feleipe Franks says his ankle injury was ‘the biggest blessing in my life’

With UF losing its top three receiving targets to the NFL, the Gators will need new threats to emerge. Weston has a chance to be one of those options.