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5 things to watch at Florida as Gators begin spring football practice

Emory Jones and the quarterbacks remain a focal point at Florida as the Billy Napier era opens.
Florida Gators quarterback Emory Jones is part of an intriguing position battle in Gainesville.
Florida Gators quarterback Emory Jones is part of an intriguing position battle in Gainesville. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021) ]
Published Mar. 14

When the Gators begin spring practice Tuesday, we’ll get our first signs of what the Billy Napier era will look like at Florida. Here are five things we’ll be watching as UF prepares for its April 16 spring game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium:

Related: Breaking down the state of Florida’s full 2022 college football schedule

1. What’s the situation at quarterback?

Florida quarterback Emory Jones is still on the Gators' roster, despite reportedly considering the transfer portal.
Florida quarterback Emory Jones is still on the Gators' roster, despite reportedly considering the transfer portal. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021) ]

Emory Jones started 12 of UF’s 13 games last season and remains on the roster, despite reportedly considering the transfer portal. The redshirt senior led UF with 758 rushing yards last season, but his 13 interceptions were among the most in the country.

When healthy, Anthony Richardson is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the country. He is expected to be limited this spring as he recovers from a knee injury that sidelined him late last season. Napier added another potential contributor, former four-star Ohio State signee Jack Miller, through the transfer portal. Carlos Del Rio-Wilson and Jalen Kitna both redshirted last year and add to a crowded room.

Related: What we’ve learned about Billy Napier’s army of Florida Gators analysts

Though we won’t get an accurate view of the position until Richardson is fully cleared, the spring will provide a glimpse at who will challenge him this fall.

2. Which newcomers stand out?

Louisiana Lafayette running back Montrell Johnson followed Gators coach Billy Napier to Florida.
Louisiana Lafayette running back Montrell Johnson followed Gators coach Billy Napier to Florida. [ GERALD HERBERT | Associated Press (2021) ]

Napier says college football is a talent acquisition business, and this is our first chance to see the talent he has acquired. Freshman safety Kamari Wilson is the kind of elite recruit coach Dan Mullen struggled to sign from a school (Bradenton’s IMG Academy) where UF has underachieved. His progress is worth watching.

The three most intriguing transfers all played for Napier at Louisiana. O’Cyrus Torrence was an all-conference offensive lineman who should contribute immediately. So should running back Montrell Johnson, who rushed for 12 touchdowns last fall as the Sun Belt’s freshman of the year. Offensive tackle Kamryn Waites is massive (6-foot-8, 358 pounds) but only appeared in three games. Napier knows them well, so they’ll give us a good gauge of his evaluations.

Related: Florida’s Billy Napier isn’t the first Sun Belt coach to jump to a bigger job.

3. Are there any breakout skill players?

Florida wide receiver Xzavier Henderson has shown flashes of potential for the Gators.
Florida wide receiver Xzavier Henderson has shown flashes of potential for the Gators. [ PHELAN M. EBENHACK | Associated Press (2021) ]

UF’s top three running backs have either left (Dameon Pierce and Jesuit High alumnus Malik Davis) or are recovering from injury (Nay’Quan Wright). Three of the top five pass catchers are also gone, leaving a void of playmakers.

Receiver Justin Shorter is the most proven option but needs help. Xzavier Henderson, Trent Whittemore and Marcus Burke have shown flashes of promise but haven’t put together consistent performances. Perhaps this is the time running back transfers Lorenzo Lingard (Miami) or Demarkcus Bowman (Clemson) live up to their five-star hype.

4. Who is ready at linebacker?

Ty'Ron Hopper has transferred from Florida to Missouri, leaving a void at linebacker.
Ty'Ron Hopper has transferred from Florida to Missouri, leaving a void at linebacker. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times (2021) ]

UF lost two of its top tacklers to the transfer portal (Mohamoud Diabate to Utah, Ty’Ron Hopper to Missouri). Ventrell Miller, assuming he has recovered from an arm injury, will be one contributor. Calvary Christian alumnus Amari Burney should be in the mix, too, but UF will look for more production elsewhere.

Related: Billy Napier: Florida Gators showed ‘willingness to invest’ in his vision

Former top-100 recruit Derek Wingo should be ready for more playing time. Diwun Black is another name to know; the former junior college transfer appeared in 10 games last season and can start to earn a bigger role through his work this spring.

5. What’s the vibe around Napier’s Gators?

The Gators' spring practices will be our first looks at what Billy Napier is building at Florida.
The Gators' spring practices will be our first looks at what Billy Napier is building at Florida. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Mullen’s first two spring practices were open to the public, and his first spring game featured cameos from former UF stars Lawrence Wright and Travis McGriff. Those were tangible signs of the Gators’ goal of becoming fun again while acknowledging their championship pedigree.

Napier is, like most former Nick Saban assistants, more secretive, so don’t expect much transparency. But the next month will give us a peek into the culture he’s building.

Related: As Billy Napier’s Florida Gators start ‘identity’ phase, ‘winner’ is only acceptable answer

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