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4 takeaways from Florida Gators’ ugly spring football game

The most encouraging development wasn’t the quarterback competition (or anywhere else on the field).
 
Florida Gators quarterback Graham Mertz got off to a slow start in Thursday's spring game under Billy Napier.
Florida Gators quarterback Graham Mertz got off to a slow start in Thursday's spring game under Billy Napier. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published April 14, 2023|Updated April 14, 2023

GAINESVILLE — Billy Napier’s second spring with the Florida Gators ended with Thursday night’s spring game — a 10-7 Orange win over Blue in the lowest-scoring game in the event’s history.

Here are four takeaways from the exhibition, in front of an announced crowd of 42,000 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium:

The quarterback play was uninspiring

Florida Gators quarterback Jack Miller was 5 of 9 for 95 yards with the first-team offense in Thursday night's spring football game.
Florida Gators quarterback Jack Miller was 5 of 9 for 95 yards with the first-team offense in Thursday night's spring football game. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]

Neither Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz (18 of 29 for 244 yards) nor Las Vegas Bowl starter Jack Miller (10 of 20 for 144 yards) dazzled. They missed on 7 of their first 12 passes and were sacked — a loose term, given the contact limits — eight times, including three of their first six drop-backs.

Their combined numbers with the first-team offense against the first-team defense: 15 of 25 for 238 yards.

“Not as clean as you would like (Thursday),” Napier said, “but I think defensively probably had a lot to do with that.”

So did an offensive line that was without starting center Kingsley Eguakun, among other potential contributors. Mertz settled down as the game went on, throwing his lone touchdown pass to Kahleil Jackson in a two-minute drill. Miller also led a two-minute drill for the game-winning score (Trey Smack’s 46-yard field goal).

But fans looking for optimism about the unit’s growth without expected top-10 pick Anthony Richardson didn’t find much. The offenses combined to average 1.8 yards per play in the first quarter.

“Couldn’t get the ball rolling,” Mertz said.

Napier said he still expects to add a quarterback before the season; the transfer portal opens Saturday.

The defensive transfers shined

Some of the additions Florida added to fortify its defense made immediate splashes. Defensive lineman Caleb Banks (Louisville) sacked Mertz on the first snap and stuffed a run for no gain.

Linebacker Mannie Nunnery (Houston) had five tackles (two for a loss) and swatted away a third-down pass in the closing minutes. He’ll also be a key contributor on special teams — he was that phase’s national player of the year in 2021.

Defensive lineman Cam Jackson (Memphis) batted a pass, and linebacker Deuce Spurlock (Michigan) led the second-team defense with eight tackles.

“I think that’s probably the takeaway for me as I go home and sleep (Thursday), is a lot of new players making a significant impact,” Napier said.

They better, if UF is going to improve upon a defense that was one of the worst in program history.

The running backs remain Florida’s strength

Florida Gators running back Montrell Johnson rushed for 36 yards on seven carries in Thursday night's spring football game.
Florida Gators running back Montrell Johnson rushed for 36 yards on seven carries in Thursday night's spring football game. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
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Montrell Johnson had 87 yards on nine touches. Trevor Etienne averaged 5.7 yards per carry. Freshman Treyaun Webb rushed for 57 yards, and Tulane transfer Cam Carroll hurdled a defender on a 12-yard gain that was one of the biggest highlights.

Napier’s offense has relied on the run dating back to his time at Louisiana, and he is building these Gators similarly. The fact that four backs were notable contributors is a positive sign — especially if the passing game continues to look unspectacular.

The most positive signs weren’t on the field

Thursday’s biggest development came during the game when news broke that blue-chip safety Xavier Filsaime orally committed to the Gators. The Texas native — ranked No. 36 in the 247Sports composite — was among the more than 200 recruits who attended. He’s UF’s seventh pledge in the 2024 class; four rank in the top 50 nationally. The Gators moved past Florida State into No. 6 in the 247Sports composite rankings.

The new name, image and likeness entity, Florida Victorious, had a strong presence, two days after its launch. The group — which supplanted the Gator Collective as Florida’s main NIL organization — had advertisements displayed on the video boards and played commercials shortly after the gates opened and during the first timeout. Napier started his postgame news conference by thanking the group for sponsoring the game. That all seems like a sign of alignment in a space that will be pivotal to the program’s future.

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