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Opponent Q&A: Florida

Getting some insight on the Gators.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

It’s early in this young SEC football season, but the No. 3 Florida Gators will be one of the toughest tests the South Carolina Gamecocks will see in their 10-game schedule. Ahead of USC’s trip to The Swamp, We sat down with Andy Hutchins over at Alligator Army to get a sense of where the Gators are now and where they might be going.

Kyle Trask looks absolutely ascendent after his SEC record-tying performance against Ole Miss. Can you offer any insight on Dan Mullen’s continued tinkering with Emory Jones? Do you think there will be packages for him as the season progresses, or will the offense belong solely to Trask?

While it’s obvious that Trask is Florida’s QB1, the equally obvious thing about Jones is that he’s a more athletic quarterback than Trask, blessed with both quicks and surprising top-end speed when he gets into the open field. And he’s also still seen as the heir apparent to Trask — like he was the heir apparent to Feleipe Franks at the outset of the last two seasons, when Mullen was working in series for Jones despite having a QB who could move slightly better than Trask does — who needs significant seasoning.

But this isn’t new for Florida fans: Mullen was the guy who had a senior season of Chris Leak, still some Florida fans’ pick for best pure passer (and certainly prettiest spiral) in program history, and made sure to use Tim Tebow enough as a change of pace that its led some irrational fans to view a two-quarterback system as an ongoing competition and even boo Leak during one of his lesser performances in 2006. (Race, it should be noted, also absolutely played a part in that.) The only time Mullen hasn’t really gone with a two-QB system is when his QB1 is both a talented enough passer and runner that the upside is in using his lesser skill as a change-up, something that he has done to great effect with Alex Smith, Tebow, and Dak Prescott.

And Florida fans trust Mullen right now more than they have trusted any coach since Urban Meyer — and might trust him more with QBs, specifically, than they did Meyer, given that Mullen was responsible for either coaching (2005-08) or developing (2009) all the years of good QB play under Meyer.

This is all a long-winded way of stating something true: Florida’s going to keep using Emory Jones as a change of pace from Kyle Trask for as long as it has both to deploy. Gators fans may carp about the timing or the results of the off-speed stuff, but they get and generally accept the process.

Speaking of Kyles, wow, Kyle Pitts. On an offense full of weapons, would you say he’s the one opposing teams should worry about most, or was Ole Miss a favorable matchup for him? (Kadarius Toney also gives me nightmares, so I’m just trying to prepare myself here.)

Yeah, it’s definitely Pitts. He’s a better big wide receiver right now than Justin Shorter, who was a top-10 prospect nationally, and a better fast tight end than anyone Florida has ever been able to throw onto the field. Ole Miss was a favorable matchup for him, too, but it’s hard to imagine a team outside of the NFL that isn’t one, unless LSU somehow has a clone of Deion Jones or Devin White I don’t know about: To cover Pitts one-on-one, you’d need a defender tall enough to mitigate his height advantage at 6’6”, fast enough to run with him (he’s probably faster now than the 4.7 40 he ran at a camp in high school), and strong enough to either rock him at the catch point or get him to the ground afterward.

The individual defenders I imagine when thinking about skills like that are the sort of mutants — Jamal Adams, Derwin James, Isaiah Simmons — who play both linebacker and safety as one role, and those players just aren’t common at the collegiate level. South Carolina’s best hope might be Israel Mukuamu, but even that’s probably a one-on-one that I’d favor Pitts in considerably.

As for Toney: He’s merely a transcendent playmaker on the hoof who seems to have added significantly to his repertoire as a wide receiver and had his best day in terms of production against Ole Miss. And I’d still say he’s actually Florida’s third-best offensive option behind Pitts and Trevon Grimes.

Switching to the other side of the ball, what’s the concern level in Gainesville after UF’s defense yielded 613 yards of total offense and 9-of-14 third down efficiency to the Rebels?

I think there were alarm bells ringing on Saturday that have quieted a bit in the days since. Looking at the tape finds Florida’s safety play as the culprit for most of Ole Miss’s deep-ball success, as you’d expect, and Florida was down arguably its two best safeties (with Brad Stewart out and Shawn Davis ejected) for all and the majority of the game, respectively; even though Donovan Stiner is a senior, his coverage lapses were and are those of a player who simply doesn’t grasp the position as well as he should.

But Florida should have Davis back against South Carolina, and could rotate Stewart in if he’s good to go, something we’re unfortunately in the dark about. And the fear factor for fans regarding a Will Muschamp-overseen, Mike Bobo-coordinated offense is, uh, not the same as one that’s the product of evil genius Lane Kiffin’s full offseason of plotting.

Is this misplaced confidence? Quite possibly. But Florida fans aren’t ones to worry too much about a defense on fire if the offense is blazing a trail to the stars in its own right.

Weaknesses are hard to find on a third-ranked team, but is there any unit or area you can think South Carolina could exploit or find some success against?

Psst: It’s still probably the safeties. If I had to line up against Florida’s defense, I’d find either Stiner or freshman Rashad Torrence and throw it to their coverage responsibilities every time. And if that fails, well, C.J. McWilliams and Trey Dean aren’t exactly proven stoppers, and they’ll see the field, too. Ole Miss deserves a lot of credit for putting Gators who are prone to make mistakes in position to do so, and I imagine every other team the Gators see will try to follow that principle on defense.

Good luck with stopping the offense, though. Getting pressure on Trask and shutting down the running game would seem like the sound principles to me, even if they might be in the wrong order, but Trask looked very good against the blitz last week and Florida got plenty out of its running game despite a slow start. I at least know that I might have some success with attacking the defense; even my best plans might get wiped off the whiteboard after a few drives against the offense.

Finally, care to make a prediction?

I think Florida is set to score in the 40s at a minimum unless it runs up against a truly excellent defense, and what I saw from South Carolina’s opener suggested competence rather than excellence. And I can’t see South Carolina approximating what Ole Miss did offensively, but I’ll grant that the Gamecocks could approach it. After two years of relatively close contests, though, I think the Gators want to definitively win one in this series, so give me Florida by a 45-24 count.