The alligatorSports roundtable returns for Week 2, and this time we’ll discuss what we think will be the biggest key to a Florida win on Saturday against Kentucky. Sports writers Ethan Bauer, Ian Cohen, Jordan McPherson and Patrick Pinak will debate, with arguments going in alphabetical order by last name.
For much of the preseason, Florida coach Jim McElwain raved about junior wideout Dre Massey.
He said the junior college transfer would play the slot, return kicks and even installed a specialized wildcat-esque package just for him, where Massey would line up as the quarterback.
But on the first play of the 2016 season, Massey’s season ended.
And entering SEC play this Saturday against Kentucky, the Gators are tasked with replacing him.
The most likely man for the job would have been Brandon Powell, a player with a similar skillset to Massey’s who’s played the slot before. But because of Florida’s talent desert at the receiver position, the junior is starting on the outside.
That didn’t stop the team from listing him as a starter twice on this week’s depth chart, though, backed up in the slot by freshman Freddie Swain and on the outside by senior Ahmad Fulwood.
Whoever locks down that third spot could either jumpstart or stall UF’s offense.
While Powell and his counterpart Antonio Callaway both looked solid last week against UMass, hauling in a touchdown apiece, two viable options won’t be enough to keep up with Kentucky’s aerial assault.
UK quarterback Drew Barker threw for 323 yards and four touchdowns despite falling to Southern Miss in week one. And while Jalen Tabor and Florida’s experienced defensive backfield should be able to slow him down more than Southern Miss’ could, Florida will still need more points, more explosive plays and another playmaker.
COHEN: Offensive line
Luke Del Rio wouldn’t criticize his faulty offensive line after Saturday’s win, but coach Jim McElwain did.
And so will I.
The offensive line needs to be much better against Kentucky for the Gators to have a chance at winning, and I’m not just talking about in the passing game.
Yes, Del Rio was frequently forced to roll outside the pocket and make a quick decision on whether to throw it deep, turn to his check-down or toss the ball out of bounds to live another day.
But the line affected the running game, too.
There weren’t many holes created for Florida’s running backs, who were often met behind the line of scrimmage before they got a chance to reach open space. The longest run from the running back group was 11 yards. In many ways, that’s a direct criticism of the five players up front who couldn’t seem to move the line of scrimmage.
And this week, it won’t get easier. Florida’s line will face 6-foot-7, 360-pound Matt Elam, the Wildcats’ junior nose tackle.
McElwain said the offensive line’s energy has to improve.
“I’ll tell you what bothers me, is the way they just mope around and walk around out there instead of hustling to the line of scrimmage and getting ready to go,” he said.
If the offensive line doesn’t hold up, Florida can say hello to a 1-1 record.
MCPHERSON: The second half
As an old cliche goes: It’s not how you start. It’s how you finish.
That will be the case on Saturday, with the second half serving as the deciding factor in Kentucky and Florida’s SEC opener.
And these teams were polar opposites in that regard during their opening weekend matchups against subpar opponents.
As bad as Florida was for most of its season opener against UMass, the Gators offense stepped up in the second half, scoring 14 points in the final 30 minutes.
The defense stopped the Minutemen cold in their tracks, allowing them to get past midfield just once and limiting them to one third-down conversion.
Kentucky, on the other hand, fell flat, allowing Southern Miss to score 27 unanswered points in the second half (and 34 unanswered points overall) en route to a 44-35 upset in favor of the Golden Eagles.
To take that even further, the Wildcats turned the ball over three times in their five second-half drives and managed to run just 14 second-half plays.
“I mean that was the quickest reel to ever watch in the history of ball, I think,” McElwain said. “When you’re going through that, it’s like ‘Wait a minute. Where’s the rest of it?’”
If the Gators can hold down the fort in the second half like Southern Miss did against Kentucky, UF should have no problem squeezing out a second win.
PINAK: Jalen Tabor
You thought we were going to leave Jalen Tabor out of this?
Tabor, who was suspended for Florida’s season opener after reportedly fighting in practice with teammate C’yontai Lewis, is expected to play against Kentucky.
If UK quarterback Drew Barker intends on throwing toward Tabor Island, the Gators will have success on defense because Tabor can and will make plays.
Last year, the 6-foot, 201-pounder returned two interceptions for touchdowns — the first Gator to do so since Brandon Spikes in 2009.
But here’s the thing: Even if Barker avoids Tabor, UF’s secondary will still eat.
The corner opposite of Tabor, Quincy Wilson, is no slouch and he’ll be hungry after not getting any balls thrown his way against UMass.
And Duke Dawson, who avoided a shoulder injury and practiced fully this week, will fill in as the nickel corner and should help turn The Swamp into DBU once again.
But Tabor’s presence is also felt beyond the defensive backs.
Linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone, who played well in the opener, will have a little more leeway with Tabor on the field.
“I think a lot of guys are going to be able to really let their guard down and go play now,” Davis said. “We’re locked tight back there.”
It’s safe to say Tabor’s return will be a major key come Saturday.