After a spring full of closed practices, Saturday’s Orange and Blue Debut was slated to be the Gators’ first chance to show how far they progressed under coach Will Muschamp.
While Muschamp and his players emphasized that they viewed the spring game as simply another practice, an announced crowd of 53,000 filed into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium hoping to watch John Brantley’s emergence as a prototypical pocket passer, to see what a pro-style Gators offense looked like and to witness the dawn of a new era of Florida football.
But, due largely to injuries, fans observed a game that did little to showcase what the 2011 Gators will eventually resemble.
Both defenses had their way against decimated offensive lines and backfields in an intrasquad scrimmage that featured only two touchdowns, as the Blue team beat the Orange team 13-10.
“We’ve had a lot of moving parts up front, which is good for our football team in that we’re building depth and we’ve had to cross-train guys at different positions, and I think that will help us in the long run,” Muschamp said. “But in the short run, it’s been a little frustrating.”
The offensive line was so banged up coming into the game that last week Muschamp joked he would have to play left tackle, and the lack of depth was apparent under the Saturday afternoon sun, as both defensive lines had little trouble getting to the quarterback.
Brantley stated earlier this spring that he feels comfortable in offensive coordinator Charlie Weis’ system, but the defense’s pressure was too much for him to overcome Saturday. The senior played one half and threw for 45 yards and no touchdowns on 4-of-14 passing.
“He’s got to have better people around him, and that starts with our offensive line,” Muschamp said. “There’s been some spotty work with that up front because of injuries, because we were thin to begin with.”
The starting defensive line — particularly the sophomore trio of Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley and Ronald Powell — made life especially difficult for Brantley.
The group effortlessly broke the line of scrimmage, forcing Brantley to rush throws. The trio easily batted down several passes.
While Saturday’s performance will cause many to question Brantley’s role as the front-runner for the starting job in the fall, Floyd was quick to come to a different conclusion.
“I wouldn’t call John Brantley’s play today a struggle. I would call it, ‘Not enough room,’” Floyd said. “Me and Dominique Easley collapsed the pocket, and that’s one of our main goals. We forced offensive linemen into his face. … That’s just how our D-line plays.”
The ground game was equally stagnant, as Chris Rainey was the only scholarship running back available, resulting in 5-foot-9, 172-pound Malcolm Jones, a walk-on listed as a defensive back, to carry the ball 15 times on the day.
After both offenses sputtered through a scoreless first quarter, kicker Caleb Sturgis hit three field goals of 21, 43 and 33 yards to put the Blue team ahead 6-3.
The game’s only touchdowns came in the fourth quarter — one a 10-yard connection between backup quarterback Tyler Murphy and walk-on running back Ben Sams for the Orange team, the other a 39-yard pass from walk-on Christian Provancha to receiver Robert Clark for the Blue team.
While injuries certainly limited the Gators offensively, Clark said the coaches were also responsible for UF’s lack of offensive panache, using what he estimated to be 30 percent of their new playbook — “basic stuff,” he said.
Even with all the injuries and disappointing performances Saturday, there were a few bright spots in a mostly grim offensive showing.
Murphy threw for 68 yards and a touchdown on 7-of-11 passing, and freshman Jeff Driskel picked up 29 yards through the air and 23 more on the ground.
Rainey ran for 26 yards on five carries and made strong safety Matt Elam miss badly on an open-field tackle, and a few receiving options emerged as Quinton Dunbar, Stephen Alli and tight end A.C. Leonard showed promise.
“We’re not as old as we’d like to be, but that’s what we’ve got. We’re not as deep at some positions as we’d like to be, but that’s what we’ve got,” Muschamp said. “We’re not going to make excuses for anything, whether it’s injuries or youth. It’s our job to perform at a championship level, and that’s what we plan to do.”