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Wednesday, April 17, 2024
Redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz and junior offensive lineman Richie Leonard IV celebrate a Florida touchdown in the Gators' 38-14 win against the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023.
Redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz and junior offensive lineman Richie Leonard IV celebrate a Florida touchdown in the Gators' 38-14 win against the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023.

UF head coach Billy Napier entered his second season in Gainesville in 2023. The Florida Gators opened the season with a loss on the road against the then-No. 14 Utah Utes. 

Despite the season-opening defeat, Florida is now 5-2 and 3-1 in the SEC. Napier secured his first win against an AP Top 25 SEC opponent when UF defeated the then-No. 11 Tennessee Volunteers 29-16 Sept. 16. 

Florida also came back after it trailed by 10 points on the road against the South Carolina Gamecocks Oct. 14. The Gators showed resilience on the road and won 41-39.

As the Gators turn their focus to their rivals, the Georgia Bulldogs, we take a look at how Florida has performed on offense, defense and special teams at the midpoint of the 2023 season. 

Offense

The Gators’ offense lost one of the most entertaining players in the country in the offseason after quarterback Anthony Richardson declared for the NFL draft. 

Florida added Wisconsin transfer quarterback Graham Mertz from the transfer portal to be the new man behind center for UF. The redshirt junior quarterback didn’t arrive in Gainesville with a lot of hype, and many outlets ranked him last in their preseason quarterback rankings. 

Mertz has proved his doubters wrong through seven games this season. His 76.2% completion percentage ranks first in the SEC and third in the nation. He’s thrown for 1,897 yards and tossed 12 touchdown passes and only two interceptions. 

“This is a young man that came here on a mission and had a plan and he's worked,” Napier said after UF’s win against South Carolina Oct. 14. “For him to operate in our system in the first year the way he does ... I couldn't be more impressed with the kid.”

Mertz’s success this season has come in part to UF’s pass-catching room, which has seen the emergence of several new faces and one veteran taking a major leap. 

Senior wide receiver Ricky Pearsall could have left for the NFL Draft but returned to Gainesville for his senior season. His decision has paid dividends at the midway point of the 2023 season. 

Pearsall has 44 receptions through seven games, which is four catches shy of tying his collegiate career high. He has 619 receiving yards — which ranks No. 5 in the SEC — and needs just 42 more yards to tie his career high. 

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The Arizona State transfer also has three receiving touchdowns and one rushing touchdown, including the game-winning touchdown catch against the Gamecocks Oct. 14. 

Freshmen have also been featured heavily in Florida’s offense. The emergence of wide receiver Eugene Wilson III and tight end Arlis Boardingham have helped the Gators become more versatile. 

Wilson has 26 receptions for 251 yards and one touchdown. Napier said it is integral to get the former four-star receiver involved in any way they can in the offense. 

“[Wilson] is unique,” Napier said Oct. 14. “He presents you opportunities to be creative and get him plays.”

Boardingham’s impact has become more significant in Florida’s past two games, but he has slowly carved himself a role as the main tight end. He has 18 receptions for 205 yards and four touchdown catches. 

He also converted a crucial 4th-and-long against the Gamecocks to help Florida’s comeback victory. 

The Gators’ running back duo junior Montrell Johnson Jr. and sophomore Trevor Etienne are once again vital to UF’s offense. Both backs have rushed for more than 400 yards each and have combined for seven scores on the ground. 

Etienne is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, while Johnson is averaging 5.2 yards. 

One of the Gators’ biggest woes offensively this season has been converting third downs. Last season, Florida converted 40% of its third downs, which ranked 47th in the country, according to TeamRankings. The Gators have taken a major step back this season and have converted just 29% of their third downs, which ranks 123rd in the nation. 

Defense

First-year defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong inherited the third-worst defense in the SEC in yards allowed per game. Napier turned to the energetic former Southern Mississippi coordinator to give the Gators a needed defensive spark.

Through seven games, things are improving rapidly for Florida’s defense. The Gators rank 18th nationally in yards allowed per game and 34th in points allowed per game. 

“Just overall there in Year 2 in the system, I think the fundamentals have improved,” Napier said in a Sept. 6 press conference. “They are able to eliminate some of that indecision therefore they’re anticipating, they’re processing quicker, they play faster.”

The overall performance is improving, but the individual games have been a mixed bag. UF looked dominant against Tennessee Sept. 16. The Gators held the Volunteers to just seven points in the first half and made crucial stops to see out a 29-16 win.

Through the first four games of the season, Florida allowed just 13.5 points per game. The Gators lost the season opener to Utah, but the defense held the Utes for less than 300 total yards.

The defense is struggling in the meat of the SEC schedule, however. Kentucky — led by star tailback Ray Davis — ran wild for 329 yards in a 33-14 game that wasn’t as close as the final score suggests.

“Good slice of humble pie,” Napier said after the game Sept. 30. “Three hundred-plus on the ground, that’s not who we are and not who we want to be and we’re going to get it fixed.”

South Carolina and its quarterback Spencer Rattler ripped Florida’s defense apart as well. The Gamecocks amassed 465 yards and scored 39 points. The Gators walked away with a win, but the defensive showing was a mixed bag.

Despite the gaudy numbers, the defense made plays when it needed to. Florida forced a punt late in the fourth quarter to give the ball back to Mertz and the offense for the go-ahead touchdown, and sophomore safety Miguel Mitchell intercepted Rattler to ice the game.

“We’ve got work to do to try and figure out some of the issues that we had tonight, but when we needed a stop we got a stop,” Napier said postgame Oct. 14.

Youth is the defining asset for Armstrong’s unit this year. Several freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores are leading the defensive turnaround.

Sophomore linebacker Shemar James has quickly become Florida’s defensive leader and first-half MVP. He leads the team with 50 total tackles, 18 more than second place Jordan Castell — himself an impressive freshman performer at safety.

“Our young guys, they're some ballers,” James said after UF’s 38-14 win over Vanderbilt Oct. 7. “They came in ready to work, and that's why they get to play on Saturday nights.”

While young players make up the bulk of the defensive core, a handful of key veterans are performing at a high level. Junior defensive tackle Cam’Ron Jackson anchors the front and is quickly becoming a potential NFL draft pick.

Junior edge rusher Princely Umanmielen came into the season with first-round potential, and he’s largely delivered. He leads Florida with six tackles for loss and three sacks. Under the hood, things are even better. 

Umanmielen is one of the national leaders in pass-rush win rate with 28.9%, per Pro Football Focus.

Special teams

Florida’s special teams have had a rocky first half of the season. The biggest struggle has been procedural issues. The Gators have committed several frustrating mental errors that gave free first downs to opponents.

Two players wore the No. 3 on a punt return against Utah. The penalty gave the Utes a first down and led to a touchdown. Freshman defensive back Dijon Johnson committed a leaping penalty on a Kentucky punt, and Davis scored a 75-yard touchdown for the Wildcats the next play.

Specialist play has become a bright spot for UF in recent weeks. Sophomore kicker Trey Smack replaced redshirt sophomore Adam Mihalek against Tennessee, and he’s made 11 of his 12 field goals, including a pair of 54-yard kicks.

Florida will return to the field to face the No. 1 Georgia in its annual rivalry clash in Jacksonville. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:30 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on CBS.

Contact Jackson Reyes and Topher Adams at jacksonreyes@alligator.org and topheradams@alligator.org. Follow them on Twitter @JacksnReyes and @Topher_Adams.


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Topher Adams

Topher Adams is a fourth-year communications major and in his fourth semester with the Alligator. He previously covered football, baseball and women's basketball. He also enjoys professional lacrosse and Major League Soccer.


Jackson Reyes

Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.


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