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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

End of Season Mailbag: Answering questions about the Gators football team

Sports editor Jackson Reyes gives his thoughts on questions about UF entering the offseason

Redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz drops back to throw the ball in the Gators' 38-14 win against the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023.
Redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz drops back to throw the ball in the Gators' 38-14 win against the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023.

The Gators football team wrapped up its 2023 season with a 5-7 record and a 3-5 record in SEC play. 

UF head coach Billy Napier is now 11-14 in his tenure after two seasons in Gainesville. As many questions loom around the Florida program, it’s time to open up the mailbag from the fans to answer some of the biggest questions heading into the offseason. 

Connor O. — Who should the Gators be looking at for an OC? 

Florida’s offense is currently run by Napier. It’s his system and he calls the plays. Current offensive coordinator Rob Sale worked with Napier at Louisiana and mostly handles the offensive line.

Were the Gators to make a change to the offensive staff, however, there are several names that could rejuvenate Florida’s offense.

With San Diego State targeting Colorado offensive coordinator Sean Lewis to be the team’s next head coach, the next name to watch is Liberty co-offensive coordinator Willy Korn. 

Korn, who has also serves the Flames quarterbacks coach, would make a lot of sense for the Gators if Napier does, in fact, make a change in offensive coordinator. 

Korn has served as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for four seasons at both Liberty and Coastal Carolina under head coach Jamey Chadwell. 

The Flames’ offense ranked highly in almost every offensive category in 2023. Liberty averaged 40.1 points per game, which ranked sixth in the nation. The team also ranked fifth in yards per game, averaging nearly 500 yards of total offense per game. 

These were two categories Florida ranked middle of the pack in both the SEC and the nation.

Another area Liberty found major success, while Florida struggled, was the third-down conversion rate. The Flames converted half of their third downs, good for fifth best in the country. 

Meanwhile, the Gators converted just 37% of their attempts, which put them at 86th in the nation.

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In red zone conversion rate, UF ranked much higher than Liberty, but the Flames still managed to come away with touchdowns more often than Florida. 

Florida scored points on 91.7% of its red-zone trips but only had a touchdown rate of 66.7%. Liberty’s scoring percentage sat at 85.5%, but its touchdown rate sat at 74.6% — good for 11th in the NCAA.

In yards per play, Korn’s offenses at Coast Carolina and Liberty have ranked in the top 15 three times since 2019 and in the top five twice. 

Korn has helped run Chadwell’s spread-option offense that could be a perfect fit for incoming five-star quarterback DJ Lagway, who has consistently flashed his ability to run the ball as well as uncork it. 

One concern could be if his offense could translate to a Power Five conference like the SEC, but the numbers show he could be a gamble worth making.

Joseph H. — With Mertz’s injury and Lagway soon to be on campus, what should be the expectation at quarterback next season, and how can the situation change throughout the offseason?

If redshirt junior quarterback Graham Mertz does decide to return to Florida for another season, then he would be the heavy favorite to be the starting quarterback for 2024. 

Mertz’s 2023 campaign was cut short due to a collarbone injury suffered against Missouri Nov. 18. Before that, however, the Wisconsin transfer quarterback was having a career year.

Mertz threw for 2,903 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, which were both collegiate career highs. He also was highly efficient at UF. He tossed just three interceptions and had a completion percentage of 72.9%, which ranked fifth nationally. 

The former high four-star recruit proved he could command the offense going forward. 

Lagway will bring a lot of buzz to the fanbase, and rightfully so, as the five-star signal caller ranks as the 17th-best player in the class of 2024, according to the 247Sports composite.

But it is rare for freshmen to get the start immediately, and it would seem likely Napier would lean on the experience of Mertz for next season, while Lagway develops behind the scenes.

Two similar situations that could be a likely scenario are what happened in Tennessee and Texas this past season. 

The Volunteers stuck with Joe Milton as their starting quarterback, while Nico Iamaleava, the former No. 2 player in the nation, only saw limited action in his first season. 

The Longhorns rode with Quinn Ewers as their starter. Even when Ewers suffered an injury, Maalik Murphy stepped up in his absence, while Arch Manning, the No. 1 player in the 2023 class, didn’t make his debut until Texas’ regular-season finale against Texas Tech Nov. 24.

The only thing that could really affect Mertz’s chance of starting is how he recovers from his collarbone injury, but it shouldn’t have too much effect by the time the 2024 season rolls around. 

Ryan H. — Which freshman (other than Wilson) did you see the most promise in?

I’ll highlight four freshmen who stood out to me in the 2023 season besides standout wide receiver Eugene Wilson.

On offense, redshirt freshman tight end Arlis Boardingham had a big middle of the season but was relatively quiet to end the season. However, he showed flashes while splitting time with fellow redshirt freshman tight end Hayden Hansen. 

Boardingham finished with 26 catches for 289 yards and four touchdown catches. He was tied for second in receiving touchdowns, third in receiving yards and fourth in receptions on the team. 

On the defensive end, there are three players that stood out in particular. 

Freshman safety Jordan Castell started in 11 of Florida’s 12 games in 2023. He led the team in tackles with 60 and recorded one of the Gators’ three interceptions. The freshman safety also had three pass breakups. 

Edge rushers Kelby Collins and T.J. Searcy also made impacts in spurts on the defensive front for Florida. 

The Gators' front failed to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2023. Their 22 team sacks ranked T-94th in the nation. However, Collins and Searcy showed flashes in the playing time they got, with a combined two sacks and six quarterback hits. 

The pair also each had one forced fumble, which was a rarity for a UF defense that ranked 129th in the NCAA in takeaways. 

SMP SEC Podcast — Florida is suddenly behind Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri in the SEC pecking order. How did it get to this point, and what hope is there for the future?

While some may point to UF’s drop-off in recruiting under former head coach Dan Mullen as the reason other SEC teams have surpassed Florida in the pecking order, it boils down to coaching and development. 

Recruiting does play a factor in this, but the Gators still boast a higher 247Sports Team Talent Composite than all but two of their 2023 opponents — Louisiana State and Georgia. This was also the case in 2022 when UF ranked 14th nationally in the talent composite. 

While the talent composite doesn’t account for everything, like the strength of the schedule and how players develop, it is still a good indicator of overall success — top contenders Georgia, Alabama and Oregon all rank near the top. 

The biggest difference between teams like Florida and teams like Kentucky and Missouri is that the latter have been able to establish identities. 

Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops turned the Wildcats into a solid SEC program. 

They have an identity of physical play, and in years where they’ve had top players like quarterback Will Levis or running back Benny Snell Jr., the Wildcats have managed to have two 10-win seasons.

Meanwhile, Florida doesn’t appear to have a clear identity under Napier. The team appeared to lack attention to detail and committed several penalties in critical moments throughout the 2023 season.

Of the top 20 teams in the talent composite for 2023, 18 are bowl-eligible. The only two who missed the mark are Florida and TCU, who both finished 5-7. 

To get out of the middle of the pack, UF needs to start doing more with its talent. Tennessee, Mizzou and Kentucky all have shown an ability to maximize the talent they have while also doing more with less. 

At this rate, these programs could soon surpass the Gators in recruiting as well, and if Florida begins to slip in the talent composite rankings, then the future of the program could become murky. 

Contact Jackson Reyes at jacksonreyes@alligator.org. Follow him on Twitter @JacksnReyes.


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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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