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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Veterans lead rookie Gators in football scrimmage

Florida cleans up defense two weeks away from Orange and Blue scrimmage

Freshman quarterback DJ Lagway looks to throw long at the Gators’ spring practice on Saturday, March 23, 2024.
Freshman quarterback DJ Lagway looks to throw long at the Gators’ spring practice on Saturday, March 23, 2024.

With less than two weeks until Florida football’s annual Orange and Blue game, the Gators are tightening up their defense and getting accustomed to freshmen and new transfers as the spring game approaches. 

The roster is a blend of talent from veterans looking to continue their strong 2023 season performance and freshmen and transfers vying for a shot to make an impact on the field. 

UF held its first intra-squad scrimmage March 30, about halfway into spring practices. The scrimmage showcased Florida’s efforts to improve its flagging defense.

During the 2023 football season, the Gators conceded an average of 27.58 points per game. In the initial four games of the season, UF’s defense held opponents to an average of 13.5 points but allowed 34.6 points in the final eight games. 

On March 26, outside linebackers assistant coach Mike Petersen emphasized the importance of defensive cohesion prior to the scrimmage.

“I don’t think the defense as a whole has been where it needs to be,” he said. “Sometimes certain categories may be a little lower than you want them to be, and we’re working on that… we want to be a complete defense.” 

In their ongoing efforts to bolster the defense, the Gators brought in Ron Roberts as a co-defensive coordinator. 

Roberts was the defensive coordinator for Auburn in 2023. He led the team to a top-25 ranking in third-down defense and first-downs while ranking No. 1 in the SEC for red zone defense. 

“His knowledge that he has is going to be a plus for the staff and the team as a whole,” Petersen said. “We can all put that in together and give the best product out there on the field.” 

The expectations for the defense have soared with identified improvement areas and fresh blood gracing the field. Additionally, Petersen said he’s excited about the group as a whole. 

The hard work yielded results. During the March 30 scrimmage, head football coach Billy Napier said the defense made plays on that side of the ball, forcing turnovers and tackling well. 

Napier finds himself content with the team's progress but views the following two weeks as a critical time to spot improvement areas, he said. 

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“Even though we may have some veteran players, they’re all still growing and developing,” Napier said. “There’s still things to learn. So at this point, we try to get really specific with each player.” 

Freshman quarterback DJ Lagway and freshman linebacker Myles Graham are among a few of the new contributors to the team. The roster earned 32 new additions during the offseason, intended to equip the Gators for their intimidating 2024 slate. 

“I see the young players, some of whom were here last year, and some of whom just got here, continue to run,” Napier said. 

Graham, a five-star recruit, will miss the remainder of spring practice. He’s recovering from back surgery, a problem present before the inside linebacker enrolled for the spring semester. 

Aside from Graham, the Gators have been fortunate to avoid major injuries and placed pressure on the rest of their rookies to prepare them for the upcoming season.

Lagway, one of the UF’s most-anticipated recruits, picked up college life quickly, Napier said. 

“Every day is a new learning experience for him, but he's a quick learner, and he did a lot of good today," Napier said. "I think he made some plays with his feet, played with a group, twos most of the day."

With 13 returning starters, including standouts such as redshirt senior quarterback Graham Mertz and sophomore edge rusher T.J. Searcy, the newcomers have benefited from a core of experienced players who guide them forward. 

“We’ve got a group of veterans here, they’re doing a good job kind of setting the tone and being a really good example,” Napier said. 

Senior running back Montrell Johnson Jr. enters his third season with UF and plans to work alongside Mertz to be a leader on the team. 

“It’s just kinda telling the guys ‘take your time, it’s going to come with patience,’” Johnson Jr. said. “They look up to me to be their role model, and I just run with it.” 

Johnson Jr. said he didn’t feel any different, the team has always relied on him, and he’s excited to assume a leadership role. 

“I feel like the team is going to lean on me more,” he said. “Me and Graham have been talking about it a lot, and we’re ready for it.” 

The Gators will put their talents on display at the Orange and Blue spring football game April 13 at 1 p.m. in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. 

Contact Krisha Sanghavi at Follow her on Twitter at @krishasang.  

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Krisha Sanghavi

Krisha Sanghavi is a third-year public relations and economics major. In her free time, she loves cheering on Miami sports teams and spending time with her friends.

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