GAINESVILLE — Florida’s Billy Napier-era got his soft opener Thursday night during the Gators’ spring game at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Here are some excerpts from the exhibition, in front of a crowd announced and estimated at 45,000 people:
Anthony Richardson is QB to beat – from afar
That’s no surprise, given the potential Richardson displayed at times last year as a redshirt rookie. But his performance (coupled with Emory Jones’ transfer decision) should rule out any notion of Florida having quarterback competition during preseason camp.
He unofficially finished 18 of 25 for 207 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for a 12-yard score.
“Standing behind him there, it wasn’t too big for him,” Napier said. “He communicated well and the ball went where it was supposed to go.”
Richardson’s top challenger, Ohio State transfer Jack Miller, threw an interception in the end zone. Richardson looked healthy after undergoing knee surgery, and his soaring ceiling remains unchanged. If he’s not the Week 1 starter against Utah, something has gone wrong.
The running back is a strength
Running back Montrell Johnson, who shadowed Napier from Louisiana, rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries. He ran with power and looks ready to contribute immediately.
“He belongs there,” Napier said.
The same goes for Lorenzo Lingard, a former five-star recruit who started his career in Miami. He has shown explosiveness during his five touches and will be in the rotation if he can finally stay healthy. His action was limited due to a hamstring injury.
Game changers weren’t quite special
Instead of the traditional name “Special Teams”, Napier refers to the unit as “Game Changers” because he wants this phase to change games. Gators pundits — er, game changers — said there were few, if any, practical differences other than an added emphasis on that.
The change did not appear. Demarkcus Bowman – a former five-star transfer from Clemson – missed the opening kickoff, and Chris Howard ended the first practice by missing a 32-yard field goal. Florida’s other kicker, Adam Mihalek (Wiregrass Ranch High), had field goals for 52 and 47 yards but also hit a kickoff out of bounds.
Performance wasn’t a big concern, but it’s something to watch out for.
Dante Zanders is a name to know
Zanders has appeared on the defensive line in all but one regular season game over the past two seasons, but moved to tight end this spring to help an injury-riddled position. The move is getting ready.
The 6-foot-5, 261-pound redshirt junior had a game-high 56 yards on five catches, and Napier called his emergence “the story of spring.”
“He supported me,” Richardson said of Zanders, “and I’m grateful for that.”
Tampa Bay stays big for the Gators
Defensive back Jordan Young (Gaither High) had an outstanding performance with six tackles. After appearing in just three games last season, he looks set to play a bigger role.
There were off-season questions about the future of Amari Burney (Calvary Christian) and whether he would fit into the new regime. His 11 tackles and a pass breakup were indications he can continue to contribute.
UF has a different feel under Napier
The Gators moved the game from Saturday to Thursday in part so they wouldn’t have to compete to recruit visits against exhibitions in Georgia, Alabama, Miami and elsewhere. The game attracted a massive amount of prospects – more than 300, according to recruiting site On3 – including cornerback Cormani McClain, one of the top five talents at Lake Gibson High School in Lakeland. It’s clear that Napier is emphasizing recruiting unlike his predecessor, Dan Mullen. We’ll see if the results follow.
One change Thursday that will be temporary: a spinning chain used after safety Donovan McMillon intercepted.
“Nobody ran by me,” Napier said. “It will not happen.”
Napier didn’t specifically address the future of the Gators’ touchdown chain, which seemed more industrial than Miami’s bedazzled turnover chain.
• • •