Do y’all smell that? The fresh cut grass on the field? Do y’all know what that sound is? Pads being strapped on, helmets being snapped on and players shouting out different plays? That’s the great smell and sound of the Florida Gators football team getting ready for the 2023 season. There’s so much anticipation going into the season with some of the new faces on the staff and on the team.
Billy Napier enters his 2nd season as the Gators head coach. They have some new faces on the staff as Keary Colbert (Denver Broncos), Patrick Toney and William Peagler (Arizona Cardinals) all moved on to the NFL. A familiar face in Billy Gonzales returns for his 3rd stint to coach the wide receivers. Russ Calloway was promoted from his off the field role to coach the tight ends. The biggest move made this offseason was the hiring of Austin Armstrong to be the defensive coordinator. Armstrong was the DC last season for Southern Miss, and they produced one of the top defenses in the country. He originally took a position as the inside linebackers coach for Alabama this offseason before Billy Napier hired him as the DC. His style of defense is known for being aggressive and using exotic looks to disguise his defense and confuse opposing quarterbacks. The players on defense already feel his presence and look to be vastly improved from last season’s performance.
Anthony Richardson was the #4 overall pick by the Indianapolis Colts in the 2023 draft, so the Gators had a void to fill at the quarterback position. They went out and landed Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz from the transfer portal. The former All American Bowl MVP completed 59% of his passes and has thrown for 5,405 yards, 38 touchdowns and 26 interceptions in his career. He was the highest ranked quarterback recruit to sign with Wisconsin in school history. A change of scenery could be good for him.
Mertz is gonna have a plethora of weapons to throw to. Xzavier Henderson transferred to Cincinnati after the spring, but Ricky Pearsall, Caleb Douglas and Ja’Quavion Fraziars return as the veterans of the wide receiver group. Marcus Burke is another guy the staff is counting on to take the next step in his development. He also has 3 highly touted freshmen in Eugene “Tre” Wilson III, Andy Jean and Aidan Mizell that have the ability to make big plays with their speed in space. Keon Zipperer will miss the season with a knee injury, but Jonathan Odom and Dante Zander’s bring experience to the tight end room. The player that looks to make a huge impact is redshirt freshman Arlis Bordingham. The California native didn’t play much last season, but had a huge spring and is looking to establish himself as a playmaker for the Gators in the absence of Zipperer.
Florida boasts one of the best running back rooms in the country. They return both Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne while adding Tulane transfer Cam Carroll and freshman Treyaun Webb. A lot of people may have been surprised when Carroll transferred to Florida, but he made his presence known in the spring and will definitely earn carries. Unfortunately, Carroll will miss the season with a torn ACL. Webb, whose uncle Dee Webb played at Florida, is a guy the staff loves and will also compete for carries as well. The only difference you’re gonna see in the run game is that Graham Mertz won’t run like Anthony Richardson did. I look for this group to keep the Gators in the conversation as having one of the nation’s best rushing attacks.
The offensive line has to replace 4 out of 5 starters, but the group looks poised to be one of the best units in the SEC. They’ve added Baylor transfer Micah Mazzccua and Alabama transfer Dameion George, but Kingsley Eguakun is the leader of the group. Austin Barber returns as the left tackle and I look for him to take a major step forward as one of the top offensive tackles in the SEC. If they can stay healthy, it’ll do wonders for Mertz and the running backs.
Depth on the defensive line and linebacker groups was something the staff put an emphasis on this offseason. They added Memphis transfer Cam Jackson, Louisville Transfer Caleb Banks and have highly touted freshmen Kelby Collins and Will Norman to the group. Chris McClellan returns for his sophomore season and looks to have a big season. Projected starter Justus Boone will miss the season with a torn ACL, but Jack Pyburn and the aforementioned Collins will both get a lot of reps. In the linebacker room, replacing Ventrell Miller and Amari Burney won’t be easy, but they’ve added Ohio State transfer Teradja Mitchell, Michigan transfer Deuce Spurlock, Houston transfer Mannie Nunnery and have freshmen Jaden Robinson and T.J. Searcy coming in to go along with Shemar James. I watched Robinson play in a playoff game last year and can personally tell you, he has a chance to be a special player.
The secondary looks to be one of the strongest units on the team. Potential 1st round pick Jason Marshall returns as the leader of the secondary. Opposite him will be the combination of Jalen Kimber and Devin Moore, who returns from a shoulder injury. Freshmen Ja’Keem Jackson, Dijon Johnson, Sharif Denson will compete for playing time early. Michigan transfer R.J. Moten, whose father Ron Moten played at Florida, is coming in to compete for a starting spot at safety alongside Kamari Wilson and Miguel Mitchell. Freshmen Jordan Castell, Aaron Gates and Bryce Thornton are guys that will try to crack the two deep rotation and will help build depth.
Ricky Pearsall will handle the punt return duties in special teams. I thought they might go with Eugene Wilson III, but Pearsall makes sense because he’s the most sure handed guy on the team. Trevor Etienne will be returning kicks again this season. He came close to breaking a couple of them last season and definitely had the ability to be a home run hitter. Jeremy Crawshaw will return as the punter and both Adam Mihalek and Trey Smack will battle for the kicking duties.
The Florida Gators have a chance to be one of the surprise teams in the country. There’s a lot of talent on the roster and they had a few close losses last season that could’ve been wins. If they continue to do all of the little things and execute their game plan, they could win a game or two that nobody expects them to win and really make some noise in the SEC and around the country.
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