The Florida Gators are currently in their normal bye week before their matchup with Georgia. This is a good opportunity to review the season thus far, as the Gators currently hold a record of 5-2. Let’s take a look at MVPs, biggest surprises, and keys to the rest of the season.
Yes, I’m going to cheat here, but I think it would be a disservice to either if I left them off. I would give the offensive MVP to both quarterback Graham Mertz and wide receiver Ricky Pearsall.
Mertz is exceeding expectations as the Gators’ quarterback. He’s answered the question I had about him since he transferred from Wisconsin, “Can he win a game when the offense needs to be carried?” Last week, Florida found themselves down 10 points to South Carolina in the 4th quarter, and all Mertz did was lead two 75-yard drives to give the Gators a late lead. The defense then forced a Spencer Rattler interception to seal the win.
In the game, Mertz completed 30 passes on 48 attempts for 423 yards and three touchdowns, earning him SEC Offensive Player of the Week. At the bye week, Mertz ranks fourth in the SEC in passing yards with 1,897, first in completion percentage with 76%, tied for third in passing touchdowns with 12, tied for first in interceptions thrown with only two, and sixth in QBR with 163.33.
The biggest beneficiary of Mertz’s play is wide receiver Ricky Pearsall, who is on pace to become Florida’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Taylor Jacobs in 2002. Pearsall returned to Florida this season as the unquestioned leader at the position, and although he may not seem like a prototypical number one receiver, he is producing like one. He is coming off his best performance with career highs of 10 catches and 166 receiving yards.
Pearsall is far ahead as Florida’s leading receiver with 44 catches and 619 yards, averaging 14.1 yards per catch. The next closest is Eugene Wilson with 26 catches for 251 yards. Pearsall only needs six more receptions, 43 more yards, and three more touchdowns to set new career highs. During the bye week, Pearsall’s 619 yards rank fourth in the SEC, and his 44 catches rank third in the conference.
Florida’s passing offense has had to compensate for an inconsistent rushing attack, and it’s starting to come together, mostly thanks to the Mertz to Pearsall connection.
Biggest surprise on offense
I could probably go Graham Mertz here too, but the inconsistency in the run game has been the biggest surprise of the season so far. While I expected a drop-off from last season, I didn’t anticipate it being so significant. Injuries to the offensive line and Trevor Etienne have played a role in this decline, but apart from the Tennessee and Vanderbilt games, there hasn’t been much to celebrate regarding the performance of the run game. Florida’s offense struggled when the run game averaged only 0.6 yards per carry against Utah and 2.4 yards per carry against Kentucky. Although I knew those would be challenging matchups, I still expected the run game to be more competitive.
So far this season, Trevor Etienne is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, while Montrell Johnson is averaging 5.2 yards per carry. These numbers are not too far off from Etienne’s 6.1 and Johnson’s 5.4 averages from last season, but they need to perform better in the remaining road games.
When evaluating the standout performers on the Florida Gators’ defense this season, it becomes quite apparent that sophomore linebacker Shemar James deserves recognition as the team’s defensive MVP. James has been a force to be reckoned with, leading the Gators with an impressive 50 total tackles, 22 of which were solo tackles. His ability to consistently make impactful plays on the field has solidified his importance to the team.
Not only does James excel in tackles, but he also ranks second on the team in tackles for loss, trailing only Princely Umanmielen. This further highlights his disruptive presence on the field and his knack for disrupting opposing offenses. In fact, James has led the Gators in tackles in all but two games this season, showcasing his consistency and reliability as a defensive leader.
One particular game that stands out in James’ season is the season-opener against Utah, where he showcased his dominance by leading the way with an astounding 13 tackles, including six solo tackles. Additionally, he contributed 1.5 tackles for loss against the Utes.
James is not alone in his defensive prowess, as he forms a partnership with fellow linebacker Scooby Williams. Together, they have provided Florida with a strong defensive start. However, it is important to note that the success of James and Williams is also contingent on the performance and improvement of the Florida defensive front. If the front line can bounce back and demonstrate their full potential, it will undoubtedly contribute to even greater tackle numbers for both James and Williams.
Biggest surprise on defense
Jordan Castell has been the biggest surprise on defense this season. Despite being a true freshman, he has surpassed expectations and impressed with his performance. Initially, it was expected that he would be behind returning safeties Kamari Wilson, Miguell Mitchell, and transfer RJ Moten. However, Castell made his debut in the season opener against Utah and finished second on the team in total tackles with 14. Since then, he has started every game and had a standout performance in his second start against then No. 11 Tennessee, recording a season-high 10 tackles (four solo) and a pass breakup. This impressive display earned him the SEC Freshman of the Week and Shaun Alexander National Freshman of the Week honors.
In terms of playing time, Castell has played the second most snaps with 323, just behind linebacker Shemar James who has 345 snaps. He has also accumulated 32 total tackles, second only to James who has 50. Castell has demonstrated his versatility as defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong has positioned him at different levels of the defense, allowing him to make impactful plays near the line of scrimmage as well as in pass coverage down the field.
Biggest key for the rest of the season
I believe that the offense has made some improvements and is currently playing better. While one key is for them to continue building on the last two games, I think the biggest priority lies on the defensive side of the ball. It is crucial to limit explosive plays and create more turnovers the rest of the season.
Defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong had a reputation for allowing explosive plays as the Southern Miss defensive coordinator, which has carried over to his time in Gainesville. Currently, Florida’s defense ranks poorly in giving up explosives: 102nd in the country for giving up plays of at least 30 yards (16), 107th for plays of at least 40 yards (10), 94th for plays of at least 50 yards (5), 98th for plays of at least 60 yards (3), and 123rd for plays of at least 70 yards (3).
Furthermore, the Gators defense has struggled to consistently create disruption this season. They have not consistently pressured opposing quarterbacks or forced many fumbles, resulting in only four turnovers generated, which ranks 125th in the country.
If the Florida offense can continue its growth and the defense can improve in these two areas, Florida will be a tough out for any opponent to finish the season.
Photo credit: Mallory Peak, UAA Communications
Who are your MVPs and surprises? What area do you think is the most crucial for the Florida Gators to improve upon in order to finish the season strong? Leave a comment below!