The best news from the first of Florida’s 15 spring practice days has everything to do with where the Gators are between the ears. Last spring was all about learning a new system and both coaches and players figuring each other out on a daily basis. Now, as Jim McElwain and his staff put the Gators through their paces, there is more control, more understanding and better flow to everything. There will be time to evaluate players in contact situations later in the spring but day one was about most of the players being on the same page.
“More so even just the whole flow of practice and the terminology part; it felt like we are way ahead obviously than where we were and you can tell by the install,” McElwain said in his post practice remarks. “We were in three personnel groups and we weren’t handcuffed by formations, that type of things. It comes down – and I know it’s cliché – but the blocking and tackling is what it’s all about but the system part we’re way ahead of where we were a year ago.”
That the Gators are in a good place mentally is a nice sign of what spring practice could be. Instead of wasting valuable time having to repeat plays and situations because players are lost balls in the tall weeds, the Gators will make great progress if Mac can keep them focused on what they have to do to get better each day.
It’s little things like this that add up to be a huge difference over the long haul.
GATORS OPEN SEC TOURNAMENT WITH ARKANSAS
Any hope the Gators (18-13, 9-9 SEC) have of making the NCAA Tournament begins and ends with today’s matchup with Arkansas (16-15, 9-9 SEC) in the SEC Tournament in Nashville (1 p.m./EDT, SEC Network). A win probably doesn’t get the Gators into the NCAA Tournament but a loss certainly will send UF to the Nobody’s Interested Tournament (NIT). Should the Gators come away with a win, they’ll face top seeded Texas A&M (24-7, 13-5 SEC) Friday at noon in the quarterfinals.
Center John Egbunu, who is averaging 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, will be playing with a special brace on his right thumb after tearing a ligament during Tuesday’s practice. The limited range of motion in the right thumb might severely affect Egbunu on both ends of the floor as he matches up against second team All-SEC center Moses Kingsley (16.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.4 blocks per game).
In addition to slowing down Kingsley, the key for the Gators will be defending guards Dusty Hannahs and Anthlon Bell on the perimeter. Hannahs, averaging 16 points per game, hits 44.1% of his 3-pointers while Bell, averaging 15.9, knocks down 44.7%.
Earlier in the season, the Gators knocked off Arkansas, 87-83, at the O-Dome, a game in which Dorian Finney-Smith scored 22 points and grabbed 9 rebounds on a night in which five Gators scored in double figures and the team hit 51% of its shots from the field and 30-36 from the foul line.
Baseball: The #1-ranked Gators (14-1) held off North Florida, 5-4, at McKethan Stadium. Florida scored what proved to be the winning run in the bottom of the seventh when JJ Schwarz singled to drive in Dalton Guthrie for a 5-2 lead. Sophomore Mark Kolozsvary hit his first career home run in the bottom of the second and DH Mike Rivera hit a 3-run triple in the bottom of the first. Getting the win was freshman righthander Jackson Kowar, who allowed four hits, struck out four and induced 12 ground ball outs in six innings. Shaun Anderson got the save inducing a ground out with the tying run on third in the ninth. The Gators host Harvard for a 3-game weekend series starting Friday evening.
Softball: Delanie Gourley pitched a 5-inning no-hitter Wednesday and as the #1-ranked Gators (24-0) got in their final warmups for the SEC opener on the road at #3 Auburn with two run-rule (by identical 9-0 scores) wins over South Dakota. In game one, Kelly Barnhill (8-0, 0.93 ERA) pitched five 1-hit innings while striking out 7 and Aleshia Ocasio pitched a 1-hit sixth. Kirsti Merritt launched two homers and drove in five runs while Kayli Kvistad hit a 3-run homer in the bottom of the sixth to end the game on a run rule. Justine McLean had a 3-3 day at the plate in game one. In game two, the only blemish on Gourley’s 9-strikeout effort was a hit batter in the top of the second inning. Gourley (9-0, 0.44 ERA) faced only 16 batters, whiffing 9 and putting 3 down on fly balls and 3 on grounders. The Gators managed only four hits in the second game, but combined with 7 walks and 4 hit batters that was all the offense they needed.
Through 24 games, the Gators are hitting .363 as a team and have outscored opponents 171-13. The Gators have hit 17 homers while opponents have left the yard only once. The Gators have a team ERA of 0.58. Through 145 innings, Florida pitchers have given up only 70 hits while striking out 203 batters and walking only 37.
Men’s Golf: Freshman Sam Horsfield shot a final day 70 for a 209 total and the individual title as the #2 Gators finished second, four shots off the pace of Southern California, at the Southern Highlands Intercollegiate tournament in Las Vegas. It was the second individual championship of the season for Horsfield, who won by four strokes over Southern Cal’s Sean Crocker. Horsfield has finished top five six times and top three or better in four straight tournaments. As a team, the Gators finished the tournament 9-over par.
SEC SPRING FOOTBALL QB SITUATIONS
Alabama: Redshirt junior Cooper Bateman (37-52, 291 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs in 2015) has the most experience but will be pushed for the #1 job by redshirt sophomore David Cornwell and redshirt freshman Blake Barnett. Most Bama observers think Barnett will finish the spring as the #1 QB. Early enrollee Jalen Hurts is the lone dual threat QB on the roster and he probably redshirts in 2016 while prepping the Bama defense for several dual threat QBs on the schedule.
Arkansas: Junior Austin Allen (1-3, 35 yards, 1 TD in 2015) has more experience than anyone else on the roster and he’s been in the system longer, but can he hold off three talented young guys? Redshirt sophomore Rafe Peavy and redshirt freshmen Ty Story and Ricky Town are all more athletic and have stronger arms than Allen. Allen should emerge from the spring #1 with Town right on his heels.
Auburn: The situation at Auburn is probably the most intriguing in the SEC. The Tigers return two experienced QBs in senior Jeremy Johnson (1,054 yards, 10 TDs, 7 INTs; 6 rushing TDs in 2015) and third year sophomore Sean White (1,167 passing yards, 1 TD, 4 INTs in 2015) but neither one showed any measure of consistency last year. Already enrolled is John Franklin III, a former FSU recruit who made juco All-American at East Mississippi CC last year. He is the true dual threat that makes the Gus Malzahn offense function best. Also in the mix is redshirt freshman Tyler Queen. Everything is in place for Franklin to emerge as the #1 unless Johnson proves he can effective run the football.
FLORIDA: As expected, Luke Del Rio took the first day spring snaps at #1 with Purdue graduate transfer Austin Appleby at #2. Those two are expected to battle for the starting job throughout the spring. Freshmen Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask will battle for one active spot on the roster while the other redshirts.
Georgia: This could get tricky. There is a new coach, a new offense and nothing is guaranteed. Senior Greyson Lambert (1,959 yards, 12 TDs, 2 INTs in 2015) is the experienced starter but the offense was very pedestrian with him in control. Fourth-year junior Brice Ramsey has been around three previous seasons and was once a stud recruit, but he spent most of last year punting the football. Then there is stud freshman Jacob Eason, who comes in expecting to start in year one but we know how most true freshmen do in the SEC. Lambert probably will have a shaky hold on #1 by the end of spring with Eason #2 and Ramsey looking for a place to transfer.
Kentucky: The only QB on the spring roster with any experience is third-year sophomore Drew Barker (364 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT; 1 rushing TD in 2015) who got a couple of starts at the end of last season. Kentucky brought in juco dual threat QB Stephen Johnson II, who should challenge for the starting job. Early enrollee Gunnar Hoak has a big arm but is a redshirt candidate. Expectations are that Barker will hold onto the #1 job in the spring but could be overtaken by Johnson in the fall.
LSU: The returning starter is Brandon Harris (2,158 yards, 13 TDs, 6 INTs in 2015) but he will be pushed by former Purdue starting QB Danny Etling, who has two years of eligibility remaining. Also on the roster is Anthony Jennings, who passed for 1,611 yards and 11 TDs in 2014 as the starter. The fourth QB on the spring roster is redshirt freshman Justin McMillan. If Jennings finishes the spring at #3 he’s likely to transfer.
Mississippi State: There are big shoes to fill with Dak Prescott gone, but Dan Mullen has three dual threat types who are great fits for his offense. Damian Williams took a redshirt last season so he could have a chance to start two years but while he was sitting out, Nick Fitzgerald (235 passing yards, 3 TDs; 127 rushing yards, 3 TDs) was impressive as a redshirt freshman. Redshirt freshman Elijah Staley has the build (6-6, 248) and athleticism that reminds Dan Mullen of Cam Newton. Then there is Nick Tiano, who took a redshirt last year. Williams probably emerges as the #1 after the spring with Fitzgerald or Staley #2 and the odd man out looking to transfer.
Missouri: This situation is a mess. Maty Mauk was dismissed from the team (again) and Eddie Printz elected to transfer out. That leaves last year’s baptism by fire QB Drew Lock (1,332 yards, 4 TDs, 8 INTs; 1 rushing TD) and third-year sophomore Marvin Zanders as the incumbent QBs, joined in the spring by juco transfer Jack Lowary, a former Elite 11 participant. Some observers thought Zanders should have been the QB last year. Lock was shellshocked. With a new coaching staff and a new offense, Lowary could emerge from spring drills as the #1.
Ole Miss: Chad Kelly (4,042 yards, 31 TDs, 13 INTs; 500 yards, 10 rushing TDs in 2015) is the incumbent starter and in no danger of losing his job. Kelly has been slowed by a hamstring in spring drills, giving stud freshman Shea Patterson a chance to wow coaches and observers. The other QB on the spring roster is redshirt freshman Jason Pellerin.
South Carolina: While fifth year senior Perry Orth (1,929 yards, 12 TDs, 9 INTs, 138 rushing yards, 2 TDs in 2015), sophomore Lorenzo Nunez (376 yards, 3 TDs, 3 INTs; 375 rushing yards, 2 TDs in 2015) and junior Connor Mitch (165 passing yards, 1 TD, 51 rushing yards, 1 TD before he was injured in 2015) have the most experience, all eyes are on true freshman Brandon McIlwain, am ultra-talented dual threat QB. Also competing for reps is third year sophomore Michael Scarnecchia, who completed his only pass for 9 yards last year. Orth probably emerges as the #1 after spring drills, but figure either Mitch or Nunez will be looking to transfer if they aren’t at least #2 on the depth chart.
Tennessee: The Vols think they have the best returning QB in the SEC in Joshua Dobbs (2,291 yards, 15 TDs, 5 INTs; 671 rushing yards, 11 TDs in 2015), who has thrown for 4,192 yards and 26 touchdowns in his career while rushing for 1,329 yards and 20 TDs. Backup Quinten Dormady (209 yards, 1 TD in 2015) was impressive as a true freshman backup last year. The other QB on the spring roster is sophomore Sheriron, who announced he was transferring in January but changed his mind.
Texas A&M: The roster is a mess. Because Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray were run off, there are only two scholarship QBs in camp. The starting job is being handed to Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight (career stats 3,404 yards, 25 TDs, 19 INTs; 853 rushing yards, 8 TDs). He will be backed up by junior Jake Hubenak (399 passing yards, 3 TDs, 1 INT in 2015).
Vanderbilt: The starting job belongs to sophomore Kyle Shurmur (503 yards, 5 TDs, 3 INTs in 2015) and the backup is junior Wade Freebeck (409 career yards, 1 TD, 6 INTs). Early enrollee Deuce Wallace will also get spring reps.
SEC TOURNAMENT UPDATES/NOTES
Tennessee (14-18, 6-12 SEC) 97, Auburn 59
Thursday’s games: 1 p.m. Florida (18-13, 9-9 SEC) vs. Arkansas (16-15, 9-9 SEC); 3 p.m. Tennessee (14-18, 6-12 SEC) vs. Vanderbilt (19-12, 11-7 SEC); 7 p.m. Alabama (17-13, 8-10 SEC) vs. Ole Miss (20-11, 10-8 SEC); 9 p.m. Mississippi State (14-16, 7-11 SEC) vs. Georgia (17-12 10-8 SEC)
MARCH MADNESS UPDATES
UCLA will finish with a losing record for just the third time since 1945 after falling to Southern Cal in the Pac-12 Tournament.
In so far:
Florida Gulf Coast (19-13)
Northern Iowa (22-12)?
Austin Peay (18-17)?
Former Gator Jaye Howard was rewarded for his excellent 2015 season with a two-year, $12 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Former Gator Janoris Jenkins’ 5-year, $62.5 million deal with the New York Giants includes $29 million of guaranteed money. Only Darrelle Revis makes more money among NFL cornerbacks.
South Carolina has offered a 4-year contract extension to hoops coach Frank Martin. After three years of taking the program from rock bottom and building brick by brick, Martin took the Gamecocks to a 24-7 regular season, the most wins in the regular season in school history. It will be interesting to see if Martin accepts the extension. He’s going to be a hot ticket item as countdown to firing day, basketball version, heats up.
How pathetic is Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim? After losing to Pitt on day two of the ACC Tournament, Boeheim thinks the Orange deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament because they have “already been punished enough.” Boeheim missed 9 games this season (Suracuse went 4-5 during that stretch) while Boeheim was being punished for lack of institutional control for violations that happened on his watch. The season is the season and the Orange wouldn’t be in the position they’re in if Boeheim had run a tight ship. He gets no sympathy from me.
Maybe the biggest surprise of Day One of NFL free agency was the Cleveland Browns did not release QB Johnny Manziel.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
Will the Gators survive their first game in the SEC Tournament with Arkansas or will this just be the latest disappointment in an up and down season?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
From the first time I heard the song “Bali Run” (first cut on today’s music) I was hooked on Fourplay, the jazz super group that was the creation of keyboard legend Bob James. James, bassist Nathan East and drummer Harvey Mason have been the foundation of FourPlay since 1991. Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton were on guitar before giving way to current guitarist Chuck Loeb. This is the band’s first album entitled “Fourplay” which featured Ritenour on guitar.